A phenomonenographic study of post-treatment interviews of lower back pain (LBP) patients’ conceptions regarding their clinical experience revealed common themes that correlated to negative or positive treatment efficacy and suggests practitioner approaches that may empower and create a therapeutic alliance between patients and their health care providers (HCP).
Effective Treatment Involves Holistic Approach
LBP is a worldwide phenomenon that affects adults of all ages. It is a leading cause of lost work and wages and may require long-term treatment with a variety of practitioners. Managing LBP can be challenging, especially when one’s HCP limits treatment or discourse to strictly biomedical or physiological causations. To more effectively address patients’ needs, a holistic, psychosocial approach to understanding LBP and creating effective treatments may be more conducive to patient empowerment and satisfaction with treatment outcomes. The study of post-treatment interviews sought to determine common themes in patients’ conception of their treatment and suggests models that might encourage better, more satisfying care.
Study Design and Data Collection and Analysis
To better understand and describe the full contextual nature of patient experiences with their HCP and treatments, researchers utilized the phenomenographic study design method and created a hierarchical structure of categorized themes derived from the data sets. The study authors were concerned with patients’ conceptions of their practitioner visits, rather than mere opinions. The 17 volunteers (five men and 12 women with a mean age of 46 years) were chosen from LBP patients who were undergoing treatment for episodic or chronic conditions and were categorized as “high risk” on the Keele STarT Back Screening Tool, indicating high levels of psychological risk factors in their daily lives. All of the volunteers agreed to participation in the study and were asked to view videos of their HCP encounters and respond to interview questions regarding their physiotherapy consultation and treatment experience. The experience of viewing and discussing the video prompted many of the subjects to reflect upon their overall healthcare journey. The researchers asked the subjects to talk about who they were and how they ended up in LBP treatment. Further questions queried the patients about the experience of being treated, examined, and the explanations they received from their HCP about their LBP, as well as how aligned they felt with the process of therapy and their HCP.
The conceptions of LBP patients were categorized into themes that included: convincing care, lifestyle change, participation, reciprocity, and the ethicality of their encounters. Each of the themes was then broken down into four categories: “non-encounters,” seeking support, empowering cooperation, and autonomic agency.
Invalid “Non-Encounters” Left Patients Frustrated
Patients that described their encounters as “non-encounters” felt that their HCP experience was invalidated by not being listened to or receiving the level of care they had expected during treatment. They complained that their treatment was inconsistent or that the explanations they received during their encounter was inadequate, which left them frustrated, afraid, or filled with anxiety. Some of these patients abandoned therapy altogether and resigned themselves to a life filled with pain. Others opted for more treatments or sought a clearer diagnosis—requesting imaging or surgery to explain or alleviate their symptoms. When their condition was not clearly explained or cured, they felt that treatment was ineffective or that they had been patronized. Those living with long-term pain discussed how their condition had inhibited them in social and work life when they did not get the support they needed. They felt helpless when it came to their own care and were disheartened as they moved from provider to provider seeking out appropriate care. They reported having to wait for long periods of time to receive care and said they felt tired from work and lacked the energy or resources to enjoy leisure activities. They complained that their HCP seemed not to hear them or were dismissive about their own thoughts when it came to their LBP. They were given information that replicated what they already knew or were talked down to with medical jargon that was unhelpful because they did not understand its meaning. They felt their practitioners were disinterested in them and rushed them through an impersonal therapy routine. Some patients felt blamed by their HCP for their pain or received unnecessary treatments that “robbed” them of their time and money, without benefit.
Seeking Support from Care Providers
Patients that sought support in understanding their LBP and treatment options were sometimes frustrated in their efforts to receive a confident examination and interview with a qualified professional who treated them with respect. These patients reported wanting clear explanations of their LBP, delivered in language that was understandable to them. They were most satisfied when their HCP took the time to give a thorough examination and helped them to find reasons for their symptoms. By interviewing patients thoroughly, HCP’s were better able to discern their patients’ life circumstances and give them the type of support needed, including teaching them to recognize and deal with stress in their bodies. Attentive practitioners were best able to be empathetic and supportive to their patients’ needs.
Cooperation and Support Empowered Patients
Patients reported feeling empowered when their HCP gave them the opportunity to take an active part in their own treatment plan. They were best able to do this when the provider gave them understandable explanations about their condition and how treatment techniques and lifestyle changes would benefit their recovery. Having sensible, written treatment plans—rather than merely verbal explanations, which they might forget—made the patients feel more secure and involved in their care. Physiotherapists who were able to demonstrate how the patients’ everyday activities affected their spinal health gave the patients a renewed sense of familiarity with their bodies and helped them to make better choices during normal activities that would reduce strain and injury to their spines. This newfound mind/body connection created a sense of confidence and balance that was beneficial to the patients’ overall well-being and treatment outcome. By learning to associate their LBP with their own physical and psychosocial health, patients gained insight and were likely to make lifestyle changes—including getting adequate rest and relaxation—that benefited them overall. Building a therapeutic, cooperative relationship with their HCP involved reciprocal understanding, good listening skills, and an attitude of respect. When a provider was able to repeat in their own words what their patient had said to them, the patients knew they were truly being heard.
The Development of Autonomic Agency
The group of patients who were best able to transform from patients to active participants in their own care felt the most empowered and reported that their treatment therapy extended beyond office visits and into their lives, work, and homes. Having a clear plan for their future—even when regular physiotherapy was needed—and knowing they could contact their providers with questions or concerns about their health empowered the patients to utilize the instructions and information they had received from their HCP’s and see steady, lasting improvement in their symptoms.
These patients had learned from their care providers about the importance of a family and friend support system and that it was necessary to relax and find a centered calm in life. They learned that strenuous exercise was not necessary to physical well-being and that less taxing types of exercise were sufficient to improve fitness and reduce daily stresses. Overall, they reported better moods due to their lifestyle changes and improved relationships with their loved ones and peers. They accredited many of these changes to the ability of their HCP’s to listen to them and introduce the idea of how psychosocial issues in their lives affected their overall health. They felt confident with their providers because their concerns and goals were discussed and considered when developing a plan of long-term treatment.
Post-treatment interviews in this study indicate the need for HCP’s to develop a patient-centric approach in to therapy that involves listening, cooperation, clear, written instructions, and an overall respect for the patient. When practitioners involve their patients in the process of healing and wellness, and when they see the patient as a whole person whose psychosocial involvements are integral to their physiological health, they are able to inspire confidence and empower their patients to effectively participate in their own acute and long-term LBP management.
KEYWORDS: how conceptions about care affect outcomes in LBP patients, empower and create a therapeutic alliance between patients and their health care providers, a holistic, psychosocial approach to understanding LBP, patients’ conceptions of their practitioner visits, understanding their LBP and treatment options, the importance of a family and friend support system