Category: for GP’s

Why health insurance is a game with loaded dice


The government’s looming private health insurance reforms are a slick marketing gimmick. It will still mean patients making wagers on their future health.

Next April will see the rollout of Federal Government reforms of the private health insurance sector — an attempt to end the bamboozlement of thousands of customers by big corporations, which often sell junk policies worth less than the paper they are printed on.

The government’s plan is a simple one: insurers will be required to code their wares — gold, silver, bronze and basic — depending on what healthcare the policy covers. These tiers are meant to make it easier for customers to know exactly what they are buying before, rather than after, they sign on the dotted line.

In truth, this is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

During the government’s own consultations, it admitted that consumers found health insurance complex, policies difficult to compare and they did not understand the business of exclusions. As I see it, when a patient discovers that they are not covered for a procedure that will improve their health, their quality of life and longevity, it is a failure in the duty of care of their insurance company to properly attend to their client rather than the fault of the patient. Is it any wonder then that exclusions are a major source of complaints about health insurance? But what are these looming reforms based upon? You guessed it — exclusions. The new categories are defined by their exclusions. They are defined by what they minimally cover.

For instance, ‘basic’ policies (what more honest marketing would dub ‘junk’ policies) only have to include, as a minimum, rehabilitation, hospital psychiatric services and palliative care. The twist is that the system allows patients to pay more to have less excluded versions. In practice, you could have a silver policy, plus joint replacement, plus cataracts, or a bronze policy, plus dental surgery. It still sounds confusing. Basing insurance policies on exclusions also has the financial effect of focusing the health risks of a subset of the population on to that same subset. Rather than spreading the load, the ever-expanding older population will need to pay their own way, while the healthier will pay less. Given the ageing population, this is quite unsustainable.

But there is an even more fundamental problem with exclusion- based policy categorisations. We’re forced to make a guess based upon nothing more than our intuition about what to exclude from our cover. Sadly, we are often wrong. Young people may be convinced of their invincibility and take out basic or bronze cover but will later find themselves in need of a hip replacement, cataract surgery or spinal reconstruction and have to make do on the public waiting list. Not that that’s a bad thing, but when you’ve been paying for insurance, it hardly seems fair that you also have been excluded from private care by that same policy.

In essence, rather than being insured for the costs of our illness and having peace of mind, we are being made to gamble on our health.

When faced with these exclusions first-hand, is it any wonder that patients complain and leave private health altogether? A more equitable and fairer system would be to abolish exclusion- based criteria all together and have all policies cover all conditions. All clients, from young to old, would be subsidising all the health needs of all the others, spreading the risk and making health insurance immeasurably more simple to understand. This would remove the secondary gamble we make with our health when we decide on exclusions to not pay for. If a young person with a silver policy suddenly needed dialysis, for example, they wouldn’t be disappointed to discover they were not covered for it.

Conversations could then be had about effectiveness, rather than costs alone. Patients would pay their insurance premiums to have their treatment in a timely manner with the hospital and the doctor of their choosing, without the heavy cloud of exclusions hanging over their heads. Policies would be simple to understand and could even be differentiated on the basis of a simple excess scheme. As happens in other forms of insurance, cheaper policies would have a larger excess and more expensive policies less.

The government could even encourage health savings accounts specifically to cover these excesses and make those accounts tax free. If they have savings to even partly cover excesses, I imagine patients would be far more accepting if they then had to dig into their pockets. You wouldn’t insure your car’s front panels but not its rear panels, and yet we have come to accept exclusions as the health insurance policy norm.

Health insurance needs a transformation, rather than the paltry reformation currently being offered. To combat the march of people declining to take out insurance and loading up the public health system, we need to remove the health gamble of exclusions that we have come to accept.

To re-establish the confidence that the public has lost in private health insurance, they need to be confident that they are covered, rather than scared that they’re not.

As published in Medical Observer 5 Oct 18

Back pain, spinal surgery and where we’ve got it wrong.

Spinal surgery remains a powerful tool when used judiciously

The science of spinal surgery is much more advanced than biased commentators would like to admit, writes orthopaedic surgeon John Cunningham. As published today in Medical Observer:

In the last few weeks we’ve been bombarded with reports of what some consider to be the best treatments for back pain, and almost every time someone has mentioned spinal surgery, it has been in disparaging terms.

Apparently, the gloves are off when it comes to my profession, with an Australian vascualar surgeon who was commenting on a Lancet study that said back pain was often mistreated, claiming in the media last month that it was “almost certain” the medical industry influenced surgical decisions.

Armchair critics abound, it appears.

The truth is that the science of spinal surgery is much more advanced than biased commentators would like to admit.

Here I will declare my bias in that I only ever offer patients operations when the best available evidence supports that decision, with a diagnosis established by taking a careful history, a thorough examination and after assessing the results of judiciously ordered investigations and interventions.

That offer takes into account the patient’s wishes, their comorbidities, their functional status, psychological status and everything else that makes up an individual.

Spinal surgery is not easy, it’s not straightforward, and it’s notoriously difficult to generalise about. Experienced spinal surgeons do not, however, practice in a cowboy fashion.

The current best practice is that for trauma, both cervical and thoracolumbar, scoliosis and tumours we follow guidelines and treatment algorithms that are supported by solid evidence.

For the degenerative conditions that are currently being thrust before us, the best available studies are the SPORT trials. They show that people with degenerative spondylolisthesis, disc herniations and spinal canal stenosis who had surgery did better functionally than those who were managed non-operatively.

I’m not saying that surgery is for everyone, but that’s what the best available evidence tells us – warts and all.

The harsh reality is that back pain is a symptom and always has been a symptom. It has only been in recent times that it has become a diagnosis in the eyes of some.

By simplifying the complaints of many hundreds of thousands of patients a year to the umbrella term ‘back pain’, and vigorously promoting recipe medicine, many patients with surgically correctable pathology could miss out on a cure.

Choosing Wisely Australia, via the Faculty of Pain Medicine of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA), quite rightly stated that surgery was not recommended for uncomplicated axial chronic low back pain (UACLBP).

In other words, when you have back pain that is not due to a structural defect, only in the axial spine, not claudicant, and not radicular, then surgery is not recommended. I don’t disagree.

However, the symptoms that accompany surgically treatable conditions are often confused with or dismissed as UACLBP.

Symptoms such as neurogenic claudication, sciatica, and the pain of tumours and sagittal imbalance are all concepts that any back physician should be familiar with, and be confident to differentiate from UACLBP. In spine “everything is in the history.”

If we want to do the best for our patients (and we do) then discussing back pain and surgery in the same paragraph makes a mockery of both the diagnosis and the treatment.

By losing the nuance and the subtlety of the causes of pain of spinal origin, and grouping all under the umbrella of ‘back pain’ we are doing patients and ourselves a disservice.

Spinal surgery can and is a very powerful tool that can help patients significantly, often restoring their level of function dramatically equivalent to that restoration commonly following hip and knee replacement.1

We’re all here to help our patients and it’s up to each of us to know our limitations and also our strengths.

We know spinal surgery works when applied judiciously, intelligently, with precision, with skill, and with heart.


1. Mokhtar SA, McCombe PF, Williamson OD, Morgan MK, Sears WR. Health related quality of life: A comparison of outcomes following lumbar fusion for degenerative spondylolisthesis with large joint replacement surgery and population norms [Journal Article] Spine J. 2010 Apr;10(4):306-12.

Towards faster, secure communication

Last month in the rooms we introduced a new communication method with GP’s. It’s called “Argus“, and it is a secure electronic communication system that we now use to write to GP’s about their patients. In our practice we’re focussed on GP’s being the coordinators of their patient’s care, and so regular and rapid delivery of information is paramount.

Argus allows us to communicate almost instantaneously with your local doctor. We write about 50 letter as a week, and whilst that may not sound like many, Argus is a tremendous time saver. Previously, every letter was typed, printed, folded inside an envelope and a stamp put on it, and then taken to the letter box, usually in batches. Then there would then be a 2-3 day delay before they were delivered, opened, and given to your GP. Often the letters are scanned, and then put in the bin. What a waste of time, money and paper!

What happens from now is that the moment a letter is typed we send it electronically to your GP, and in most cases it appears almost instantaneously in your notes. No wasted paper, no time delays, and it’s stored electronically in your file free from scanning or filing errors. Often my report will get to your doctor before you do!

Argus is secure. It satisfies the National Secure Message Delivery standard, and is compliant with Australian eHealth. I wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t. It’s probably more secure than mail. Argus was recently bought by Telstra Health, and is now installed and running smoothly in our rooms.

If you want to ensure that I can communicate with your GP as efficiently as possible, please ask your GP to send your referral to me via Argus ( That way all future correspondence will be via this method. Otherwise, ask your GP to put their Argus address in your referral and I’ll add them to my address book. If they don’t have Argus, maybe you could ask them to consider installing it or one of the alternatives.

It’s the way of the future.


We’re moving!

So, not the most exciting post you’ve ever read, but you’ll be wishing you remembered it when I don’t answer the door next year! From 1 January 2015, I’m packing up my rooms and moving to:

Epworth Medical Centre
Suite 2.7
173 Lennox St
Richmond VIC 3121

Phone and fax numbers will not change – the Telstra people promise.

As well, from February 2015, we will also be offering appointments on Monday mornings at:

Medical Specialists on Collins
Level 4
250 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000

Infuse (rhBMP-2) and the C-word

The “take home” message from my post about the YODA studies was that Infuse was as effective as autologous bone graft at establishing a fusion.  There were concerns raised though about the number of people who were reported as having being diagnosed with a cancer, and on the surface of it there was good reason to be suspicious.  BMP’s stimulate cells to grow, and that’s what cancers do – they grow uncontrollably.  Suspicions though are one thing – research was required.

Take any group of people and you can expect a certain proportion to be diagnosed with cancer over a period of time.  Therefore, to see if a drug “causes” (increases the risk of) cancer, you need to compare a treated group to an untreated group and look at how many get diagnosed with cancer over several years.

First out of the blocks with a study was, once again, Eugene J. Carragee, who you may remember was the instigator of the first paper that focussed on the possible risks of using Infuse, that triggered off the YODA studies.  His paper, published here, looked at the data from a study that was used to trial a combination of a new non-compressible matrix with a high dose of Infuse.  In the trial, they compared two groups of people having spinal fusions.  One group received the high-dose infuse, and the other used their own autologous bone graft.  As part of the study they were tracked for several years, so Carragee, et al, looked at the number of people who were diagnosed with a cancer in both groups.  What did they find?

“The incidence rate of cancers was 6.8-fold greater in the rhBMP-2/ CRM group compared with the control group (p = 0.0026).”

WHAT?  The people receiving Infuse had an almost 7 times risk of getting cancer than those that didn’t!  “Infuse causes cancer!”

Well, settle down for a minute.  There’s a couple of things to look at here.  Firstly, the total number of patients in the study was 463, which whittled down to 292 by the five year mark.  The number of patients with a cancer across that whole group was 17, which means that the risk of cancer for the whole group was only 5.8% over five years.  There is also some dispute about how to even measure cancer incidence; if one person gets two cancers, is that one cancer “event”, or two?

This leads to the second point.  Looking at table 1, one patient was diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin, and chronic myelogenous leukaemia.  That one patient accounted for 7 of the cancer events in the Infuse group.  Another 3 events was one patient who had multiple SCC’s.  As an Australian it’s easy to see that if someone presents with a BCC or an SCC, they are then more closely followed to recurrences of those tumours.  BCCs and SCCs are also very common, so it could be that, given the small number of people in the study, the Infuse group were “unlucky” to have two patients with multiple tumours.  Or it could be the other way around…

Lastly, the dose of Infuse was extremely high.  Usually when we use Infuse, the dose is either 8.4mg or 12mg.  The dose in the study was 40mg – three to five times the usual dose.  Clearly, even if it does have some mild carcinogenic effect at 40mg, that may not apply at the lower doses used in Australia.

So that brings us to the other study, “Risk of Cancer After Lumbar Fusion Surgery With Recombinant Human Bone Morphogenic Protein-2 (rh-BMP-2).” written by a gastroenterologist and oncologist – in other words, people least likely to have a conflict of interest.  This paper looked at all lumbar fusions performed in the USA over a five year period where the Medicare record were complete and who didn’t already have a cancer diagnosis: that left them with only 146,278 patients to analyse!  They then looked at any patients who later developed one of the 26 most common cancers, and compared them to the use of a rhBMP, either -2 or -7.  Generally it is thought that the bulk of the use was for rhBMP-2.  So what did they find?

Overall, there was no association of rhBMP admin- istration with cancer incidence (hazard ratio: 0.98, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.95–1.02). Similarly, when individual cancer sites were considered, there were no significant differences between the 2 groups.

In simple terms, they found there was no association between use of a rhBMP and cancer.

So we have two studies to look at.  One looked at high dose rhBMP and only 292 patients.  The other was retrospective, but it looked at 146,278 patients and included all types of lumbar fusion surgery, all doses, all techniques.  Which do I put more credence to?  The latter study.

It is highly unlikely that rhBMP-2 causes cancer.

Chiropractors – struggling to find the subluxation

Many of my patients have either been to a chiropractor, or ask me if they should go and see one.  Some of them are aware that there is some discrepancy between mainstream medicine and chiropractic theory, but aren’t sure of the specifics.  Here’s why I have problems giving an opinion on the matter.

Firstly, there’s two broad categories of chiropractors.  There are those who tend to be younger, who are struggling to define their art form in terms of evidence and reproducibility.  They tend to encourage sensible evidence based principles, concentrate on strengthening the spine, and treat spine-related symptoms.  They are to be encouraged, because it is through them that chiropractors may gain some credibility in the medical community.

Now let’s talk about the others – the “straights”; the vitalistic, intuitive, metaphysical practitioners who remain separate from the mainstream community, and who are determined to remain that way.  The irony is that they are also the one’s wanting to introduce chiropractors to primary health care roles.  I’m reminded of the desire to simultaneously have and eat cake.

A short history lesson…  A gent by the name of DD Palmer apparently cured a man’s deafness in 1895 by performing a manipulation on his neck, and this is the miracle upon which DD made his mark, and from which chiropractic began.  A connection was made, in the minds of some, that diseases come from malalignments within the spine.  Not just some, but all.  They figured that by fixing these malalignments, or “subluxations”, a person could be cured of all sorts of ailments.  Sounds simple, huh?  Sounds like a concept that’s plausible and attractive, especially for those seeking “natural” therapies.

So here’s the kicker.  There are simply no nerves, no pathways at all, that link the cervical spine to the parts of the ear to do with hearing.  There is a cervical (neck) nerve branch that supplies sensation to the skin near the outer part of the ear, but no neck nerve at all within the middle or inner ear.  So how does a manipulation of the neck affect hearing?  Well, it can’t.  No way.  It’s just not plausible.  No matter how hard you want to believe it, it just not possible.

When the Wright brothers built the first successful powered aeroplane, they formed the basis for the development of aircraft we see today, and people can still build replicas of the plane and fly it.  The scientific principles haven’t changed – techniques and understandings have deepened, but the Wright Flyer can still fly today.

Likewise, if DD Palmer was able to cure deafness in 1895, then modern chiropractors should be able to do this as well – they should be able to fly the first plane.  According to my checks, there is little evidence that this trick hasn’t been performed since.  Why not?  DD Palmer did it, so why aren’t chiropractors curing deaf people world wide?  Surely that should be the first therapy taught to young chiropractors!

If you want another reason to doubt the concept, then what about high quadriplegics, like Christopher Reeve, who had perfect hearing, but a non-functioning spinal cord.  Not malaligned or subluxed – not functioning at all.  So when you hear someone tell you this story, just remember that you’re hearing it without using your spinal cord.

Some chiropractors insist that adjusting the spine can, indeed, fix your hearing, your diabetes, your child’s autism and asthma, and “enhance” your immune system.  They invented the concept of “innate intelligence” to explain it, which is some sort of life force that cannot be seen, does not follow nerve pathways, yet can somehow be manipulated and adjusted by cracking a person’s neck or back.  How is it that something, that cannot be seen or touched or imaged, be “adjusted”?  How can you know that the supposed “adjustment” is being performed correctly, healing the “innate”, when it cannot even be measured?  You’ll need to ask a chiropractor that.  It’s a convenient and intuitive concept, but completely without evidence.  None.  And much evidence to the contrary.  It’s a fairy tale, designed to make people believe.

Many chiropractors claim that they can help with middle ear infections in children, but once again, there are simply no nerves that come from the neck and go to the drainage tube (Eustachian tube) of the middle ear.  They are simply not connected.  No nerves in the cervical spine goes to or comes from the Eustachian tube.  Is it the “innate” again?  It must be, because it’s not anatomy.

At some point you’ll probably come across the term subluxation.  This is a chiropractic subluxation which implies an abnormal movement of the facet joint.  It is not visible on X-ray or MRI studies.  This is opposed to the subluxations that I treat, which are demonstrable with imaging.  If the chiropractic subluxation was the cause of disease, then why aren’t people with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis riddled with disease?  After all, their spines are abnormally curved in all sorts of directions and have abnormal and unbalanced movements.  Long term studies of these patients however show no difference in their health compared to the general population (unless the curvature impacts on their breathing, but this is only for people with very large curves).  In the UK, the General Chiropractic Council stated that the chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex “is an historical concept” and “is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns.”  So throw that out as well.  If you want to respect your chiropractor, ask them to never speak of subluxation.

Some chiropractors go so far as to claim that by adjusting the spine they can “boost” the immune system, to the point that you do not need vaccination.  This is a very attractive sounding claim, but again, seriously flawed.  There is simply no proof for the claim.  Nada.  And what if by “boosting” the immune system, it brings about auto-immune disease like rheumatoid arthritis?  Do you want someone doing that to you?  The only proven way to reduce the risk of many deadly infectious diseases is – you guessed it – vaccination.

The vitalistic chiropractors claim to address the body as a whole (vitalism), and that conventional doctors only see the body as a sum of parts.  Doctors are fully aware of the entire body functioning as a whole, and any claim to the contrary is just nonsense.  I’ve seen chiropractors claim that the SF-36 score (a whole-body health score) is only used by holistic or vitalistic practitioners like themselves, but even a quick browse of the literature shows that scores like this are used all the time by all branches of medicine.  Contrary to their claim, conventional doctors receive an education that covers all aspects of the human body.  To become a highly specialised spinal surgeon I’ve had to pass exams in fields as diverse as immunology, renal physiology, biomechanics, radiology, epidemiology, anatomy, pharmacology and pathology.  Who is “holistic” now?

Let’s be honest, if your chiropractor mentions the words innate or subluxation, or attempts to provide you treatment that isn’t directly related to spinal complaints, then you’re dealing with a non-evidence based practitioner.  That may be fine for you, if that’s what you’re looking for.  Enjoy it.  But please don’t expect it to produce anything more than the placebo effect.  If that’s what you’re willing to spend money on, then that’s your choice.

As you may appreciate, there are many chiropractors actively seeking to establish themselves as evidence based practitioners.  They are to be encouraged, and if they can produce good evidence, then I’ll be the first to applaud them.

Only once a treatment modality, no matter what it is (chiropractic, physiotherapy, homeopathy, and conventional medicine) can describe it’s mechanism of action, its effectiveness and its safety profile, will it, can it, should it, be accepted.  Life is too short, and dare I say, the health dollar is too limited.  Show me the evidence, and I will embrace.


Can back pain be cured with antibiotics?

Over the next few months many of you will hear about a paper that has just been published in the European Spine Journal. The study, from the University of Southern Denmark, suggest that back pain can be cured with a 100 day course of antibiotics, and certainly they provide some good evidence for that.  Certainly some surgeons are calling for a Nobel prize, but I don’t think it’s that significant yet.  Maybe if you operate on a lot of people with back pain it’s significant, but those of you who know me, know that surgery for back pain is a last resort.

So, what about the study?

Well, it looked at people who had Modic type 1 changes on their MRI after having a disc herniation, whether or not they had surgery for the herniation.  A prior study from the same team, and others, showed that many disc herniations (about half) are infected with a very low grade bacteria called Proprionibacterium acnes which also causes… yep – acne.  It has a peculiar ability to be benign enough not to produce an acute inflammatory reaction, but at the same time it produces propionic acid, which is known to be able to dissolve bone.  Wow.  What a bug.

Now, modic type 1 changes are only about 10-40% of modic changes, the other types being 2, the most common, and 3, the least common.  Modic type 1 changes appear dark on the T1 films, and bright on the T2 films, and represent oedema.  One way of remembering this is that type 1 changes appear the same as the CSF.  See below.

Modic Type 1 changes

An example of Modic Type 1 changes

Anyway, back to the study.  They randomised the participants into three groups.  One group received a placebo, and the other two received the antibiotic (amoxicillin–clavulanate (500 mg/125 mg) tablets three times a day, at 8 h intervals, for 100 days) in two difference doses.  They found that the antibiotic subjects improved remarkably well, usually beginning at 6-8 weeks after commencement, after 100 days, and it appears that the improvement lasted out to one year – well after the antibiotics had ceased being taken.  Within the placebo group not much changed at all.  In addition, the amount of modic change visible on their MRI’s also decreased, which supports the notion that it is due to a chronic low grade infection.

Were there problems with the antibiotics?  Mostly gastrointestinal of nature – loose bowel movements and increased flatus.  Thanks for asking.

So what does that mean?  Well, if I had type 1 modic changes and back pain, I’d be considering this study carefully.  However, as a public health measure, we need to realise that this isn’t the cure for ALL back pain – maybe only 10 to 40% of back pain patients.  We know that back pain has many causes, but I think it’s just amazing that this subset may have found a cure.  Of course, we need to see that these results can be repeated.  Hold back on the Nobel prize for now…


Updated Patient Information page

Hi there.
Well after some time I’ve managed to put together a page of what I think is some of the best information on the spine available.

There’s information on spinal conditions, prevention, exercises for your back, and descriptions of operations. There’s text pages, videos and brochures. I ask you to have a look and give me some feedback. Too much? Anything else you’d like to see? Can you find things easily, or not?

I hope you get something out of it.


How to look after your spine – updated!

Hi all.

Some of you will remember my four rules about looking after your spine. Four rules never really sat too well with me. Even though it’s an even number and the square of two, it needed to be five – i’m a decimal kind of guy after all. So after much deliberation, and some common sense, I’ve figured out my FIVE rules for looking after your back.

1. Don’t smoke.

2. Lose weight.

3. Do “Core” Exercises.

4. Maintain good posture, and lift things with a good technique, and at last

5. Avoid aggravating activities. This is the one that took me some time to realise needed to be in here. How many times do people say that their back is fine until they do gardening / lift an engine block / etc. It sounds simple, but if you can avoid those activities that cause back pain, then that’s a very simple and drug free way of looking after your back. Some activities can’t be avoided, sure, but try and not do the things that hurt. Does that mean you’re getting old? Well, how do I say it? I know – I wont.

All the best,


Isthmic Spondylolisthesis


Many young people suffer from back pain but it is usually the kind of pain that gets better by itself over a few days to weeks. Occasionally, though, back pain can persist and it may become worth investigating, especially if it is associated with leg pain, or “sciatica”. A particular condition that can cause lower back pain and sciatica in younger people is isthmic spondylolisthesis. Well what on earth is that, you ask.

Isthmic spondylolisthesis, or IS, for short, is a condition that you might think of as a stress fracture in your lower back. It usually develops when you’re a teenager, and it occurs more frequently in sportspeople that perform a lot of extension activities like gymnasts, fast bowlers and baseball pitchers, but it can occur in people who don’t play any sport either. If it is picked up when you’re really young sometimes the problem, or “defect”, can be repaired. Unfortunately, it often goes unrecognised and only later in life becomes symptomatic.

The defect is in a part of the spine called the “isthmus”, or “pars interarticularis” (pars for short). It is most common at L5, and most commonly leads to a spondylolisthesis, or “slip”, or L5 on the sacrum.

The progress of isthmic spondylolisthesis

isthmic spondylolisthesis

As you can see in the diagram to the right, the pars links the L5 vertebra to the sacrum. If this is broken, the L5 vertebra is only held onto the sacrum by ligaments, and these over time stretch and may fail. This includes the disc between L5 and the sacrum. If you think about it, the whole weight of your upper body – your head, arm, thorax and abdomen – is all bearing down on this segment of your spine, so it’s no surprise that over time, if there’s no bone holding them together, that the ligaments will fail.

So that’s what it is. What can be done about it? You’ll have to wait for my next post…