Among the elderly, low-energy hip fractures are common injuries that almost all orthopaedic surgeons encounter. While operative management is typically the standard of care, there are some patients for whom nonoperative treatment is most aligned with their goals of care, usually because of chronic disease, fragility, and/or high risk of perioperative mortality.
When counseling elderly patients and family members about the risks and benefits of surgical management for a hip fracture, we have abundant data. We can estimate the length of rehabilitation, discuss the likelihood of regaining independence with ambulation, and quote the 30-day, 1-year, and 5-year mortality statistics. But what about the risks and benefits of nonoperative care? How long do these patients live? How many are alive 1 year after the fracture?
Chlebeck and colleagues attempt to answer those questions with a retrospective cohort study of 77 hip fracture patients who were treated nonoperatively and a matched cohort of 154 operatively treated hip fracture patients. Nonoperative management was chosen only after a palliative-care consult was obtained and after a thorough multidisciplinary discussion of treatment goals with the patient and family. Patients who elected nonoperative care were treated with early limited weight bearing and a focus on maximizing comfort. Researchers established a comparative operative cohort through 2:1 matched pairing, controlling for age, sex, fracture type, Charlson Comorbidity Index, preinjury living situation, preinjury ambulatory status, and presence of dementia and cardiac arrhythmia.
As one might expect, there was significantly lower mortality in the operative group. The in-hospital, 30-day, and 1-year mortality for nonoperatively treated patients was 28.6%, 63.6%, and 84.4% respectively. The mortality rates seen in the operative cohort were 3.9%, 11.0%, and 36.4% respectively. A Kaplan-Meier survival analysis revealed the median life expectancy in the nonoperative cohort to be 14 days, versus 839 days in the operative group (p <0.0001). Interestingly, the researchers found no difference in hospital length of stay between the two groups (5.4 vs. 7.7 days; p=0.10).
These results provide useful references for orthopedic surgeons to use when counseling hip fracture patients and their families. Surgical intervention remains the standard of care in most instances, and this study suggests that operative care offers a significant mortality benefit over nonoperative care even in relatively unhealthy patients, like those selected for the matched operative cohort.
This study also gives us data to help guide the expectations of patients who decide surgery is not in line with their wishes. Half of the patients who elected nonoperative care in this study died within 14 days of admission, and only 15.6% were still alive at 1 year. Additionally, choosing nonoperative care does not lengthen hospitalization, suggesting that these patients can be quickly transferred to a more comfortable setting.
Matthew Herring, MD is a fellow in orthopaedic trauma at the University of California, San Francisco and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.