Objectives To assess the clinical effectiveness, effect on waiting times, and patient acceptability of PhysioDirect services in patients with musculoskeletal problems, compared with usual care.
Design Pragmatic randomised controlled trial to assess equivalence in clinical effectiveness. Patients were individually randomised in a 2:1 ratio to PhysioDirect or usual care.
Setting Four physiotherapy services in England.
Participants Adults (aged ≥18 years) referred by general practitioners or self referred for musculoskeletal physiotherapy.
Interventions PhysioDirect services invited patients to telephone a physiotherapist for initial assessment and advice, followed by face-to-face physiotherapy if necessary. Usual care involved patients joining a waiting list for face-to-face treatment.
Main outcome measures Numbers of appointments, waiting time for treatment, and non-attendance rates. Primary outcome was physical health (SF-36v2 physical component score) at six months. Secondary outcomes included four other measures of health outcome, mental component score and scales from the SF-36v2, time lost from work, and patient satisfaction and preference. Participants were not blind to allocation, but outcome data were collected blind to allocation.
Results Of 1506 patients allocated to PhysioDirect and 743 to usual care, 85% provided primary outcome data at six months (1283 and 629 patients, respectively). PhysioDirect patients had fewer face-to-face appointments than usual care patients (mean 1.91 v 3.11; incidence rate ratio 0.59 (95% confidence interval 0.53 to 0.65)), a shorter waiting time (median 7 days v 34 days; arm time ratio 0.32 (0.29 to 0.35)), and lower rates of non-attendance (incidence rate ratio 0.55 (0.41 to 0.73)). After six months’ follow-up, the SF-36v2 physical component score was equivalent between groups (adjusted difference in means −0.01 (−0.80 to 0.79)). Health outcome measures suggested a trend towards slightly greater improvement in the PhysioDirect arm at six week follow-up and no difference at six months. There was no difference in time lost from work. PhysioDirect patients were no more satisfied with access to physiotherapy than usual care patients, but had slightly lower satisfaction overall at six months (difference in satisfaction −3.8% (−7.3% to −0.3%); P=0.031). PhysioDirect patients were more likely than usual care patients to prefer PhysioDirect in future. No adverse events were detected.
Conclusions PhysioDirect is equally clinically effective compared with usual care, provides faster access to physiotherapy, and seems to be safe. However, it could be associated with slightly lower patient satisfaction.
Trial registration Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN55666618.