UMMS Affiliation

Commonwealth Medicine, Research and Evaluation; Department of Family Medicine and Community Health

Publication Date


Document Type



Health Policy | Health Services Administration | Health Services Research | Musculoskeletal Diseases


BACKGROUND: Early magnetic resonance imaging (eMRI) for nonspecific low back pain (LBP) not adherent to clinical guidelines is linked with prolonged work disability. Although the prevalence of eMRI for occupational LBP varies substantially among states, it is unknown whether the risk of prolonged disability associated with eMRI varies according to individual and area-level characteristics. The aim was to explore whether the known risk of increased length of disability (LOD) associated with eMRI scanning not adherent to guidelines for occupational LBP varies according to patient and area-level characteristics, and the potential reasons for any observed variations.

METHODS: A retrospective cohort of 59,360 LBP cases from 49 states, filed between 2002 and 2008, and examined LOD as the outcome. LBP cases with at least 1 day of work disability were identified by reviewing indemnity service records and medical bills using a comprehensive list of codes from the International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Edition (ICD-9) indicating LBP or nonspecific back pain, excluding medically complicated cases.

RESULTS: We found significant between-state variations in the negative impact of eMRI on LOD ranging from 3.4 days in Tennessee to 14.8 days in New Hampshire. Higher negative impact of eMRI on LOD was mainly associated with female gender, state workers' compensation (WC) policy not limiting initial treating provider choice, higher state orthopedic surgeon density, and lower state MRI facility density.

CONCLUSION: State WC policies regulating selection of healthcare provider and structural factors affecting quality of medical care modify the impact of eMRI not adherent to guidelines. Targeted healthcare and work disability prevention interventions may improve work disability outcomes in patients with occupational LBP.


Cohort study, Geographic variation in care, Low back pain, Magnetic resonance imaging, Work disability

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© The Author(s). 2019 Open Access. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

DOI of Published Version



BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2019 Nov 30;20(1):574. doi: 10.1186/s12891-019-2964-7. Link to article on publisher's site

Journal/Book/Conference Title

BMC musculoskeletal disorders

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.