Doctors Getting Rich With Fusion Surgery Debunked by Studies
By Peter Waldman and David Armstrong – Dec 30, 2010 12:01 AM ET
Suffering from an aching back, truck driver Mikel Hehn went to see surgeon Jeffrey Gerdes in 2008. The St. Cloud, Minnesota, doctor diagnosed spinal disc degeneration, commonly treated with physical therapy, and said surgery wasn’t called for.
Unhappy with the answer, Hehn turned to Ensor Transfeldt, a surgeon at Twin Cities Spine Center in Minneapolis. Transfeldt performed fusion surgery on Hehn, screwing together three vertebrae in his lower spine.
Fusion aims to limit painful spine movements. This one didn’t work out. Two years later, the pain in Hehn’s neck, lower back, buttocks and thighs is so bad that he can’t hold a job and seldom leaves home, he said in an interview.
“There’s days when I just can’t take it and the tears run,” said Hehn, 52, who lives in Sartell, Minnesota. He said he takes oxycodone for pain, Soma to sleep, Lexapro for depression and Imitrex for headaches.
Hehn’s surgery generated a $135,786 bill from Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, feeding a national boom in costly fusion surgeries. It also illustrates how spine surgeons have prospered from performing fusions, which studies have found to be no better for common back pain than physical therapy is — and a lot more dangerous.
The number of fusions at U.S. hospitals doubled to 413,000 between 2002 and 2008, generating $34 billion in bills, data from the federal Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project show. The number of the surgeries will rise to 453,300 this year, according to Millennium Research Group of Toronto.
The possibility that many of these and other surgeries are needless has gotten little attention in the debate over U.S. health care costs, which rose 6 percent last year to $2.47 trillion. Unnecessary surgeries cost at least $150 billion a year, according to John Birkmeyer, director of the Center for Healthcare Outcomes & Policy at the University of Michigan.
“It’s amazing how much evidence there is that fusions don’t work, yet surgeons do them anyway,” said Sohail Mirza,… “The only one who isn’t benefitting from the equation is the patient.”
The Twin Cities Spine bill for Hehn’s surgery was $19,292, his medical records show. The firm received $8,978 after an insurance discount, $7,742 of it for Transfeldt’s services. Hehn’s insurer paid after his bid for workers’ compensation coverage was denied on grounds he wasn’t injured on the job.
Royalties, Consulting Fees
Another beneficiary was Medtronic Inc., which makes products for spinal surgery, including Infuse, a bone-growing material widely used in fusions. Infuse accounted for $17,575 of Abbott Northwestern’s charges, Hehn’s medical bills and insurance records show.
Eleven Twin Cities Spine fusion patients, most of whom tried to get or hold onto coverage benefits through the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals, said in interviews that the surgery did nothing to relieve their back pain, and in several cases left them worse off than before.
Hooked on Morphine
One of the 11 died of a methadone overdose when his pain worsened after surgery and he couldn’t afford prescription painkillers, his mother said. Another patient said he is hooked on morphine to ease the burning sensation in his back where screws and rods were implanted in an operation that cost his insurer $60,000.
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