To answer that question, the hospital in early 2010 paid for an independent review of cases in which Vinas and two other neurosurgeons had performed a common procedure known as a spinal fusion. The review was conducted by board-certified neurosurgeons working for AllMed, a company accredited to audit health-care businesses.
Of 10 spinal fusions by Vinas that were selected, nine were deemed not medically necessary, according to a summary of the report.
Vinas is still working at Halifax Health, and a hospital spokesman said that, after the AllMed report, the hospital conducted an internal review that validated his surgeries. Another review conducted this year in response to litigation also validated them, the spokesman said. The hospital would not answer further questions or release details of those reviews.
Vinas “has never and will never perform an unnecessary surgical procedure on any patient,” his attorney, Robert H. Pritchard, said in a statement.
More than 465,000 spinal fusions were performed in the United States in 2011, according to government data, and some experts say that a portion of them — perhaps as many as half — were performed without good reason.
The rate of spinal fusion surgery has risen sixfold in the United States over the past 20 years, according to federal figures, and the expensive procedure, which involves the joining of two or more vertebrae, has become even more common than hip replacement.
It can be difficult, in individual cases, to get doctors to agree about when the procedure is warranted.
But at a broader level, the rapid rise of spinal fusions in the United States, especially for diagnoses that generally don’t require the procedure, has raised questions from experts about whether, amid medical uncertainty, the financial rewards are spurring the boom.
Advancements in diagnostic and surgical technology may explain some of the increase in surgery. And patients may have become more demanding.
But a Washington Post analysis of 125,000 patient records also shows that roughly half the tremendous rise in spinal fusions in Florida has been on patients with diagnoses that experts and professional societies say should not routinely be treated with spinal fusion.
Questions are raised
Normally, information that might shed light on the ways that economics shape medical decisions by doctors and hospitals doesn’t become public. But a wide-ranging lawsuit at Halifax Health offers an unusual glimpse into these issues.
In 2009, a former compliance official at the hospital filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging illegal financial incentives for doctors. The court filings make available an array of documents — e-mails, testimony, audits. These and other sources allow a fuller depiction of the financial rewards and relationships that depended on treatment decisions. They also show how hospital administrators responded when suspicions arose that a doctor, who was generating millions in profits, may have been performing unnecessary surgery.