Patients who receive care from self-referring physicians for the treatment of low back pain (LBP) are more likely to be referred for some form of physical therapy, but that's just part of the story. According to newly published research, LBP patients who are self-referred receive fewer physical therapy visits and more ineffective passive modalities than patients who aren't self-referred—and all at a higher overall cost. The state of Kansas accepts self-referral for physical therapy! 

In the study, researchers analyzed 158,151 LBP episodes in private health insurance claims records for nonelderly individuals enrolled in plans offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas. They found that physicians who "self-referred"—that is, referred their patients to a business with which they have a financial relationship—referred 26% of their patients to physical therapy. That rate was 16 percentage points higher than among non-self-referrals. Overall physical therapy was referred at a rate of 14%. 

But the higher rate of referrals doesn't tell the whole story, according to the study's authors, who analyzed what happened next—and how much it wound up costing. Results of the study were e-published ahead of print in the Forum for Health Economics and Policy (abstract only available for free). 

What they found was that the self-referred patients received, on average, 2 fewer physical therapy visits and 10 fewer 15-minute physical therapy service units compared with treatments by providers who did not self-refer. And when self-referred patients did receive physical therapy, they were treated differently from their non-self-referred counterparts, with an increased use of passive modalities such as hot and cold packs, mechanical traction, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation—approaches authors describe as "ineffective" in treatment of LBP.

Looking more closely at Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System (HCPCS) records, authors found that about 46% of physical therapy services rendered during non-self-referred episodes included individualized exercises to develop strength, endurance, range of motion, and flexibility, compared with a 31.5% rate among the self-referred episodes. Significant differences were also found in the use of dynamic activities designed to improve function, which occurred at a 6.7% rate for non-self-referred episodes but in only 4.2% of the self-referred episodes. Conversely, electrical stimulation accounted for almost 9% of the physical therapy services in self-referring episodes. Among the non-self-referred episodes, use of that passive modality was 1.4%.

Authors write that the use of exercise and dynamic activities "implies that [LBP] patients treated by non self-referring providers received skilled one-on-one care," and that "patients seen by self-referring providers received higher proportions of passive treatments." According to the authors, these passive treatments "can be easily performed by non physical therapists (medical assistants or technologists) in physicians' offices," and billed as physical therapy services under the "incident to" rule.

And what about overall cost? It turns out that fewer physical therapy sessions and a greater use of passive modalities doesn't wind up saving money—in fact, the LBP episodes addressed through self-referral averaged $889 in insurer-allowed costs, compared with $602 for non-self-referred episodes—a 49% difference. As for spending on individual physical therapy services, self-referral episodes averaged costs that were double non-self-referrals—an average of $144 for the self-referring provider, compared with $73 for the non-self-referring provider.

Results of the study not only inform physical therapist practice, but they help to clarify issues that have been at the heart of a policy debate over the reach of the Stark law, a law intended to prohibit referrals to a business that has a financial relationship with the referring provider under Medicare. That prohibition applies to most in-office ancillary services, but there a few exceptions: physical therapy is one of them. APTA has made elimination of these exceptions one of its public policy priorities.

The new study also fills in some of the gaps left in a 2014 report from the US General Accountability Office (GAO), which looked at self-referral for physical therapy across all health conditions under Medicare. That report found a higher rate of referral to physical therapy (and fewer physical therapist services received) among self-referred cases, but was limited in its scope. Authors of the new study cite a number of "deficiencies" in the report, including its focus only on elderly patients, and the lack of any analysis of the types and quality of physical therapist services rendered.

“The results of this study further confirm what APTA has firmly believed for years now,” said APTA President Sharon L. Dunn, PT, PhD, OCS, in an APTA news release. “Referral for profit leads to health care practices that benefit the provider and remove the focus from where it should be; the patient. APTA has long advocated for the elimination of referral for profit for physical therapist services from health care.” 

For their part, the study's authors keep the focus on the ways in which the quality of physical therapy services differ between self-referred and non-self-referred episodes.

"An important contribution of this study is the finding that the composition of physical therapy services rendered to [LBP] differs between self-referring and non self-referring practices," authors write. "The care provided by independent therapists is comprised of more active, hands on treatments which appear to be appropriate in light of empirical evidence showing that passive procedures are not effective treatments for LBP."

The study was funded in part by the Foundation for Physical Therapy and the National Institute on Aging.