New Australian research has shown that patients with non-serious low back pain are costing hospitals almost $400 million a year for treatment.
The figures are derived from an observational study of 12,399 non-serious low back pain episodes of care at three Sydney public hospitals between 2014 and 2019, of whom one third (32%) arrived by ambulance and 17% were admitted for inpatient care.
Costs were obtained for treatment episodes of low back pain with a non-specific cause or low back pain with radicular syndromes (such as sciatica and lumbar spinal stenosis), which were considered ‘non-serious’ as they do not include serious spinal pathologies.
Researchers at the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health, University of Sydney, estimated that the mean hospital cost of a low back pain episode of care was AUD$2959 overall, but substantially higher if the patients was admitted to hospital (AUD$14,949). Patients who were admitted tended to be older and were hospitalised for an average of eight to 10 days.
Even the most basic care for patients who presented to the emergency department without ambulance transport and was discharged was AUD$584.
Extrapolating these figures to the national level suggested that non-serious low back pain was costing Australian hospitals approximately AUD$392.9 million per year for the 133,000 annual ED presentations.
A breakdown of the costs incurred for low back pain treatment in hospitals showed that most of it was attributed to the cost of nursing care, with only 11% due to imaging, medications and pathology costs.
The researchers said the financial burden of treating low back pain for hospitals was significant, especially since the effectiveness of inpatient care had not been determined and was not recommended in any of the major guidelines for low back pain.
The findings should be used to develop better care pathways for low back pain in hospital settings aligned with evidence-based guidelines, they suggested
The findings are published in Lancet Regional Health.