COVID-19 and the rise of virtual medicine in spine surgery: a worldwide study

Eur Spine J. 2021 Aug;30(8):2133-2142. doi: 10.1007/s00586-020-06714-y. Epub 2021 Jan 16.


Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic forced many surgeons to adopt "virtual medicine" practices, defined as telehealth services for patient care and online platforms for continuing medical education. The purpose of this study was to assess spine surgeon reliance on virtual medicine during the pandemic and to discuss the future of virtual medicine in spine surgery.

Methods: A comprehensive survey addressing demographic data and virtual medicine practices was distributed to spine surgeons worldwide between March 27, 2020, and April 4, 2020.

Results: 902 spine surgeons representing seven global regions responded. 35.6% of surgeons were identified as "high telehealth users," conducting more than half of clinic visits virtually. Predictors of high telehealth utilization included working in an academic practice (OR = 1.68, p = 0.0015) and practicing in Europe/North America (OR 3.42, p < 0.0001). 80.1% of all surgeons were interested in online education. Dedicating more than 25% of one's practice to teaching (OR = 1.89, p = 0.037) predicted increased interest in online education. 26.2% of respondents were identified as "virtual medicine surgeons," defined as surgeons with both high telehealth usage and increased interest in online education. Living in Europe/North America and practicing in an academic practice increased odds of being a virtual medicine surgeon by 2.28 (p = 0.002) and 1.15 (p = 0.0082), respectively. 93.8% of surgeons reported interest in a centralized platform facilitating surgeon-to-surgeon communication.

Conclusion: COVID-19 has changed spine surgery by triggering rapid adoption of virtual medicine practices. The demonstrated global interest in virtual medicine suggests that it may become part of the "new normal" for surgeons in the post-pandemic era.

Keywords: COVID-19; Coronavirus; New technologies; Online education; Spine surgery; Telehealth; Telemedicine; Virtual medicine.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Spine
  • Telemedicine*