Spine Surgery Was Always an Essential Healthcare Service

As our country continues to navigate the medical challenges of COVID-19, we are thankful to hear that many states have finally opened up the ability for patients to receive necessary spine surgery. Surgeries in states like Virginia were considered “elective” under COVID-19 guidelines for many weeks, but this was a mistake. Many spine patients’ conditions worsened as a result and we cannot allow this kind of stipulation to happen again in the future.

As CEO of the National Spine Health Foundation, and a successful recipient of spinal fusion that spared my spinal cord, the delayed surgery for many spine patients may have caused irreparable harm for some.

Nearly 100 million Americans suffer from debilitating neck and back pain. In addition, 40% of Americans will miss work days due to neck and spine issue and eight out of ten Americans will suffer from back and neck issues in their lifetime. This suffering can also lead to depression and a reliance on unhealthy coping behaviors such as an increase in substance abuse.

A “one size fits all” definition of “elective” is never appropriate in deciding priorities in medical treatment. A more flexible definition is needed, especially when spine patients’ conditions are worsening. In addition, many hospitals had the appropriate PPE masks in stock to safely and effectively perform surgery, as the PPE masks used to treat COVID-19 patients (such as N-95 masks) is different than what is used in the operating room. With supplies on hand, and with adherence to strict hygienic guidelines, patients who are suffering should have been afforded safe and effective treatment, including surgery, during the entire pandemic timeline.

I urge government officials making these decision in the future to reconsider how they define “elective.” If surgery is needed to avoid the worsening of a patient’s condition, then that medical treatment should be given when at all possible.