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Volunteer Surgeons Add Uninsured US Patients to "Third World" Joint Replacement Efforts

A Chicago orthopedic surgery team has stepped in to fill the gap when local public hospitals stopped providing hip and knee replacements. Another Chicago orthopedist questions whether such limited efforts are enough to meet the real need, or to solve the fundamental problem.

For the past 7 years, Operation Walk Chicago has been setting up free joint replacement programs for underserved people in places like India and Nepal. This year they've been doing the same for people who suffer for lack of joint surgery closer to home, now that the only two Cook Country hospitals that used to provide joint replacement for the uninsured have stopped doing so.

An article in the Chicago Tribune describes a new partnership between surgeons at Northwestern University's Fineburg School of Medicine, Norwegian American Hospital of Humboldt Park, and local fund-raisers. Eight people received new joints in March through the program, all of them disabled because of joint pain but unable to afford the surgery. Operation Walk Chicago hopes their efforts will expand to include other local hospitals.

They're not alone in offering orthopedic surgery on a charity basis to uninsured Americans. The Oklahoma Foundation for Orthopedic Health, a nonprofit branch of the Orthopedic Institute of Oklahoma City, last year provided surgery for a patient disabled with a back injury who had to quit work as a result and lost her insurance in the process. In Austin, Texas, retired orthopedist William Taylor has undertaken the task of expanding the reach of an orthopedic clinic to helping uninsured patients find the care they need.

Another Chicago orthopedic surgeon mentioned in the Chicago Tribune article, Daniel Ivankovich, also helps patients to fight Medicaid denials of joint surgery. But he says this is treating the symptom, rather than the disease.

Ivankovich, who works with the Chicago Musculoskeletal Initiative to offer holistic care and patient education programs, says more should be done to focus on the underlying problems that lead to joint problems among the uninsured in the first place, such as obesity.