Generally speaking, orthopaedic surgeons in low-resourced environments deliver the best care for their patients with skill, creativity, and passion. These surgeons are accustomed to scrambling for implants and other tools and to working around limited access to operating theaters and anesthesia services. Their everyday struggles usually leave little energy or time to even think about clinical research.
However, in the May 20, 2020 issue of The Journal, Haonga and colleagues prove that, with a “little help from their friends,” it is possible to conduct Level I research while treating patients in a resource-limited setting. They enrolled and followed 221 patients with open tibial fractures (mostly males in their 30s injured in a road-traffic collision) and randomized them to treatment with either uniplanar external fixation or intramedullary (IM) nailing. The nails were supplied by SIGN Fracture Care International, a not-for-profit humanitarian organization that provides specially designed IM nails that can be used without image intensification to hospitals in developing countries around the world. (See related OrthoBuzz post.)
The research was done in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in collaboration with trauma surgeons and epidemiologists from the University of California San Francisco, which has a long-standing relationship with Tanzania’s Muhimbili National Hospital. At the 1-year follow-up, there were no significant between-group differences in primary-outcome events—death or reoperation due to deep infection, nonunion, or malalignment. IM nailing was associated with a lower risk of coronal or sagittal malalignment, and quality-of-life (QoL) scores favored IM nailing at 6 weeks, but QoL differences dissipated by 1 year.
Just as important as the clinical findings, these investigators proved that it is possible to do high-level research in centers with high patient volume and limited resources. Future patients will benefit because the clinicians now have better information to share regarding expectations for functional recovery and risk of infection. Physicians and other healthcare professionals benefit because data like this help improve their analytical skills and become more discerning appraisers of the published literature. With strong internal physician leadership and a little outside support, Haonga et al. have convinced us that prospective—and even randomized—research is possible in these special places.
Finally, SIGN deserves our support as a true champion of orthopaedic surgeons working in under-resourced environments. In addition to providing education and implants, SIGN surgeons are required to report their cases through the SIGN Surgical Database—which encourages the research mindset and helps SIGN surgeons improve tools and techniques for better patient outcomes.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD
In the March 1, 2017 edition of The Journal, Eliezer et al. report on their experience managing femoral fractures in a major treatment center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one of many low-resource locations around the world.
The authors tracked one-year outcomes for 331 femoral fractures in 329 patients. The vast majority of those fractures were treated with intramedullary nails, with open reduction and without intraoperative imaging. The actual reoperation rate for nails was 3.4%, with infection being the most common reason for reoperation.
Eliezer et al. also found that the factors most strongly associated with reoperation were proximal fractures with varus coronal alignment, small nail diameter (8 mm vs larger diameters), and a Winquist type-3 fracture pattern (comminution that included 50% to 75% of the femoral shaft).
Road-traffic accidents are the major cause of disability and loss of work productivity in the developing world among the young, economically productive segments of society. Through the support of organizations like SIGN Fracture Care International, local surgeons in low-resource countries have been able to treat patients who’ve sustained diaphyseal long bone fractures safely and with good functional outcomes. Carefully conducted follow-up studies such as this one give data-driven reassurance to everyone who supports these efforts that surgery can be safely conducted with good patient outcomes.
Performing intramedullary fixation allows early weight bearing and joint motion to limit muscle atrophy and joint stiffness. As long as we can be assured that these procedures have acceptably low rates of reoperation and patient morbidity, we can more confidently encourage the expansion of these programs in the developing world. Organizations like SIGN deserve our support in this regard.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD