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The New Health Dialogue

A Blog from New America's Health Policy Program

Meningitis deaths could have been avoided

Published:  December 18, 2012
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CDC.gov

This op-ed is co-authored by Jeff Borkan, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at Brown University School of Medicine.

The media attention and Congressional investigation into the tragic epidemic of spinal meningitis in people who had injections for back pain has focused on unsanitary conditions at the compounding pharmacy that produced the medications. At last count 620 cases and 39 deaths have been confirmed in 19 states because the steroids used in the injections were contaminated with a common fungus. Yet remarkably little has been said about the underlying cause of this tragic outbreak -- the widespread overuse of an unproven procedure (epidural steroid injections) that put the contaminated steroids into the spinal cords of patients in the first place.

The procedure involves inserting a needle into the spinal canal, one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body, and then injecting steroids, which are supposed to reduce inflammation and allow the back to heal. Each year, more than 9 million Americans are treated with spinal steroid injections, and one study found that the number of Medicare recipients undergoing this procedure increased by 159 percent between 2000 and 2010.

How did steroid injections come to be performed so often? Patients assume that most medical treatments are supported by years of careful studies. They think any invasive procedure that might put them at risk of harm is performed only by trained and certified physicians with rigorous clinical oversight.

In the case of spinal steroid injections, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no widely accepted guideline for the use of epidural steroids, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never specifically approved steroids for that use. There is scant medical evidence to show that the use of epidural steroids is any more effective at relieving back pain than routine, conservative care or even sham (fake) injections. There are many possible side effects of this procedure, and while the most serious complications are rare, they can be disabling or life threatening. Yet this unproven, risky treatment is routinely offered on an outpatient basis by physicians who have widely varying levels of training and expertise. While most of those physicians undoubtedly believe they are acting in their patient’s best interest, there is no escaping the fact that they are paid nicely for a procedure that takes only a few minutes to perform.

There's no doubt that regulators should go after the makers of unsafe medications. Slipshod manufacturing practices can't be tolerated when people's lives are at stake. At the same time, we need to rethink our willingness to pay for procedures and tests that have known risks and unknown benefits. Epidural steroid injections are just one of myriad examples of such treatments, and taken together, the overuse and misuse of medical procedures is costing us dearly, both in terms of wasted dollars and wasted lives. It’s time to build a health care system that serves patients rather than profits, and the first step is recognizing tragedies like the spinal meningitis outbreak for what they are, cases of overuse.

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