Can even experienced orthopaedic surgeons predict who will benefit from surgery when patients present with degenerative meniscal tears? A survey of 194 orthopaedic surgeons who made 3880 predictions

Objectives To examine the ability of surgeons to predict the outcome of treatment for meniscal tears by arthroscopic partial meniscectomy (APM) and exercise therapy in middle-aged patients.

Design and setting Electronic survey. Orthopaedic surgeon survey participants were presented 20 patient profiles. These profiles were derived from a randomised clinical trial comparing APM with exercise therapy in middle-aged patients with symptomatic non-obstructive meniscal tears. From each treatment group (APM and exercise therapy), we selected five patients with the best (responders) and five patients with the worst (non-responders) knee function after treatment. 1111 orthopaedic surgeons and residents in the Netherlands and Australia were invited to participate in the survey.

Interventions For each of the 20 patient profiles, surgeons (unaware of treatment allocation) had to choose between APM and exercise therapy as preferred treatment and subsequently had to estimate the expected change in knee function for both treatments on a 5-point Likert Scale. Finally, surgeons were asked which patient characteristics affected their treatment choice.

Main outcomes The primary outcome was the surgeons’ percentage correct predictions. We also compared this percentage between experienced knee surgeons and other orthopaedic surgeons, and between treatment responders and non-responders.

Results We received 194 (17%) complete responses for all 20 patient profiles, resulting in 3880 predictions. Overall, 50.0% (95% CI 39.6% to 60.4%) of the predictions were correct, which equals the proportion expected by chance. Experienced knee surgeons were not better in predicting outcome than other orthopaedic surgeons (50.4% vs 49.5%, respectively; p=0.29). The percentage correct predictions was lower for patient profiles of non-responders (34%; 95% CI 21.3% to 46.6%) compared with responders (66.0%; 95% CI 57.0% to 75.0%; p=0.01).

In general, bucket handle tears, knee locking and failed non-operative treatment directed the surgeons’ choice towards APM, while higher level of osteoarthritis, degenerative aetiology and the absence of locking complaints directed the surgeons’ choice towards exercise therapy.

Conclusions Surgeons’ criteria for deciding that surgery was indicated did not pass statistical examination. This was true regardless of a surgeon’s experience. These results suggest that non-surgical management is appropriate as first-line therapy in middle-aged patients with symptomatic non-obstructive meniscal tears.

Clinical trial registration ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03462134.