This study investigated differences in the clinical outcomes of public versus private physiotherapy for general practitioner referred patients with acute and chronic low back pain (LBP). Health care setting (i.e. public or private) has been found to influence the course and clinical outcome of common diseases. Despite the international burden of LBP, the effect of healthcare setting on clinical outcomes has not been investigated in this population. 160 consenting patients, who were referred for physiotherapy for LBP by their general practitioner completed the Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire (primary outcome), Short-Form 36 v2, Fear Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire, Back Beliefs Questionnaire, EuroQol EQ5D and Patient Satisfaction Questionnaires, were stratified (Acute LBP: ≤ 3 months, n = 55; Chronic LBP: > 3 months, n = 105), and randomly allocated to receive public PT (n = 3 hospitals) or private PT (n = 12 clinics), and followed up at 3, 6 and 12 months post randomisation by post. Repeated measures ANOVA showed significant improvement over time for nine predominantly biomedical outcomes i.e. (i) Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire at 3 and 6-months (ii) Short Form-36 v2 Physical Component Score, Bodily Pain, Role Physical, General Health, Vitality, EQ5D visual analogue scale and weighted health index scores at 3-months, and (iii) the Back Beliefs Questionnaire at 6-months; while the remaining seven biopsychosocial outcomes showed no change over time, and the ‘between within’ repeated measures ANOVA showed no significant differences between groups over time for any outcome measures (p>0.05). Independent samples t-tests found no significant differences between groups in the mean changes in outcome measures from baseline at 12 months, apart from SF-36 v2 Role Physical [mean difference, 95% CI = 5.64 (0.860 to 10.428); t = 2.337; p = 0.021] in favour of the private PT group. There were significantly higher levels of satisfaction with outcome of treatment in the private PT group (Median (IQR): public PT: 5.0 (2.0); private PT: 6.0 (2.0); Mann Whitney U test = 1324.50; p = 0.020), but no differences in satisfaction with treatment or global perceived improvement (p>0.05). The private PT group had a significantly shorter waiting time (mean difference = 39.79 days; 95% CI: 26.88 to 52.69; t = 6.121; p<0.001), and treatment duration (mean difference: 23.48 days; 95% CI: 7.43 to 39.52; t = 2.909; p = 0.005) than public PT. Participants in both groups were treated with advice/education, manipulative therapy and exercise therapy, with minimal use of cognitive behavioural approaches in either group. Physiotherapists in the private PT group had significantly more experience and more postgraduate qualifications than the public PT group (p< 0.005).
Despite differences between public and private PT regarding waiting times for treatment and therapist experience, there were no significant differences between groups in the majority of clinical outcome measure scores at follow-up, apart from SF-36 Role Physical and satisfaction with treatment outcome in favour of the private PT group.