Orthopaedic surgery has been blessed with an explosion of diagnostic and therapeutic technology over the last several decades. Improvements in advanced imaging, minimally invasive surgical techniques, and biomaterials and implant design have resulted in both perceived and objectively measurable patient benefits. In many cases, these benefits have been documented with patient-reported functional outcome data as well as improved clinical outcomes such as range of motion, strength, return to work, and pain relief.
However, some of these technological advances serve as expensive substitutes for many of the basic procedures that are universally available at a fraction of the cost, such as taking a thorough history, performing a complete physical examination, and employing basic and time-tested surgical techniques when indicated. While new minimally invasive techniques and computer-assisted preoperative planning are impressive in many respects, it is important to remember the ultimate goal of any orthopaedic operation: improving the patient’s musculoskeletal function.
In the July 18. 2018 issue of The Journal, Buijze et al. examine results from a multicenter randomized trial that compared patient-reported outcomes after using either 2-dimensional (standard radiographs) or 3-dimensional (CT with computer assistance) planning for corrective osteotomy in patients with a distal radial malunion. Although post-hoc analysis revealed that this study was underpowered, the patient-reported outcomes (as measured by DASH and PRWE) were not significantly different between the two preoperative planning groups.
These findings do not mean that advanced technology does not have a place in preoperative planning, but for me the findings emphasize that the most important factors in any orthopaedic surgery are the surgeon’s judgment, skill, and experience. When a surgeon needs assistance maximizing one of those three variables, more advanced technologies may play a role in improving patient outcome. For example, among less experienced surgeons, I suspect that more detailed preoperative planning for a relatively uncommon procedure would improve patient outcome, but it would probably have little impact on the results of procedures performed by more experienced surgeons.
The authors of this study focus on the true bottom line for any surgical intervention: patient outcome. But the other bottom line must also be considered. With the per-procedure incremental cost of 3-D planning and patient-specific surgical guides for upper-extremity deformity corrections estimated to range between $2,000 and $4,000, we must continue to conduct this type of Level I research. For the days of laying one “advance” on top of another with no attention paid to the cost for individual patients and the overall system are long gone.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD