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Medical Mystery: Why Is Back Surgery So Popular in Casper, Wyo.?

The New York Times FEB. 13, 2017

  • That study showed relatively modest benefits of surgery for many conditions that lead to back pain. While many patients felt better after a year, so did a nearly equal proportion of people in the control group who didn’t have surgery.
  • The finding: Rates of Medicare back surgery had grown 28 percent since 2006, with no decrease in regional variations; rates in 2014 ranged from 3 per 1,000 in the Bronx to 11.5 per 1,000 in Casper, Wyo.
  • Our best guess comes from a study by Harvard and Dartmouth researchers, not on back surgery, but on cardiac treatments. It found that regional variation in Medicare spending is associated with variation in physician preferences for intensity of cardiac treatments, and to a greater degree when the evidence is ambiguous. Patient preferences exerted almost no influence.
  • But the concern remains that for people in intense pain, when the doctor says that “I get good results with surgery, and my patients generally feel much better,” the back surgery option, with little out-of-pocket cost, will be hard to resist.
  • Often discussed, the big challenge in health care is to reduce spending by cutting wasteful care. It seems just as important, though, not to let more waste creep in as it did with back surgery. Once it spreads widely, it’s very hard to undo.