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Going Under the Knife

Malkie Schulman

Thousands of unnecessary medical procedures and surgeries are performed yearly — are you getting one of them? Here are the disturbing facts

Wednesday, July 06, 2016


"Malpractice cases are very traumatic to a physician and, as you might imagine, an easy fallback position is why take a chance?"

Your physician tells you that you need surgery. Assuming it’s not an emergency, how do you respond? Say, “Yeah, sure, where do I sign?” Or — “Whoa, wait a second! I appreciate your input but I need to get more information and a second opinion.” 

According to a USA Today review of government records and medical databases, tens of thousands of patients undergo unnecessary surgery each year. There are multiple reasons why these unneeded procedures take place. In the worst of scenarios, they’re the result of criminal acts, in which surgeons intentionally dupe patients, deliberately performing surgeries they know are not medically justified. 

More often, however, physicians perform unnecessary surgeries out of incompetence or a lack of training in less-invasive alternatives. Some doctors may believe that surgery is the only answer, even when the success rates are minimal and better nonsurgical treatment options exist. Then there are those providers who are more businessmen than medical professionals, and perform surgery simply because it helps the bottom line, and they can justify it as medically “necessary.”

Eager to Operate

Speak to experts in various medical fields and many will readily acknowledge that surgeries are sometimes performed without due cause. Nancy Epstein, MD, chief of neurosurgical spine and education at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, New York, says that “many unnecessary spinal procedures are performed in the US.” 

Consider, for example, the case of Rachel Gold, a 65-year-old secretary for a furniture company. She was referred to a spinal surgeon by her internist after she slipped and wrenched her back while moving a heavy office chair at work. At the surgeon’s office, she filled out a medical form, which included her history of osteoporosis. 

After she met the spinal surgeon, he ordered a CT scan, and then recommended a transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF). This surgical procedure involves removing a disc from between two vertebrae, placing a device inside the disc space, and fusing the vertebrae together with screws and rods to enhance the fusion. 

Three months later, Rachel was back in the doctor’s office: Her back pain had worsened because the spinal instrumentation inserted to keep the fusion in place was loosening. This result of TLIF surgery is actually not uncommon for someone with osteoporosis, which causes bones to become weak and brittle. “The problem with operating on an osteoporotic patient,” Dr. Epstein explains, “is that you can’t put screws into butter; they are likely to loosen or fall out.” 

According to Dr. Epstein, TLIF and PLIF (posterior lumbar interbody fusion) are too often performed without sufficient indications — e.g., for pain alone without neurological deficit (no nerve compression showing on MR/CT studies). Aside from the risks associated with any surgery, patients can also potentially suffer from postoperative problems.

Photo: Shutterstock

With osteoporosis, there’s a risk of instrumentation loosening (as occurred in Rachel’s case). With diabetes, there’s an increased risk of infection. For patients on aspirin or other blood thinners for heart disease, there are risks associated with postoperative bleeding. 

Further complicating issues, Dr. Epstein says that since 2002, bone morphogenetic protein has typically been used off-label in spine surgery over 90% of the time. This has resulted in major postsurgical complications, such as an increased potential risk of cancer, osteolysis (the disappearance of bone), tremendous soft tissue swelling, and more infections. 

Dr. Epstein maintains that the marked increase in spinal fusions may be attributed to several factors, including inadequate medical training (for example, operating based on complaints of pain alone) or for the surgeon’s financial gain.

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