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OBJECTIVES: To illustrate the need for better evaluation of surgical procedures, we investigated the use and cost of subacromial decompression in England over the last decade compared with other countries and explored how this related to the conduct and outcomes of randomised, placebo-controlled clinical trials. DESIGN: Longitudinal observational study using Hospital Episode Statistics linked to Payment by Results tariffs in England, 2007/2008 to 2016/2017. SETTING: Hospital care in England; Finland; New York State, USA; Florida State, USA and Western Australia. PARTICIPANTS: Patients with subacromial shoulder pain. INTERVENTIONS: Subacromial decompression. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: National procedure rates, costs and variation between clinical commissioning groups in England. RESULTS: Without robust clinical evidence, the use of subacromial decompression in England increased by 91% from 15 112 procedures (30 per 100 000 population) in 2007/2008, to 28 802 procedures (52 per 100 000 population) in 2016/2017, costing over £125 million per year. Rates of use of subacromial decompression are even higher internationally: Finland (131 per 100 000 in 2011), Florida State (130 per 100 000 in 2007), Western Australia (115 per 100 000 in 2013) and New York State (102 per 100 000 in 2006). Two randomised placebo-controlled trials have recently (2018) shown the procedure to be no more effective than placebo or conservative approaches. Health systems appear unable to avoid the rapid widespread use of procedures of unknown effectiveness, and methods for ceasing ineffective treatments are under-developed. CONCLUSIONS: Without good evidence, nearly 30 000 subacromial decompression procedures have been commissioned each year in England, costing over £1 billion since 2007/2008. Even higher rates of procedures are carried out in countries with less regulated health systems. High quality randomised trials need to be initiated before widespread adoption of promising operative procedures to avoid overtreatment and wasted resources, and methods to prevent or desist the use of ineffective procedures need to be expedited.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ Open

Publication Date





England, Subacromial decompression, arthroscopy, commissioning, shoulder surgery, Decompression, Surgical, England, Female, Health Care Costs, Humans, Longitudinal Studies, Male, Medical Overuse, Middle Aged, Shoulder Impingement Syndrome