Recognition and management of emergent spinal pathology among first-line providers

Joseph R. Johnson, Jacob M. Babu, Wesley M. Durand, Adam E.M. Eltorai, Shyam A. Patel, Alan H. Daniels

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Spinal emergencies require prompt identification, management, and surgical referral (if needed) from first-line providers. Diagnostic delays from a failure to recognize emergency conditions can lead to adverse patient outcomes. The objective of this study was to understand the proficiency with which first-line providers can recognize and manage spinal conditions, particularly spinal emergencies. This was a cross-sectional analysis of 143 internal medicine, family medicine, emergency care, and neurology questionnaires collected at a single-site academic center. Participants were predominantly physicians (88.1%, n=126), with a smaller percentage of midlevel providers (11.9%, n=17). Only 35.0% (n=50) of respondents felt “very prepared” to handle spinal emergencies. Bivariate analyses revealed interdepartmental differences in clinical knowledge pertaining to the management of lumbar radiculopathy (P<.0001), epidural abscess (P=.0002), and cervical myelopathy (P<.0001). Following pairwise comparisons of interdepartmental differences, emergency medicine statistically outperformed internal medicine (P=.0007) and neurology (P<.0001) on initial management of lumbar radiculopathy, while also having markedly higher success in identifying and managing epidural abscess with respect to family medicine (P<.0001). The likelihood of appropriate initial treatment of cervical myelopathy was significantly higher for neurology than for emergency medicine (P<.0001). A minority of first-line providers reported being very prepared to handle spinal emergencies. Disparities exist between first-line provider specialties regarding clinical knowledge in managing and proficiently identifying emergent and nonemergent spinal conditions. Because appropriate handling of emergent spinal pathologies is essential to patient outcomes and optimal resource use, measures should be taken to further educate first-line providers regarding the spinal conditions they will be treating.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E244-E250
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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