Does continuing education improve physical therapists' effectiveness in treating neck pain? A randomized clinical trial

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Background and Purpose. Physical therapists often attend continuing education (CE) courses to improve their overall clinical performance and patient outcomes. However, evidence suggests that CE courses may not improve the outcomes for patients receiving physical therapy for the management of neck pain. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of an ongoing educational intervention for improving the outcomes for patients with neck pain. Participants. The study participants were 19 physical therapists who attended a 2-day CE course focusing on the management of neck pain. All patients treated by the therapists in this study completed the Neck Disability Index (NDI) and a pain rating scale at the initial examination and at their final visit. Methods. Therapists from 11 clinics were invited to attend a 2-day CE course on the management of neck pain. After the CE course, the therapists were randomly assigned to receive either ongoing education consisting of small group sessions and an educational outreach session or no further education. Clinical outcomes achieved by therapists who received ongoing education and therapists who did not were compared for both pretraining and posttraining periods. The effects of receiving ongoing education were examined by use of linear mixed-model analyses with time period and group as fixed factors; improvements in disability and pain as dependent variables; and age, sex, and the patient's initial NDI and pain rating scores as covariates. Results. Patients treated by therapists who received ongoing education experienced significantly greater reductions in disability during the study period (pretraining to posttraining) than those treated by therapists who did not receive ongoing training (mean difference=4.2 points; 95% confidence interval [CI]=0.69, 7.7). Changes in pain did not differ for patients treated by the 2 groups of therapists during the study period (mean difference=0.47 point; 95% CI=-0.11, 1.0). Therapists in the ongoing education group also used fewer visits during the posttraining period (mean difference=1.5 visits; 95% CI=0.81, 2.3). Discussion and Conclusion. The results of this study demonstrated that ongoing education for the management of neck pain was beneficial in reducing disability for patients with neck pain while reducing the number of physical therapy visits. However, changes in pain did not differ for patients treated by the 2 groups of therapists. Although it appears that a typical CE course does not improve the overall outcomes for patients treated by therapists attending that course, more research is needed to evaluate other educational strategies to determine the most clinically effective and cost-effective interventions. © 2009 American Physical Therapy Association.

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