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Ankle Surgery: Who Should Do It?

The relationship between orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeons and podiatric surgeons has been checkered. Many have advocated that the orthopaedic community should isolate itself from interaction with the podiatric community. Conversely, a smaller group of orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeons have recommended sharing CME endeavors with podiatric surgeons, and combining clinical services with them. As long as individual states continue to legislate surgeon scope-of-practice matters (38 states currently allow podiatric surgeons to perform ankle surgery), it seems to me that shared learning, combined clinical services, and collaborative research make the most sense for advancing foot and ankle care for as many patients as possible. We should all be willing to work with our surgical colleagues to improve everyone’s decision making and skill.

In the January 16, 2019  issue of The Journal, Chan et al. probe an administrative database to evaluate several outcomes after total ankle arthroplasty (TAA) and ankle arthrodesis performed by both types of surgeon. Probably because many podiatrists self-limit their practices to forefoot surgery, podiatric surgeons provided the treatment for only 18% of the patients in both ankle-surgery groups. When podiatrists were the primary surgeon, the authors found increased lengths of stay for both procedures and increased hospital costs for arthrodesis patients. The authors did not investigate the reasons for these increases, but they should be investigated in the future. Chan et al. did find that, in general, podiatric surgeons operated on sicker patients and tended to work in smaller, non-teaching hospitals.

The authors also found an increasing percentage of these procedures being performed by podiatrists over the period from 2011 to 2016. This is likely related to multiple factors, including variable availability of orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeons relative to podiatric surgeons in many communities, and an increased number of podiatry training programs that specialize in hindfoot surgery.

It seems to me that data like these from Chan et al. should be shared with both communities to foster discussions regarding how to optimize length of stay, costs, and patient outcomes across the board. The goal should always be to raise every surgeon’s level of care for the benefit of all patients.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Unexplained Pain After TKA? Duloxetine Might Help

Somewhere between 10% and 15% of patients are unsatisfied with their outcome after primary total knee arthroplasty (TKA). In some cases, dissatisfaction is related to poor range of motion, but more often it is related to residual—or even intensified—pain in the knee several weeks after surgery.

In the January 2, 2019 issue of The Journal, Koh et al. report the results of a prospective randomized trial assessing the effects of duloxetine (Cymbalta) in TKA patients who were screened preoperatively for “central sensitization.” In central sensitization, a hyperexcitable central nervous system becomes hypersensitive to stimuli, noxious and otherwise.

Koh et al. randomized 80 centrally sensitized patients (mean age of 69 years), 40 of whom received a multimodal perioperative pain management protocol plus duloxetine, and 40 of whom received the multimodal protocol without duloxetine. During postoperative weeks 2 through 12, patients taking duloxetine reported better results in terms of pain and functional and emotional outcome measures than those not receiving the drug. Patients in the duloxetine group expressed greater satisfaction with pain control (77% vs 29%) and daily activity (83% vs 52%) at postoperative week 12, compared with those in the control group.

This research represents an important advance in identifying and treating patients who are prone to poor outcomes after TKA. The concept of central sensitization is relatively new to the orthopaedic community, and this pharmacologic intervention is likely to be just the first among many that will help these patients. I think it is probable that other, nonpharmacological interventions will eventually be as or even more successful in helping TKA patients with central sensitization. Koh et al. make a valuable  contribution in this article by educating us as to the neurophysiologic basis of this condition, and their work should pave the way for more important research in this area.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

What We Owe our Patients—Continuous Improvement

It has been said that a surgeon’s skill and judgment account for between 80% and 90% of a patient’s outcome. (I believe this is true for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments.) Throw in a physician’s ability to listen and clearly communicate with patients, and I am sure we are approaching that 90% mark. That means that when we conduct randomized trials comparing two types of knee prostheses or fracture-fixation constructs, we are, in essence, scrutinizing only about 10% of the patient-outcome equation. 

So how do we best evaluate the 90% of the outcome equation that is physician-dependent? With the advent of “bundled” episodes of care, the orthopaedic community has emphasized the need for risk-adjustment in evaluating surgeon performance. Clearly, there are certain patients who are at higher risk for worse outcomes than others, such as those with diabetes, nicotine abuse, advanced age, and less social support.

In the December 19. 2018 issue of The Journal, Thigpen et al. report on patient outcomes 6 months after arthroscopic rotator cuff repair in 995 patients treated by 34 surgeons. The authors evaluated patient-reported outcomes from all surgeons using both unadjusted and adjusted ASES change scores. The adjusted scores took into account about a dozen baseline patient characteristics, including symptom severity, functional and mental scores, medical comorbidities, and Workers’ Compensation status. Relative to performance rankings based on unadjusted data, risk adjustment significantly altered the rankings for 91% of the surgeons.  According to the authors, these findings “underpin the importance of risk-adjustment approaches to accurately report surgeon performance.”

But what is of even greater interest to me is that risk adjustment led to positive increases in patient outcomes for some surgeons, while decreasing outcomes for other surgeons. Some of these outcome differences likely reflect each surgeon’s patient-selection biases, but in the words of the authors, the numbers strongly suggest “that there is a meaningful, distinguishable difference in patient outcomes between surgeons.”

What should we do with this data? In my opinion, surgeons in the lower 80%  of the list, at least, ought to be engaging with the surgeons who demonstrated the highest adjusted performance scores to understand what is helping them obtain outcomes that are superior to everyone else’s. We owe it to our patients to understand what our personal outcomes are for at least the most common conditions we treat. I believe it borders on unethical behavior to quote patients outcome data of a procedure from the peer-reviewed literature when we have no idea how our personal results compare. Orthopaedic surgeons need to be more active in lobbying our groups and health systems to support best practices for clinical outcome data collection and reporting so we can, in turn, improve our care by adopting the best practices of the surgeons with the best outcomes.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Using CT Data to Diagnose Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a “silent” disease, often becoming apparent only after a patient older than 50 sustains a low-energy fracture of the wrist, proximal humerus, or hip. Monitoring serum vitamin D levels and DEXA testing represent ideal screening methods to prevent these sentinel fragility fractures. In addition, through programs such as the AOA’s “Own the Bone” initiative, the orthopaedic community has taken a leadership role in diagnosing and treating osteoporosis after the disease presents as a fragility fracture. Own the Bone is active in all 50 states and, through local physician leadership, is identifying individuals who present with a fragility fracture so they can receive follow-up care that helps mitigate bone loss and prevent secondary fractures.

We still have a long way to go, however. Recent analyses show that only 30% of candidate patients (albeit up from 20%) are receiving this type of evidence-based care. The best-case scenario would be to identify at-risk men and women (osteoporosis does not affect women exclusively) before a potentially serious injury.

In the December 5, 2018 issue of The Journal, Anderson et al. present strong evidence that computed tomography (CT) can provide accurate data for diagnosing osteoporosis. CT is increasingly used (perhaps overused in some settings) across a spectrum of diagnostic investigations. The osseous-related data from these scans can be used to glean accurate information regarding a patient’s bone quality by analyzing the Hounsfield unit (HU) values of bone captured opportunistically by CT.  HU data are routinely ignored, but the values correlate strongly with bone mineral density, and they could help us recommend preventive care to our patients before a fragility fracture occurs. (For example, a threshold of <135 HU for the L1 vertebral body indicates a risk for osteoporosis.)

Orthopaedists should discuss the possibility of asking their radiologist colleagues who read CT scans of older patients to routinely share that data. When indicated, we could promptly refer patients back to their primary care provider for discussion of pharmacological treatment and lifestyle changes proven to help prevent primary fragility fractures. There is little doubt that our patients are getting older. Reviewing CT data  could help us dramatically improve preventive care and decrease the risk of first-time fragility fractures.

Click here for additional OrthoBuzz posts about fragility fractures.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Residents in the OR—What’s the Risk?

Orthopaedic educators have long confronted the subtle implication that resident participation in surgical care can contribute to patient harm or even death. While there have been numerous changes in residency education to improve the  supervision and training of residents, the reality is that surgical trainees have to learn how to operate. This fact can leave surgical patients understandably nervous, and many of them heave heard rumors of a “July effect”—a hypothetical increase in surgery-related complications attributed to resident education at the beginning of an academic year. To provide further clarity on this quandary, in the November 21, 2018 issue of The Journal, Casp et alexamine the relationship between complication rates after lower-extremity trauma surgery (for hip fractures, predominantly), the participation and seniority of residents, and when during the academic year the surgery occurred.

The authors used the NSQIP surgical database to examine >1,800 patient outcomes after lower-extremity surgery according to academic-year quarter and the postgraduate year of the most senior resident involved in the case. The analysis revealed two major findings:

  1. Overall, there was no “July effect” at the beginning of the academic year in terms of composite complication rates.
  2. Cases involving more senior residents were associated with an increased risk of superficial surgical site infection during the first academic quarter.

While the authors were unable to provide a precise reason for the second finding, they hypothesized that it could have been related to more stringent data collection early in the academic year, senior-resident inexperience with newly increased responsibilities, or the warm-temperature time of year in which the infections occurred. Casp et al. emphasize that the database used in the study was not robust in terms of documenting case details such as complexity and the degree of resident autonomy, which makes cause-and-effect conclusions impossible to pinpoint.

Although this large database study does not answer granular questions regarding the appropriate role of residents in orthopaedic surgery, it should stimulate further research in this area. Gradually increasing responsibility is necessary within residency programs so that residents develop the skills and decision-making prowess necessary for them to succeed as attending surgeons. Studies like this help guide future research into the important topic of graduate medical education, and they provide patients with some reassurance that the surgical care they receive is not affected by the time during the academic-calendar year in which they receive it.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Pre-Visit Pain and Anxiety Influence Patient Satisfaction

Biopsychosocial for O'BuzzExperienced orthopaedic clinicians understand that anxious patients with high levels of pain are  some of the most challenging to evaluate and treat. Both anxiety and pain siphon away the patient’s focus and concentration, complicating the surgeon’s job of relaying key diagnostic and treatment information—often leaving patients confused and dissatisfied. Moreover, such patients usually want a quick solution to their physical pain and mental angst, whether that be a prescription for medication or surgery.  At the same time, despite controversy, variously defined levels of “patient satisfaction” are being used as a metric to evaluate quality and value throughout the US health-care system. This reinforces the need for orthopaedists to understand the complex interplay between biological and psychological elements of patient encounters.

In the November 7, 2018 issue of The Journal, Tyser et al. use validated instruments to clarify the relationship between a patient’s pre-existing function, pain, and anxiety and the satisfaction the patient received from a new or returning outpatient visit to a hand/upper extremity clinic. Not surprisingly, the authors found that higher levels of physical function prior to the clinic visit correlated with increased satisfaction after the visit, as measured by the widely used Press Ganey online satisfaction survey.  They also noted that higher antecedent levels of anxiety and pain, as determined by two PROMIS instruments, correlated with decreased levels of patient satisfaction with the visit. The authors assessed patient satisfaction only with the clinic visit and the care provider, not with any subsequent treatment.

Most patients are likely to experience some level of pain or anxiety when they meet with an orthopaedic surgeon. To leave patients more content with these visits, we need to set appropriate expectations for the visit in advance of the interaction and develop real-time, in-clinic strategies that help patients cope with anxiety. Such “biopsychosocial” strategies may not by themselves dictate the ultimate treatment, but they may go a long way toward helping patients understand their options and feel satisfied with the care provided. Secondarily, such strategies may help improve the satisfaction scores that administrators, rightly or wrongly, are increasingly using to evaluate musculoskeletal practitioners.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Better News for TJA Patients with Depression

Mental Health Image for OBuzzOver the last 2 decades, research into how various “preexisting conditions” affect the outcomes of orthopaedic interventions has increasingly focused on the impact of mental health (a patient’s “state of mind” and coping abilities) and psychological diagnoses such as depression. The impact of mental health, depression, and personality characteristics on patient-reported outcomes following significant skeletal trauma has been well documented in the trauma literature. In addition, previous studies in knee arthroplasty have identified depression as a major factor in suboptimal patient outcomes.

In the October 17, 2018 issue of The Journal, Halawi et al. teased out the impact of depression and mental health—independently and in combination—on patient-reported outcomes following primary total joint arthroplasty (TJA) in 469 patients at a minimum follow-up of one year.

The authors used the validated SF-12 MCS instrument to assess patient baseline mental health at the time of surgery. They also used the widely accepted WOMAC score to assess joint-specific pain, stiffness, and physical function before and after surgery. Using these tools, the authors showed that, while depression alone may diminish some patient-reported gains obtained from arthroplasty, it does not seem to affect a patient’s overall outcome as much as poor mental health prior to surgery. In this study, patients with depression but good mental health achieved patient-reported outcomes comparable to those among normal controls. Still, patients without depression and in good mental health were found to have the most robust improvements after undergoing TJA.

Orthopaedic surgeons need to better understand the interplay between these complex psychological states and patient outcomes. These authors conclude that the effect of depression on patient-reported outcomes is “less pessimistic than previously thought,” but we welcome further studies examining the link between “the mind” and orthopaedic outcomes.  Finally, we should be ready to refer patients to our mental health colleagues when we detect a potential underlying nonphysical condition that might adversely affect the magnitude of benefit from the treatments we offer.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Activities that Patients—and their PTs—Should Avoid After THA

Hip Cup Friction for OBuzzThe adult joint-reconstruction community has made great strides in the last 2 decades in understanding what causes aseptic loosening of arthroplasty components. For example, revelations about polyethylene particulate debris has led to the production of  highly cross-linked polyethylene, which in turn has lowered wear rates, decreased revision rates, and increased the survivorship of total hip implants (see related OrthoBuzz post). Still, polyethylene debris is only one factor that can lead to aseptic loosening. Another important, yet often overlooked, factor is friction between the impacted acetabular shell and the host bone.

In the October 3, 2018 issue of The Journal, Bergmann et al. report data that help us better understand the “friction factor” in aseptic loosening. The authors implanted specially designed, instrumented acetabular components that measured in vivo friction moments among nine patients while they engaged in >1,400 different activities. The authors found that 124 of those activities led to friction moments >4 Nm—which appears to be the upper limit for facilitating a firm union between the acetabular component and the native socket.

Movements such as muscle stretching in the lunge position,  the breaststroke in swimming, 2-legged standing with muscles contracted,  and a single-legged stance while moving the contralateral leg were among those that created the highest friction between the implant and the host bone—and that could impede bone ingrowth into the acetabular component and thus contribute to aseptic loosening. The study also highlights the importance of periodic unloading of the prosthetic joint to allow proper synovial lubrication, which helps minimize the effects of high-friction moments. The good news is that the vast majority of activities studied do not appear to result in friction forces above the 4 Nm threshold.

Although these data should be confirmed with other in-vivo instrumented prostheses (assuming there are more patients willing to receive acetabular components capable of delivering telemetric data), they provide practical insight into the real-world forces placed on total hip prostheses after implantation. Such information can be used to counsel patients regarding high-friction and sustained-loading activities to be avoided, and it can help physical therapists and surgeons tailor postoperative regimens that optimize patient recovery while minimizing the risk to implanted prostheses.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

Location, Location, Location: Geographic Disparities in Orthopaedic Care?

Geographic Distribution for OBuzzWhen it comes to access to many things people look for, big cities offer numerous advantages over small towns.  This seems to be true for consumer goods and services—and for access to health care, especially “high-tech” procedures. That is one issue that Suchman et al. touch on in their retrospective database study in the September 19, 2018 issue of The Journal.

The study evaluated almost 650,000 patients who underwent one of three meniscal procedures (meniscectomy, meniscal repair, or meniscal allograft transplantation) in New York State from 2003 to 2015. In determining which procedures were performed where, the authors found that meniscectomies and meniscal repairs—the vast majority of the procedures performed—were scattered throughout the state, but that meniscal transplants were performed almost exclusively at urban, academic hospitals. This finding is not surprising, considering the technical complexity of allograft transplantation. However, if a patient who would benefit from a meniscal allograft lived three hours from an urban, academic setting, they would either have to travel to the city to be evaluated, treated, and followed, or settle for a different procedure from a surgeon closer to home. Neither option would be optimal in terms of quality care.

At the same time, this article emphasizes that not every patient needs to go to a large hospital to receive excellent care. While a preponderance of recent data shows an association between hospital and surgeon procedure volume and patient outcomes, those data do not mean that smaller hospitals or “medium volume” surgeons should not perform certain procedures. In fact, medium volume surgeons performed the largest proportion of meniscal procedures evaluated in this study.

The fact is that the “delivery” of health care does not happen via FedEx or UPS. The burden falls on patients to transport themselves to the physician, not vice versa. And until that model drastically changes, access disparities based on geography will likely remain.

However, Suchman et al. also found that the majority of patients who underwent any meniscal procedure had private insurance—and that Medicaid patients had the lowest rates of meniscal surgery. Although disparities arising from socioeconomic/insurance status are also very difficult to address, they would seem to be more remediable than disparities related to geography.

Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

 

Patient-Doctor Interaction Suffers with EMRs in Outpatient Clinics

EMR Times for OBuzzThe intended goals of requiring electronic medical record (EMR) systems in all hospitals and clinics were rational and, for the most part, patient-centered. EMRs have prevented large numbers of potentially serious medication errors, served as a secure means of making laboratory and imaging data readily available to surgeons, and have provided an efficient mode of communication among members of health care teams.

Unfortunately, the design of most, if not all, EMR systems is focused on coding and billing, not on the doctor-patient interaction during the all-important face-to-face clinic visit. This has had the unintended consequence of requiring dense, protracted documentation of care interactions that seems to de-emphasize the most important part of the EMR entry: the physician’s thought process and treatment plan.

In the September 19, 2018 edition of The Journal, Scott et al. provide us with a unique cost-and-productivity view into the impact that implementing an EMR had within an outpatient orthopaedic clinic.  During the first 6 months after a new EMR was launched, total labor costs increased, driven by attending surgeons and medical assistants spending increased time documenting visits. Although the total per-encounter cost returned to baseline levels after 6 months, more time was spent documenting encounters and less time was spent interacting with patients than before EMR implementation. So, even after a return to normal clinic “productivity” after the 6-month learning period, the price paid for increased time spent documenting on the new EMR was decreased provider-patient “face time.”

In my opinion, it is essential that we work to remedy this deficiency. Personally, I do not use EMR-provided templates for documenting physical exam findings, imaging study results, and treatment plans. Instead, I engage with the patient during the visit and make detailed notes in the EMR after the patient leaves. This probably results in “under-billing” for my services, but I am willing to pay that price to increase the value of the visit for the patient—and for my colleagues who may review my notes.

The study by Scott et al. is a necessary first step in understanding EMR ramifications in orthopaedics, but our community needs more broad-based research to further delve into the full impact of EMRs on patient care, patient satisfaction, and cost. Toward that end, the Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation (OREF) recently extended until September 28, 2018 the deadline for grant proposals to investigate the impact of EMR regulations on the patient-physician relationship. We must continue to address this apparent problem to improve patient care, which was the goal of EMRs in the first place.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief