Role substitution is a strategy employed to assist health services manage the growing demand for musculoskeletal care. Corticosteroid injection is a common treatment in this population but the efficacy of its prescription and delivery by physiotherapists has not been established against orthopaedic standards. This paper investigates whether corticosteroid injection given by a physiotherapist for shoulder pain is as clinically and cost effective as that from an orthopaedic surgeon. A double blind non-inferiority randomized controlled trial was conducted in an Australian public hospital orthopaedic outpatient service, from January 2013 to June 2014. Adults with a General Practitioner referral to Orthopaedics for shoulder pain received subacromial corticosteroid and local anaesthetic injection prescribed and delivered independently by a physiotherapist or a consultant orthopaedic surgeon. The main outcome measure was total Shoulder Pain and Disability Index (SPADI) score at baseline, six and 12 weeks, applying a non-inferiority margin of 15 points. Secondary outcomes tested for superiority included pain, shoulder movement, perceived improvement, adverse events, satisfaction, quality of life and costs. 278 participants were independently assessed by the physiotherapist and the orthopaedic surgeon, with 64 randomised (physiotherapist 33, orthopaedic surgeon 31). There were no significant differences in baseline characteristics between groups. Non-inferiority of injection by the physiotherapist was declared from total SPADI scores at 6 and 12 weeks (upper limit of the 95% one-sided confidence interval 13.34 and 7.17 at 6 and 12 weeks, respectively). There were no statistically significant differences between groups on any outcome measures at 6 or 12 weeks. From the perspective of the health funder, the physiotherapist was less expensive.
Corticosteroid injection for shoulder pain, provided by a suitably qualified physiotherapist is at least as clinically effective, and less expensive, compared with similar care delivered by an orthopaedic surgeon. Policy makers and service providers should consider implementing this model of care.