Stratified primary care versus non-stratified care for musculoskeletal pain: Findings from the STarT MSK feasibility and pilot cluster randomized controlled trial

J. C. Hill*, S. Garvin, Y. Chen, V. Cooper, S. Wathall, B. Saunders, M. Lewis, J. Protheroe, A. Chudyk, K. M. Dunn, E. Hay, D. Van Der Windt, C. Mallen, N. E. Foster

*Corresponding author for this work

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Background: Musculoskeletal (MSK) pain from the five most common presentations to primary care (back, neck, shoulder, knee or multi-site pain), where the majority of patients are managed, is a costly global health challenge. At present, first-line decision-making is based on clinical reasoning and stratified models of care have only been tested in patients with low back pain. We therefore, examined the feasibility of; a) a future definitive cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT), and b) General Practitioners (GPs) providing stratified care at the point-of-consultation for these five most common MSK pain presentations. Methods: The design was a pragmatic pilot, two parallel-arm (stratified versus non-stratified care), cluster RCT and the setting was 8 UK GP practices (4 intervention, 4 control) with randomisation (stratified by practice size) and blinding of trial statistician and outcome data-collectors. Participants were adult consulters with MSK pain without indicators of serious pathologies, urgent medical needs, or vulnerabilities. Potential participant records were tagged and individuals sent postal invitations using a GP point-of-consultation electronic medical record (EMR) template. The intervention was supported by the EMR template housing the Keele STarT MSK Tool (to stratify into low, medium and high-risk prognostic subgroups of persistent pain and disability) and recommended matched treatment options. Feasibility outcomes included exploration of recruitment and follow-up rates, selection bias, and GP intervention fidelity. To capture recommended outcomes including pain and function, participants completed an initial questionnaire, brief monthly questionnaire (postal or SMS), and 6-month follow-up questionnaire. An anonymised EMR audit described GP decision-making. Results: GPs screened 3063 patients (intervention = 1591, control = 1472), completed the EMR template with 1237 eligible patients (intervention = 513, control = 724) and 524 participants (42%) consented to data collection (intervention = 231, control = 293). Recruitment took 28 weeks (target 12 weeks) with > 90% follow-up retention (target > 75%). We detected no selection bias of concern and no harms identified. GP stratification tool fidelity failed to achieve a-priori success criteria, whilst fidelity to the matched treatments achieved "complete success". Conclusions: A future definitive cluster RCT of stratified care for MSK pain is feasible and is underway, following key amendments including a clinician-completed version of the stratification tool and refinements to recommended matched treatments. Trial registration: Name of the registry: ISRCTN. Trial registration number: 15366334. Date of registration: 06/04/2016.

Original languageEnglish
Article number30
JournalBMC Family Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Feb 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • General practice
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Primary care
  • Prognosis
  • Stratified care

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