New studies find patient education combined with physical therapy results in decreases in healthcare costs and opioid dependence.

National surveys have found that chronic pain—defined as pain lasting longer than 3 months—affects approximately 100 million American adults; the economic costs attributable to such pain approach $600 billion annually.

A study published in BMC Health Services Research, as well as a large, soon-to-be released study conducted by Boston University and jointly sponsored by United Health Care (UHC) and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) looked at neck and low-back pain respectively and found a direct correlation between early consultation with a physical therapist and significant cost savings and safer outcomes for patients. Patients were much less likely to need strong (and addictive) pain killers, and they also needed fewer, if any, advanced imaging services like MRIs, and ER visits. These patients had significantly lower out-of-pocket costs, and costs appeared to shift away from outpatient and pharmacy toward provider settings. (Source: Health Research and Educational Trust)

As reported by the APTA, the BU study in particular noted that low-back-pain patients who tried conservative therapies first were “75% to 90% less likely to have short- or long-term exposure to opioids.”

This certainly verifies what many of us in the PT world already knew: physical therapy can be instrumental not only in fighting the opioid epidemic, but in reducing downstream healthcare costs—by about $200 million per year. The study also helped change UHC’s own benefits policies. Starting in 2019 in 10 test markets, UHC will waive the copay and/or deductible for each beneficiary’s first three physical therapy visits.