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Am J Med. 2000 Jan;108(1):28-35.

Outcomes of care and resource utilization among patients with knee or shoulder disorders treated by general internists, rheumatologists, or orthopedic surgeons.

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Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy, Robert Brigham Multipurpose Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases Center, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.



Previous studies have suggested that specialists may achieve better clinical outcomes for patients, albeit often at greater cost. We sought to compare outcomes of care and resource utilization among patients with shoulder or knee problems who were treated by general internists, rheumatologists, and orthopedic surgeons.


Outpatients with knee or shoulder complaints who were seen by general internists, rheumatologists, or orthopedic surgeons at an academic medical center were administered questionnaires at enrollment in the study and again 3 months later. The questionnaires included validated measures of satisfaction, functional status, and pain severity, as well as resource utilization. We compared baseline clinical characteristics, satisfaction with care, resource utilization, and changes in function and symptoms during 3 months of follow-up among patients who were cared for by the three different types of providers.


A total of 534 patients responded to the baseline survey and 436 (82%) to the 3-month follow-up survey. About 60% (n = 323) had knee pain. Orthopedists cared for 40% (n = 211) of the patients, with the remainder treated in approximately equal numbers by general internists or rheumatologists. At baseline, patients of internists had less severe pain (differences of 0.3 to 0.6 points on a 1 to 5 scale, P <0.05) and functional limitations (differences of 0.4 to 0.6 points on a 1 to 5 scale, P <0.0006) than patients of rheumatologists and orthopedic surgeons. Adjusting for baseline differences, there were no significant differences among provider groups in pain relief or functional improvement during follow-up. However, in adjusted analyses, patients with shoulder pain who were cared for by orthopedic surgeons were least satisfied with the office environment [adjusted mean (+/- SD) satisfaction score of 1.6 +/- 0.8 on a 1 to 4 scale for orthopedic surgeons vs 1.3 +/- 0.8 for rheumatologists and 1.4 +/- 0.8 for internists, P = 0.004]. Among patients with knee pain, those treated by rheumatologists and orthopedic surgeons were more satisfied with the doctor-patient interaction (adjusted mean satisfaction scores of 1.1 +/- 0.9 for rheumatologists and 1.2 +/- 0.7 for orthopedic surgeons on a 1 to 4 scale vs 1.4 +/- 0.8 for general internists, P = 0.003). Orthopedic surgeons obtained significantly more radiographs of the knee or shoulder and more magnetic resonance imaging scans of the knee. Rheumatologists performed significantly more aspirations or injection procedures. Among all patients, those treated by rheumatologists were most satisfied with the physician interaction, and those treated by orthopedic surgeons were most satisfied with treatment results.


The relative benefits of specialist compared with generalist care for patients with knee or shoulder pain depend on the importance attached to resource utilization, patient satisfaction, and health outcomes.

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