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Amid COVID-19, What Does “Elective” Mean?

As Sarac et al. note in the latest JBJS fast-tracked article, the phrase “elective procedure” is ambiguous, even though it is supposed to identify procedures that are being postponed to help hospitals cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that operations for “most cancers” and “highly symptomatic patients” should continue, but that leaves much of the ambiguity unresolved. What constitutes an elective procedure in orthopaedics at this unusual time remains unclear.

To help clarify the situation, the authors summarize guidance issued by states and describe the guidelines currently in use for orthopaedic surgery at their institution, The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Here are the state-related data collected by Sarac et al., as of March 24, 2020:

  • 30 states have published guidance regarding discontinuation of elective procedures; 16 of those states provide a definition of “elective” or offer guidance for determining which procedures should continue to be performed.
  • 5 states provide guidelines specifically mentioning orthopaedic surgery; of those, 4 states explicitly permit trauma-related procedures, and 4 states recommend against performing arthroplasty.
  • 10 states provide guidelines permitting the continuation of oncological procedures.

In the Buckeye State, the Ohio Hospital Association asked each hospital and surgery center to cancel procedures that do not meet any of the following criteria:

  • Threat to a patient’s life if procedure is not performed
  • Threat of permanent dysfunction of an extremity or organ system
  • Risk of cancer metastasis or progression of staging
  • Risk of rapid worsening to severe symptoms

Mindful of those criteria, individual surgical and procedural division directors at the authors’ university developed a list of specific procedures that should continue to be performed. Respective department chairs approved the lists, which were then sent to the hospital chief clinical officer for signoff.

The authors tabulate the orthopaedic procedures that continue to be performed at their institution as of March 25, 2020, but they are quick to add that even this list is not without ambiguity. For example, surgery should continue on “select closed fractures that if left untreated for >30 days may lead to loss of function or permanent disability,” but that requires surgeons to judge, in these uncertain and fluid times, which fractures necessitate fixation in the short term.

Sarac et al. emphasize that such lists, however specific they are today, are likely to change as demands on hospitals shift. They suggest that as the pandemic evolves, a further classification of procedures into 2 time-based categories might be helpful: (1) those that need to be performed within 2 weeks and (2) those that need to be performed within 4 weeks. Sarac et al. also remind orthopaedic surgeons to provide patients waiting for surgery that has been postponed with information regarding safe and effective methods of managing their pain.

Learnings from Orthopaedists Infected with COVID-19

One serious challenge in responding to COVID-19 is how to better protect healthcare workers and prevent nosocomial infection. A fast-track JBJS Orthopaedic Forum article by Guo et al. provides instructive data about this challenge from 24 orthopaedic surgeons in Wuhan, China who contracted the illness. Orthopaedic surgeons generally don’t work on the front lines of infectious-disease pandemics, but these cases help us understand the overall infection situation of healthcare workers.

Twenty-six orthopaedic surgeons from 8 of 24 investigated hospitals in Wuhan were identified as having COVID-19, and 24 of them completed a self-administered questionnaire. From that information, the authors found that the peak date of onset of orthopaedic surgeons’ infection was 8 days earlier than the peak of the public epidemic, indicating that these surgeons were probably exposed to COVID-19 in the hospitals, rather than in the community. Fifteen surgeons were admitted to the hospital for treatment, and 9 surgeons self-isolated at home or hotels with medicine for at least 2 weeks. All 24 surgeons recovered after treatment.

According to questionnaire responses, the suspected in-hospital sites of exposure were general wards (79.2%), public places in the hospital (20.8%), operating rooms (12.5%), the intensive care unit (4.2%), and the outpatient clinic (4.2%). Three surgeons were exposed during operations on patients who were diagnosed as having COVID-19 several days after the surgical procedures.

This and other findings underscore an already-known but worrisome feature of this disease: many asymptomatic patients with COVID-19 are shedding the virus and unwittingly exposing other people—inside and outside of hospitals—to the risk of infection.

Also worrisome: these 24 orthopaedists infected others in 25% of cases, with a 20.8% transmission rate to family members. The authors therefore recommend that orthopaedic surgeons who work in hospital settings during the COVID-19 pandemic period avoid close contact with family members at home.

Risk Factors for Infection
The authors also conducted a 1:2 matched case-control study to explore possible risk factors for COVID-19 infection. The controls were selected from uninfected orthopaedic surgeons who worked in the same department as the case(s) at each hospital.

Severe fatigue of orthopaedic surgeons during the 2 months before the outbreak was found to be a risk factor for COVID-19 infection. (Fatigue from overwork, less sleep, and mental stress are issues for orthopaedic surgeons under many “normal” circumstances.)

Real-time training in infection-prevention measures was found to have a protective effect against COVID-19, as was wearing respirators or masks all the time. More specifically, not wearing an N95 respirator was found to be a risk factor.

Generally, Guo et al. conclude that orthopaedic surgeons must be highly vigilant to avoid infection with COVID-19. They recommend the following approaches:

  • Work with medical and orthopaedic associations to provide real-time infection-control training and to address any shortages of personal protective equipment.
  • Minimize, postpone, or cancel elective operations. Test patients for COVID-19 before any operation if resources allow. Place face masks on all patients.
  • Wear N95 respirators all the time while in a hospital during the pandemic.
  • If you are exposed to the virus by patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, avoid close contact with family members at home and maintain physical distance in other situations.
  • If possible, avoid long-term overwork and fatigue, which could compromise immunity against COVID-19.

Managing Fractures in Patients with COVID-19

As JBJS Editor-in-Chief Marc Swiontkowski, MD observed in a recent editorial, some musculoskeletal health professionals “have been set aside to some degree” during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Dr. Swiontkowski also emphasized that “emergency/urgent procedures [still] need to be carried out.” Which leads to the question: What are the best medical practices for patients who have both fracture and COVID-19 infection.

To help answer that question, JBJS fast-tracked the publication of an article by Mi et al., which retrospectively reviewed the medical records of 10 patients from 8 hospitals in China who had both a bone fracture and COVID-19 infection.

Presenting Symptoms
All of the fractures were caused by accidents, most of them low-velocity. Flu-like symptoms of patients with a fracture and COVID-19 disease were diverse, as follows:

  • 7 patients (70%) reported fever, cough, and fatigue.
  • 4 (40%) had a sore throat.
  • 5 (50%) presented with dyspnea.
  • 3 (30%) reported dizziness.
  • 1 patient (10%) reported chest pain, nasal congestion, and headache.
  • 1 patient (10%) reported abdominal pain and vomiting.

Imaging and Lab Results
Six of the 10 patients were positive for SARSCoV-2 based on quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) of throat-swab samples. All patients ultimately showed evidence of viral pneumonia on computed tomography (CT) scans, but on admission 3 patients did not exhibit severe symptoms or have obvious evidence of COVID-19 on CT scans, and they therefore underwent a surgical procedure. Fever and fatigue signs were observed in these 3 patients after the operation.

The overall results of laboratory tests were as follows:

  • 6 patients had lymphopenia (<1.0 x 109 cells/L)
  • 9 patients had a high level of C-reactive protein.
  • 9 patients had D-dimer levels that exceeded upper normal limits. The authors suggest that this finding “could represent the special laboratory characteristics of fractures in patients with COVID-19.”

Management
Three of the 10 patients underwent surgery; the others were managed nonoperatively due to their compromised status.

All patients received antiviral therapy and antibacterial therapy, and 9 patients were managed with supplemental oxygen. None of the patients received invasive mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation because of local limitations in medical technology.

Outcomes
Four patients died in the hospital. Among those who died, surgery had been performed on 1. The clinical outcomes for the 6 surviving patients have not yet been determined.

Conclusions
Because 7 of the 10 patients were determined to have developed a nosocomial infection, the authors emphasize the need “to adopt strict infection-control measures…Doctors, nurses, patients, and families should be wearing protective devices such as an N95 respirator and goggles.”

Mi et al. propose the following 3 additional strategies for patients with a fracture and COVID-19 pneumonia:

  • Consider nonoperative treatment for older patients with fractures, such as distal radial fractures, in endemic areas.
  • Give patients with a fracture and COVID-19 pneumonia more intensive surveillance and treatment.
  • Perform surgery on patients with a fracture and COVID-19 pneumonia in a negative-pressure operating room.

Homemade Mask-Making Made Simple

In terms of knowledge, skill, and compassion, the US healthcare workforce is pretty well prepared to respond effectively to the current pandemic. But, as the news media keep emphasizing, many healthcare facilities are not prepared with enough equipment and supplies.

The video below, featuring Raleigh, NC-based foot and ankle surgeon Sarah E. DeWitt, MD, demonstrates step-by-step instructions for making washable, adjustable masks for healthcare workers.

Dr. Dewitt is quick to point out that the two main materials she uses, the paper portion of an air-conditioner filter and 100% cotton (e.g., a pillowcase), will not result in a mask that replicates anything like the virus-filtering N95 mask. But the materials will provide a general barrier, and washing the masks in detergent with bleach will remove nearly 100% of pathogens.

Please feel free to share this video with your friends, family, and colleagues. Thank you, Dr. DeWitt. #jbjstogether

COVID-19 Evidence from Dr. Bhandari

We are now experiencing the third human coronavirus epidemic of the 21st century. COVID-19 has rapidly endangered the health and well-being of all people, especially vulnerable populations. The offending pathogen, SARS-CoV-2, is a novel coronavirus hitherto unknown to the medical field.

Some of what is known about the virus and the disease it causes has been compiled into a fast-track JBJS Orthopaedic Forum article by orthopaedic surgeon and researcher Mohit Bhandari, MD, PhD and his colleagues. Whether you are an orthopaedist, health care professional in another specialty, or a patient, you may find the following excerpts from the article useful.

The authors begin with a quote from Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who notes that “we’ve invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic.”

Epidemiology
Evidence suggests that asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic, or mildly symptomatic individuals could be drivers of the community spread of the virus. Early evidence from pre-published studies of 2 cohorts indicate that the virus is spread, on average, 2 to 3 days before symptoms present.

The CDC recently published a report on US patients with COVID-19, using data from February 12, 2020, to March 16, 2020 and found that younger age groups had appreciable risks of both hospitalizations and ICU admissions. This is contrary to data from other countries, where serious cases of COVID-19 occurred predominantly in older people with underlying illnesses.

Infection curves with a steep rise place huge demands on health-care systems and can overwhelm limited health-care resources and force clinicians to make agonizing decisions about which patients receive life-saving treatment and which do not. Hence, all the talk about precautions designed to flatten the curve instead of steepening it.

Vaccine Development
Although there has been impressive and rapid progress toward a vaccine already, a vaccine for widespread use is still likely months or years away, because of the testing, regulatory, and manufacturing hurdles that will need to be cleared.

One possible vaccine-development strategy is a subunit vaccine. Subunit vaccines elicit an immune response against the protein on the surface of a coronavirus to prevent its docking with host receptors. Given the similarities between SARS-CoV (the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003) and SARS-CoV-2, focusing on a subunit vaccine may be the most promising short-term approach.

Treatment
No specific treatment is currently recommended for COVID-19. Similar to many other viral illnesses, the current mainstays of treatment include early recognition and isolation, along with symptomatic and oxygen therapy.

A randomized controlled trial of the antiviral lopinavir-ritonavir compared with standard care included 199 adult patients with confirmed COVID-19, pneumonia, and compromised oxygen saturation. There was no significant difference between the 2 groups in terms of time to clinical improvement or mortality, with more adverse events occurring in the intervention group.

Dr. Bhandari and his colleagues also offer 9 pieces of practical guidance for surgeons, one of which echoes the experience of Emory University orthopaedists and the orthopaedic community in Singapore: Create multiple teams of clinicians who are completely isolated from one another.

The authors concede that it is impossible to accurately predict the trajectory of COVID-19. Even with aggressive containment procedures, the outbreak is unlikely to see meaningful resolution for weeks to months. Their final message to the health-care community: Exercise continued vigilance and preparedness for a possible second wave and a high index of suspicion for any new cases of undifferentiated respiratory illness in the weeks to months following a slowdown in new cases.

Platooning Orthopaedic Residents Amid COVID-19

Under the best of circumstances, an orthopaedic residency requires trainees and trainers to balance clinical work, surgical skills, didactics, and academic investigations. The global COVID-19 crisis is certainly not the best of circumstances. A fast-track article just published in JBJS explains how the urban, high-volume orthopaedic department at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta created a two-team system that helps residents keep learning, helps maintain a healthy workforce, and addresses the needs of orthopedic patients amid this unprecedented situation.

Emory is now dividing its orthopaedic residents into “active duty” and “working remotely” teams. In observation of the presumed incubation period of COVID-19 symptoms, transitions between active and remote activities occur every two weeks. A similar “platooning” system is in place for both faculty and administrators to safeguard a healthy network of leaders and command-and-control decision makers.

Active duty residents participate in in-person surgical encounters and virtual ambulatory encounters. Orthopaedic surgical cases deemed essential present an ideal opportunity for active-duty education, the authors observe, and there is also a role for supplementation of surgical education in the form of virtual reality or simulation training. Faculty members cover their in-person clinics without resident assistance when possible, but most musculoskeletal subspecialty visits can be performed with video-enabled telemedicine, and active-duty residents are part of these virtual clinic visits in real time.

Remotely working residents participate by videoconference in daily faculty-led, case-based didactics. The authors recommend virtually conducted one-and-a-half-hour collaborative, interactive learning sessions on predetermined schedules and topics. Each session includes question-based learning, facilitated with the use of an audience-response system. Remotely working residents also study for their boards and work on clinical research projects, grant writing, and quality improvement projects.

Finally, this team system, championed by strong departmental leadership, allows for isolation of any resident who acquires COVID-19, allowing them time to recover, while diminishing the risk of rapid, residency-wide disease transmission.

More Data on Periprosthetic Hip Infections

Among >100,000 total hip arthroplasty (THA) patients ≥55 years of age whose data resides in a Canadian arthroplasty database, the 15-year cumulative incidence of periprosthetic joint infection (PJI) was 1.44%, according to a study by the McMaster Arthroplasty Collaborative in the March 18, 2020 issue of JBJS.

In addition to finding that the overall risk of developing PJI after THA has not changed over the last 15 years in this cohort, the authors found the following factors associated with increased risk of developing a PJI:

  • Male sex (absolute increased risk of 0.48% at 10 years)
  • Type 2 diabetes (absolute increased risk of 0.64% at 10 years)
  • Discharge to a convalescent-care facility (absolute increased risk of 0.46% at 10 years)

The authors view the third bulleted item above as “a surrogate marker of frailty and poorer general health.”

Patient age, surgical approach, surgical setting (academic versus rural), use of cement, and patient income were not associated with an increased risk of PJI. Nearly two-thirds of PJI cases occurred within 2 years after surgery, and 98% occurred within 10 years postoperatively.

The authors conclude that these and other substantiated findings about PJI risk factors “should be reviewed with the patient during preoperative risk counseling.”

COVID-19 Rallies the Orthopaedic Community: Singapore’s Experience

The mind and heart of almost everyone on the planet are now focused to some extent on COVID-19. In the first of what will be a series of fast-tracked JBJS articles about how orthopaedic surgeons are helping mitigate the pandemic, Liang et al. describe orthopaedists’ early experiences in Singapore, where the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in a tourist from Wuhan, China on January 23, 2020.

Singapore has had a nationwide outbreak-response system (called DORSCON, for Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) since the SARS crisis of 2003 (see Figure). Immediately after the first evidence of community spread of the virus on the island, on February 7, 2020, the Ministry of Health raised the DORSCON status to Orange, which triggered the following outbreak-control measures:

  • Ramping up of contact tracing
  • Mandatory 14-day quarantining of those in close contact with people who had confirmed infections
  • A 2-week mandatory leave of absence for healthcare workers with recent travel histories to China
  • Compulsory, twice-daily temperature screenings of all healthcare workers

The COVID-19-driven changes in orthopaedic practice revolved around 2 strategies:

  • Clinical Urgency
    • Musculoskeletal trauma and tumor patients were operated on as scheduled, but elective surgical cases were postponed to free up beds for confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients.
    • Orthopaedists were encouraged to consider temporary pain-relieving measures (such as corticosteroid injections or nerve-root blocks) for patients with severe pain whose surgeries were postponed.
  • Patient and Healthcare-Worker Protection
    • Clinicians have been advised to prolong the duration between nonurgent follow-up appointments. All patients attending outpatient clinics are screened for risk factors and have their temperatures checked. Febrile patients are moved to the emergency department for further evaluation.
    • Orthopaedic teams wear surgical masks for all patient encounters and practice strict hand-hygiene practices.
    • When evaluating orthopaedic patients suspected of or diagnosed with COVID-19, all staff wear full personal protective equipment. Whenever possible, such evaluations take place in pressure-negative isolation units, and these patients are co-managed with infectious-disease colleagues.
    • If surgery on a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patient is needed, it is performed by a dedicated orthopaedic contamination team; these teams are segregated from the rest of the staff to minimize the risk of cross-contamination.

Technology Tools for Training
Telemedicine and telerehabilitation have helped ensure the quality of patient care in Singapore, and technology is also being used to keep orthopaedic training going. Because all interhospital rotations and in-person combined teaching programs have been suspended, residency training programs are relying on videoconferencing platforms for scheduled teaching sessions. For trainees who engage with instructional videos or webinars, faculty members follow up with online discussions.

As residents take shifts in the emergency department to assist with COVID-19 screening, they learn important lessons in management of limited resources and “softer” skills such as empathy and teamwork.

Liang et al. conclude with this admonition to orthopaedic surgeons everywhere: “Stay vigilant even when reviewing low-risk elective patients; be champions of good hygiene practices, and be open-minded in the adoption of novel workplace technologies.”

More Work, Less Pay for Revision TKAs

Time is a valuable commodity for everyone. Most physicians have spent long hours in the clinic or hospital, away from our families, sometimes missing important life events. We accept those aspects of our chosen profession. But everyone, including surgeons, wants to be appropriately reimbursed for their time. It’s logical that more complex surgical cases take more time to perform correctly and safely. But does Medicare (and the private insurers who base their physician payments on Medicare rates) adequately reimburse for that extra time?

The short answer is “no,” at least in terms of revision surgery for infected total knee arthroplasties (TKAs). Samuel et al. tackle that topic in the February 5, 2020 issue of The Journal. The authors reviewed records from the NSQIP database to identify cases of aseptic revision TKA, 1-stage septic revision TKA, and 2-stage septic revision TKA. Using propensity-score matching that controlled for age, sex, race, BMI, and ASA classification, the authors established 4 cohorts that allowed for comparison of the following types of revision TKA:

  • 1-stage, 2-component aseptic revisions (n=1,096)
  • 1 stage, 2-component septic revisions (n=274)
  • First stage of a 2-stage septic revision (n=274)
  • Second stage of a 2-stage septic revision (n=274)

The authors then compared the relative value units (RVUs) for each type of revision TKA. (Medicare uses RVU-based algorithms to reimburse physicians for their services.) The authors also identified operative times for the surgery types and made RVU-per-minute and dollars-per-minute calculations.

The mean operative times were statistically different between each cohort (149 minutes for the aseptic group, 160 minutes for the 1-stage septic group, 138 minutes for the first-stage of the 2-stage septic group, and 170 minutes for the second-stage of the 2-stage septic group). The dollar-per-minute calculation in the “easiest case” of aseptic revision was $7.74 per minute, while in the “hardest case” of a 2-stage septic revision, reimbursement was $5.66 per minute for the first stage and $5.19 per minute for the second stage.

The fact that Medicare’s current reimbursement system does not account for the complexity of treating an infected TKA harms not only surgeons. Financially discouraging physicians from taking complex cases could lead to patients having a difficult time finding a doctor to treat their infected knee replacement. This entire predicament warrants further investigation, possible adjustments to the RVU system, and more realistic valuations of time in the OR.

Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

Vancomycin-Soaked ACL Grafts Cut Already-Low Infection Rates

The word “infection” contains 9 letters, but it’s a four-letter word for orthopaedic surgeons. Postoperative infections are complications that we all deal with, but we try hard to avoid them. Infections after elective sports surgeries can have especially devastating long-term consequences. Thankfully, scientific advances such as  improved sterile techniques and more powerful prophylactic antibiotics have helped us decrease the rates of perioperative infections. But more can always be done in this arena.

Baron et al. discuss one additional infection-fighting approach in the December 18, 2019 issue of JBJS, where they report on findings from a retrospective cohort study that looked at 90-day infection rates after >1,600 anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructions. Specifically, they investigated whether the rates of infection differed when the ACL grafts were prepared with or without a vancomycin irrigant. The average patient age was 27 years old, and all the surgeries (84.1% of which were primary reconstructions) were performed by 1 of 6 fellowship-trained surgeons. The graft was soaked in vancomycin solution in 798 cases (48.7%), while the remaining 51.3% did not use vancomycin.

Baron et al. found that 11 of the reconstructions were complicated by infection within 90 days, but only 1 of those 11 infections occurred in the vancomycin group (p=0.032). After controlling for various confounding factors, the authors found that increased body mass index and increased operative time were also significantly associated with postoperative infection, while age, sex, smoking, surgeon, and insurance type were not.

These results reveal an 89.4% relative risk reduction in postoperative infections after ACL reconstructions when grafts are bathed in vancomycin solution, although the absolute rate of infection among non-soaked grafts (1.2%) was still quite low. Time and more rigorous study designs will tell us whether this is a big step forward in the evolution of infection prevention, but these results should at least prompt further investigation.

Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media