Number of hyaluronic acid injections derived from 2012 Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data and total number of Medicare beneficiaries from the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care.3,4,7
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Schmajuk G, Bozic KJ, Yazdany J. Using Medicare Data to Understand Low-Value Health Care: The Case of Intra-articular Hyaluronic Acid Injections. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(10):1702–1704. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.3926
The US Food and Drug Administration first approved intra-articular hyaluronic acid injections (also known as viscosupplementation) in 1997 to treat patients with severe knee osteoarthritis. The effectiveness of these injections, however, has recently been questioned. In 2013, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons issued a clinical practice guideline that stated, “We cannot recommend using hyaluronic acid for patients with symptomatic [osteoarthritis] of the knee,” with a “strong” rating.1 The rating was based on high-quality evidence that hyaluronic acid injections were not associated with clinically meaningful improvement in symptoms compared with placebo injections. A meta-analysis published in 2012 reported similar findings.2 Using recent Medicare Part B claims data, we examined patterns of use for intra-articular hyaluronic acid injections across the United States.
We analyzed 2012 Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data, which is available for public use. The data file contains all Part B claims for the Medicare fee-for-service population, aggregated by provider, with certain exclusions.3 We tabulated injections (“bene-days”) with all formulations of hyaluronic acid (Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System codes J7321, J7323, J7324, J7325, and J7326) according to health referral region (HRR; large regionalized health care markets defined by patients’ travel for tertiary care).4 We calculated total payments by Medicare from reported payments to each provider for (1) hyaluronic acid products and (2) the associated Current Procedural Terminology code for large-joint injections (20610). If multiple injections were given on the same day to a single patient, only 1 was counted.
Using data from the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, we divided the raw totals for the number of hyaluronic acid injections by the total number of Medicare beneficiaries in each HRR.4 We used logistic regression to correlate the number of procedures performed in each HRR (per 1000 beneficiaries) with the number of physicians per capita.5 We applied previously described methods to assess clustering among high-use regions.6
Aggregated records derived from 10 or fewer beneficiaries were excluded from this public use file. The data set also did not contain information on individual patients, including indications for treatment. The institutional review boards at our institutions exempted the study from review.
In 2012, Medicare Part B reimbursed for 1 161 924 injections with intra-articular hyaluronic acid among 423 669 patients by 12 761 physicians or other clinicians. Most formulations of hyaluronic acid consist of 3 injections given 1 week apart. Medicare paid $207 million for the hyaluronic acid product and $80 million for the associated large-joint injection (identified by the Current Procedural Terminology code). Thus, the average cost per injection paid by Medicare was $179 for the drug and $69 for the injection. The clinicians most likely to give intra-articular hyaluronic acid were orthopedic surgeons (59%), primary care physicians (11%, including family, general, internal, and geriatric medicines), physician assistants (10%), and rheumatologists (8%). An analysis by HRRs showed that rates of intra-articular hyaluronic acid injections varied from 1 to 115 injections per 1000 Medicare beneficiaries (mean, 39/1000 Medicare beneficiaries; coefficient of variation, 56% [Figure]). These HRRs were clustered (P < .001). Higher rates of injection of intra-articular hyaluronic acid in an HRR were associated with higher numbers of physicians, surgeons, and rheumatologists (adjusted for population size) but were not correlated with the number of orthopedists (Table).
In the United States in 2012, intra-articular hyaluronic acid was given frequently to Medicare beneficiaries despite strong evidence that this treatment is of low value for its approved indication of severe knee osteoarthritis. The injections are costly and have limited clinical benefit. We also found that the frequency of use varied widely and was correlated with the number of physicians, but not the number of orthopedic surgeons, in a region. One limitation of our study is that we could not determine the indications for treatment, such as the percentage of injections given to patients with severe knee osteoarthritis. We also could not determine if any patients developed infections or other complications.
Based on recent guidelines and studies, intra-articular hyaluronic acid injections represent low-value care and an inefficient use of health care resources.2,3 Medicare beneficiaries and society would be better served if physicians and others involved in delivering and paying for health care worked together to minimize the use of such low-value care.
Corresponding Author: Gabriela Schmajuk, MD, MS, Department of Medicine and Rheumatology, San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 4150 Clement St, Mail Stop 111R, San Francisco, CA 94121 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published Online: August 25, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.3926.
Author Contributions: Dr Schmajuk had full access to all the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Study concept and design: All authors.
Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: Schmajuk, Yazdany.
Drafting of the manuscript: All authors.
Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.
Statistical analysis: Schmajuk.
Administrative, technical, or material support: Bozic.
Study supervision: Bozic, Yazdany.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Funding/Support: This study was supported by grants K23 AR063770 (Dr Schmajuk) and K23 AR060259 (Dr Yazdany) from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Role of the Sponsor: The funding source had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.