My eight-year old son has a friend named Connor. Connor is a normal eight-year old boy except in one respect.
Connor can't ride his bike.
Connor is in physical therapy at school working on gross motor control, lower extremity strengthening, jumping, hopping and climbing activities. I've seen Connor run - he's a bit slow but otherwise normal. Jumping is a bit awkward but he makes it. Hopping is status quo.
So, why can't Connor ride his bike? Why does he walk when all the other neighborhood kids ride by - leaving him pushing his bike?
It turns out that Connor is scared of falling off of his bike.
Connor fell of a smaller bike when he was two years old and broke his arm. He has been scared to ride his bike ever since. His mom has asked many of the neighborhood dads (even Connor's karate instructor) to help Connor get over his fear. I've tried to work with him a few times.
Connor seems to demonstrate what Hart et al describe as...
"Evidence (of the) possible existence of fear avoidance beliefs or pain-related fear in people who have other impairments or who may not have pain, perhaps because of learned behavior after previous painful episodes or misconceptions about pain."In Screening for Elevated Levels of Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Regarding Work or Physical Activities in People Receiving Outpatient Therapy in the August Physical Therapy Journal Hart et al found that fear avoidance beliefs can be described as High or Low (rather than a score) and that one screening question can measure the level (rather than 21 questions in the Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire - FABQ).
What Can You Do?
Physical therapists can find out if musculoskeletal pain patients have elevated fear-avoidance beliefs early in the course of care so that reducing the level of fear-avoidance becomes a goal of therapy.
The fancy term for reducing fear-avoidance beliefs is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which is a distinct psychological specialty but one from which physical therapists might be able to learn some management strategies for chronic pain patients.
Hart et al recommend the first step is to screen your patients for high levels of fear-avoidance with these two, simple statements:
- "I should not do physical activities which (might) make my pain worse."
- "I should not do my normal work with my present pain."
We've used the FABQ (21-item) but now I'm making these statements a part of my intake patient (self-report) forms that will be indicated with checkboxes indicating agreement or dis-agreement.
Co-morbid factors like fear-avoidance, age, depression and self-reports of function turn out to be bigger drivers of chronicity, cost and resource utilization (eg: PT visits) than traditional impairment measures like strength, ROM and swelling.
Physical therapists may be able to improve overall patient management and increase reimbursement by screening for fear-avoidance at the first and last visit.
Just as important, we may be able to more accurately detect those at risk - those people like Connor.
Treating fear-avoidance early in the course of care may allow physical therapists to 'risk adjust' an episode fee capped at, for instance, ten visits for uncomplicated lower back pain.
Today, all of your Medicare visits are reimbursed fee-for-service (FFS) but nobody expects Medicare FFS to last much longer in its present state - nor is Medicare FFS sustainable if it does last past this current legislative session.
Al Amato, PT wrote an article in IMPACT (PPS log-in required) called Value Purchasing in Physical Therapy in March 2006 that described the effect of risk adjustment on an alternative payment system. Mr. Amato wrote...
"Risk adjustment allows the comparison of a patient with a specific profile to a similar risk-adjusted group of patients in a large database.In the future, you will need to identify which patients are likely to have poorer outcomes (based of elevated fear-avoidance beliefs) but you will be able to request more treatment sessions. Or, you can treat the elevated fear-avoidance beliefs from baseline, get the patient better in fewer visits - and get paid a bonus.
This allows the ability to predict the efficiency and effectiveness of an individual treatment because of the profile of the similar risk-adjusted group of patients from the national database."
Who Could get Better by Learning About Fear?
In 2007, there were 97,900 outpatient therapy providers billing the Medicare program in the United States: about 19% of these are Occupational Therapists and 7% are Speech Language Pathologists (table 7 & 10).
The intent is to transition all of these providers to a 'value based' payment program that allows providers to succeed and patients to get better.
Hart's study is a big step in the direction of value-based payment (Hart and Amato work for the same company) because this study shows clinicians how to quickly and accurately screen people like Connor for elevated fear-avoidance beliefs.
Improved screening for this, and other, psychosocial factors that influence chronicity can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our physical therapy treatments.