Are "Free Flaps" "Free" Flaps?

J Reconstr Microsurg. 2022 May;38(4):292-295. doi: 10.1055/s-0041-1732429. Epub 2021 Aug 17.


Background: Even standard microvascular tissue transfers are time consuming, require great skill and intensity, and can be stressful. Not surprisingly, work-related relative value units are considered by many microsurgeons to be suboptimal. Some might even say that "free flaps" indeed really are "free" flaps.

Methods: A retrospective review of related finances was undertaken for all free flaps performed in a single surgeon private practice during the latest possible year (2014) that included a complete 5-year follow-up to insure receipt of all expected reimbursements from accounts receivable. There were 61 free flaps available; but arbitrarily 12 free flaps were excluded since postmastectomy breast reconstruction always received mandatory insurance payment, as were additional two cases done pro bono as part of an international educational service. This left 47 free flaps to permit determination of gross payments, if any.

Results: Compensation summated for three distinct time intervals for all free flaps was preoperative: $10,855.92 (mean: $230.98/flap); intraoperative: $117,015.46 (mean: $2,489.69/flap); and postoperative: $45,296.28 (mean: $963.75/flap). Range of gross payment for the free flap portion only was 529.65 to $4,503.71. Total overall revenue received was $173,167.66 (mean: $3,684.42/flap).

Conclusion: A true benefit cost-analysis even if microsurgery specific expenses could be estimated would be inaccurate, so that mean net income for each free flap could not be determined. Albeit a minimal gross payment was obtained for some free flap procedures, in no instance was there zero reimbursement. Based on that fact, there were no truly "free" free flaps in this private practice experience, which should encourage the younger surgeon to realize that economic viability is possible so that their enthusiasm for reconstructive microsurgery can be sustained.

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms*
  • Female
  • Free Tissue Flaps* / blood supply
  • Humans
  • Mammaplasty* / methods
  • Mastectomy
  • Microsurgery / methods
  • Plastic Surgery Procedures* / methods
  • Postoperative Complications
  • Retrospective Studies