Watsonville residents top state for back treatment rate

Between 2005 and 2010, the city of Watsonville had the highest rate of vertebroplasties and kyphoplasties, similar procedures to relieve back pain from fractured vertebrae, of any community in the state.

According to an analysis of state hospital data released last week by health research and policy professor Laurence Baker of Stanford University, Watsonville residents received the procedures at a rate that was nearly five times the state average. The city of Santa Cruz also had a high rate – more than double the state average. Baker adjusted the data to account for age, sex, race, income, education and health insurance status in each community. 

In recent years, however, the number of procedures done locally has dropped markedly. According to state hospital data, physicians in the county performed 84 of the procedures in 2008; that dropped to 31 in 2011.

The changing numbers likely have a fairly simple explanation, said Dr. Chris Summa, an orthopedic spine surgeon who performs kyphoplasties in the county.

Summa said he believes the Santa Cruz area’s numbers were high in the past because several local physicians performed the procedures. He attributes the recent decrease, in part, to the departure of two of those doctors. 

Summa said he has also seen a drop in referrals and patient interest since two studies critical of vertebroplasty were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Summa considers those studies “well-written, but poorly executed.” He continues to do kyphoplasties, which he likens to putting a cast on a broken wrist. He says he has become slightly more conservative about whom he is willing to treat, however. He is less apt to use the procedure to treat older fractures now, he said, since kyphoplasty is most effective before the bones have fully knit together.

His own practice is full, he said. He thinks some patients probably would like to get the procedure, but can’t find anyone locally to provide it.

“Some people are just toughing it out and getting through it and dealing with it,” he said.

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