Early MRI Could Mean More Expensive Claims
In a study of work-related lower back pain claims, patients who received an early MRI had medical costs $12,000 higher and were on disability about 120 days longer than those that didn’t have the test, on average.
“One out of every five people that has fairly benign lower back pain gets an early MRI that they really shouldn’t get,” said Dr. Glenn Pransky, director of the Center for Disability research. “They then have a much higher risk to go on to receive a lot of treatments that aren’t necessarily helpful.”
Most likely, physicians have not been well-educated in the proper application of evidence-based medicine and the judicious use of MRIs in assessing back pain.” — Dr. Rupali Das, executive medical director of California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation.
Evidence-based guidelines state that MRI should not be indicated for non-specific, non-radicular lower back pain. And even in instances where “red flag” conditions exist – like severe traumatic injury or possibility for cancer or infection – guidelines suggest a month of conservative treatment before revisiting the need for an MRI.
“This study came from earlier work we had done, where we surveyed providers, giving them case scenarios and asking what they would do as their initial management of acute back pain in a workers’ comp setting,” said Barbara Webster, lead author of the recent study from the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety on the early use of MRI. “And we were struck. Despite what the guidelines said, many of them would order an MRI.”
“Most likely, physicians have not been well-educated in the proper application of evidence-based medicine and the judicious use of MRIs in assessing back pain,” said Dr. Rupali Das, the executive medical director of California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. “Physicians may be unaware of false positives and lack of specificity with MRIs. It may be easier to order a test than to counsel a patient on proper exercise and behavior. Patients also may play a role in demanding tests and some physicians may find it easier to comply with the request than to explain why a test is not needed or may actually be harmful.”
Those tendencies mean workers’ comp payers end up taking on costs for unnecessary tests and subsequent treatments dealing with issues unrelated to the original claim. That means more time away from work and more expensive claims. Workers’ comp payers may be missing an opportunity to catch inappropriate tests through utilization review, which would help produce better outcomes and contain costs.
“Our studies suggest that requests for early imaging tests should go through utilization review,” Webster said. “It’s likely that if providers are following OEM and ACOEM guidelines, it won’t be certified within the first 30 days.
Das suggested that payers start with “a carrot approach” by providing education on the existing guidelines for treatment, including initial management, and the proper indications that may warrant an early MRI.
“With the involvement of a medical director, the usage of MRIs can be measured, and inappropriate usage assessed,” he said. “Outreach and appropriate intervention should be directed at providers with a pattern of ordering tests inappropriately.”
Fee-for service payment models may incentivize physicians to order more tests, but quality and outcome-based payment proposed by the Affordable Care Act should dampen that trend.
“Many organizations are now educating their members about the proper use of radiologic tests, including MRIs,” Das said. “Hopefully younger physicians will be better educated about evidence-based practices.
MRIs can reveal age-related abnormalities, like compressed and degenerated discs in the spine, that may have nothing to do with what’s causing the back pain, Webster and Pransky said.
“In one study, MRIs found significant abnormalities in 60 percent of people sampled,” Pransky said. “Human tendency is to point to the abnormality as the cause of the pain, and suggest surgery or injection to treat it. It can be hard to dissuade people from thinking that’s not the source of the problem.”
“The natural history of many conditions causing lower back pain is that half of them will resolve themselves without the need for further imaging or surgery,” Webster said.