Physiotherapists' awareness, knowledge and confidence in screening and referral of suspected axial spondyloarthritis: A survey of UK clinical practice
Background: Axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA) is an inflammatory disease associated with significant diagnostic delays and is commonly missed in assessments of persistent back pain. Objective: To explore musculoskeletal physiotherapists' awareness, knowledge and confidence in screening for signs, symptoms and risk factors of suspected axSpA and criteria for rheumatology referral. Design: An online UK survey was undertaken combining back pain vignettes (reflecting axSpA, non-specific back pain and radicular syndrome) and questioning on features of suspected axSpA. Recruitment utilised online professional forums and social media. Data analysis included descriptive statistics and conceptual content analysis for free text responses. Results: 132 survey responses were analysed. Only 67% (88/132) of respondents identified inflammatory pathologies as a possible cause of persistent back pain. Only 60% (79/132) recognised the axSpA vignette compared to non-specific low back pain (94%) and radicular syndrome (80%). Most suspecting axSpA would refer for specialist assessment (77/79; 92%). Awareness of national referral guidance was evident in only 50% of ‘clinical reasoning’ and 20% of ‘further subjective screening’ responses. There was misplaced confidence in recognising clinical features of axSpA (≥7/10) compared to knowledge levels shown, including high importance given to inflammatory markers and human leucocyte antigen B27 (median = 8/10). Conclusions: Musculoskeletal physiotherapists may not be giving adequate consideration to axSpA in back pain assessments. Awareness of national referral guidance was also limited. Professional education on screening and referral for suspected axSpA is needed to make axSpA screening and referral criteria core knowledge in musculoskeletal clinical practice, supporting earlier diagnosis and better outcomes.