Physical therapists’ assessments, analyses and use of behavior change techniques in initial consultations on musculoskeletal pain: direct observations in primary health care.

Behavioral medicine (BM) treatment is recommended to be implemented for pain management in physical therapy. Its implementation requires physical therapists (PTs), who are skilled at performing functional behavioral analyses based on physical, psychological and behavioral assessments. The purpose of the current study was to explore and describe PTs’ assessments, analyses and their use of behavioral change techniques (BCTs) in initial consultations with patients who seek primary health care due to musculoskeletal pain. A descriptive and explorative research design was applied, using data from video recordings of 12 primary health care PTs. A deductive analysis was performed, based on a specific protocol with definitions of PTs’ assessment of physical and psychological prognostic factors (red and yellow flags, respectively), analysis of the clinical problem, and use of BCTs. An additional inductive analysis was performed to identify and describe the variation in the PTs’ clinical practice. Red and yellow flags were assessed in a majority of the cases. Analyses were mainly based on biomedical assessments and none of the PTs performed functional behavioral analyses. All of the PTs used BCTs, mainly instruction and information, to facilitate physical activity and improved posture. The four most clinically relevant cases were selected to illustrate the variation in the PTs’ clinical practice. The results are based on 12 experienced primary health care PTs in Sweden, limiting the generalizability to similar populations and settings.

Red and yellow flags were assessed by PTs in the current study, but their interpretation and integration of the findings in analyses and treatment were incomplete, indicating a need of further strategies to implement behavioral medicine in Swedish primary health care physical therapy.