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