December 12, 2019

✪ Factors Influencing Primary Care Providers’ Unneeded Lumbar Spine MRI Orders for Acute, Uncomplicated Low-Back Pain: a Qualitative Study


Andrea L. Nevedal, Eleanor T. Lewis, Justina Wu, Josephine Jacobs, Jeffrey G. Jarvik, Roger Chou, & Paul G. Barnett

University of Washington affiliated authors are displayed in bold.

✪ Open Access

Published: December 2019

Read the full text, open access in the subscription Journal of General Internal Medicine



Clinical practice guidelines suggest that magnetic resonance imaging of the lumbar spine (LS-MRI) is unneeded during the first 6 weeks of acute, uncomplicated low-back pain. Unneeded LS-MRIs do not improve patient outcomes, lead to unnecessary surgeries and procedures, and cost the US healthcare system about $300 million dollars per year. However, why primary care providers (PCPs) order unneeded LS-MRI for acute, uncomplicated low-back pain is poorly understood.


To characterize and explain the factors contributing to PCPs ordering unneeded LS-MRI for acute, uncomplicated low-back pain.


Qualitative study using semi-structured interviews.


Veterans Affairs PCPs identified from administrative data as having high or low rates of guideline-concordant LS-MRI ordering in 2016.


Providers were interviewed about their use of LS-MRI for acute, uncomplicated low-back pain and factors contributing to their decision-making. Directed content analysis of transcripts was conducted to identify and compare environmental-, patient-, and provider-level factors contributing to unneeded LS-MRI.

Key Results

Fifty-five PCPs participated (8.6% response rate). Both low (n = 33) and high (n = 22) guideline-concordant providers reported that LS-MRIs were required for specialty care referrals, but they differed in how other environmental factors (stringency of radiology utilization review, management of patient travel burden, and time constraints) contributed to LS-MRI ordering patterns. Low- and high-guideline-concordant providers reported similar patient factors (beliefs in value of imaging and pressure on providers). However, provider groups differed in how provider-level factors (guideline familiarity and agreement, the extent to which they acquiesced to patients, and belief in the value of LS-MRI) contributed to LS-MRI ordering patterns.


Results describe how diverse environmental, patient, and provider factors contribute to unneeded LS-MRI for acute, uncomplicated low-back pain. Prior research using a single intervention to reduce unneeded LS-MRI has been ineffective. Results suggest that multifaceted de-implementation strategies may be required to reduce unneeded LS-MRI.

**This abstract is posted with permission under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License**