Upper extremity reconstruction in the tetraplegic population, a national epidemiologic study.

PURPOSE: More than 100,000 Americans live with the disability of tetraplegia. For these people their level of independence often is related to the function of the upper extremity. Reconstructive procedures can improve the use of the upper limb and multiple case series have shown benefit from these procedures for appropriate candidates. Discussions with patients and surgeons, however, suggest that these procedures rarely are performed. This study attempted to assess whether upper extremity reconstruction for the tetraplegic population is being used properly.

METHODS: Data from 2 inpatient national databases were used (the National Inpatient Sample and Veterans Affairs patient treatment files) for 1988, 1989, 1999, and 2000. Patients were selected by International Classification of Diseases (ICD-9) diagnosis codes for tetraplegia and procedure codes that could represent upper extremity reconstruction. The recommended rate of these surgeries was based on the annual incidence of tetraplegia (5,000) and expert opinion that suggests at least 50% of these people would benefit from upper extremity surgery.

RESULTS: Our health care data analysis showed that fewer than 355 of these surgeries were performed in the United States in any year queried. The calculated recommended rate was 2,500 procedures a year, meaning that only 14% of appropriate candidates were receiving upper extremity reconstruction. We also found changes in the expected primary payor, with Medicaid paying for far fewer procedures in 2000 compared with 1988 claims. Finally over the course of time it appears that far fewer of these procedures are being performed.

CONCLUSIONS: Functional upper extremity reconstruction for the tetraplegic population is profoundly underused in the United States. Various factors could be causing this disparity of care and we recommend further research into the potential barriers to health care for this vulnerable population.