Chiropractic Verified as
Primary Spine Care Providers
By Mark Studin
William J. Owens
A report on the scientific literature
Primary Spine care simply means being the first referral option for spine care in instances other than fracture, tumor or infection. Having a chiropractic degree is paramount and the first step in the process, but one must not forget that any doctoral training, no matter the specialty (i.e. medicine, dentistry, podiatry, etc.) is the start of a provider’s educational journey and what we do with that training is up to the doctor in clinical practice. Erwin, Korpela and Jones (2013) stated “The function of the PSCP (Primary Spine Care Provider) could easily be assumed by chiropractic, but this window of opportunity may be limited. If chiropractic does not seek to evolve, what role does chiropractic have left to perform.” (Pg. 289)
Although these authors agree that chiropractors in clinical practice can assume the role as PSCP’s in the healthcare system, we strongly disagree with the direction suggested by Erwin, Korpela and Jones. The solution is not to prescribe more drugs in an “already over-drugged society,” the solution is being able to manage the patient in a collaborative environment on a peer level being “expert” on common healthcare issues. The underlying tenant is that there is no drug for a mechanical problem, it is with that initial focus that allows chiropractic to assume a role that no other profession can accomplish. True PSCP management includes being able to accurately diagnose/triage patients and the ability to use and understand MRI is a prime example. Herzog, Elgart, Flanders and Moley (2017) reported a 43.6% error rate of general radiologists inaccurately reporting the morphology of the intervertebral disc. This underscores that when a doctor of chiropractic relies on the MRI report without understanding how to interpret the image and clinically correlate the findings to the patient’s symptoms, there is close to a 50% error rate in rendering an accurate diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan. A PSCP must have a complete and independent diagnostic scope of practice in order to fill a useful and clinically significant role.
To use an example in a current and modern setting, a doctor of chiropractic in Cedar Park, Texas was granted a “brief 10-minutes” to meet with an orthopedic surgeon. During that short meeting the chiropractor, an 8-year graduate spoke solely and specifically of his MRI slice thickness protocols and his MRI interpretation training which is cross-credentialed in both chiropractic and medical academia. One hour later [the meeting continued well past the initial “10-minutes” suggested], the orthopedic surgeon said, “I respect chiropractic, but have very little respect for the level of training of chiropractors in our region.” This 8-year graduate walked out with 8 referrals instantly and now 1 year later, has been getting referrals weekly. That is very definition of Primary Spine Care, the orthopedic surgeon trusts the chiropractor’s ability to manage and diagnose patients and now is “off-loading” the non-surgical patients to someone that can effectively manage that case. It is because of this specific advanced training that the chiropractor is successful.
In a second recent example, in Utah, a chiropractor decided that his post-doctoral training should be focused on spinal trauma care and triage, including more specifically, MRI Spine Interpretation, Spinal Trauma Pathology, Spinal Biomechanical Engineering and Stroke Evaluation. As a result, a hospital system that has over 900 auto accident cases monthly in 5 local hospitals reached out to him to manage their spine cases (all of them). This was based purely on his curriculum vitae and the inherent credentials and knowledge base from his continued education training in the above courses. Since then, Brigham Young University’s Athletic Department and the PGA (Professional Golf Association) have both sought his services. Please don’t overlook the fact THEY ran after him to be their first option for spine; that is Primary Spine Care and credentials matter.
Thirdly, in Buffalo NY, 5 teaching hospitals refer exclusively to one chiropractor’s office and their emergency rooms refers close to 60 spine patients per month to him with that number growing steadily. This past week, the neurosurgical department just informed this doctor that their 23 neurosurgeons will be referring their non-surgical cases to this office and will be directing many of their referral sources to START with this doctor to screen for surgery and let him decide who to refer for surgical consultation. That is Primary Spine Care.
Although individual reporting does not make a trend in the profession, these are not isolated cases, and this is NOW THE TREND in chiropractic we are seeing nationally, there are similar stories in most states. None of the successes involve adding drugs as a tool of the chiropractic, however in every case becoming smarter in spine care was mandatory. In all cases it is a properly trained doctor of chiropractic that is leading Primary Spine Care alongside medical specialty and primary care in a collaborative environment as peers, when clinically indicated.
Most of the Primary Spine Care “equation” is verifying chiropractic care as the “best choice” for the “first referral”. That is being achieved though peer-reviewed outcome based studies and involves all phases of care starting with initial pain management to corrective spine care and finally when required, health maintenance care for cases that need non-opioid and non-surgical long-term management. Historically and all too frequently in current medicine, either medical management or physical therapy is considered for mechanical spine issues as the first treatment of choice. Cleveland Clinic, one of the better-known centers of medical excellence currently posted the following regarding the treatment of back pain; “These patients may be best served through prompt access to care from physical therapists or nurse practitioners as entry-level providers. When pain persists beyond four to six weeks, the care path defines when referral to spine or pain specialists, spine surgeons or behavioral health providers is indicated.” (https://consultqd.clevelandclinic. org/2014/11/sticking-with-proven-practices-for-low-back-pain/) The Mayo Clinic Staff (2017) also reported: “Physical therapy is the cornerstone of back pain treatment.”
When considering the best option for Primary Spine Care, we should consider “what” type of provider renders the best outcomes in population based studies and has the autonomy to manage the case independent of primary care and medical specialty. Based upon population based studies, both the Cleveland and Mayo clinics got it wrong as their opinions are not based upon contemporary literature and appear to be rooted in “age-old biases.” Their suggested care paths are similar to prior care paths that perhaps have led to the long-term mismanagement of mechanical spine pain that has in part, contributed to the opioid crisis.
Blanchette, Rivard, Dionne, Hogg-Johnson and Steenstra (2017) in a population based study of 5511 injured workers in Ontario Canada as reported by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, a governmental agency reported a comparison of outcomes for back pain among patients seen by three types of providers: medical physicians, chiropractors and physical therapists. The found “The type of first healthcare provider was a significant predictor of the duration of the first episode of compensation only during the first 5 months of compensation. When compared with medical doctors, chiropractors were associated with shorter durations of compensation and physiotherapists with longer ones. Physiotherapists were also associated with higher odds of a second episode of financial compensation.” (pg.392) and “These differences raise concerns regarding the use of physiotherapists as gatekeepers for the worker’s compensation system.” (pg. 382)
Blanchette, Rivard, Dionne, Hogg-Johnson and Steenstra (2017) continued, “The cohort study of American workers with back pain conducted by Turner et al. found that the first healthcare provider was one of the main predictors of work disability after a year. In accordance with our findings, workers who first sought chiropractic care were less likely to be work-disabled after 1 year compared with workers who first sought other types of medical care… We did not retrieve any study that directly compared physiotherapy care with other types of first healthcare providers in the context of occupational back pain, probably because most workers’ compensation systems still require a referral for physiotherapy. However, a study comparing primary physiotherapy care with usual emergency department care concluded that physiotherapy care leads to a prolonged time before patients return to their usual activities.” (pg. 389)
Cifuentes, Willets and Wasiak (2011) stated that chiropractic care during the health maintenance care period resulted in:
The study concluded that chiropractic care during the disability episode resulted in:
24% Decrease in disability duration of first episode compared to physical therapy
250% Decrease in disability duration of first episode compared to medical physician's care
5.9% Decrease in opioid (narcotic) use during maintenance care with physical therapy care
30.3% Decrease in opioid (narcotic) use during maintenance care with medical physician's care
32% Decrease in average weekly cost of medical expenses during disability episode compared to physical therapy care
21% Decrease in average weekly cost of medical expenses during disability episode compared to medical physician's care
Cifuentes et al. (2011) started by stating, “Given that chiropractors are proponents of health maintenance care...patients with work-related LBP [low back pain] who are treated by chiropractors would have a lower risk of recurrent disability because that specific approach would be used” (p. 396). The authors concluded by stating,“After controlling for demographic factors and multiple severity indicators, patients suffering nonspecific work-related LBP (low back pain) who received health services mostly or only from a chiropractor had a lower risk of recurrent disability than the risk of any other provider type” (pg. 404).
The above studies continue to verify chiropractic as a better “first option” for spine and that resolves the “what provider is best” question by using an Evidence Based approach. The “who is best” within that subset is what type of chiropractor is better suited to lead in Primary Spine Care is evident. As an example, although every medical doctor is licensed to do open heart surgery not all are trained and credentialed. Would you want a psychiatrist performing the procedure? The answer should be “they are licensed, but not qualified through training.” The same holds true for contemporary chiropractic and every chiropractor has the same opportunity. We are all held to a “continuing education standard” and are all required to seek post-doctoral training to maintain our licenses. There are a significant number of courses, both live and through enduring materials (online) to enable every chiropractor on the planet to attain the level of education mandated by the “referral sources” to be considered Primary Spine Care Providers.
Let’s not be Pollyannaish not to think that chiropractic can be successful in increasing utilization independent of the medical community and even the legal community for personal injury cases. As mentioned previously, the medical community DOES NOT CARE about your treatment approach, what they do care about is the “risk” of you missing a diagnosis. They need to trust you based on your training, and the do NOT care about what technique you use. What you do in your offices is up to you just like a pain management MD or a surgeon, remember, it’s how you triage and manage your patients that is the ultimate arbiter in having them consider you as the first option for spine care. Once you have responsibly secured the referral, based upon your clinical excellence, you get to independently decide the best course of care for your patient. Then it is business as usual during the treatment phase of care because results were never, and are not an issue in chiropractic.