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The American Journal of Managed Care October 2018
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Medicare Savings From Conservative Management of Low Back Pain
Alan M. Garber, MD, PhD; Tej D. Azad, BA; Anjali Dixit, MD; Monica Farid, BS; Edward Sung, BS, BSE; Daniel Vail, BA; and Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD
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Medicare Savings From Conservative Management of Low Back Pain

Alan M. Garber, MD, PhD; Tej D. Azad, BA; Anjali Dixit, MD; Monica Farid, BS; Edward Sung, BS, BSE; Daniel Vail, BA; and Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD
This instrumental variables analysis estimates that Medicare would realize $362 million in annual savings if all patients with newly diagnosed low back pain were managed conservatively.
ABSTRACT

Objectives: Low back pain (LBP) is a common and expensive clinical problem, resulting in tens of billions of dollars of direct medical expenditures in the United States each year. Although expensive imaging tests are commonly used, they do not improve outcomes when used in the initial management of idiopathic LBP. We estimated 1-year medical costs associated with early imaging of Medicare beneficiaries with idiopathic LBP.

Study Design: We used a 5% random sample of Medicare fee-for-service enrollees between 2006 and 2010 to determine 12-month costs following a diagnosis of idiopathic LBP. We analyzed costs of care and patient outcomes according to whether or not the patients had been referred for early imaging following their initial diagnosis.

Methods: We employed an instrumental variables analysis using risk-adjusted physician-level propensity to order imaging for patients without LBP as an instrument for imaging use among patients with LBP. We selected this approach to adjust for confounding by indication when estimating the relative costs of early imaging of LBP compared with conservative management.

Results: Early imaging is strongly associated with increased costs of care in the first year following LBP diagnosis. Patients receiving an early magnetic resonance imaging scan accrued $2500 more in Medicare expenditures than conservatively managed patients, and patients who received computed tomography accrued $19,900 more.

Conclusions: Medicare beneficiaries with low-risk LBP frequently receive early imaging studies. Early imaging was associated with greater long-term costs than a conservative diagnostic strategy; Medicare expenditures could be reduced by $362 million annually by managing newly diagnosed LBP in accordance with clinical guidelines.

Am J Manag Care. 2018;24(10):e332-e337

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