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OBJECTIVE: To examine back and neck hospitalizations in the Province of Ontario and Washington State. Because of their different organization and financing, there has been considerable interest in comparing healthcare systems in Canada and the United States. Features of healthcare systems might be expected to result in greater variations in care for elective than urgent conditions. DATA SOURCE: Automated hospital discharge databases. STUDY DESIGN: Previously developed algorithms were used to identify surgical and nonsurgical hospitalizations for back and neck problems in the administrative databases. We compared overall rates of hospitalization and lengths of hospital stay in Ontario and Washington as well as small area variations within the province and state. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Surgical back and neck hospitalizations were three times as common in Washington, but medical hospitalizations were twice as common in Ontario. Provincial lengths of stay were longer for both surgical and nonsurgical hospitalizations. Admission rates varied substantially and significantly among small areas in both Washington and Ontario. Variations in hospital length of stay were greater in Ontario, particularly for nonsurgical back and neck hospitalizations. CONCLUSION: The two jurisdictions had very different patterns of hospital utilization for one of the most common health problems seen by physicians. Our results suggest that the global controls on hospital budgets and access to technology in Ontario were associated with lower rates of surgery, higher rates of hospital-based medical care, and longer lengths of stay. They also indicate that the utilization review process in Washington was associated with lower small area variation rates for medical back care.