What is a foot?
Underneath the skin, tendons such as the Achilles and muscles such as the tibialis posterior run from the lower leg toward the heel and toe, complicating any attempt at a simple definition.
Mississippi podiatrists are fighting for a new law that they claim would reflect that anatomical reality by expanding their scope of practice to include the ankle. They say the proposal would allow them to offer more comprehensive care for diabetes complications, preventing amputations, and to treat conditions such as Achilles tendonitis and ankle fractures, expanding patients’ access to care.
The ankle itself is comprised of one foot bone – the talus – and two leg bones, the tibia and the fibula. And Mississippi is now just one of two states where podiatrists lack “ankle privileges,” as the American Podiatric Medical Association puts it.
“That’s the whole thing—they think you’re a foot specialist so you’re just supposed to stop at the talus?” said Dr. Charles Caplis, the owner of Foot Specialists of South Mississippi and vice president of the Mississippi Podiatric Medical Association, who came to the Capitol Tuesday morning to talk with lawmakers about the proposal.
But they are facing opposition from the Mississippi Orthopaedic Society, whose members currently have an effective monopoly on ankle surgeries in the state.
“The Mississippi Orthopaedic Society believes all practitioners who provide surgical care should meet the uniform educational and training standards established by the [American College of Graduate Medical Education],” wrote Dr. Bryan Fagan, the society’s president, in an email to Mississippi Today. “The safest option for citizens of Mississippi is to ensure their foot and ankle surgeons are educated, trained, and credentialed by the same standards as every other medical and surgical specialty.”
Podiatrists in Mississippi and beyond say they’re not surprised by that position, which claims they lack the right training and experience to perform ankle surgeries. The American Medical Association generally opposes scope of practice expansions that allow professionals other than doctors of medicine and osteopathic medicine to perform more services.
In Massachusetts, the only other state with similar restrictions on podiatrists’ scope still in place, the big hurdle has also been opposition from the orthopedists who perform foot and ankle surgery, said Dr. James Christina, executive director of the American Podiatric Medical Association.
“It is about competition for the same patients essentially,” he said.
On Tuesday, Caplis and Dr. Steven Georgian, a podiatrist in Lucedale, stood in the Capitol rotunda to make the argument that the status quo for lower leg care in Mississippi isn’t working. Georgian, who completed his training in Ohio and Pennsylvania, moved back to Mississippi because he wanted to fight for ankle privileges.
Nearly 15% of Mississippi adults have diabetes, the second-highest rate in the country. The disease can damage blood vessels, increasing the risk of wounds that won’t heal, and nerves, creating numbness in the feet that makes it harder for people to realize they have a cut or blister– all putting people at risk of amputation. Mississippians have high amputation rates, and nationally Black patients are three times likelier to lose a limb than others. Within five years of an amputation, patients are likely to die.
With an expanded scope of practice, podiatrists say they could treat those issues more comprehensively and reduce amputations.
Bringing Mississippi’s laws in line with other states would also help bring more podiatrists to the state, they argue, which would improve access for people with diabetes. In 2020, there were only 67 licensed podiatrists in the entire state, according to the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, and not all of them practice.
Christina, of the national association, shared data showing that Mississippi has one podiatrist for every 32,500, while Florida, “which has a very good ankle law,” has one for every 10,300. (Neighboring Alabama, which just changed its law last year to include the ankle, has one for every 30,000.)
State code currently limits the practice of podiatric medicine to “conditions of the human foot.” The proposal would add the words “and ankle, and their governing and related structures, including the muscles or tendons of the lower leg governing the functions of the foot and ankle.” It would also label podiatrists as physicians.
And it would require any podiatrist performing “conservative and surgical treatments” to have received training at an accredited program.
Christina said that when podiatrists first began performing surgeries, they stuck to the foot. But their training has evolved to include ankle surgery, which also makes sense anatomically.
“The foot and ankle become a little bit tough to distinguish,” he said.
Caplis offered a rebuttal to the idea that podiatrists aren’t equipped to perform ankle surgery: Maybe that was true in the past, but it no longer is. Podiatrists get four years of graduate medical education and spend three years in a hospital-based residency that includes training in surgery.
“Medicine advances,” he said. “It’s called society, and civilization. We’re not asking for more than what we’re trained to do.”
This isn’t the first time Mississippi podiatrists have sought to expand the legal limits of their work.
Angela Weathersby, executive director of the state podiatry association, said they began the push in around 2017, and a similar proposal was nearly over the finish line before the pandemic. Now, they’re trying to rebuild momentum.
Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, has supported it in the past because he thinks it could help reduce amputations.
“Save a limb, save a life,” he said.
John Higgins traveled to the Capitol from Biloxi on Tuesday to stand with Caplis and Georgian. As a diabetic, he saw doctor after doctor to treat wounds on his legs. They sent him to the podiatrist for what they thought was a callus. But there turned out to be an ulcer underneath. Higgins also had Charcot foot, a type of nerve damage that can cause joint bones in the foot to collapse and increase the risk of infection.
Caplis said that on two different occasions, Higgins was admitted to the ER and a surgeon wanted to amputate his leg. Instead, Higgins went to see Caplis and was able to keep the limb.
That’s a common pattern, Caplis said.
“You go get admitted and they want to cut it off,” he said. “And then I’m having to say, ‘No, no, no, okay. He just needs to be stabilized for a minute. We can work on this.’”
Read original article by clicking here.