Surgical Costs: Just the Half of It

Total-cost breakdown for ankle-fracture patients treated nonoperatively.

The Journal is receiving an increasing number of manuscripts related to value assessments and cost-effectiveness analyses of treatments for orthopaedic pathologies. This line of investigation is crucial to helping the larger healthcare system lower costs while improving patient outcomes. One aspect of determining the total cost of a musculoskeletal intervention is the impact of so-called indirect costs. Components of indirect costs include lost patient wages from not working, higher transportation costs, and extra dollars spent by the individual or family to manage household chores and self-care.

In the December 16, 2020 issue of The Journal, Noback et al. examine the total, direct, and indirect costs of care among 60 patients with a lateral malleolar fracture that was treated either nonsurgically or surgically. They found that in many cases, indirect costs exceeded the direct cost of delivering medical/surgical care. Not surprisingly, this was especially true in nonoperatively treated patients, where three-quarters of the total cost were indirect costs (see Figure).

I believe that our community needs to more widely appreciate and study the impact of patients’ lost wage-earning opportunities and out-of-pocket expenditures. Every treatment recommendation we make in clinical practice involves these financial implications for our patients. Noback et al. go so far as to claim that “any cost-effectiveness analysis… must assess indirect costs or it risks drastically mischaracterizing a treatment’s value.”

We therefore should continue pushing our treatment and rehabilitation strategies to more aggressively limit time lost to full weight-bearing or use of the upper limb. Also, orthopaedic research should be directed toward strategies that limit the impact of indirect costs and family burdens as we seek to continuously improve care for our patients.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

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