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Pandemic Postponements: How Long Will the Backlog of Elective Surgeries Last?

OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. This guest post comes from Impact Science, in response to a recent COVID-19 article in JBJS.

 At the beginning of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, hospitals and health-care systems reassigned staff, facilities, and supplies away from nonessential services to cater to the rising number of COVID-19 patients. During that time, many elective surgeries were postponed until resources became available again and safety protocols were established. This situation has resulted in a growing backlog of postponed elective surgeries that has to be managed now, as elective surgery is re-emerging, and in the foreseeable future.

A Johns Hopkins University research team headed by Amit Jain used a Monte Carlo analysis model to answer 3 specific questions about the elective-surgery backlog in orthopaedics:

  • When will the health-care system return to nearly full capacity for performing elective surgery?
  • What will be the extent of the backlog?
  • How should health-care systems change to address the backlog?

The authors looked specifically at data regarding inpatient elective total joint arthroplasties and spinal fusions in the US.

Assuming that elective orthopaedic surgery resumed in June 2020 (which it did at some centers), Jain et al. estimated that it will take 7 months in a best-case scenario before the health-care system regains 90% of its pre-pandemic elective orthopaedic surgery capacity. That optimistic 7-month timeframe assumes a “growth velocity” of elective orthopaedic procedures of 50% ± 5%. Achieving that 90% level will take an estimated 12 months with a growth velocity of 30% ± 3%, and 16 months with a growth velocity of 20% ± 2%. Even in the optimistic first scenario, a backlog of >1 million surgeries is expected 2 years after the end of elective-surgery deferment.

The long-lasting impact of the postponement of elective surgeries means that planning to address the backlog needs to start immediately. Jain et al. offer several potentially helpful ideas from the engineering arena that could be translated to health care, including ways to scale up surgical “throughput.” But other notions, such as “queuing and buffering,” could exacerbate existing health care disparities, the authors point out. Whichever tactical approaches to addressing the backlog health-care systems use, the authors conclude that “strategic investments focusing on capacity expansion are crucial.”

Impact Science is a team of highly specialized subject-area experts (Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Medicine & Humanities), who collaborate with authors, societies, libraries, universities and various other stakeholders for services to enhance research impact.

 Through research engagement and science communication, Impact Science aims at democratizing science by making research-backed content accessible to the world

Guidelines for Resuming Elective Orthopaedic Surgery

OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. This guest post comes from Adam Bitterman, DO in response to 2 recent articles in the July 15, 2020 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery.

The United States continues to struggle in the grip of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Certain regions within the US are experiencing a sharply increased COVID-19 case volume, while other locales have stabilized their disease burden. But overall, the country’s healthcare system and economy remain under stress.

Healthcare systems in regions that don’t have high COVID-19 burdens have begun to provide their full list of services, of which elective orthopaedic surgery is one. However, amid concern about a “second wave” of the pandemic, the reemergence of elective orthopedic surgery must be made–and monitored–in the context of public health. Now more than ever, surgeons and their patients must consider how individual patient-centered decisions might play out in the public domain.

As Anoushiravani and colleagues point out, the return of elective orthopedic surgery should be based in large part on the COVID-19 burden in any given geographic location. Local jurisdictions must regulate the return to “normalcy” according to measurements that gauge activity of the virus, such as the number of new diagnoses and hospitalizations and the percent occupancy of ICU beds. In another JBJS article on this topic, Parvizi et al. emphasize that local hospitals and health systems need to weigh resumption of elective orthopaedic procedures also against staffing capability and available supplies of PPE and ventilators. The sensible recommendations from both sets of authors emphasize the importance of ascertaining local disease patterns in order to provide appropriate and safe care for all patients.

The new “normal” in healthcare is a moving target that requires fluidity and flexibility to make frequent reassessments. The economic disruption caused by the pandemic may take years to resolve, and economics is another factor in these resuming-surgery equations. As members of the healthcare team, it is imperative that we focus on the well-being of our patients, surgical team and staff, and our local community. We all must be vigilant for signs of resurgence of the disease. And, please, wear a mask whenever you are out in public and social distancing is not feasible.

Adam Bitterman, DO is a foot and ankle specialist, an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.

Rethinking How We Spend Healthcare Dollars During—and After—the Pandemic

OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. This guest post comes from Frederick A. Matsen, MD and Jeremy S. Somerson, MD.

The coronavirus pandemic is having a profound effect on healthcare economics. A recent article in Health Affairs1 estimates that the median direct medical cost of a single symptomatic COVID-19 case can exceed $3,000 during the course of the infection alone. As of this writing, there have been almost 2.5 million confirmed cases in the US,2 with the number of known cases doubling every 2 months.3 These numbers suggest that the direct medical costs of the pandemic could easily exceed $8 billion. In addition, federal legislation enacted to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic is estimated to cost more than $480 billion over the next 10 years.4

Independently, the application of new technologies has also been pushing healthcare costs upward for decades. Long before the pandemic, a 2008 report from the  Congressional Budget Office concluded that “the bottom line from all these analyses is that the single most important factor driving the long-term increase in health care costs involves medical technology” and that “technological advances on average have brought major health improvements, but they often then get applied in settings where their benefits seem much less obvious.”5

In orthopaedics, we are strongly attracted to technology. In some cases – such as arthroscopy – technological advances enable less invasive, more effective, and safer treatments. In other cases, the patient benefits “seem much less obvious.” A recent review article makes the following observations about technology use in arthroplasty:

  • Computer-assisted technologies that are used in arthroplasty include navigation, image-derived instrumentation, and robotics.
  • Computer-assisted navigation improves accuracy and allows for real-time assessment of component positioning and soft-tissue tension.
  • It is not clear whether the implementation of these technologies improves the clinical outcome of surgery.
  • High cost and time demands have prevented the global implementation of computer-assisted technologies.

If we take shoulder arthroplasty as a general example, we see that prior to the introduction of routine preoperative CT scans, 3D planning, patient-specific instrumentation, metal-backed and augmented glenoid components, and short-stemmed and stemless humeral components, the results of anatomic total shoulder replacement for osteoarthritis were excellent, with 10-year revision rates under 5%.6,7 Such outcomes do not leave much room for improvement from newer technologies, each of which carries incremental costs of research, development, clearance by the FDA, marketing, learning curves, and potential product recalls and unanticipated long-term adverse effects.8 As Rosenthal et al. recently pointed out, “Since 3D planning and intraoperative navigation is more costly than 2D planning, and augmented glenoid components are more costly than standard glenoid components, the cost-benefit of these changes with respect to mid-term and long-term clinical outcomes and implant survival has not been ascertained.”9

Robust clinical data are needed to establish the incremental benefit to patients of each new technology in order to justify its associated incremental costs in comparison to legacy approaches that have been in place for years.

As a more specific example, the average cost of a preoperative shoulder CT scan ranges from $625 to $8,400,10 yet it remains to be demonstrated whether application of this technology leads to better shoulder arthroplasty outcomes in comparison to results obtained with conventional preoperative radiographic imaging.11 Agyeman et al. recently concluded that  “although CT scans are associated with greater financial cost and exposure to radiation than radiographs, the literature has yet to describe the additional clinical value and/or potential cost-value benefit as a result of improved outcomes provided by the use of CT scans in patients undergoing total shoulder arthroplasty, even when integrated with virtual planning software and generation of patient specific instrumentation.” If a preoperative shoulder CT scan costs $1,000, the very low end of the aforementioned range, avoiding routine preoperative CTs in 3 shoulder-arthroplasty patients would save an amount of money equal to the average direct medical cost of a patient with COVID-19—$3,000.

We conclude that this is a good time to seriously reconsider how we apply new technologies in orthopaedics by asking a simple question: Are we spending our more-precious-than-ever healthcare dollars in ways that best serve the population as a whole?

Frederick A. Matsen III, MD is a professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Jeremy S. Somerson, MD is a fellowship-trained shoulder and elbow surgeon at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.


  1. Bartsch SM, Ferguson MC, McKinnell JA, O’Shea KJ, Wedlock PT, Siegmund SS, et al. The potential health care costs and resource use associated with COVID-19 in the United States. Health Aff (Millwood). 2020;39(6):927-35.
  2. John Hopkins University CSSE. COVID-19 dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University (JHU). 2020 Accessed June 28, 2020. Available from:
  3. Hernandez S, O’Key S, Watts A, Manley B, Pettersson H, CNN. Tracking Covid-19 cases in the US. CNN, 2020 Accessed June 28, 2020. Available from:
  4. Congressional Budget Office. The budgetary effects of laws enacted in response to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, March and April 2020. 2020 Accessed June 28, 2020. Available from:
  5. Congressional Budget Office. Technological change and the growth of health care spending. 2008 Accessed June 28, 2020. Available from:
  6. Australian Orthopaedic Association National Joint Replacement Registry (AOANJRR). Annual report 2019: Hip, Knee & Shoulder Arthroplasty. Total Shoulder outcomes over two decades. Figure ST22, Page 16. 2019 Accessed June 28, 2020. Available from:
  7. Neer CS, 2nd, Watson KC, Stanton FJ. Recent experience in total shoulder replacement. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1982;64(3):319-37.
  8. Somerson JS, Neradilek MB, Hsu JE, Service BC, Gee AO, Matsen FA, 3rd. Is there evidence that the outcomes of primary anatomic and reverse shoulder arthroplasty are getting better? Int Orthop. 2017;41(6):1235-44.
  9. Rosenthal Y, Rettig SA, Virk M, Zuckerman JD. The impact of preoperative three-dimensional planning and intraoperative navigation of shoulder arthroplasty on implant selection and operative time: a single surgeon’s experience. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2020;Epub ahead of print.
  10. Poslusny C. How much does a CT scan cost? New Choice Health, Inc., Pensacola, FL, Accessed June 28, 2020. Available from:
  11. Matsen FA, 3rd, Whitson A, Hsu JE, Stankovic NK, Neradilek MB, Somerson JS. Prearthroplasty glenohumeral pathoanatomy and its relationship to patient’s sex, age, diagnosis, and self-assessed shoulder comfort and function. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2019;28(12):2290-300.

COVID-19’s Musculoskeletal Manifestations

This post comes from Fred Nelson, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in the Department of Orthopedics at Henry Ford Hospital and a clinical associate professor at Wayne State Medical School. Some of Dr. Nelson’s tips go out weekly to more than 3,000 members of the Orthopaedic Research Society (ORS), and all are distributed to more than 30 orthopaedic residency programs. Those not sent to the ORS are periodically reposted in OrthoBuzz with the permission of Dr. Nelson.

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 induces the expression of several cytokines and signaling molecules. The impact of these inflammatory mediators on the lungs is the most lethal effect and thus has drawn the most attention. However, COVID-19 can have potentially longer-lasting (but less deadly) musculoskeletal effects.

COVID-19 has not been affecting people long enough to study its effects completely, but we do know that the virus predominantly infects type-II pneumocytes that line the respiratory epithelium. These cells express angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) and transmembrane protease, serine 2 (TMPRSS2). Disser et al. note that TMPRSS2 is also expressed in muscle tissue, while only smooth muscle cells and pericytes express ACE2. They add that either ACE2 or TMPRSS2 is expressed in cartilage, menisci, bone, and synovium.

Myalgia has been reported to occur in COVID-19 patients 25% to 50% of the time. The effect on muscle can be severe, with more seriously ill patients having higher levels of creatine kinase. After recovery, patients often show decreased strength and endurance, but it is not clear how much of that is due to deconditioning or to persisting muscle effects. Although arthralgia can also occur, it is hard to separate those symptoms from myalgia, and both may exist at the same time.

Examination of muscle specimens from autopsies of COVID-19 patients shows significant muscle destruction. It is not clear whether the osteoporosis and osteonecrosis sometimes seen with SARS-CoV-2 is due to the virus’s direct effect on bone or to the steroids used to treat patients with more severe cases.

Because it is probable that inflammation associated with cytokine release has an impact on musculoskeletal tissues, orthopaedic surgeons are likely to be faced with a variety of musculoskeletal symptoms in post COVID-19 patients. Preliminary data suggest that rehabilitation for both strength and endurance is effective among patients who recover from COVID-19, but it is not clear whether return to former conditioning levels occurs. The use of immunotherapies, such as IL-1 and IL-6 inhibitors, may have a positive impact on initial treatment in these patients.

Pledge from JBJS Regarding Race-Based Inequalities

The JBJS Board of Trustees published a statement today that addresses the global COVID pandemic and the worldwide demonstrations against systematic racism. As an organization, JBJS has pledged to take the following actions to promote racial equality in health care and in other aspects of human affairs that we influence:

  • In addition to the >100 articles already published in JBJS that explore health care disparities, The Journal will now prioritize manuscripts that delineate solutions to these widespread inequities.
  • JBJS will continue to support initiatives that increase minority representation in orthopaedic surgery programs throughout the US—including minority members of academic faculties. We will also publish data on the results of those efforts.
  • JBJS will look inward to promote greater diversity within our own organization.

We hope the readers of JBJS and OrthoBuzz are also taking action in their homes, workplaces, and communities to ensure that all people are treated fairly and equally.

Screening Orthopaedic Patients for Asymptomatic COVID-19

During the initial surge of COVID-19, symptomatic patients were thought to be mainly responsible for spreading the virus, and guidelines therefore focused on identifying and isolating patients with fever, cough, or shortness of breath. However, as the asymptomatic spread became better understood, the need for more widespread, consistent molecular testing protocols became evident—and this is especially important now that elective orthopaedic surgery has resumed. Performing a surgical procedure on an asymptomatic patient with COVID-19 could lead to contamination of the operating room and other hospital zones, possibly infecting staff and other patients.

In the latest JBJS fast-track article related to COVID-19, Gruskay et al. describe a protocol for universal PCR swab testing of all orthopaedic surgery admissions at their New York City hospital during the 3 weeks between April 5, 2020 and April 24, 2020. At that time, only urgent orthopaedic procedures were being performed. Swab testing of 99 patients revealed a high rate of COVID-19 infections—the majority of which were in patients with no symptoms. With these published findings, the authors “hope to… make a case for nasopharyngeal testing of all preoperative patients.”

During those 3 weeks in April, 7 (58.3%) of the 12 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 had no symptoms consistent with the infection on presentation, and only 1 of those patients had pneumonia that appeared on a preoperative chest radiograph. Three asymptomatic patients who tested positive developed postoperative hypoxia, with 2 requiring intubation.

In recommending routine preoperative PCR testing for orthopaedic patients, the authors acknowledge the high specificity but only moderate sensitivity of the swab test, “but few other practical options exist,” they say. Evidence suggests that CT evaluation is the most accurate diagnostic test for COVID-19 pneumonia, but its use for screening is impractical. Chest radiography is more widely available, faster, and cheaper and emits less radiation than CT, but the sensitivity for diagnosing COVID-19 pneumonia with radiographs is reported as only 70%.

COVID-19 Patients: Better Breathing After Fracture Surgery

COVID-19 infections spread rapidly in northern Italy from February to April of 2020. During that time, the orthopaedic unit at Humanitas Gavazzeni Hospital in Bergamo focused on elderly patients with both a femoral neck fracture and COVID-19. In a fast-tracked JBJS study, Catellani et al. report on what happened to 16 COVID-19-positive patients who were admitted to the hospital’s emergency department with a proximal femoral fracture:

  • 3 patients died from severe respiratory insufficiency and multiple-organ failure before surgery could be considered or performed.
  • 10 patients underwent fracture surgery on the day after admission; 3 had surgery on the third day after admission to allow washout of direct thrombin inhibitors.
  • Oxygen saturation improved in all patients who underwent surgery except 1
  • Hemodynamic and respiratory stability was achieved in 9 patients at an average of 7 days postsurgery.
  • 4 patients who underwent surgery died of respiratory failure—1 on the first day after surgery, 2 on the third day after surgery, and 1 on the seventh day after surgery.

In general, the advantages of early treatment of proximal femoral fractures in the elderly include early mobilization and better pain control. On the other hand, orthopaedists consider severe respiratory insufficiency to be a contraindication to anesthesia and surgery. The anesthesiology team working with Catellani et al. recommended early surgery in these patients if their oxygen saturation was >90% and their body temperature was <38°C. Spinal anesthesia was used for all patients to avoid sedation and was combined with a peripheral femoral nerve block to achieve better pain management.

The authors concluded that most of these COVID19-positive patients who presented in less critical condition and underwent carefully planned and executed surgery for proximal femoral fractures experienced a notable stabilization of their respiratory parameters.

A Primer on Coding and Documentation for Telemedicine

Under the best of circumstances, coding and documenting medical visits and procedures for Medicare and private payers can be a headache. Now, with the pandemic-related increased use of electronic communication between physicians and patients—including video, telephone, and portal-based email—things have gotten even more challenging. Thankfully, in a recent fast-tracked JBJS article, Hinckley et al. offer some valuable assistance with how to code and document telemedicine and other electronic interactions with patients.

The authors summarize the electronic-communication guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for documenting these visits and for selecting the appropriate CPT codes and modifiers as of April 20, 2020. They emphasize that private payers may not follow CMS guidelines, so “continued attention to CMS, CPT, and private payer websites is necessary.”

Hinckley et al. also emphasize that CPT codes now distinguish between telemedicine (video) visits, email visits, and telephone services. One of the most useful tools the authors offer appears in an Appendix, where 4 sample grids for musculoskeletal documentation and coding are provided.

It might be wise to familiarize yourself and/or your office staff with these new policies, procedures, and codes, because, as the authors conclude, whatever “new normal” eventually emerges, electronic communication with patients “will likely become a more prominent aspect of our clinical presence and platforms.”

Virtual-Meeting Best Practices from OrthoEvidence

In addition to medical appointments between physicians and patients, many medical meetings and conferences have moved to online platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That prompted the OrthoEvidence team, led by renowned orthopaedic surgeon and researcher Mohit Bhandari, MD, to publish a 32-page, downloadable resource titled “Best Practice Recommendations for Virtual Meetings.”

The document—developed from extensive reviews of the literature and private and public-sector documents, consultation with experts, and stakeholder surveys—is designed to help guide healthcare and academic groups as well as policymakers and funders.

The guidelines are organized into 5 sections:

  • Preplanning Considerations
  • Planning
  • Accomplishing goals
  • Response
  • Engaging the audience for future activities

A virtual-meeting planning checklist, a helpful table of virtual-meeting platform vendors, and many other practical resources are included in the document’s 6 Appendices.

How to Safely Restart Elective Surgery Amid a Pandemic

OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. This guest post comes from Chad A. Krueger, MD, co-author of a recent fast-tracked review article in JBJS.

I’ll admit that when I first started hearing about COVID-19, I didn’t pay much attention. Life was busy, and I wasn’t going to worry about something that I figured would come and go without much fuss over the next few months. While that was obviously a faulty assumption, I think few of us could have predicted just how deadly, anxiety-provoking, and disruptive this virus would be. We are now 5 or so months into this pandemic and nothing is ”normal,” but some of the measures we have taken to help flatten the curve seem to be working. In the months ahead, figuring out how to safely regain some normalcy in our lives will require careful planning, nimble adjustments, and well-coordinated cross-functional execution.

Those three actions were also required to produce the fast-tracked Current Concepts Review article in JBJS about resuming elective orthopaedic surgery during the pandemic, which I had the privilege to co-author. Amazingly, that article progressed from an idea to a published manuscript, with input from 77 physicians, in the span of 2 weeks. This fast-paced project was driven by our knowledge that many facilities worldwide were getting ready to start performing elective surgeries again, and we wanted to ensure that practical, accurate, and relevant information was available as those plans were being made.

All the expert author-contributors offered unique insights as to how the pandemic was affecting healthcare delivery in their region of the globe, allowing us to keep the recommendations as balanced as possible. Although much of the research incorporated in this review came from outside the orthopaedic literature, it all touched on our ability to safely care for patients. The process of creating this article was a great example of how strong leadership, teamwork, and compromise can help us navigate through all aspects of these uncharted waters. Everyone who worked on this manuscript, including the peer-review and editorial teams at JBJS, had one goal in mind: to help orthopaedic surgeons safely return to caring for their patients.

The international consensus group that created this review is well aware that some of the recommendations will need to be updated, changed, or maybe even scrapped altogether as we learn more about the behavior of this virus. We drafted, discussed, and revised these guidelines while appreciating that some regions of the world have not been as adversely affected as others and that there are stark global differences in testing capabilities and supplies of personal protective equipment and other resources. We are painfully aware that some of our strongest recommendations might be impossible to implement in certain settings.

Developing a one-size-fits-all framework for restarting elective orthopaedic surgery was not possible; there are simply too many variables at play with this pandemic that are beyond any individual’s or health system’s control. However, this review provides as much evidence-based guidance as possible so that individual surgeons, practices, hospitals, and municipalities can make informed decisions about how elective surgery should reemerge. We are fully aware that some people may object to some of the recommendations in this article, even though 94% to 100% of the 77-member consensus group agreed on all of them. Nevertheless, we hope that this guidance—and updates to it as more evidence becomes available—will help us all continue to make highly informed decisions before, during, and after elective surgery to keep ourselves and our patients safe.

Chad A. Krueger, MD is an orthopaedic fellow in adult reconstructive surgery at the Rothman Institute and former Deputy Editor for Social Media at JBJS.