The rheumatoid hand: A predictable disease with unpredictable surgical practice patterns




To evaluate variation in fusion, arthroplasty, and tenosynovectomy rates among rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients across states; to evaluate associations between surgery rates and the density of hand surgeons; and to evaluate differences in treatment by sex of the patient.


Data were obtained from the 1996 and 1997 Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project database. The procedure codes for fusion, arthroplasty, and tenosynovectomy were matched to patients with the diagnostic code of RA, which provided the total number of procedures performed in each state. The smoothed estimates of the RA population for each state were derived from age/sex strata in the 1995 US census using age/sex-adjusted RA prevalence data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The number of hand surgeons was from the 1996 American Society for Surgery of the Hand.


Procedure rates across states varied from 9-fold to 12-fold for all 3 procedures. The rates of the reconstructive procedures—fusion and arthroplasty—were highly correlated in each state, but these 2 procedures were only moderately correlated with tenosynovectomy. Surgeon density and procedure rates were minimally correlated. Procedure rates differed by patient sex, with significantly more arthroplasty and fusion procedures performed in women. More tenosynovectomy procedures were performed in men, and they were also performed at a younger age in men.


Significant large area variations are present in the surgical management of the rheumatoid hand, but the correlations between reconstructive and early intervention procedures are modest. These rate differences are not explained by the number of hand surgeons, disease prevalence, or demographic composition of the states. However, men are more likely to receive more aggressive early surgical interventions, and women are more likely to receive end-stage reconstructive surgery.