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  • Neurosurgery is a discipline that diagnoses and treats a range of injuries and disorders of the brain and the central nervous system
  • For millennia the speciality was dominated by forms of craniotomies, which are procedures to remove portions of the skull to gain access to brain disorders
  • In the early and mid-20th century visual, guidance and radiation technologies disrupted the treatment of some brain disorders by introducing less- and non-invasive procedures to the discipline
  • At the beginning of the 21st century, a flurry of rapidly developing innovative technologies including, augmented reality, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and genomic and cellular therapies, are accelerating the trajectory of neurosurgery towards a less- and non-invasive speciality
 
Brain disorders and the changing nature of neurosurgery
 
Populations throughout the world are growing and aging, the prevalence of age-related disabling neurological disorders is increasing, and healthcare systems are facing large and escalating demands for treatment, rehabilitation, and support services for such disorders. According to the most recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study, neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death in the world.
 
The total annual global burden of traumatic brain injury alone is ~US$400bn and in the US, ~16% of households are affected by brain impairment, with many individuals requiring 24-hour care. This suggests that often several family members are involved in the caregiving process, and some are juggling the responsibilities of caregiving, child rearing and employment simultaneously.
 
The scarcity of established modifiable risks for most of this vast and rapidly growing neurological burden suggests that innovations are required to develop efficacious prevention and treatment strategies. This Commentary describes some of these, especially those that have changed or have the potential to change neurosurgery, by making therapies less- and non-invasive, and hold out the prospect of improving patient outcomes and lowering healthcare costs.
 
Neurosurgery is a medical speciality concerned with diagnosing and treating a range of disorders and injuries of the brain and central nervous system (CNS) in patients of all ages. These include tumours of the brain and CNS, infections of the CNS, pituitary tumours and neuroendocrine disorders, traumatic brain injury, cerebral aneurysms and stroke, hydrocephalus and other conditions that affect the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, degenerative spine disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, spina bifida, and psychiatric disorders.

Treating brain conditions is complex and challenging. This is partly because the brain is one of the best protected organs of the human body. It is encased in the bones of the skull, covered by the meninges, which consist of three membranes and cushioned by cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). It is also protected by the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which is a network of blood vessels and tissue comprised of closely spaced cells, which shield the brain from toxic substances in the blood, supply brain tissue with nutrients, and filter harmful compounds from the brain back into the bloodstream. The BBB limits the ability of therapeutics to be effectively delivered to the brain and thereby complicates the treatment of CNS disorders. Further, the brain does not feel pain because there are no nociceptors (a sensory receptor for painful stimuli) located in its tissue, which often makes diagnosis of neuro disorders late when treatment becomes more challenging and costly, and survival less likely.

Such factors partly explain why neurology and neurosurgery have been slower than some other specialities to take advantage of new and evolving technologies. However, this is changing. Over the past five decades, progress in three-dimensional (3D) visualization, miniaturisation, digital technology, robotics, computer assisted manipulation, radiation therapy, early diagnosis of cancer, and precision medicine, have contributed to improvements in the diagnosis, prognosis, and prevention of some neurological conditions and started to transform neurosurgery towards less- and non-invasive procedures that efficaciously execute complex challenges, eliminate mechanistic errors, reduce operating times, and improve patient outcomes.
 
Further, the growing significance of applying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques to pre-, intra- and post-operative clinical data introduces the possibility of a new suite of medical services that have the potential to enhance patient outcomes and reduce costs by improving diagnosis, planning and the rehabilitation of patients. And more recently, there are growing synergies between neurosurgery and gene and cellular therapies, which promise to accelerate personalized, non-invasive treatments for a range of neuro disorders.
 
In this Commentary
 
This Commentary is divided into 9 sections. Section 1 provides a brief history of neurosurgery, which has its genesis in ancient times when a form of craniotomy (surgical removal of a portion of the skull) was practiced and note the difference between craniotomy and craniectomy. Section 2 describes how, in the mid-20th century, neurosurgery took ~4 decades to pivot when Lars Leksell, a Swedish surgeon, introduced a stereotactic guided device that permitted the accurate positioning of probes to treat small targets in the brain, which were not amenable to conventional surgery. Shortly afterwards Leksell developed ‘stereotactic radiotherapy’, which formed the basis the Gamma Knife®, a device that provides non-invasive surgeries for a range of brain disorders. Section 3 details how advances in magnification, illumination, and the development of fibreoptics contributed to less-invasive endoscopic neurosurgeries, which facilitated a range of brain disorders to be treated through a small burr hole in the skull. Previously such procedures would have required a craniotomy. This section also notes the rapid development of endovascular neurosurgery, which uses tools that pass-through blood vessels to diagnose and treat diseases and conditions of the brain rather than using open surgery. Today, neuro-endovascular surgery is the most practiced therapeutic approach for a range of vascular conditions affecting the brain and spinal cord and is positioned to grow further over the next decade. Section 4 suggests howneurosurgery has benefitted from a range of rapidly developing 21st century technologies including: augmented reality, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and genomic and cellular therapies. All help to increase less- and non-invasive neurosurgical procedures and contribute to advancing personalized therapies that improve patient outcomes and lower costs. Section 5 provides some insights into the life of a neurosurgeon through the lens of Henry Marsh, an English neurosurgeon who, between 2014 and 2022, published three candid memoirs, which chronicle his career, describe daily challenges and frustrations of the speciality and explain how neurosurgical units have changed the way they are organized and run. Sections 6 briefly mentions the increasing prevalence of dementias. Although outside the direct realm of neurosurgery, the scale and speed of their growth are likely to have an indirect impact on it. Section 7 introduces traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition caused by a blow to the head and suffered by millions. The section describes the gold standard management of severe TBI and flags a pressing need to develop a non-invasive modality for managing the condition. Section 8 notes the frustration of neurosurgeons with the late diagnosis of brain tumours and describes well-resourced global endeavours to detect a wide range of cancers from a single blood test in asymptomatic people. Takeaways follow in Section 9 and suggest that a significant proportion of neurological disorders, which previously were treated with craniotomies, are now treated with either less- or non-invasive procedures. With the speed at which technology and biomedical science are developing, the only direction of travel for neurosurgery is towards non-invasive procedures.
 
Section 1
History
 
Neurosurgery has a long history with its genesis in Mayan civilizations ~1500 BCE, who practiced cranial deformations that included flattening frontal skull bones. During the Egyptian era, when mummification started to be practiced ~2,500 BCE, embalmers did not use a form of craniotomy to gain access to the brain. Instead, they used hooked instruments to remove the brain through the nose: a prototype of modern transsphenoidal surgery, which is a common procedure today for removing tumours of the pituitary gland. Rather than opening the skull with a traditional craniotomy, the physician reaches the tumour through the nasal passages and the sphenoid sinus.
 
In ancient Peru Inca surgeons practiced an early form of craniotomy referred to as trepanation, which used a scraping technique to penetrate the skull. Such procedures were performed on adult men to treat injuries suffered during combat. A version of this procedure called a trephination was also practiced in Egyptian and Roman times and performed on individuals who had experienced head traumas. The approach entails making a hole in the skull to relieve the build-up of intracranial pressure (ICP) caused by brain oedema (swelling) and is described by Hippocrates in the Greek era. The first known neurosurgery in Greece took place ~1900 BCE in Delphi when skull trephinations were probably performed for religious reasons. Later, the technique was recommended by Galen during the Roman period for people who had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in battle. From ~500 to ~1500 AD, the rise of religion and war resulted in many craniocerebral traumas, which contributed to the early development of neurosurgery as a distinct specialty.
 
Similar trephination procedures were performed during the American Revolutionary War, which secured American independence from Great Britain, and culminated in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. During the war soldiers suffered TBIs after being hit on the head with the butt of a rifle. Although the treatment for severe TBI is similar today, (see Section 7) the main difference is that the surgical instruments used in the 18th century were not powered. About 132 years later, in 1909, Theodore Kocher, a Swiss physician and Nobel Laureate in Medicine was the first person to systematically describe a decompressive craniectomy procedure for severe TBI patients. A craniectomy is different to a craniotomy. The latter is a surgical procedure in which a section of the skull is removed to expose the brain and is performed to treat various neurological conditions, or when an injury or infection has occurred in the brain. A craniectomy involves a different surgical technique and is used on people suffering severe TBI to relieve brain oedema. In such a procedure the bone fragment removed may not be replaced immediately and is either replaced during a subsequent surgery or discarded in favour of a future reconstruction using an artificial bone.

 
Section 2
Stereotactic surgery
 
For millennia, a form of craniotomy dominated what we now know as neurosurgery. During the 20th century advances in medical science paved the way for the introduction of less- and non-invasive modalities to treat brain disorders (see below). A landmark event occurred at the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of stereotactic surgery, which makes use of three-dimensional (3D) coordinates to locate and treat lesions in the brain. The method was first reported in the May 1908 edition of Brain, by two British surgeons Victor Horsley, and Robert Clarke. The device they described became known as the Horsley-Clarke apparatus, and was used to study the cerebellum in animals by enabling accurate electrolytic lesioning to be made in the brain of a monkey. It took ~40 years before the technique was introduced to humans following the publication of a seminal paper by Ernest Spiegel and Henry Wycis,  in the October 1947 edition of Science. Spiegel was a Vienna trained neurologist who moved to Temple Medical School in Philadelphia, which in 2015 was renamed the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. Wycis was one of Spiegel’s students who became a neurosurgeon. By the time they published their 1947 paper, they had performed several neurosurgeries and there had been sufficient advances in neurophysiology, pneumoencephalography, radiology, and electrophysiology for them to design a device like the Horsley-Clarke apparatus, which was fixed to a patient’s head by means of a plaster cast and was accurate enough to be used in human stereotactic surgery. Spiegel’s and Wycis’s surgical innovations attracted attention from physicians internationally, but there were no commercial stereotactic frames and neurosurgeons were obliged to design and manufacture their own. A pivotal moment occurred in 1947, when Lars Leksell, a Swedish physician and Professor of Neurosurgery at the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm, visited Wycis in Philadelphia and afterwards designed a lightweight titanium head frame to provide the basis for stereotactic surgery, which he described in a 1949 paper entitled, ‘A stereotaxic apparatus for intracerebral surgery’.
 

The Gamma Knife®   
In the early 1950s, Leksell and Börje Larsson, a biophysicist from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, were convinced that agents other than cannulas and electrodes could be used to eradicate pathologies in the brain, and combined a source of radiation with a stereotactic guiding device. This led to the development of a non-invasive device, which Leksell used to perform the first radio-neurosurgical procedure and discovered that a single dose of radiation could successfully destroy deep brain lesions. He called this technique “stereotactic radiosurgery”, which, in 1968, led to the first stereotactic Gamma Knife® that used a focused array of intersecting beams of gamma radiation to treat lesions within the brain. Its success encouraged Leksell to use the device over the ensuing decade in functional brain surgeries to treat intractable pain and movement disorders. Leksell’s radio surgical device used Cobalt-60 (a synthetic radioactive isotope) as a radiation source. The basic physics that drives stereotactic radiosurgery today is substantially the same. It focuses ~200 tiny beams of radiation on a target in the brain with submillimetre accuracy. Although each beam has little effect on the brain tissue it passes through, a strong dose of radiation is delivered to the place where the beams meet.
 
Over time, the Gamma Knife® has been refined and enhanced and its efficacy and safety have been well established. Today, the Gamma Knife® provides a non-invasive operative system for a range of brain disorders, including small to medium size tumours, vascular malformations, epilepsy, and nerve conditions that cause chronic pain. Before its introduction such disorders were treated by surgeries, which involved craniotomies. In 1987, the Gamma Knife® was introduced into the US and installed at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Virginia. Although it took decades to achieve regulatory approval and be widely used throughout the world, the Gamma Knife® represents a significant technological advance in neurosurgery. Unlike craniotomies the device provides painless procedures that do not require anaesthesia, treatments take just one session, and patients can return to normal activities almost immediately. The Gamma Knife® is ~90% successful in killing or shrinking brain tumours, and today, there are ~300 Gamma Knife® sites worldwide, which each year treat >60,000 patients.
 
Neurosurgeon Ranjeev Bhangoo, Clinical Director for neurosurgery at King’s College Hospital, London, UK likens the Gamma Knife® to, “an umbrella, that sits above the patient’s head, rather like the old-fashioned hair dryers in women’s hair salons, but much bigger and more complex”, and stresses that the procedure, “is not painful. Forget any notion of surgery: there’s no knife, there’s no operating theatre. It’s done with the patient awake: you walk in, have your treatment, and walk out.” See videos.

 

What is Gamma Knife Radiosurgery?
 

Is Gamma Knife Radiosurgery painful?

 
Section 3
Endoscopic and endovascular neurosurgery
 
Neuroendoscopy
Neurosurgery pivoted again in the 1990s when disorders that would normally require opening the skull began to be treated less invasively through a small burr hole. Improved magnification, miniaturization, and illumination of lenses and the development of fibre optics facilitated an endoscopic surgical procedure to treat hydrocephalus, a condition in which cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) abnormally accumulates in the brain. There is currently no prevention or cure for the condition, but it can be managed with surgery. The procedure includes creating an opening in the floor of the third ventricle using an endoscope (a thin, flexible, tube-like imaging instrument with a small video camera on the end) placed within the ventricular system through a burr hole in the skull. In the late 1990s, neuro-endoscopy expanded to treat lesions outside the ventricular system and the endoscopic endonasal approach was established as a technique that allowed surgeons to go through the nose to operate on areas at the front of the brain and top of the spine.

Since the early use of the endoscopic procedures for treating intrasellar pituitary adenomas, the approach has been expanded to treat a range of skull base lesions. Today, skull base surgery is undertaken to remove both noncancerous and cancerous growths, and abnormalities on the underside of the brain or the top few vertebrae of the spinal column. Because this is such a difficult area to see and reach, skull base surgery has been advantaged by endoscopic procedures where surgeons insert instruments through natural openings in the skull - the nose or mouth - or by making a small hole just above the eyebrow. This type of surgery requires a team of specialists that may include ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeons, maxillofacial surgeons, neurosurgeons, and radiologists. Before endoscopic skull base surgery was developed, the only way to remove growths in this area of the body was by making an opening in the skull. In some cases, today, this type of surgery may be still needed.

Recent advances in endoscope design have produced equipment that is smaller and more efficient, with improved resolution and brighter illumination, than earlier models. Such developments, combined with surgeon enthusiasm, have contributed to the expansion of neuro-endoscopy to treat a range of neuro disorders including intracranial cysts, intraventricular tumours, skull base tumours, craniosynostosis (a birth defect in which the bones in a baby's skull join too early), degenerative spine disease, hydrocephalus and a rare benign tumour called hypothalamic hamartoma.
 
Neuro-endoscopic surgery causes minimal damage to normal structures, carries a lower rate of complications, shortens hospital stays, minimizes cosmetic concerns associated with many neurosurgical conditions and improves patient outcomes. It is positioned to take advantage of further miniaturization of cameras and optical technology, innovations in surgical instrumentation design, and further innovation in navigation and robotics systems.
 

Endovascular neurosurgery
Another innovation that has developed over the past five decades is endovascular surgery. The term ‘endovascular’ means ‘inside a blood vessel’. Endovascular neurosurgery uses tools that pass-through blood vessels to diagnose and treat diseases and conditions of the brain rather than using open surgery. The genesis of endovascular neurosurgery is credited to Professor Alfred Luessenhop, an American physician at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC, who, in 1964, carried out the first embolization of a cranial arteriovenous malformation and the first intracranial arterial catheterization to occlude an aneurysm. Over the past 60 years, endovascular neurosurgery has developed and has become a subspeciality. Today, >50% of cerebral aneurysms are treated through this minimally invasive approach.
 
Neuro-endovascular surgery has become the most practiced therapeutic approach for the majority of vascular conditions affecting the brain and spinal cord. It is used more frequently than open surgery for the management of complex vascular conditions, with high rates of safety and efficacy. The expansion of endovascular techniques into the treatment of stroke, the third highest cause of death in the US, has provided meaningful benefits to large numbers of patients worldwide. Further, with populations throughout the world aging neuro-endovascular techniques are poised to become one of the most necessary and important treatment modalities within neurosurgery.
 
With age our brains shrink, which causes a space to develop between the surface of our brain and its outermost covering. This increases the possibility that a knock to the head of a person >60 will result in a brain blood vessel rupturing and bleeding: a subdural hematoma. Research suggests that, “significant numbers occur after no significant antecedent trauma”, and could be the result of “an inflammatory process occurring at the level of the dural border cell”. A chronic version of this disorder can manifest itself within weeks of the first bleeding in which blood accumulates. With aging populations, chronic subdural hematoma (cSDH), is a condition predicted to become one of the most common neurosurgical conditions in the near-term future and expected to be treated with neuro-endovascular techniques.
 
Further, minimally invasive neuro-endovascular procedures are now commonly used to repair cerebral aneurysms, which are weak or thin spots on arteries in the brain that balloon and fill with blood. A bulging aneurysm can put pressure on brain tissue, and may also burst or rupture, spilling blood into the surrounding tissue (brain haemorrhage). Today most brain aneurysms are treated minimally invasively with neuro-endovascular techniques, which means an incision in the skull is not required. Instead, the surgeon guides a catheter or thin metal wires through a large blood vessel in the patient’s groin to reach the brain, using contrast dye to identify the problematic blood vessel. The aneurysm is then sealed off from the main artery, which prevents it growing and rupturing. In the US ~6.5m people are living with an unruptured brain aneurysm. The annual rate of rupture is ~10 per 100,000: ~30,000 Americans suffer a brain aneurysm rupture each year. Ruptured cerebral aneurysms are fatal in ~50% of cases and those who survive, ~66% suffer some permanent neurological deficit. Each year, there are ~0.5m deaths worldwide caused by brain aneurysms and ~50% are <50years.

 
Section 4
Evolving technologies affecting neurosurgery

At the beginning of the 21st century scientific and technological advances are again changing the face of neurosurgery. This section briefly describes four such changes.
 

Neurosurgery and augmented reality
Neurosurgery relies on visualization and navigational technologies and makes liberal use of computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans during preoperative planning and intraoperative surgical navigation. More recently, augmented reality (AR) applications have been used to complement more conventional visualization and navigational technologies to enhance neurosurgery. AR can bring digital information into the real environment and is beginning to play an increasing role to help neurosurgeons train, as well as plan and perform complex surgical procedures. In June 2020, surgeons atJohns Hopkins University successfully carried out a spinal fusion surgery for the first time in the US using xvision™, an FDA approved AR device for spine surgery developed by Augmedics Inc., a Chicago based company, which went public in 2020 through a reverse merger with Malo Holdings. Xvision™ allows surgeons to “see” the patient's anatomy through skin and tissue as if they have X-ray vision, to accurately navigate instruments and implants during surgical spine procedures. Each year, there are ~1.62m instrumented spinal procedures performed in the US, the majority of which are undertaken using a freehand technique, which can lead to suboptimal results.  
 

Neurosurgery and artificial intelligence
Such heavy use of advanced imaging and guidance technologies creates a vast amount of clinical data during a patient’s neurosurgical journey. It is not altogether clear how effectively pre-, intra-, and post-operative clinical patient data are collected and analyzed to enhance surgical procedures and patient outcomes. An article in the August 2021 edition of the journal Neuroscienceentitled, ‘Neurosurgery and Artificial Intelligence’, suggests that the collection and analysis of such data are beginning to happen. Over the past decade, AI techniques applied to data collected during patients’ neurosurgical journeys have enhanced diagnoses and prognostic outcomes and contributed to post operative care and the rehabilitation of patients. Being able to predict prognosis, identify potential postoperative complications, and track rehabilitation are enhanced with AI applications. The future suggests that the symbiotic relationship between AI and neurosurgery, which today is in its infancy, is positioned to grow. This will not only help AI to develop better and more robust algorithms but will provide opportunities for MedTechs to gain access to new revenue streams by providing enhanced patient services.
 
Robotics
Linked to medical imaging and navigation technologies is the increasing use of surgical robotics. However, neurosurgery has been slower than other specialties to incorporate robotics into routine practice owing to the anatomical complexity of the brain and the spatial limitations inherent in neurosurgical procedures. Notwithstanding, the first documented use of a robot-assisted surgical procedure was in neurosurgery. In 1985 Yik San Kwoh and colleagues, at the Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, California, used an Unimation Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA) 200 (which was originally designed for General Motors’ factories) to perform a CT-guided stereotactic biopsy of a brain lesion. Although discontinued, the PUMA 200 is considered the predecessor of current surgical robots.  There are now several robotic systems that have gained regulatory approval for cranial surgery. These include Zimmer Biomet’s ROSA ONE Brain, which obtained FDA approval in 2012 for intracranial applications, and Renishaw’s Neuromate robotic system, which was granted approval by the FDA in 2014. The former has been used extensively in the treatment for epilepsy, and the latter provides surgeons with five degrees of freedom for use in stereotactic applications. Robotics is a fast-moving discipline, which together with AI and machine learning, is positioned to impact neurosurgery in the near to medium term.
  

Neuro-pharmaceuticals and Trojan horses
There are growing synergies between neurosurgery, gene, and cellular therapies. However, the BBB, which plays a significant role in controlling the influx and efflux of biological substances essential for the brain to operated effectively, makes it extremely difficult to effectively deliver drugs to the brain. Over the past three decades, many biologics (medications developed from blood, proteins, viruses, or living organisms) have entered brain and CNS clinical studies. However, they have not gained FDA approval mainly because they did not have effective mechanisms to deliver neuro-pharmaceuticals across the BBB. Instead, the clinical trials were predicated upon a variety of BBB avoidance strategies. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) injections are the most widely practiced approach that delivers drugs to the brain by attempting to bypass the BBB. However, this results in limited drug penetration to the brain because of the rapid export of CSF from the brain back into the bloodstream. Future drug or gene-based neuro-pharmaceuticals will need to be accompanied by advances in BBB delivery vehicles.
 
Currently, there are numerous scientific endeavours to devise innovative and effective ways to deliver gene therapies across the BBB to the brain. Success in this regard will mean that genomic and cellular therapies will increasingly have the potential to work synergistically with neurology and neurosurgery to provide non-invasive, personalized care for a range of brain disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal muscular atrophy, spinocerebellar ataxia, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, stroke, and spinal cord injury. Endeavours are underway to re-engineer biologic drugs as brain-penetrating neuro-pharmaceuticals using BBB molecular Trojan horse technologies. This approach employs genetically engineered molecular Trojan horses (proteins), which carry genes across the BBB to have a therapeutic impact on brain disorders. The future development of neuro-pharmaceuticals linked to effective means to deliver these across the BBB are together positioned to reduce the need for interventional neuro therapies, but this may take some time.

 
Section 5
A perspective: life as a neurosurgeon
 
Three memoirs by Henry Marsh, an English neurosurgeon who treated a range of brain disorders over a 40-year career at a leading neurosurgical unit in London, provide insights into the human dramas that occur in a busy modern hospital. Marsh studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University before starting medical school at the Royal Free Hospital in London. In 1984, he became a Fellow of the UK’s Royal College of Surgeons and in 1987, was appointed a consultant neurosurgeon at the Atkinson Morley Regional Neurosciences Centre at St George’s Hospital in London, where he spent his entire career.
 
Marsh’s first book is an unflinching memoir entitled, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Neurosurgery, which was published in 2014, and describes, with compassion and candour, challenging professional experiences filled with risk and imminent death. The book opens with the sentence, “I often have to cut into the brain and it's something I hate doing.” His first operation as a neurosurgeon was to treat a cerebral aneurysm. Forty years ago, this would have required opening the skull to access the brain. The procedure had a profound impact on Marsh, who commented, “What could be finer than to be a neurosurgeon. The operation involved the brain, the mysterious substrate of all thought and feeling, of all that was important in human life: a mystery, it seemed to me, as great as the stars at night and the universe around us.”
 
Marsh describes the difficult decisions, which neurosurgeons and patients regularly must make that change lives forever. He recalls moments of celebration and gratification when complex operations go well, and candidly recounts some of the more undesirable outcomes and slips of the hand that result in devastating outcomes. Marsh liked working with American neurosurgeons and came to “love their optimism, their faith that any problem can be solved if enough hard work and money is thrown at it, and the way in which success is admired and respected and not a cause for jealously”. He found the attitudes of American surgeons, “a refreshing contrast to the weary and knowing scepticism of the English”. However, after visiting hospitals in the US he expressed some scepticism about “the extremes to which treatments can sometimes be pushed” and wondered whether American physicians and patients “have yet to understand the famous American dictum that ‘death is optional’, was meant as a joke”. Tellingly, Marsh notes that “sometimes doctors admit their mistakes and ‘complications’ to each other, but are reluctant to do so in public, especially in countries that have commercial, competitive healthcare systems.” 
 
Marsh’s second memoir, Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery, was published in 2017 two years after he retiredfrom his full-time job in England to work pro bono in Ukraine and Nepal. A documentary of his work in Ukraine, The English Surgeon, won an Emmy award. Marsh uses ‘Admissions’ to take an inventory of his life, which makes the book an even more introspective memoir than his first. He compares the challenges of working in troubled, impoverished countries like Nepal with his experience as a neurosurgeon in wealthy nations like the UK and US. The excesses of American medicine intrigued Marsh and he comments, “only in America have I seen so much treatment devoted to so many people with such little chance of making a useful recovery.” But he also expresses disillusionment with the administrative red tape in the English National Health System (NHS), which he maintains has eroded the authority and status of surgeons. In his final years working as a surgeon in St George’s Hospital in London he bemoans, “The feeling that there was something special about being a doctor had disappeared.” Marsh’s true love was patients and neurosurgery and at the end of his career, he was spending less time with patients and more time in meetings justifying his judgements and familiarizing himself with the latest UK government’s targets and edicts, which led him to say, “doctors need regulating, but they need to be trusted as well. It is a delicate balance, and it is clear to me that in England the government has got it terribly wrong”. 
 
Marsh suggests that patients’ fear encourages surgeons to exaggerate their competence and knowledge to “shield our patients from the frightening reality they often face”.  Over time, Marsh suggests, surgeons tend to believe the exaggerated versions of themselves. But the best un-learn their self-deception and come to accept their shortcomings and learn from their mistakes. “We always learn more from failure . . . . . . Success teaches us nothing,” Marsh writes.
 
Marsh’s third memoir,And Finally: Matters of Life and Death, was published in August 2022 and is very British, full of self-deprecation and dominated by the news that he is diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer. Marsh describes the sudden reversal of roles, from omniscient and omnipotent neurosurgeon to humble patient and provides descriptions of the ebbs and flows of his therapeutic journey, which gives valuable insights into how medicine in England works.
 
All three books bear witness to the fact that neurosurgery is a stressful and demanding profession, which requires extensive training, stamina, a high degree of manual dexterity, excellent hand-eye coordination, exquisite precision, extraordinary attention to detail, an ability to rapidly gather and process complex information to resolve challenging problems, compassion and empathy for patients, communication skills and teamwork. Unlike other surgical disciplines, a relatively small mistake can lead to “appalling disability”, coma, and death. According to research published in the October 2014 edition of Surgical Neurology International, ~25% of neurosurgical errors can be prevented or reduced with the increased use of evolving technologies, some of which are described in this Commentary.
 

Changes in the organization of neurosurgical units 
During Marsh’s 40-year career there were changes in the way neurosurgical units were organized and run; particularly the development of subspecialities among physicians and the use of multidisciplinary team approaches to clinical challenges. Much of Marsh’s career reflected a time when neurosurgeons worked in relative isolation and treated a wide range of neurosurgical conditions that presented in their clinics. Today, most neurosurgeons have a primary interest in a subspeciality such as epilepsy, neurovascular surgery, spinal surgery, the excision of tumours etc., and a secondary interest, which they share with colleagues. This tends to facilitate cross referral of patients among a team of physicians and improves patient care and the training of health professionals. In the operating room (OR) neurosurgeons work with other physicians, anaesthetists, trainee doctors, theatre nurses, and medical students. Outside the OR they collaborate with radiologists who use a range of diagnostic tools, including CT, MRI scans, and cerebral angiographies, which are used to detect abnormalities in blood vessels such as aneurysms, blockages, and bleeding. These neuroimaging technologies and neurosurgery have become inseparable. Neurosurgeons also work with neurologists, oncologists, ophthalmologists, and paediatricians. In 2017, Bob Carter, head of neurosurgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the US, appreciated the interconnections between several clinical disciplines that care for people with neurological disorders and merged his neurosurgery department with the departments of neurology, psychiatry, and neuroradiology. While sub specialisms and teamwork have made an impact on the organization of neurosurgical units, new and emerging technologies have expanded the repertoire of neurosurgeons.
 

Awake brain procedures
Marsh specialised in operating on the brain while the patient is awake. This aspect of his work was the subject of a BBC documentary, Your Life in Their Hands. Awake brain procedures are usually performed when a lesion is located near the frontal lobes responsible for motor skills and speech. In the video below, Ranjeev Bhangoo describes the procedure, “It’s a technique where the patient is awake during the brain surgery. The patient is neither in pain nor suffering. When we make a cut in the skin and raise a trapdoor in the skull the patient is completely asleep. We wake them up after that point and the good news is the brain itself doesn’t feel pain. So, you can do this operation without the patient being in any distress or pain. It’s an unusual situation and the patient is prepared for it beforehand. The reason why you might want to do an awake craniotomy is because in some situations, tumours are close to critical structures of the brain that control speech or movement. While we have good maps of the brain and we have image guidance, they’re not precise enough. You want the patient to be talking to you and you want to be stimulating bits of the brain to see precisely where speech is so that you can avoid those areas and do the same with movement, you want to see the patient moving his or her arm or leg while you’re stimulating bits of their brain. So, we use an awake craniotomy when we’re operating near to what we call ‘eloquent’ areas of the brain that, if damaged, would produce a devastating deficit such as problems with speech or movement”. See video.
 

When and why is an awake craniotomy performed?

 
Section 6
The increasing burden of dementias on healthcare systems and economies
 
As populations age and live longer so dementia conditions increase. Alzheimer's, which effects parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language, is the most common dementia in Western societies. It is a progressive disorder that begins with mild memory loss and leads to a loss of the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to your environment. In the three decades between 1990 and 2019, the global incidence of Alzheimer’s and other dementias increased by ~148%. In 2022, there were >6.5m Americans living with the condition: ~73% >65 and ~66% of these women, but this simply may be due to women living longer. By 2050, it is projected that ~13m Americans will suffer from dementia, which is expected to kill 1 in 3 seniors; that is more than breast and prostate cancers combined.
 
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are ~55m people with dementia globally, and >60% are living in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). Age is the most significant risk factor: the likelihood of Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after you reach 65. But also, dementias appear to be increased by conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, which include heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and high levels of cholesterol. As the proportion of older people in populations increase in nearly every country, people living with dementias are expected to rise to ~78m by 2030 and 139m in 2050. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, and treatments tend to fall to neurologists.  Drug therapies include galantamine, rivastigmine, and donepezil, which are cholinesterase inhibitors (also known as anti-cholinesterase, are chemicals that prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) that are prescribed for mild to moderate Alzheimer's symptoms and may help reduce or control some cognitive and behavioural symptoms. Also, there are non-drug options.  Although outside the direct realm of neurosurgery, the scale and speed of the growth of Alzheimer’s and other dementias are likely to indirectly impact neurosurgery by increasing the burden on over-stretched healthcare systems. Under such circumstances, it seems reasonable to assume that there will be increased pressure on neurosurgery to become less resource intense, which means less invasive and less costly while improving patient outcomes.
 
Section 7
Traumatic brain injury

On Thursday 29th September 2022, Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins’ quarterback received a head injury during a match against the Cincinnati Bengals and was stretchered off. Four days earlier he left the field after receiving another head injury while playing against the Buffalo Bills. He was then checked for a concussion and cleared and came back onto the field in the third quarter. Subsequently, the NFL Players Association exercised its right to remove the independent neurological expert who was involved in the decision to clear Tagovailoa to return to the Buffalo Bills game after being evaluated for a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This raises the significance of injuries to the brain and the challenges of accurately assessing their severity and adequately treating them.
 
TBI is as an alteration in brain function pathology by a sudden trauma, causing damage to the brain. Each year, the condition affects ~69m individuals worldwide. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the extent of the damage: annually ~5.5m severe cases are recorded globally. The epidemiology of the disorder is challenging because, in low-resourced regions of the world, where the prevalence of TBI is believed to be high, data are poor. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ~90% of deaths due to head injuries occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where ~85% of the global population live and where the standards of care are patchy. TBI not only causes health loss and disability for individuals and their families, but also represents a costly burden to healthcare systems and economies through lost productivity and high healthcare costs. The total annual global burden of TBI is ~US$400bn.
 
Since the beginning of the 20th century, our knowledge and understanding of the pathophysiology of brain oedema (swelling) in head trauma patients has increased and today decompressive craniectomy is a recognised procedure for severe TBI to mitigate intracranial hypertension and its impact on clinical outcomes. One of the largest clinical studies, which sought to determine the efficacy of decompressive craniectomies for TBI patients, was the RESCUEicp trial: findings of which were published in the September 2016 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The study was carried out over a 10-year period, between 2004 and 2014, on 408 randomly assigned patients, 10 to 65 years of age, and concluded that, “At 6 months, decompressive craniectomy in patients with traumatic brain injury and refractory intracranial hypertension resulted in lower mortality and higher rates of vegetative state, lower severe disability, and upper severe disability than medical care”. 
 
In the US, TBI is a leading cause of death and disability. Each year, ~1.5m Americans sustain a TBI, ~50,000 die from the insult, ~230,000 are hospitalized and survive, and ~90,000 experience the onset of long-term disability. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ~5.3m Americans (~2% of the population) are living with disability as a result of a TBI. In 2010, the economic impact of TBI in the US was estimated to be ~US$77bn in direct and indirect costs. Each year in the UK ∼1.4m patients attend hospital following head injury and TBI is the most common cause of death for people in the UK <40 years.
  
Gold standard monitoring of intracranial pressure
There is no cure for severe TBI, and the gold standard management is to monitor intracranial pressure (ICP), caused by brain oedema (swelling). Current clinical guidelines for raised ICP levels suggest thresholds, usually between 20 and 25 millimetres of mercury (mmHg), at which treatment is recommended to either prevent or reduce further damage to the brain. The device used to monitor ICP is an intraventricular catheter system that requires drilling a burr hole in the skull to insert a catheter and placing it in a cavity (ventricle) in the brain, which is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This is then connected to an extra-ventricular drain (EVD) that measures ICP. Such systems are accurate and reliable, but also, they are health-resource-intensive modalities, which run a risk of haemorrhage and infection.

Challenges with gold standard monitoring
According to research findings published in the January 2017 edition of the Journal of Neurosurgery, haemorrhage is a common complication of an EVD placement. Among the cases in which patients underwent imaging after a placement procedure, haemorrhage was found in 94 (21.6%). Another study, of 246 EVDs placed in 218 patients over a 30-month period and published in the November 2014 edition of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases, reported the cumulative incidence of EVD-related infections to be 8.3%. Further, because of the dearth of qualified neurosurgeons in under-resourced regions of the world, EVD systems are not widely available in LMIC, where the incidence rates of TBI are understood to be high and increasing.

Non-invasive ICP monitoring
Numerous alternatives to invasive gold standard ICP monitoring are in development, but none have established a valid place within a daily clinical setting. A review paper published in the December 2020 edition of the journal Neurotrauma, entitled “Non-Invasive Techniques for Multimodal Monitoring in Traumatic Brain Injury: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”, stresses the significance of monitoring ICP and brain oxygenation continuously in severe TBI patients, and suggests that the “two most prominent and widely used technologies for non-invasive monitoring in TBI are near-infrared spectroscopy [a form of photoplethysmography (PPG)] and transcranial Doppler”. Researchers conclude that, “both techniques could be considered for the future development of a single non-invasive and continuous multimodal monitoring device for TBI”.

Transcranial Doppler (TCD) ultrasonography is a non-invasive, painless ultrasound technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to measure cerebral blood flow velocity that may correlate with ICP. Research suggests that in ~15% of cases the ultrasound waves are unable to penetrate the patients’ skulls, and measurement is prone to intra- and inter- observer variability and accuracy. As the TCD system for measuring ICP non-invasively is encountering challenges, so near infra-red spectroscopy is gaining significance. This is a form of PPG technology, which is an uncomplicated, inexpensive, non-invasive, and convenient optical measurement that has the potential of being used at the site of injuries to quickly assess the severity of the head trauma. In the recent case of Tagovailoa, such a non-invasive ICP measurement device could have been applied on the playing field. Over the next decade, expect PPG technology to impact neurosurgery by potentially providing more accurate triaging and further disrupting the gold standard of care for severe TBI patients.
 
Section 8
Brain cancer and early diagnostics

We mentioned the Gamma Knife’s® ability to treat some brain tumours and suggested that patients have benefitted significantly from its use. The first successful modern brain tumour excision was performed in 1878 by William Macewen, a pioneering Scottish surgeon, at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. At the beginning of the 20th century, contributions by Americans started with Harvey Cushing, who is generally recognised as the father of modern neurosurgery. Working at the John’s Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Cushing introduced meticulous documentation of the clinical and pathological details of cerebral tumours and devised several surgical techniques for operating on the brain that became the foundation of neurosurgery as an autonomous surgical discipline. In 1912, he discovered an endocrinological syndrome caused by a malfunction of the pituitary gland, which is named after him: Cushing’s disease.
 
The prognosis for a brain tumour is dependent upon its type, location, size and time of diagnosis, growth and how much can be surgically removed or treated. Factors including age and general wellbeing as well as some recognised genetic factors also influence prognosis. Poor prognosis for brain cancers is perpetuated by the lack of cost-effective, accurate tests that can be used in a primary care setting to diagnose the conditions. This means that a large proportion of brain cancers are diagnosed too late for current treatments to be effective. However, in recent years there have been advances made in detecting brain cancers early and this is expected to significantly improve prognosis.
 
Although there are >120 different types of brain tumours, lesions and cysts, your chances of developing brain cancer is <1%. Brain tumours account for ~90% of all primary central nervous system (CNS) tumours. In 2020, >0.3m people worldwide were diagnosed with a primary brain or spinal cord tumour. According to the Annual Report of the US Central Brain Tumor Registry, >84,000 Americans were diagnosed with a primary brain tumour in 2021. The US National Cancer Institute, suggests ~0.6% of Americans will develop brain cancer in their lifetime and the 5-year survival rate for those that do is only ~33%. This year, >4,000 Americans <15, are expected to be diagnosed with a brain or CNS tumour. In the UK, each year ~16,000 people are diagnosed with a brain tumour and ~ 60,000 people are living with a brain tumour.
 
The causes of brain tumours are not fully understood and occur because of an abnormal growth of brain cells or cells in the brain’s supporting tissues, which can damage the brain, threaten its function and result in death. Some tumours may occur around the edge of the brain and press on certain parts of it, while others can be more diffuse and grow among healthy tissue. In the video below, neurosurgeon Christopher Chandler, who leads the Paediatric and Adolescent Neurosurgical Service at King’s College Hospital, London explains that, “A brain tumour is an uncontrolled growth of a bunch of cells where the ‘off’ switch is missing. This means that there’s nothing telling these cells to stop growing, so they grow and divide. As this uncontrolled mass, or tumour, grows it displaces brain tissue and causes pressure on the surrounding brain. If you don’t remove the tumour or stop it from growing, it will grow so large that it causes critical pressure on the surrounding structures of the brain, which eventually, if untreated, can kill the patient.” See video.  

 
What is a brain tumour?
 
The Holy Grail
Neurosurgeons are frustrated by the fact that brain cancers are often diagnosed late. This is because brain tumours often present with non-specific symptoms and are therefore challenging to diagnose. In the video below, neurosurgeon Ranjeev Bhangoo explains the reasons for a brain tumour to be diagnosed late. “Firstly, the symptoms are non-specific: tiredness, headache, poor concentration - maybe not finding your keys as well as you use to – the sort of thing that can happen to any of us when we’re tired. The classic thing of having a fit or collapsing occur, but they’re unusual. Your GP is only likely to see just one or two brain tumour cases in his or her whole career. . . . Now, if you do get a scan, the chances of you having a brain tumour are incredibly rare. So, just because a neurologist has organized a scan, you mustn’t get worried because it’s very unlikely that you’ll have a brain tumour. But ultimately, through some path or other, you have a scan, usually a CT scan, which is a form of X-ray, which is quick and safe and if there is a tumour it will show. At that point, what will normally happen is that your doctor will refer you to a neurosurgeon”.    
 
How are brain tumors diagnosed?
 
Technologies positioned to reduce neurosurgeons’ frustration with late diagnosis of brain cancers are quick, easy-to-use, and inexpensive blood tests that can diagnose cancer early. Such tests fall into four general categories: (i) complete blood count used to evaluate your overall health and detect a wide range of disorders, (ii) biomarkers, which are molecules found in your blood and other body fluids that can indicate specific cancers, (iii) blood protein testing that measures the amount of protein in your blood to diagnose cancer, and (iv) circulating tumour cell tests, which look for tumour cells that are shed from a tumour and are now circulating through your bloodstream.
 

Detecting brain cancers early
Two recent examples of simple diagnostic blood tests are reported in the August 2022 edition of Clinical Cancer Research and the October 2019 edition of Nature Communications. In the former paper, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) report findings of a study, which detected the presence of brain cancers early by identifying pieces of tumour cells’ genetic material - mRNA - that circulate in your blood. The test, which has a sensitivity of 72.8% and a specificity of 97.7% can characterize brain tumours and monitor their status after treatment. According to Leonora Balaj, a co-senior author, and assistant professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School, “There is a real need to make brain tumor diagnosis less invasive than the current technique of tissue biopsy. This research demonstrates that it is now feasible to diagnose a brain tumor via a blood test for one of the most common mutations detected in brain tumors”. Findings of the latter paper suggest that certain brain cancers may be detected early from a simple blood test using PPG technology, which has been used in hospital settings since the 1980s to monitor heart rate and relative blood volume. Today, the technology is used in a wide range of commercially available medical devices, as well as smartwatches (the Apple version is an FDA approved medical device) and fitness trackers, for measuring oxygen saturation, blood pressure and cardiac output, assessing autonomic function and detecting peripheral vascular disease. Previously we described how PPG technology is positioned to provide a non-invasive means to monitor ICP in TBI patients.

The 2019 Nature paper describes how PPG easily, cheaply, and accurately identified asymptomatic people with suspected brain cancer. In the first instance, the technology was used on a retrospective cohort of 724 people, which included those with primary and secondary cancers as well as control participants without cancer. PPG was employed to identify biomarkers from patients’ blood samples and a machine learning algorithm was trained to identify specific biomarkers with cancer present. The algorithm was then used on a sample of 104 random participants and brain cancer was detected in 12. The PPG test revealed a sensitivity of 83.3% and a specificity of 87%. According to Matthew Baker, from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, the paper’s lead author, “This is the first publication of data from our clinical feasibility study, and it’s the first demonstration that our blood test works in the clinic.
 

A global endeavour
These two studies are part of a well-resourced global endeavour to develop an affordable, simple, point-of-care, blood test, which detects cancer before any symptoms occur. Today, biomedical advances move at a much faster pace than medical technology did in the 1950s and 60s when Lars Leksell was developing minimally invasive stereotactic radiosurgery procedures to accurately locate and remove brain tumours. For example, in ~7 years since its foundation in 2015, GRAIL, a US biomedical start-up backed by Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, has become a global leader in a ground-breaking multi-cancer, early detection, blood test, Galleri®, which has the potential to detect >50 types of cancers before they are symptomatic. This is achieved by looking for abnormal DNA shed from cancer cells in the blood, called cell-free DNA (cfDNA). The Galleri® test uses genetic sequencing technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to scan for patterns of chemical changes in the cfDNA that come from cancer cells but are not found in healthy cells. If validated, the GRAIL test will provide a simple, cheap, non-invasive means to identify a range of cancers in asymptomatic people when they are more likely to respond positively to therapy.
 

Large UK clinical study
In May 2019, the GRAIL Galleri ® blood test was granted US FDA Breakthrough Device designation. The test is only available commercially in the US but is rapidly gaining provenance in other regions of the world. For example, in September 2021, NHS England launched a massive clinical study for Galleri® and set up ~150 mobile clinics in convenient locations across the country to recruit ~140,000 participants. In July 2022, participants were invited to attend two further appointments spaced ~12 months apart. Findings from the study are expected to confirm the accuracy of the test in asymptomatic participants and lead to its regulatory approval. Although Galleri® is the first of its kind to be trialled on such a scale in the UK, it is not the only player and cfDNA is not the only technology.
 

Guardant Health
Another US biotech developing capabilities to detect a range of cancers early from a simple blood test is Guardant Health. Founded in 2011, the company is now ~US$6bn Nasdaq traded global enterprise with annual revenues ~US$110m. In April 2022, Guardant presented new data at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting. Findings suggested that the company’s investigational next-generation Guardant SHIELD™ assay has the capacity to analyse ~20,000 epigenomic biomarkers that help to detect a broad range of solid tumours using a single blood test. Guardant’s co-CEO, Amir Ali Talasaz said: “These positive results show that the next-generation Guardant SHIELD multi-cancer assay provides sensitive detection of early-stage cancers with the ability to identify the tumor tissue of origin with high accuracy”.
 
Section 9
Takeaways

For millennia neurosurgery, which has its roots in ancient civilizations, was dominated with forms of craniotomies, which opened the skull to access cerebral disorders. In the 20th century the speciality pivoted and introduced less- and non-invasive procedures to deal with a range of brain and CNS conditions. However, the introduction of these were slowed by the fact that the brain is such a well-protected organ and they took nearly half a century to gain regulatory approval and enter the clinic. At the beginning of the 21st century biomedical research is advancing at such a pace and it positioned to significantly transform neurosurgery towards a less- and non-invasive modality. Further, in the next two decades expect gene and cell therapies to substantially increase their influence as treatments for neurodisoders. Over the past three decades novel neuro-pharmaceuticals have been constantly in clinical trials but failed to receive regulatory approval because they did not have an efficatious mechanism to deliver the therapeutics across the BBB. Today, there are a myriad of novel vehicles under development, which are expected to effectively smuggle 21st century pharmaceuticals across the BBB. These are being advanced in parallel to the drugs, and together are positioned to significantly disrupt traditional neurosurgical procedures over the next two decades.  
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Arun Saroha

Neurosurgeon in Delhi- Dr. Arun Saroha
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Tricolour Hospital

Tricolour Hospital in Vadodara - Multispeciality Hospital in Vadodara - Critical Care Hospital in Vadodara
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  • The spine market is challenged by the physical and digital worlds converging
  • Lucrative traditional markets are slowing, and large emerging markets are growing
  • Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are growing in significance
  • Future clinical and financial success will depend on industry leaders pursuing smart and aggressive diversity and inclusion policies, but it won’t be easy
 
- Low back pain and the global spine industry -

The spine market and smarter diversity and inclusion policies
 
Spine companies are predominantly manufactures led by White males who find themselves on the cusp of a transformation driven by the continued convergence of the physical and digital worlds, slowing traditional Western markets and growing emerging markets, and an increasing need to provide patients with the best outcomes at the lowest cost. This raises the bar for spine companies to demonstrate differentiated clinical and economic value. Over the next five years, the spine market is likely to face disruptions and opportunities that impact its core and emerging businesses. Industry leaders are tasked to discover ways to own their disruptions and find solutions to challenges associated with change. Given the projected nature and speed of this transformation, spine leaders’ quest for answers is unlikely to be satisfied by pursuing business as usual. To benefit from the opportunities presented by market challenges, industry leaders will need to recruit new talent with capabilities and competences relevant to an evolving ecosystem. Smarter and more aggressive diversity and inclusion policies, as part of a wider environmental, social and governance (ESG) focus, will be essential to stand a chance of hiring such talent.
 
Environmental, social and governance issues

Environmental, ‘E’ issues, include the energy a company consumes, the waste it discharges, the resources required to address these matters and the impact ‘E’ questions have on people (e.g., radiation emissions). Social, ‘S’ issues, include a company’s diversity and inclusion policies. ‘S’ emphasises the fact that companies operate within a broader diverse society and addresses an enterprise’s relationships with people, institutions, and the communities where it does business. Governance, ‘G’ issues, represent the internal processes and controls an organization adopts to make effective decisions, comply with the law, and meet the needs of their stakeholders.
  
In this Commentary

This Commentary focusses on the significance of social, 'S', issues to spine companies and suggests that adopting more aggressive diversity and inclusion policies could help them adapt their business models and strategies to become more clinically relevant and commercially successful in a rapidly changing ecosystem.
 
Changing emphasis

Historically, ESG issues have been of secondary concern to corporate leaders and investors, but this has changed because ESG matters can provide insights into factors that impact on a company’s financial performance and thereby inform investment decisions. In recent years, institutional investors and pension funds have grown too large to diversify away from systemic risks, which has obliged them to consider the ESG impact of their portfolios. The possibility of commercial enterprises being held accountable by shareholders for their ESG performance puts pressure on managers to prioritize such matters. Already, public companies in the US are being encouraged to: (i) publish statements of purpose, (ii) provide investors with integrated financial and ESG reports, (iii) increase the involvement of middle managers in ESG matters, (iv) invest in robust IT and data management systems, and (v) improve internal practices for measuring and reporting the ESG impact on financial performance.
 
ESG issues and spine companies
 
A spine company’s environmental ‘E’ footprint is comprised of instruments and devices, which have a variety of impacts and lifecycles. For example, imaging and guidance equipment eventually becomes electronic waste, surgical instrument sets require sterilisation before reprocessing and infected single-use devices add to recycling challenges.

 

 
Spine companies’ play a role in the populations they serve and derive significant revenues from governments: S issues. This is demonstrated in an analysis of Medicare [a US national health insurance programme] data by researchers from the University of Michigan and Harvard University Medical School and published in the July 2014 edition of the Spine Journal. Findings show that between 2000 and 2010, the US government spent >US$287bn on fusion-based spine surgeries.
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Digitalization: the reinvention of spine companies’ supply chains and controlling the inventory-to-revenue ratio

The research also suggests that for patients covered by Medicare, the rate of complex spine surgeries increased 15-fold between 2002 and 2014, and concludes that, “despite these large expenses, there is no consensus on the accepted indications for which spinal fusions are performed”: an issue discussed in a previous Commentary.

Governance, ‘Gissues, for spine companies are dealt with at the sector level, and involve safety testing of their implants and devices, monitoring outcomes and manufacturing quality, safeguarding patient information, and ensuring marketing compliance. However, the future focus of governance ‘Gissues will likely be company specific, and more attention is expected to be paid to companies’ cultures and ownership structures.
 
Short supply of relevant talent

As spine enterprises adapt and change their business models and strategies to remain competitive, and as ESG issues increase in significance, corporations will need new expertise, new roles, and new employees to assist them to take a fresh look at legacy issues and turn disruptions into opportunities. The skills required to create and develop future clinical and commercial success include digital expertise, and data management abilities or STEM subjects; [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and a knowledge of international markets. However, such capabilities are in short supply, and millennials [people born between 1981 and 1994/6] and older generation Z’s [people born between 1997 and 2015], who tend to possess such skills, prefer to work for giant tech companies, which have untraditional work environments.
 
A 2018 Forbes study describes the US as having, “a significant high tech STEM crisis”. Another recent study suggests that the greatest demand for STEM workers is from the healthcare industry, which is among the fastest growing sectors, and therefore is expected to face the greatest shortage of STEM talent. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that, over the next decade, MedTech’s will be challenged to recruit and retain an adequate supply of appropriate talent to help them transform their businesses and this will oblige them to increase their search for capabilities among women and minorities.
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Diversity and inclusion as investment criteria
 
Currently, MedTechs have a predominance of White males in their workforces. 2020 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that US MedTech’s employ ~660,000 people, of which ~40% are women; ~77% are White, ~8.4% Black/African American, ~11.5% Asian and ~13% Hispanic or Latino, with women and minorities significantly underrepresented in leadership positions.
Company initiatives to promote diversity have recently gained impetus following the death of George Floyd. On 25 May 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, after a convenience store employee called the police and told them that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit US$20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first police car arrived at the scene, George Floyd was pinned beneath three police officers and was dead. This triggered condemnations from the CEOs of the biggest US banks and the world’s largest asset managers, and turbocharged their intention to make ESG assessments critical to investment decisions.
 
Reflecting on racial injustices in the US, Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock,  the world’s largest asset management firm, said that protests following George Floyd’s death, “are symptoms of a deep and longstanding problem in our society and must be addressed on both a personal and systemic level.  . . . This situation also underscores the critical importance of diversity and inclusion within companies and society at large”. A similar reaction came from Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the US and the forth largest bank in the world, who said, “we are watching, listening and want every single one of you to know we are committed to fighting against racism and discrimination wherever and however it exists”. This signalled a corporate shift to a more proactive stance, leading to policy initiatives focused on board refreshment, board gender diversity, and holding boards accountable to a higher standard of ESG practices.

Striking a different note, Omar Ishrak, a Bangladeshi American business executive, Chairman of Intel, and former CEO of Medtronic, stressed the importance of diversity of thought. According to Ishrak, it is not just important to have different people in your organization, but more significant is what you do with the difference. “What happens when you leave the room? How does diversity challenge your thinking and impact your customers?”, asks Ishrak. Such pressure from investors and key opinion leaders serves as a catalyst for change and a greater emphasis on ESG issues, which will become the new normal.
White men rule

Outwardly, all companies, generally agree on the importance of diversity across organizations, and executives promise to rebalance their workforces. However, it is not altogether clear whether such promises lead to tangible outcomes. For example, as of 2021, only ~7% of Fortune 500 company CEOs were women, despite the fact that there were ~77m women in the US labour force, representing close to half (47%) of the total labour force. Similarly in Britain where the 100 largest companies (the FTSE 100) have only six female CEOs, which is the same number as between 2017 and 2019. Also, Black individuals are particularly under-represented in the higher echelons of corporations. According to Equilar, a clearinghouse for corporate leadership data, ~30% of companies on the S&P 500 do not have at least one Black board member, and currently, there are only five Black CEOs in the Fortune 500.
Available data suggest that women and minorities are significantly underrepresented when moving up the corporate ranks. Tracking such progress is difficult since corporations are not required to disclose information on the composition of their workforces. However, a 2020 report from Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, suggests that the problem of diversity in companies begins early, with minorities not advancing at the same rate as their White colleagues. ~64% of workers in entry level positions in large US corporations are White, ~12% are Black, ~10% are Hispanic, ~8% are Asian or Pacific Islander and ~6% are other races. The share of positions held by White employees increases with seniority. At the executive level, ~85% of positions are held by White employees, while Black and Hispanic employees make only ~2% and ~3% of these positions, respectively. This suggests that minorities face a significant promotion gap in US corporations.
 
Economic consequences
 
According to Haim Israel, a Bank of America (BofA) analyst, increasing diversity has significant commercial benefits. According to studies undertaken by Israel, diversity means higher sales and lower earnings volatility risk. “Companies focused on gender diversity at a board, C-suite and firm level consistently achieve higher ROE [return on equity] and lower earnings risk,” says Israel; while highlighting the fact that corporate executives, “don't forcefully step-up their diversity efforts”. S&P 500 companies with above-median gender diversity on their boards see ~15% higher ROE, and the ROE in companies with ethnic and racially diversified workforces is ~8% higher. Israel suggests that the continued lack of diversity inside corporate America, “could cost the US economy ~US$1.5tn in lost consumption and investment over the next decade". If US business and government leaders had decided more than 30 years ago to act on diversity and inclusion, about US$70tn would have been added to the nation’s economic output, says Israel.
 
Diversity and company performance

The BoA’s findings on diversity are supported by research from several global consulting firms. For instance, a  2018 McKinsey study suggests that there is a significant correlation between diversity in the leadership of large corporations and financial outperformance. More diverse companies outperform their more homogeneous counterparts. This is supported by findings of a 2020 report from the same consulting firm. The research shows that, “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile - up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014”. Findings were more compelling for ethnic and cultural diversity, where companies in the top 25% outperformed those in the bottom quartile by ~36% in terms of profitability. These conclusions support a 2018 study by the Boston Consulting Group, which found that companies with more diverse management teams had ~19% higher revenues.
 
Diversity and spine companies

It seems reasonable to suggest that spine companies have been behind the curve when it comes to attracting and promoting women, Black, Asian, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. Over the next decade, this could change; not because of imposed quotas, guilt, or shame, but because within these groups, there is a wealth of diverse experience, talent and thought, which could help companies adapt and change. Not only is greater diversity and inclusion expected to help spine companies develop optimum solutions to such issues as the convergence of the physical and digital worlds, but also help them to take advantage of the growing spine market opportunities in emerging economies.
 
Emerging market opportunities
 
For the past three decades US corporations have dominated the spine market, but this is beginning to change. American market rule can be attributed to suppliers’ ability to manufacture sophisticated surgical implants and devices relatively cheaply and market them expensively, predominantly in the US, EU-27, and a few other wealthy regions of the world, with highly developed healthcare infrastructures, generous reimbursement policies and well-trained physicians.
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and

Low back pain, spine surgery and market shifts
However, over the next decade, the US spine market is expected to slow, and the Asia Pacific (APAC) market is projected to grow at a much higher compound annual growth rate (CAGR). This is partly because the US has a shrinking working-age population to provide for the vast and escalating spine surgery costs required by the large and rapidly growing cohort of >65-year-olds with age related spine disorders. This has led to the tightening of previously benign reimbursement policies and more stringent regulations, which has squeezed spine companies’ revenues. APAC countries, on the other hand, have ageing populations and a consequent increase in the incidence rates of low back pain (LBP) and degenerative disc disorders, but they also have improving healthcare infrastructures and reimbursement scenarios, increasing numbers of trained clinicians, and increased affordability due to rising per-capita GDP.
Recent policies enacted by several Asian governments are positioned to support the growth of healthcare spending. China represents the largest and fastest-growing market in Asia-Pacific, having already surpassed the combined market value of most nations that make up the EU-27. China is seeing some of the fastest growth in healthcare spending, which support sales of spinal implants and devices, which are growing at a CAGR of 9%.

China has broadened its healthcare insurance coverage and is working on an ambitious programme of reforms, which include the government raising medical subsidies, and improving the quality and range of services of its ~9,000 tier 1, and ~11,000 tier 2 hospitals, which serve townships in rural areas and medium size cities throughout the country. Health expenditure in China has soared from <US$72bn in 2000 to >US$690bn in 2019. According to OECD data, in 2016 China surpassed Japan in total healthcare spending with US$574bn compared to Japan's US$469bn; and surpassed the US in hospital beds per 1,000 persons, with 3.8 for China and 2.9 in the US.

While such changing market dynamics are expected to exert further downward commercial pressure on US spine companies, they also present opportunities for American corporations with the capabilities to fully leverage the fact that by 2022, >30% of the global healthcare expenditure is expected to arise from emerging economies. To put it into a spine perspective; the global spinal surgery market’s competitive landscape is maturing and consolidating while serving an increasingly demanding healthcare sector. Spinal implants and devices represent ~US$14bn global industry projected to approach US$18bn by 2023. Industry leaders are tasked to achieve growth in developed markets and to capture market share in emerging countries. This will require a more diverse employee base with capabilities to develop cost-efficient products, with improved medical outcomes, tailored to local needs. To increase share of emerging markets over the next decade, it will not be sufficient for MedTech companies to simply duplicate what is already being sold in traditional developed markets, both due to cost, resource, and competence reasons in diverse market segments. The spine industry will therefore increasingly need to be agile enough to adapt solutions to local needs.
 
Takeaways
 
The bar for spine companies to demonstrate differentiated clinical and economic value has risen over the past decade and is likely to continue rising over the next decade. This new “value bar” increases the pressure on enterprises to rethink their legacy strategies and business models. ESG policies that increase diversity and talent pools could help them do this. The economic consequences for companies that are slow to adopt and pursue ESG policies and promote diversity could be significant.
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  • Traditional spine companies’ supply chains are linear, labour intensive and siloed and their inventory-to-revenue ratios tend to be high
  • To remain relevant in an environment where the physical and digital worlds are converging company leaders will need to improve their supply chains
  • Digitalization can help achieve this but requires embracing data management techniques
  • As a response to the COVID-19 crisis some MedTech’s introduced and extended their digital strategies
  • Have they done enough to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving ecosystem?
  
- Low back pain and the global spine industry -
 
Digitalization: the reinvention of spine companies’ supply chains and controlling the inventory-to-revenue ratio
 
In 2020, spine companies, like most MedTechs, absorbed shocks of the COVID-19 crisis by digitizing aspects of their supply chains, which consists of a wide range of transactions and constitute a significant part of a company’s’ total value creation. Industry observers are asking: Will enterprises extend their digitalization strategies and emerge stronger after the impact of the pandemic, or will they reduce their digital activities and emerge weaker?

 
Market changes

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the days of business-as-usual for spine companies were numbered as technologies advanced, regulations became more stringent, populations aged, healthcare systems struggled with unsustainable costs of surgeries for common age-related degenerative disc disorders, and payors tightened their reimbursement policies. In the US, which is the biggest market for spinal implants and devices, an increasing percentage of people have become covered by Medicare and Medicaid [state and federal government healthcare programmes], which reimburse providers at a fraction of private healthcare insurance levels. These changes encouraged independent hospitals in the US to join purchasing syndicates, clinicians to give up private practice and become salaried employees of hospitals, and private payors to shift away from a fee-for-service provision towards a value-based reimbursement approach focussed on improving patient outcomes and lowering costs. This shift encouraged policies to keep patients out of hospitals and increased the utilization of outpatient settings and other measures expected to improve outcomes and generate shared savings.

The structural headwinds described here have not abated and are likely to intensify over the next five years. To prosper in this evolving ecosystem, companies will need to devise and enhance solutions that bring enhanced clinical benefits to patients and economic rewards to the system. Tried and tested and widely used digital strategies can help to improve supply chains. However, while these structural changes have been progressing, spine market supply chains have tended to remain linear and labour-intensive and are now becoming significant obstacles to change, while producing infrastructures with unsustainable costs.

 
In the Commentary

This Commentary suggests that, over the next five years, market forces will oblige spine companies to pivot away from their inefficient supply chains and start developing supply networks, predicated upon digital strategies that add value to patients and reduce costs. Such systems, employ common digital applications that are used extensively in other industries to ensure the right products and services are delivered to the right place, at the right time, at the lowest cost. This would constitute a “first step” in a bigger digital transformation of the spine market, which will be necessary to create new levels of productivity, growth, and sustainability. We suggest that the reluctance of some MedTech’s to transition from inefficient supply chains to efficient ones could be explained by a significant proportion of their C suite members not acquiring a familiarity with digital systems until much later in their careers when they were adults. The Commentary uses two concepts: ‘digitization’ and ‘digitalization’. The former is a process to convert various physical signals into digital formats and the latter leverages digitized information to improve business processes.
 
Digitizing supply chains

Over the past two decades the cost of digital technologies has plummeted while their power and capabilities have substantially increased. This has enabled business leaders to combine technologies associated with information and operations and empowered them to create value in new and different ways. Improved processing capabilities now augment human thinking to analyse more data more quickly, and then act upon the outcomes. Such changes have ushered in the new digital era for MedTech’s.
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However, the spine market has been slow, compared to other industries, to adopt digital supply networks. The process of developing such strategies to drive productivity, while absorbing the shock of a pandemic has not been easy as it meant installing new technologies under pressure. However, the COVID-19 crisis created an incentive to reconfigure operations. The companies that did this have an opportunity to develop an omnichannel [multichannel approach to sales and marketing] dedicated to enhancing engagements with healthcare professionals and improving the overall quality of care, patient outcomes, revenues, productivity, employee satisfaction, and talent attraction and retention. But this will mean companies establishing virtual options as a core competence and reinventing the way they engage with stakeholders to provide a seamless experience across digital, remote, and in-person channels.
 
Neo Medical and value-based spine care
 
A firm that has employed digital strategies to streamline part of its supply chain to enhance value and gain a competitive edge is Neo Medical, a privately held Swiss company founded in 2013 by two former Stryker employees. The company has developed a universal value-based surgical spine platform to provide patients with high quality outcomes at relatively low costs. Neo’s approach is predicated upon its ability to reduce an instrument set, comprised of >200 screw sizes to 14, and use it in a novel approach to thoracolumbar fusion. [The thoracolumbar spine is the area between your stiff thoracic cage and your mobile lumbar spine].

Neo refers to its solution as a ‘controlled fixation’, which is beginning to have an impact in markets across the EU-27, Asia-Pacific (APAC) and more recently, the US. The approach is designed to facilitate an anatomically neutral, balanced, and stable spine load bearing to achieve a more functional fusion. It is reported that the platform: (i) enables clinicians to limit stress overload on a patient’s spine and thereby reduces the risk of screws loosening and hardware failing, (ii) limits infections, (iii) removes the need for re-sterilization, (iv) declutters the operating room, (v) reduces revision rates and (vi) cuts costs.Equally important are Neo’s digital strategies to provide an easier and more efficient experience for patients, surgeons, and hospitals.

Findings of a study, published in the December 2020 edition of Interdisciplinary Neurosurgery,  suggest that Neo Medical’s value proposition saves costs by: (i) reducing supply chain processing and logistical expenses, (ii) decreasing rates of contaminated instruments, (iii) minimizing operating room delays and (iv) potentially lowering revision and infection rates.

 
Reconfiguring the supply chain

By contrast, traditional industry supply chains tend to be linear, labour intensive and siloed. As suggested by Neo Medical and others, digitalization can transform these inefficient systems into dynamic, interconnected efficient networks with the capacity to accommodate a range of stakeholders simultaneously. The shift from linear, sequential structures to interconnected, open supply operations could provide a foundation for how spine companies compete in the future.
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Companies in other sectors have already made such transformations and integrated their supply networks into their operations and decision-making processes with the objective of gaining competitive advantages. However, business leaders should be mindful that the more customer focussed enterprises become, the more developed their data and analytical capabilities must be.
Currently, few MedTech’s integrate their supply chains into their long-term strategies, and few actively and fully embrace the potential of data management techniques. This reluctance decreases a company’s ability to optimize inventories and enhance operational efficiencies of product offerings moving across supply chains. Given the increasing number of exogenous forces affecting the spine market, [e.g., ageing populations, vast and escalating healthcare costs, more stringent reimbursement policies, pricing pressures, tightening regulations, increasing competition, advancing technologies and heightened customer expectations], it seems reasonable to suggest that investing in and developing digital supply networks could be a logical step to enhance value agendas.

Appropriate digitalization of supply chain planning and processing could help to: (i) reduce operational siloes, (ii) respond effectively to market disruptions, (iii) minimize the time, costs and risks associated with onboarding and collaborating with suppliers, (iv) deliver products and services that customers need, when they need them, where they need them at the lowest cost and (v) enable end-to-end supply chain visibility and transparency to facilitate gathering and analysing real-time intelligence to enhance efficiencies.
 
C suites and digital immigrants
 
Given that there are significant advantages in adopting digital technologies, why is the spine market lagging other industries in adopting such strategies to improve its supply chains to enhance its productivity and sustainability? A preponderance of digital immigrants among C suites could help to explain why some MedTech’s fail to grasp the full potential of digitalization strategies. Let us explain.
 
According to research undertaken by Korn Ferry, a consulting firm, the average age of a C suite executive of the top 1,000 US organizations is ~57. Statista confirms this and reports that in 2018, the average age of CEOs in US at the time they were hired stood at 54 years, while the average age of CFOs when they were hired was 50. Since 2005 the average age for CEOs and CFOs has been trending upwards. To the extent that these data are indicative of MedTech’s, it seems reasonable to suggest that their C suite members: (i) would have completed their formative schooling before the digital era, and (ii) when they started their professional careers the digital age was just beginning. For example, in 1989 only 15% of US households owned a personal computer, <1% of the world's technologically stored information was in a digital format, and the World Wide Web did not become publicly available until 1991. In 1990, when the average C suite member would have been ~31, there were only ~12.5m cell phone subscribers worldwide; ~0.25% of the world’s population, and Internet users only amounted to ~2.5m; 0.05% of the world’s population. In 2002, when the average US C suite executive would have: (i) been ~37, (ii) completed their professional training and (iii) well into their careers, digital technologies were still relatively underdeveloped. For example, cell phone subscribers were only ~1.5bn; 19% of the world’s population, and Internet users were only ~631m; 11% of the world’s population.
 
This suggests that during C suite executive’s formative education and professional training, digital technologies were embryonic, and the Internet, mobile devices, social networking, big data, and computing clouds, had not yet transformed work practices and healthcare. Thus, a significant proportion of current executives of US MedTech’s could be digital Immigrants: people whose professional careers were influenced by analogue technologies, paper, and television, and they only acquired a familiarity with digital systems later in their careers when they were adults. This could affect their ability to appreciate the full potential of digital technologies and help to explain the relative reluctance of MedTech’s to digitize labour intensive, inefficient, linear supply chains.
Stringent regulation and digitization
 
This reluctance becomes more significant as regulators demand that MedTech’s employ more sophisticated digital strategies. Increasingly, people are being given spinal implants and devices, which cannot be subsequently removed. Patients rely on these to be safe and to perform as intended for their lifetime, and regulators are devising more stringent rules to ensure that this is the case. For example, the European Medical Device Regulation (MDR), which entered into force in May 2017, requires all medical devices sold in the EU-27 and Switzerland to be MDR approved. The EU-27 represents ~33% of the spine market’s global revenues. MDR governs the production and distribution of medical devices and their compliance. The regulation states that, “Medical device manufacturers are required to have systematic methods for examining their devices once available on the market, by systematically gathering, recording, and analysing data on safety and performance”. MDR expects all MedTech’s to have robust supply chains and the ability to conduct data-driven audits to trace manufacturing modifications to specific implants and devices and to prove the resolution of any problem that might arise. While tightening regulations increase approval costs and prolongs product development time, they also provide incentives for companies to enhance their digital supply networks.
 
Controlling the inventory-to-revenue ratio
 
A digital supply network can enhance an organization’s ability to manufacture products in optimum volumes and deliver them to the right customers at the right time. This could help to improve patient outcomes and lower costs. Also, digitalization assists enterprises to enhance the control of their inventory by improving planning, forecasting and management, which is critical given their relatively high inventory-to-revenue ratios.

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and

Low back pain, spine surgery and market shifts

Spine surgeons in hospitals need to have relevant implants and devices available in the operating room at the right time. Hospitals need to be able to locate products in their cabinets. Without appropriate digitalization strategies health professionals would need to spend time searching for devices that may or may not be used during an operation. This means increased costs, as high value surgical trays would flow through inefficient supply chains.

To reduce costs, hospitals and healthcare systems push the responsibility for inventory management onto their suppliers. This results in a range of different models, which tends to increase the risks to manufacturers. Currently, spine companies manage a range of different types of inventories, with a significant proportion of their product offerings being held either on consignment or by sales reps, who often spend time managing offerings on behalf of their customers. This increases the difficulty to accurately account for supply levels, location, ownership, and usage, which further complicates billing and replenishment and often leads to excess inventory and unnecessary costs.  
A digital supply network can help to reduce these inefficiencies by eliminating waste and saving costs for all stakeholders. Typically, spine surgical sets contain several types of devices, plates, and screws, and usually are sold on consignment. Hospitals return these for re-provisioning often after only having used some of the items in the trays. To guarantee that sales-reps and hospitals have sufficient supplies, manufacturers maintain relatively large, consigned inventories, at significant costs, which impact on the rate of excess and obsolete inventories.
 
A digital supply network effectively connects manufactures with their sales-reps and hospitals to reduce inefficiencies. Surgical trays are tagged with radio-frequency identification (RFID), so they can be effortlessly tracked by hospitals’ smart cabinets and by all other stakeholders. This allows: (i) hospitals to be billed as soon as a surgical tray, or a part of it, is removed, and the replenishment process started, and (ii) suppliers to reduce their consigned inventory, reduce their excess and obsolete inventory, and reduce their costs.
 
Ethical issues

We have broached some of the functional benefits and challenges of digitizing supply chains. Before closing, let us briefly draw attention to some ethical issues associated with digitization, which include increasing the challenges associated with data privacy, cybercrime, and the need to keep pace with new and rapidly developing technologies. This gives weight to environmental, social and governance (ESG) agendas, which are positioned to play an increasingly prominent role over the next five years and shall be discussed in a future Commentary.
 
Takeaways

We have made some suggestions about how common digitalization strategies could improve spine market supply chains and create added value for patients while delivering the highest sustainable returns for manufactures. We have also suggested reasons for the reluctance of some companies to employ digital strategies to transition from linear labour-intensive supply chains to supply networks. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations partially digitized their supply chains to sustain trading during what became a “new normal” of remote engagements. This suggested that digital enhancements could help spine companies improve their way of working, expand access to services, and deliver more valuable patient-clinician experiences. Dynamics within sectors usually change after a crisis. For example, following the 2008 economic crash, strong companies emerged stronger while weak companies emerged weaker.  A defining difference between the strong and the weak was resilience: the ability not only to absorb shocks, but to use them to transform supply chains and enhance competitive advantage. Will spine companies emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger and extend their digitized supply networks or will they revert to their costly and inefficient labour-intensive linear supply chains? Keep an eye on the inventory-to-revenue ratio.
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  • Artificial discs, 3D printing, orthobiologics, and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) are technologies positioned to increase their impact on the spine market
  • The speed of their adoption should not be overestimated given the nature and structure of the industry
  • The challenge for spine companies is not too few employees who understand the traditional spine market but too many
  
-Low back pain and the global spine industry-

Will a rear mirror mindset slow the adoption of technologies poised to influence the spine market?
 
This Commentary describes four evolving medical technologies: motion preserving spinal techniques, 3D printing, orthobiologics, and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). All are poised to contribute to improving the therapeutic pathways of people with low back pain (LBP) and age-related spine disorders, which cause significant disability and are common reasons for people to visit primary care doctors and A&E departments.  At what speed will these technologies be adopted by the spine market?

An optimistic view suggests that by 2025, all four technologies will be commonly used in spine care. More people will be focussed on aging well, they will be better informed about their health and taking proactive rather than reactive approaches to common spine disorders and treatments. Developed nations and some emerging economies will have extended their public healthcare systems and larger percentages of their populations will have access to quality spine care. Digital inclusion will have spread, and the acceptance of scientific and technological advances will have accelerated. The spine market will have increased its use of AI, behavioural sciences, genomics, and screening and healthcare risks will have been substantially reduced. Spine companies would have shifted from being predominantly manufacturers of hardware to more solutions orientated patient-centric enterprises focused on maintaining the health and wellbeing of an ageing population in an healthcare ecosystem designed around people rather than places.

A less optimistic view is that by 2025, the spinal implant and devices market will continue to be conflicted between increasing patient demands and the level of evidence for various spine care options. This will perpetuate the current system, which leaves clinicians obligated to provide treatments based on insufficient information. Entering this environment will be an increasing supply of spine surgeons trained to deliver interventional care, and economic incentives for them to perform surgical procedures with increasing frequency. Due to decreasing fertility rates and increasing life expectancy, there will be >0.8bn people ≥65 years: ~11% of the global population, (~19% and ~21% respectively of the populations of the US and Europe). The result will be a spine care ecosystem that: (i) continues to emphasize the performance of narrowly focused and insufficiently studied procedures to address what are complex biopsychosocial pain problems and (ii) eschews technologies outside a relatively narrow surgical bandwidth. This will support a business-as-usual mindset among spine companies, and in turn, slow the adoption rates of technologies described in this Commentary.

 
Motion preserving spinal techniques

Spinal fusion, which permanently connects two or more vertebrae in your spine and eliminates motion between them, is one of the most performed spinal procedures indicated for a wide range of spinal conditions. Given that people are ageing and living longer after spinal surgery, there is the beginnings of a movement away from the gold standard spinal fusion-based solutions towards motion preserving surgery. This aims to maintain normal, or near normal, motion to prevent adverse outcomes commonly seen with conventional spinal fusion, most notably the development of adjacent-level degenerative disc disorders.
Several different surgical approaches have been developed to preserve motion in the lumbar spine, including total disc replacement (spinal arthroplasty), partial disc (nucleus) replacement, interspinous spacers, dynamic stabilization devices, and total facet replacement devices. The design of artificial (manufactured) discs varies, but all aim to stabilize the spine and eliminate pain while conserving natural motion of the functional spinal unit, which is essential for mobility, walking, reaching, and having the stamina to participate in activities for periods of time. 
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Motion preserving technologies were introduced ~2 decades ago. In 2004, DePuy’s Charité Artificial Disc received FDA approval for the treatment of LBP due to a damaged or worn out lumbar intervertebral disc. Since then, more than a decade passed before AESCULAP’s activL®  Artificial Disc received FDA approval in 2015. Findings of a 2016 clinical study suggest that, “the activL® Artificial Disc results in improved mechanical and clinical outcomes versus an earlier-generation of artificial discs and compares favorably to lumbar fusion”. In 2019, RTI Surgical, an implant company, acquired Paradigm Spine, a privately held company, for US$300m. Paradigm manufactures Coflex, an FDA approved spine motion preserving solution.
 
Some artificial discs adapt traditional titanium implants with specialized coatings and advanced surfacing to allow for a smoother press-fit fixation and future bone ingrowth, which is expected to keep the new discs more securely located. Despite growing enthusiasm for motion preserving spinal techniques, their utilization rates have remained relatively low.  This may be attributable to size constraints of available total disc replacements (TDR), stringent regulatory indications for their use, difficult instrumentation, mixed clinical outcomes, and reimbursement challenges. Despite these headwinds, the artificial disc market  surpassed US$1.6bn in 2019, and its compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is expected to be >18% for the next five years. The US represents >50% share of this market. 
 
The wider adoption and growth of motion preserving techniques for the treatment of low back pain (LBP) and degenerative disc disorders will depend on the long-term outcomes assessed by controlled randomized clinical studies of spinal arthroplasties. As studies demonstrating the efficacy for TDRs increase and the procedures become more established, incidence rates of traditional spinal fusions are likely to slow.
  
3D printing
 
3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing”, facilitates the conversion of computer-added anatomical images into physical components using special printers, which add successive layers of material. The technology is believed to be particularly suited to the complex anatomy and the delicate nature of spine surgery and is used for spinal implants, pre-operative surgical planning, intra-operative guidance, customised and off-the-shelf devices as well as patient–clinician communications, and medical education. Reports suggest that 3D printing enhances procedural accuracy, decreases surgical time and improves patient outcomes.
 
Over the past decade, 3D printed spinal implants have developed and grown as access to the technology improved. Today, 3D printed spinal implants are being created from materials such as porous titanium, which has the benefit of being strong and durable as well as achieving faster bone growth and osseointegration than conventional PEEK (polyetheretherketone) implants. Increasingly, 3D printing is being used in the pre-operative planning stage for spine surgery by providing a full-scale, stereoscopic understanding of the pathology, which allows for more detailed planning and simulation of a procedure. It is also used to create intra-operative guides for placing pedicle screws using patient-specific data, which lowers risks. [Pedicle screws are fixations routinely used in spinal surgery to stabilize vertebrae. The placing of the screws is dependent on the experience of the surgeon and can result in a breach of the pedicle and cause complications and injury].

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Another advantage of 3D printing for spinal surgery is its ability to manufacture customised, patient-specific devices for difficult to treat cases. With traditional off-the-shelf implants, patients run an increased risk of a suboptimal fit into the reconstructive site. Although research on 3D patient specific implants is limited, they are expected to have enhanced durability due to a more even load distribution and superior osseointegration. The cases of 3D printed customised implants performed to-date have been limited to anatomically challenging pathologies where an individualized solution to restore patient-specific anatomy is a key prognostic factor.
3D printing is also used to manufacture off-the-shelf implants. Spine companies, such as 4Web Medical, and Stryker, are beginning to extend their use of 3D printing techniques to optimise the properties of implants, including the ability to mimic the interconnected structure of cancellous bone [a meshwork of spongy tissue of mature adult bone typically found at the core of vertebral bones in the spine]. In the future, it is expected that 3D printing techniques will be used to incorporate more innovative features into spinal implants, such as porous matrices where density, pore diameter and mechanical properties can differ in different regions of the implant.

As 3D printing evolves and becomes cheaper, faster, and more accurate, its use in spine surgery is likely to become routine in a range of procedures. The production of 3D orthopaedic and medical implants is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 29% between now and 2026, of which spinal fusion devices are expected to be one of the fastest-growing segments. Stryker, which has novel spinal implants comprised of highly porous titanium, has invested €200m (~US$226m) in its Instrument Innovation Centre and the Amagine Institute, in Cork, Ireland, which are focussed on the development of 3D printed spine products.
 
However, currently, there are only a handful of vendors that design and manufacture medical grade 3D printers. Spine companies are constrained by the limited availability of such machines and typically are not privy to certain proprietary aspects of the manufacturing process. In addition, 3D printing is more costly and time consuming than conventional manufacturing processes. The FDA has issued guidance for “patient specific” 3D implants, but as of July 2021, it has not issued a standardized framework for 3D spinal implants to be approved. This regulatory challenge can make surgeons and hospitals hesitant to use the technology. A study of 3D printed surgical implants published in the July 2019 edition of The Lancet suggests that, “Comprehensive and efficient interactions between medical engineers and physicians are essential to establish well designed frameworks to navigate the logistical and regulatory aspects of 3D printing to ensure the safety and legal validity of patient-specific treatments”. As the body of research continues to grow, larger scale studies and longer-term follow ups will enhance our knowledge of the effect 3D printing has in spinal surgery.
 
Orthobiologics
 
Compared to the introduction of innovative spine surgical techniques such as computer assisted navigation (CAN), minimally invasive spine surgery (MISS) and surgical robotic systems, the cadence for new spinal implant materials has been relatively slow to impact the market: titanium and cobalt chromium remain common choices for spinal implants.

One reason for this is because the biology of spinal fusion is a complex process that mimics bone healing after a fracture. Techniques used to enhance spinal fusion include stabilization with metallic or polymeric implants, grafting with bone products and more recently augmenting grafts with a variety of biologic agents. With autologous [patient’s own tissue], and allogenic [donor tissue] bone grafts, tissue is often manipulated to remove mineral content and/or maintain a cell population to enhance fusion.

Although autologous bone grafts remain the gold standard, concerns about their failure to achieve fusion has prompted the evaluation of an increasing range of new biologic materials. These new materials are synthetic, and are generally composed of ceramic or bioactive glass. Recombinant growth factors [proteins derived from a combination of materials that stimulate cell growth], most commonly bone morphogenic protein 2, are sometimes added because they are potent stimulators of bone formation. However, morphogenic protein 2 can be associated with enhanced risks.

A growing number of mid-size and smaller biotech companies engage in the production of orthobiologics. Thus, there is a growing number of new biologic agents specifically developed for spinal implants coming onto the market. These tend to be more durable and bio-friendly than traditional implants and have the potential to improve recovery times for patients and minimize soft tissue disruption. 
Two examples of new biologic materials used in spine surgery for improving bone growth and fighting infection are Xiphos™-ZFUZE™, and molybdenum rhenium (MoRe).

The former is a new interbody fusion system designed to provide an alternative to the more commonly used titanium and PEEK spinal implants.  It’s developed by Difusion Technologies, a biotech company based in Austin, Texas, and received a 510(K) FDA clearance in November 2019. Xiphos™ is the first spinal implant created from ZFUZE™; which is a new biomaterial specifically engineered to interact with the human immune system so that it does not attack the spinal implant as a foreign body. Such foreign body responses can lead to long-term chronic inflammation and a significant number of patient complications. Studies suggest that ZFUZE™ is superior to nano-surfaced titanium and conventional PEEK materials.

The latter, MoRe, is a new biomaterial for spine surgery, which received FDA approval in 2019, and is produced by MiRus Bio, a US biotech company founded in 2016. MoRe is compatible with MRI and CT scans, and is also corrosion resistant. The material is reported to be two to three times stronger, and more fatigue resistant, than either titanium or cobalt chromium. This is significant for the spine market where rods used in surgical constructs can break. It is also reported that MoRe is >2X more hydrophilic [a strong affinity to water and mixes well] than titanium. Spinal implants that contain MoRe have double the osseointegrative characteristics of 3D printed titanium spinal implants. MiRus has ~14, 510(K) clearances from the FDA and >150 patents in its portfolio and is well positioned to address increasing unmet needs in this segment of the spinal implant market.

With an increasing array of biologic interbody graft materials available for use in spine surgery, maintaining a comprehensive understanding of their characteristics, benefits and drawbacks is becoming increasingly important. As these new materials enter the market, traditional titanium or cobalt chromium implants are likely to be surpassed, and as they become more diverse and more widely used, their characteristics, cost effectiveness and efficacy in specific patient populations will need to be better understood and communicated to assist hospitals and surgeons to select materials that are optimal for their patients.
 
Despite the desirability of such a register, it is unlikely that it will materialise in the medium term given security issues, the large and escalating number of producers, patients, hospitals, and surgeons, which are dispersed and have little or no incentive to provide implant information to a central register. Further, independent studies on orthobiologics tend to be relatively weak and patchy. Thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that, in the near to medium term, purchasing parties will continue to be influenced by producers’ marketing endeavours.
 
Internet of Medical Things

Most spine companies are manufacturers, which are focussed on hospitals, surgeons, and operating rooms. However, hospitals, looking to reduce their expenditures on implants and devices, have formed purchasing syndicates, concentrated purchasing to a narrow range of trusted offerings and changed their reimbursement policies.

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Vast and escalating healthcare costs, ageing populations, advancing medical science and technologies, more stringent reimbursement policies, and stricter regulations conspire to nudge conventional spine companies to shift away from their traditional production processes and move towards solutions-based, patient-centric endeavours. The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) can help to facilitate this. Some spine companies have reinvented themselves to become more solutions-orientated and patient-centric. However, for such new business models to be sustainable, companies will need to make data management a core, rather than a peripheral, capability.
A typical treatment journey for a patient with LBP and degenerative disc disorders includes: the presentation of symptoms, diagnostic tests, treatments, monitoring and rehabilitation. This usually involves interacting with several healthcare functions and a range of equipment and devices, including MRI and CT scanners, blood pressure and heart monitors, surgical instruments, implants, and software applications as well as a range of healthcare professionals, systems, and services. Advances in wireless technology, the miniaturization of medical electronics, and the increased power of computing create opportunities for the IoMT to connect all these disaggregated entities and retrieve from them a range of relevant clinical and scientific data, which can be used to improve a patient’s therapeutic pathway.

The IoMT is an amalgamation of sensors, software, data management, and networking technologies and is driven by: (i) the general availability of affordable broadband Internet, (ii) almost ubiquitous smartphone penetration(iii) increases in computer processing power, (iv) enhanced networking capabilities, (v) miniaturization, especially of computer chips and cameras, (vi) the digitization of data, (vii) growth of big data, Cloud-based repositories, and (viii) advances in AI, machine learning (ML), and data mining. This provides the potential for common spinal implants and devices to become ‘intelligent’ by having the added capability to retrieve, analyse and communicate clinical and scientific information. The IoMT can assist spine companies to streamline their clinical operations and workflow management, enhance patient outcomes, lower costs and transform their role and relationship within the evolving value-based healthcare ecosystem.
 
Indicative of this is Canary Medical, a privately held Canadian company founded in 2013, which uses IoMT to enable remote monitoring of patients’ implants. Starting with artificial knees, Canary’s technologies provide real-time feedback on how surgical implants and devices are working by generating self-reports on patient activity, recovery, and treatment failures, without the need for physician intervention and dependence upon patient compliance. Canary applies machine learning algorithms to the data it collects to identify patterns that could help clincians catch problems, such as infections or loosening of the joints before they worsen.
 
The COVID-19 crisis forced physicians to use more remote services. It seems reasonable to assume that over the next five years this will increase, remote monitoring will become the norm, and the value of data generated by spinal implants and devices will be significantly enhanced. The growing importance of data, which are derived from implants and medical devices, is evidenced by the fact that the FDA has embraced AI and has several ongoing projects designed to develop and update regulatory frameworks specific to it. A research paper published in the January 2021 edition of The Lancet Digital Health demonstrates the increasing significance of data and algorithms for MedTech’s. In 2015, the FDA approved nine AI-machine learning (ML) based medical devices and algorithms. The number increased to 12 in 2016, 32 in 2017, 67 in 2018, and a further 77 in 2019. In Q1,2020, 24 AI/ML-based medical devices were approved by the FDA.
 
Canary is unusual as the spine industry generally has been relatively slow to embrace the IoMT. This partly could be associated with security and privacy issues. However, according to a July 2018 report from Deloitte, a consulting firm, there are, “more than 500,000 medical technologies currently available, which all share a common purpose: having a beneficial impact on people’s health and quality of life” and all are currently accessible to collect, analyse and transmit healthcare data. The increasing significance of data also is stressed in another research report by Deloitte on the European MedTech industry. Findings suggest that AI technologies, which, “can be used across the entire patient journey”, save European healthcare systems “~€200bn (~US$238bn) each year” and “have the potential to assist European health systems in responding to major challenges they face”.
 
A February 2020 Fortune Insights Report, valued the global IoMT market at ~US$19bn, and projected it to reach ~US$142bn by 2026, exhibiting a CAGR of ~29%. Given the growing significance of the IoMT to the spine market, in the medium term, data could become more valuable than actual spinal implants and devices. Spine companies need to consider developing new business models to take advantage of this and develop a deeper understanding of the needs of patients and demonstrate how their offerings improve patients’ therapeutic journeys.
 
Takeaways
 
Because the risks associated with spine surgery are non-trivial and reducing complications is critical, over the next decade we are likely to see the introduction and adoption of technologies, which have the potential to improve precision, enhance patient outcomes and reduce costs. These, together with technologies described in previous Commentaries, provide companies with an opportunity to influence how the spine market will play out over the next decade. However, the speed that the technologies described in this Commentary will be adopted by the spine market should not be overestimated given the deep-rooted interests and established practices of the industry. To take advantage of these developing technologies spine companies will need to stay ahead of consumer-focussed tech-savvy companies, like Canary, which are entering the market and: (i) increase their digital expertise, (ii) improve their patient-centric interactions, (iii) enhance their data management capabilities, and (iv) extend their digital infrastructures. Over the next 5 years, a challenge for spine companies will not be a lack of executives who understand traditional spine markets, but an excess of them. Executives who know the traditional spinal implant and devices industry well, are likely to keep looking in their rear-view mirrors and assuming that what made money in the past will make money in the future.
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Neurological Medicine, P.A.

Neurological Medicine, P.A.
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Neurology Clinic of Maryland - Neurological Medicine, P.A., provides comprehensive diagnostic and treatment services to patients with conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and muscles. We are committed to providing compassionate and expert service to our patients. We have been serving the Prince George’s and Montgomery County area since 1975. We offer complete adult neurological care as well as in-office neurodiagnostic studies including, but not limited to: EEG (brain wave), Memory/Cognitive Test, EMG/NCT (nerve and muscle testing), Sudo Scans, Computerized dynamic posturography, Visual evoked potentials, Neurology Consult and many more.


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  • Over the past 2 decades minimally invasive surgery and computer assisted navigation (CAN) systems have significantly changed spine surgery
  • Minimally invasive spine surgery (MISS) has become a significant subspeciality accounting for ~50% of all spine surgeries undertaken in the US
  • Together MISS and CAN systems promise enhanced precision, improved outcomes, and lower costs
  • CAN systems provide surgeons with improved visibility of the operating site, but emit hazardous radiation that can cause cancer
  • Spine surgery appears to be winning the challenge to increase the development of minimally invasive surgery while decreasing harmful radiation in the operating room
  • MISS is positioned to grow and increase its market share but faces some headwinds
 
- Low back pain and the global spine industry - 
 
Minimally invasive spine surgery and computer assisted navigation systems
 
Minimally invasive spine surgery (MISS) requires only a small incision and uses specialized instruments and techniques that minimize cutting and results in minimal damage of body tissue. The technique serves the increasing prevalence of degenerative spinal disorders, attributed to sedentary lifestyles of aging populations, which have helped to drive the growth of a global spinal implants and devices market. In addition to the increased availability of biologics and customizable implants and the refinement of operative techniques, the development of MISS has been supported by advances in imaging and navigation technologies that make surgical targets virtual on a monitor to improve the accuracy and precision of surgical interventions. Today, there is a growing body of research demonstrating MISS’s advantages over the traditional open approach.  However, computer assisted navigation (CAN) systems tend to emit harmful ionizing radiation that can cause cancer. Reducing radiation in the OR while improving the quality of image guidance is expected to fuel further growth of MISS.
 
 In this Commentary

This Commentary focuses on minimally invasive spine surgery and computer assisted navigation systems. Two technologies, which have changed the landscape of modern spine surgery and offer potential benefits for both patients and surgeons. Has MISS reached its market saturation? If not, what will affect the speed and extent of its further adoption? 
 
Minimally invasive and open spine surgery

Over the past 2 decades, MISS has become a significant subspeciality and currently accounts for ~50% of all spine surgeries undertaken in the US. It is positioned to increase its influence over the next decade but faces some headwinds.

As a general principle, it is preferable to intrude as little as possible when carrying out a surgical procedure to minimise damage to surrounding tissue and to speed up recovery time. Many spine procedures that once required invasive operations (open surgery) have been replaced with MISS techniques.

Open spine surgery typically involves relatively long incisions down the back to give the surgeon the best view of, and access to, the anatomy. During such procedures, it is sometimes necessary to cut through and move aside muscles and tendons to reach the affected area, which can cause damage to these tissues and prolong recovery.

In MISS the surgeon makes a small incision and then inserts a device called a tubular retractor, a stiff, tube-shaped tool that creates a tunnel to the problem area of the spine by gently pushing aside the muscle and soft tissue around the affected area. The surgeon can then put small tools through the tunnel to work on the spine and use a special microscope to view real-time X-ray images of the spine. This approach results in less damage to the muscles and soft tissues that surround the spine, which leads to a more expedited recovery.

MISS has gained popularity both with patients and clinicians and has become increasingly feasible for the management of a range of spinal disorders. Progress has been made in the development of a direct lateral approach [from the side] as well as improvements of tubular retractors. Common spine surgery treatments available through minimally invasive methods include degenerative disc disorders, herniated discs, lumbar spinal stenosis, spinal deformities such as scoliosis, spinal infections, spinal instability including spondylolisthesis, vertebral compression fractures, and spinal tumours. In 2020, MISS procedures accounted for ~50% of all spine surgeries performed in the US, which had increased from ~16% in 2012.

According to David Bell, a consultant neurosurgeon at King’s College Hospital, London, who specialises in complex spine surgery, MISS significantly improves the patient experience by, “reducing the size of the incision and the amount of tissue manipulation . . .  It also minimises post-operative discomfort, cuts infection rates, lessens blood loss and reduces a patient’s recuperation time”. See video below.
 
 
The evidence

There is a growing body of research to support the benefits of MISS, which include: (i) reduced trauma to muscles and soft tissue, (ii) better cosmetic results from smaller incisions, (iii) less blood loss, (iv) reduced risk of infection, (v) faster recovery time and less rehabilitation, (vi) diminished reliance on pain medications, and (vii) reduced hospital stays. A further perceived benefit is the increasing range of MISS undertaken in outpatient settings. Such benefits are likely to fuel the refinement of surgical techniques based on patient outcomes, and lead to the growth of MISS.
 
However, not all studies are so positive about the benefits of MISS. A 2017 review of 17 randomized controlled trials, which compared MISS against open procedures for three common disorders, concluded that, “the evidence do not support MISS over open surgery for cervical or lumbar disc herniation”. The study suggests that there were some advantages for transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF), [a procedure that melds the front and back sections of the spine through a posterior approach], but “at the cost of higher revision rates, higher readmission rates and more than twice the amount of intraoperative fluoroscopy”. [an imaging technique employed to improve intraoperative visualization of the operating field, which emits hazardous radiation]. The study concludes that, “Regardless of patient indication, MISS exposes the surgeon to significantly more radiation”. 

Two papers published in the January 2020 edition of the Journal of Spine Surgery report on a global survey of 430 surgeons to assess the extent of MISS and the training surgeons receive. The response rate was significant at 67%. 33% of respondents were neurosurgeons, 55% orthopaedic surgeons and 12% were surgeons with other postgraduate training. One research paper concludes that, “endoscopic spinal surgery is now the most commonly performed MISS technique”, and the other suggests that, “very few MISS surgeons are fellowship trained but attend workshops and various meetings suggesting that many of them are self-thought. Orthopaedic surgeons were more likely to implement endoscopic spinal surgery into the routine clinical practice”.
A review of the state of MISS reported in the June 2019 edition of the Journal of Spine Surgery confirms MISS as a significant subspeciality, “evidenced by the large and constantly growing body of literature on this topic”, and driven by “significant advancements in imaging and navigation technologies, refinement of operative techniques, availability of biologics and customizable implants, and most importantly, evidence of feasibility, efficacy, safety and value, compared to traditional approaches as demonstrated by the current literature”.
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If spine surgery fails to relieve low back pain why is it increasing?


 
Unmistakably, over the past two decades, MISS has become increasingly feasible, efficient, and popular. An important question is, how fast is MISS advancing? There is a paucity of research, which addresses this question. However, a global survey of spine surgeons published in the January 2020 edition of the Journal of Spine Surgery provides some insights. Findings suggest there are regional variations in the acceptance and utilization of MISS. The study surveyed 586 spine surgeons in 5 major regions of the world, which yielded 292 usuable responses: a significant response rate of ~50%. 70% of spine surgeons in Asia and South America thought MISS was accepted into mainstream spinal surgery in their practice areas compared to 63% of spine surgeons in North America, 53% in Europe and 50% in Africa & the Middle East. The percentage of spine surgeons that reported using MISS was higher: Asia (97%), Europe and South America (89%), and Africa & the Middle East (88%). Surgeons in North America reported the lowest rate of MISS implementation globally.  
 
Although innovations and techniques in MISS have continued to develop over the past decade, a significant percentage (~50% in the US) of surgeons are understood to use open surgical techniques. Reasons for this include: (i) lack of adequate surgeon training and experience, (ii) the steep learning curve needed for MISS, (iii) inadequate hospital resources and (iv) the patchiness of research on the benefits of MISS. It seems reasonable to suggest that such factors affect the adoption rate of MISS. But perhaps the most significant factor influencing the speed of its adoption will be the rate of development of robotic surgical systems. An understanding of the impact of these factors will help producers hone their strategies and business models.
 
Computer assisted navigation systems

A common therapy to correct spinal disorders is fusion, which melds together two or more vertebrae so that they heal into a single, solid bone. Spinal fusion surgeries use implants of biocompatible materials, such as titanium, as well as rods, plates, screws, and interbody cages and account for the largest segment of the global spine market.
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Low back pain, spine surgery and market shifts

During spinal fusion procedures, pedicle screws are used for spinal fixation, stability, and fusion. The incorporation of such screws into spine surgery in the early 1960s was a significant advance because it offered stability and decreased rates of pseudarthrosis [failure of a fractured bone to heal] compared to previous methods. However, subsequent studies suggested that there was a percentage of pedicle screws inaccurately placed, which could harm adjacent structures and potentially have mechanical, neurological, and vascular consequences for patients.
Image guidance systems were a noteworthy development in spine surgery to reduce the morbidity associated with the mispositioning of pedicle screws and today such systems are used widely. Fluoroscopy, an early guidance method, provided real-time X-ray imaging for guiding interventional procedures, which resulted in more accurate placement of screws, but such systems emitted hazardous ionizing radiation that surgeons, patients, and OR staff were subjected to. Any spine surgery that is visualized with fluoroscopy can involve 10 to 12X higher amounts of radiation from the use of X-rays compared to non-surgical procedures. Compared to a hip surgeon, a spine surgeon can experience 50X more harmful emissions over the course of a professional career and this has been linked to the development of cancers. Reducing radiation exposure is an important challenge.
 
Guided systems and reduced radiation

Newer intraoperative navigation modalities have been found to reduce radiation exposure significantly compared to traditional fluoroscopic guided percutaneous surgical techniques, and have become an important addition in spine surgery. Real-time image guidance, along with continuous computation and scan integration by the navigation system, allows a surgeon to visualize a comprehensive 3D picture of the operating site. Intraoperative computerized tomography (CT) scans [the use of X-rays and a computer to create detailed images of the operating site], together with infrared and other optical guidance technologies have substantially increased the accuracy and precision of spine surgeons to place pedicle screws. 
 
One such enhanced guidance system is ultralow radiation imaging (ULRI) coupled with image enhancement and instrument tracking (IE/IT). This is a new image modifier that allows a computer to show real-time movement of an instrument as it is adjusted, mimicking live fluoroscopy, but without continuous radiation production. Recent research suggests that ULRI-IE/IT systems, “can dramatically reduce radiation output and the number of images acquired and time needed to perform fluoroscopic procedures”. 
 
There are numerous FDA approved advanced CAN systems but let us briefly describe some popular ones. The Airo Mobile Intraoperative CT-based Spinal Navigation system was approved by the FDA in 2013, and developed by Brainlab, a privately held German MedTech company headquartered in Munich. The technology is one of the pioneers of advanced surgical navigation platforms and has many similarities to other CAN systems. It uses a mobile circular scanner attached to the operating table for 360° imaging, and a scanning stereotactic camera, which uses a set of three coordinates for instrument registration. Research published in the July 2018 edition of the Journal of Neurosurgery suggests that the Airo “mobile CT scanner reduced the rate of screw repositioning, which enhanced patient safety and diminished radiation exposure for patients, but it did not improve overall accuracy compared to that of a mobile 3D platform”.
 
Another popular system is Medtronic’s Stealth Station Spine Surgery Imaging and Surgical Navigation with O-arm, a portable imaging device that fits over the surgical table to take images of the operating field. This uses similar technology to Brainlab’s Airo, but opens at 90° to allow for mobilization around the patient. A third system is produced by Ziehm Imaging, another German company, which specializes in the development and manufacture of mobile C-arms [imaging devices that can be used flexibly in operating rooms]. In 2015, the company received FDA approval for the Ziehm Vision FD Vario 3D with NaviPort Integration. This is an intuitive technology, which obtains images via a 190° rotation with a C-arm around the patient and provides surgeons with, “crystal-clear and distortion-free 3D images for maximum intraoperative visualization of anatomical structures”. However, if its reference clamps are moved after the initial registration process, repeat CT scanning is required to re-register the clamps. Stryker’s SpineMask Tracker and SpineMap Software system overcome this problem by gluing its reference trackers to patients.
 
With the widespread use of CAN systems in spine surgery there is an increasing number of studies, which demonstrate the advantages of such technologies. For example, two large meta-analyses suggest that CAN systems significantly increase the accuracy of pedicle screw placement compared to freehand placement. Research also suggests that patients who undergo CAN pedicle screw placement have lower complication rates than those who undergo freehand placement.
 
Notwithstanding, findings of a global survey conducted in 2013 and reported in the September 2019 edition of The Spine Journal suggest that ~78% of surgeons still use two-dimensional fluoroscopy during spine surgery. Despite the improved accuracy and reduced radiation provided by advanced computer-assisted spine navigation systems. This could be associated with costs, prolonged operative times, and their cumbersome nature.
 
Machine-vision image guided surgery system

7D Surgical, a Toronto based company that develops advanced optical technologies, has sought to overcome challenges inherent in traditional CAN systems by developing a machine-vision image guided surgery platform, [FLASH™]. The technology employs a satellite-based global positioning system (GPS), to create a 3D image of a patient’s anatomy, and uses visible light coupled with machine-vision algorithms that eliminate exposure to intraoperative radiation. Other benefits of 7D’s system include its rapid set up time and its minimal workflow disturbance. The fact that its navigation camera is integrated into the surgical light, eliminates the need to stop surgery and position supplemental surgical equipment, thereby allowing for continuous access to the surgical field. Further, and unique to FLASH™, is the fact that its reference clamp can be repositioned, and images re-registered within ~20 seconds. This facilitates seamless clinical applicability and reverses many of the drawbacks of preceding navigation systems. In May 2021, SeaSpine, a Nasdaq traded spine company, announced the acquisition of 7D in a deal valued at US$110m. In July 2021 SeaSpine received FDA approval of 7D’s advanced guidance system for MISS.
 
Takeaways

Over the past two decades, MISS has had a significant impact and established itself as a subspeciality throughout the world. Although it is difficult to calculate, it appears that ~50% of spine surgeries could still be open procedures. This suggests that strategic questions facing producers include whether MISS will expand further, and if so, at what speed. This Commentary suggests some factors, which are likely to impede the adoption rate of MISS. However, perhaps the most significant challenge to MISS is not the prevalence of open surgery, but the rapid rise and adoption of robotic surgical systems. Research published in the January 2020 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association on the trends in the adoption of robotic surgery concludes, “Hospitals that launched robotic surgery programs had a broad and immediate increase in the use of robotic surgery, which was associated with a decrease in traditional laparoscopic minimally invasive surgery”. Robotic surgical systems in spine surgery is the subject of a forthcoming Commentary.
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  • Surgery has become a common therapy for low back pain (LBP) and degenerative disc disorders, but it often fails to relieve pain
  • The incidence rates of spine surgery are high and increasing and contribute to a US$10bn global spinal implant and devices market
  • We attempt to explain a paradox: If spine surgery fails to relieve LBP why is it increasing?
 
  
If spine surgery fails to relieve low back pain why is it increasing?
 
 
Low back pain (LBP) is a common age-related condition. In 2017, its point prevalence was ~7.5% of the global population, or ~0.58bn people. The condition is associated with degenerative disc disorders and is a leading cause of most years lived with disability. Spinal fusion is a common neurosurgical or orthopaedic surgical treatment to correct degenerative spinal disorders that can present as LBP. The procedure joins small bones in your spine (vertebrae), and can be performed at any level in your spine. The basic idea is to fuse together two or more vertebrae so that they heal into a single, solid bone. Such procedures have fuelled a global spinal implant and devices industry valued at ~US$10bn, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of ~5% and concentrated in wealthy nations; the US, the EU-27 and Japan. Spinal fusion accounts for the largest share of this market, and is projected to reach ~US$8.5bn by 2026, exhibiting a CAGR of ~3.6%.
 
LBP is challenging to diagnose, and effective treatment is elusive, but surgical therapies have become commonplace with a significant proportion failing to relieve pain. So, why is spine surgery increasing? 
 
In this Commentary
 
Surgery may be able to fix the condition of degenerative disc disorders, but not eliminate pain. After spine surgery, a percentage of patients still experience pain, called ‘failed back syndrome’, which is characterized by a continuation of pain and an inability to return to normal activities. This has led to the paradox: If spine surgery fails to relieve LBP why is it increasing? We suggest 7 factors, acting in concert, help to explain this paradox, but stress that the evidence we present is circumstantial.
 
1. Clinical guidelines for LBP
 
Clinical practice guidelines are developed by multi-disciplinary teams of health professionals using an evidence-based approach, combining the best research available with expert consensus on best practice. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (NICE) is the body responsible for producing such guidelines. In the US the Institute of Medicine (IOM) first recommended the development of guidelines in 1990. Soon afterwards, several professional healthcare organizations such as the North American Spine Association (NASS) began producing their own guidelines for specific disorders. For this Commentary we use clinical guidelines provided by NICE and NASS.

As a first line therapy for LBP, NICE recommends a treatment package of, “exercise in all its forms, - e.g., stretching, strengthening, aerobics or yoga - advice and education, and if necessary, the inclusion of manual and psychological therapies”.

According to Spine Health, in the US therapies for LBP and degenerative disc disorders, “are primarily to reduce baseline pain and prevent pain flare-ups as much as possible. Most cases of degenerative disc pain are manageable through a combination of pain management methods, exercise/physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications”.

NASS 2020 guidelines for the ‘Diagnosis and Treatment of Low Back Pain’ pose 12 critical questions on the efficacy of the use of surgical treatment versus medical/interventional treatment, and conclude that it is unable to answer the questions because of the dearth of evidence. Here inter alia is a flavour of the questions posed by NASS:
  • Q In patients with LBP, does surgical treatment versus medical/interventional treatment alone decrease the duration of the pain, decrease the intensity of the pain, increase the functional outcomes of treatment, and improve the return-to-work rate?
  • Q In patients undergoing surgery for low back pain, which fusion technique [the question lists 5 common techniques] results in the best outcomes for the following: decrease the duration of pain, increase the functional outcomes of treatment, and improve the return-to-work rate?  
  • Q In patients undergoing fusion surgery for low back pain, does the use of bone growth stimulators  (versus fusion alone), decrease the duration of pain, increase the functional outcomes of treatment, and improve the return-to-work rate?
  • Q In patients undergoing fusion surgery for low back pain, does the use of BMP [bone morphogenetic proteins] (versus fusion alone), decrease the duration of pain, increase the functional outcomes of treatment, and improve the return-to-work rate?
  • Q In patients with LBP are there predictive factors, which determine the benefit of initial treatment with surgical intervention versus initial medical/interventional treatment?
NASS answers all 12 questions with the same statement: “A systematic review of the literature yielded no studies to adequately address this question”. This emphasises the absence of clinical evidence to confidently determine efficacious surgical therapies for LBP. NASS stresses that its guidelines are not intended to be viewed as a “standard of care”, but as “recommendations to assist in delivering optimum, efficacious treatment and functional recovery from nonspecific low back pain”.
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2. Poor prognostic indicators for spinal surgery
 
This dearth of evidence makes therapy decisions challenging for clinicians. A study published in the 2018 edition of the Asian Spine Journal suggests that a proportion of the large and increasing spine fusion surgeries performed to reduce LBP and degenerative disc disorders fails because of weak prognostic indicators. Researchers stress that, “spine surgeons need to be well aware of the many poor prognostic indicators for spinal surgery”. The lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of spinal fusion for LPB fosters disagreement among physicians as to when spinal fusion should be performed. 
 
 In the video below Nick Thomas, a consultant neurosurgeon at King’s College Hospital, London, describes some of the challenges of poor prognostic indicators for LBP: “Dilemmas of managing low back pain arise because we (clinicians) have precious few pre-operative investigations that give us a clear idea as to whether a spinal fusion may or may not work. When an MRI is taken it can be very difficult to determine whether the degenerative discs one sees on the scan are normal age-related changes or whether they truly reflect a problem that might be generating the back pain”, says Thomas.

 
 
Such dilemmas in the management of LBP are not made easier by the fact that there are few studies, which compare spinal fusion to a placebo procedure. Most spine surgery research compares one fusion technique to another or to a form of non-surgical treatment. According to a study published in the March 2020 edition of The Lancet , Over the past 10 years there has been increasing recognition of the importance of the placebo effect, particularly how strong this effect could be for a surgical procedure that involves high-intensity medical care, strong analgesia, and often physiotherapy”. Findings of recent placebo-controlled surgical trials for common vertebroplasty procedures [a procedure for stabilizing compression fractures in the spine], in which special cement is injected into a fractured vertebra, “have been shown to be largely ineffective, but continue to be in common use”. Further, randomised clinical studies, which are regarded as providing the highest-quality evidence, suggest that spinal fusion has little advantage over a well-structured rehabilitation programme for LBP.
 
A study published in the December 2018 edition of the Journal of Internal Medicine analysed data from 33 randomized controlled trials and other studies comparing spinal fusion to nonoperative solutions for LBP and degenerative spine conditions, and concluded that, “The overwhelming evidence simply doesn’t support spinal fusion (and its high costs and risks) for back pain and degenerative spine conditions over nonoperative solutions”. A 2019 WHO Bulletin entitled ‘Care for low back pain: can health systems deliver?’ suggests that, “many healthcare systems are not designed to support physical and psychological therapies for LBP”, and stresses that, “major international clinical guidelines now recognize that many people with low back pain require little or no formal treatment”.

 
3. Uncertainties of diagnosing LBP
 
Adding to poor prognostic indicators are the difficulties of diagnosing LBP. The aetiology of LBP is rarely precisely identified. Findings also suggest that a pathoanatomical diagnosis of LBP can only be made in ~5% to 7% of patients. LBP in patients where no such diagnosis is possible is often labelled, unscientifically, “chronic LBP”.
 
A 2016 study suggests that in ~80% to 95% of patients with LBP the cause cannot be determined despite the existence of sophisticated imaging techniques and a plethora of diagnostic tests. It seems reasonable to suggest that challenges associated with diagnosing LBP could provide tacit support for clinicians to continue carrying out surgical procedures they were trained to perform.

 
4. Rapidly ageing populations
 
A rapidly increasing global geriatric population is a significant factor driving the growth of the spinal fusion market. According to the United Nations, ~16% of the world’s population will be 65 by 2050. In North America and Europe, ~25% of their respective populations will be aged 65 by 2050. Common disorders of old age include LBP and degenerative disc disorders.
 
Age is significant because most spinal fusion procedures are performed on individuals 60 living in wealthy nations. This age cohort is the fastest-growing demographic in the principal spine markets of the US, Western Europe, and Japan. For example, the US has ~49m people (~15% of the population) who are aged ≥65. This cohort is projected to reach ~84m by 2050. The EU-27 has ~90m people (~20% of the population) ≥65. By 2050 the EU population 65 is expected to reach ~130m. The population structure of the UK is similar to that generally observed in the EU-27 with ~12m people aged ≥65, ~18.5% of the population, which is projected to double by 2050. Japan has the oldest population in the world with ~36m people (~29% of the population) who are ≥65. By 2025, Japan’s ≥65 population is expected to decrease to ~33m, but the percentage of the population 65 is projected to increase to ~32%. It seems reasonable to suggest that these vast and rapidly increasing older population cohorts are significant drivers of the growth of age-related LBP and the consequent increasing incidence rates of spine surgeries.

Global life expectancy has continued rising and is expected to reach 77 years by 2050, up from 70 in 2015. The number of people 65, who account for most spine surgeries, will climb by >60% in the next 15 years: from ~0.6bn in 2015 to ~1bn by 2030. The phenomena of aging and shrinking populations, means that every year, a shrinking pool of working-age people are forced to support an expanding pool of ageing patients with LBP and degenerative disc disorders. In the medium to long term such support seems unsustainable.
 
5. Obesity
 
The prevalence of LBP in individuals 65 who are also obese is significantly higher than in people who are of average weight. Not only are the populations in the principal spine markets ageing, but they are also experiencing rising incidence rates of obesity. According to the World Health Organisation, obesity throughout the world has nearly tripled since 1975. Today, there are ~2bn adults overweight, of those, ~650m are obese [body mass index (BMI) ≥30 kg/m²]. In England ~28% of adults are obese and a further 36% are overweight. In the US, 43% of people ≥60 is obese. From 2000 to 2018, the prevalence of obesity in the US increased from 31% to 42%, and the prevalence of extreme obesity [BMI ≥40 kg/m²] increased from 5% to 9%
 
6. High costs of spine surgeries
 
Most spine surgeries in the US have been covered by health insurance operating a fee-for-service model. A future Commentary describes how this model is changing. Notwithstanding, fee-for-service has meant that healthcare providers have been able to charge significant amounts for their services and oblige insurance companies to reimburse them, while inflicting minimal costs on patients. Although there is a paucity of studies which analyse recent trends in spinal fusion volume, utilization, and reimbursements, Medicare [a US national health insurance programme] payment trends have seen a decreasing allocation of reimbursements for surgeons generally. Research published in the October 2020 edition of The Spine Journal suggests that this, “may be the effect of value-based cost reduction measures, especially for high-cost orthopaedic and spine surgeries”.
 
Each year in the US, >$90bn is spent on low-back pain alone and ~1.6m spinal surgeries are performed. The cost of a single-level spinal fusion in a less expensive region of the US is ~US$65,000 for Medicare or ~US$100,000 with private insurance. In more expensive areas, such as New York or Los Angeles, these costs can grow by 2 to 3 times. In remote regions, such as eastern Wyoming and Alaska, high costs of surgical procedures can be a function of the scarcity of specialist clinicians. Such high costs could be an incentive for physicians to perform surgery. Research supports this by suggesting that clinicians are more likely to recommend surgery, even though it is neither the optimum nor the only treatment option available.

 
7. Benign reimbursement policies
 
Historically, in the US, third-party payors have tended to reimburse spine surgery for LBP more than non-invasive therapies. Insurers have also tended to reimburse surgical services rather than patient outcomes, although this is changing. For decades, the overwhelming percentage of patients bore little responsibility for the cost of spine surgeries. However, a 2016 New York Times article  reported that reimbursement policies for spine surgery were beginning to change, and suggested that, “financial disincentives accomplished something that scientific evidence alone didn’t”. The Times article drew on findings of research published in the June 2016 edition of the journal Spinewhich argued that, “spinal fusion rates continued to soar in the US until 2012, shortly afterwards Blue Cross of North Carolina said it would no longer pay”. It seems reasonable to assume that benign reimbursement policies helped to drive the increase in spine surgeries. However, following the Blue Cross decision other insurers followed, and US payors started to move away from a fee-for-service model towards  reimbursing “value. This shift, which is expected to continue, has slowed the growth rate of common spine surgeries.
 
Takeaways
 
Over the past three decades, the escalating prevalence of LBP, the challenges of diagnosing the condition, rapidly ageing populations, rising incidence rates of obesity, high costs of spine surgeries, and benign reimbursement policies, have all contributed to what has become a global spinal implant and devices industry. Such conditions encouraged an ecosystem in which the incidence rates of spine surgeries have soared, while LBP has persisted in a significant percentage of patients following surgery. Although the spine market is beginning to transform itself by moving away from a fee-for-service model towards a value-based model, which aims at providing patients with the best outcomes at the lowest cost, do not underestimate the time it will take for this transformation to succeed. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suggest that, given the structure and nature of the industry, the paradox that this Commentary attempts to explain will persist, at least for the near to medium term.
 
Post Scriptum
 
Findings of a 2016 study in the peer reviewed Malaysian Orthopaedic Journal conclude that, “The spine, unfortunately, has been labelled as a profit centre and there are allegations of conflicts of interest in the relationship of doctors with the multi-billion-dollar spinal devices industry. The spine industry has a significant influence not only on research publications in peer review journals, but also on decisions made by doctors, which can have a detrimental effect on the welfare of the patient”.
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