'The patients are deferred; they're not going away,' says Life Spine CEO on coronavirus

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Huntley, Ill.-based Life Spine teamed with Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Gizmo Medical on March 23 to produce surgical masks and gowns to meet the growing demand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Life Spine develops devices for the surgical treatment of spinal disorders while Gizmo Medical typically manufacturers orthopedic surgical tools.

Michael Butler, CEO of Life Spine, spoke to Becker's Spine Review about the company's transition to produce PPE and how its spine operations will be impacted by the coronavirus.

Question: How much of a pivot is this for Life Spine to produce these surgical masks and gowns?

Michael Butler: We've done this in the past. In a former life, about 20 years ago, we were in this marketplace. However, it is a deviation from our current business model to meet demands that are more imperative right now.

Q: How many of these PPE products do you anticipate Life Spine producing in the coming weeks?

MB: We've gotten requests for about four million and I suspect that more will come. It really depends on how the coronavirus continues to factor out. If the U.S. hospital system gets slammed with patients that require admission, the demand is going to go even higher. 

It's sad that hospitals in the U.S. are talking about using bandanas as surgical masks. It's not our core business by any means. We're not in that marketplace at all but we have the access and capabilities to help out, so we are. I think anyone who has access to produce PPE right now should do it. 

Q: Where have the majority of requests for this PPE come from?  

MB: It's really across the board. Most of them are private, which is incredible, but there have been a few government requests. 

Q: How will the company's spine production be impacted during this time?

MB: We have a very tight production schedule. The way we run is very efficient. Obviously there has been an impact, but it's not the stuff coming in — it's the stuff going out. Elective procedures have begun to be deferred and this week we will see a mass deferral of those procedures to preserve bed space and PPE. What hospitals are worried about is a wave of patients requiring admission for being really ill, so we don't want to clog the system up with elective patients.

Q: How does Life Spine plan to push through this challenging financial period? 

MB: I think it's a challenge for everyone. We're somewhat in an area that is not necessarily elective. For example, patients with a myelopathic issue will need to be operated on. Scale will wane out in the marketplace but the reality is if you have an efficient operation, you can plan accordingly. That's how you have to weather the storm. 

It's about having good access to the marketplace too and working with customers to ensure everything is properly set up through the supply chain. The patients are deferred; they're not going away. I think the biggest issue is that if your spend is too great in the good times then you may find that that becomes a real problem during the bad times.

Q: How are the company's employees transitioning?

MB: We've got about 70 employees. We've been offsetting work schedules and effectively allowing for telecommuting where possible. This week is going to be light because everyone in Illinois, where we are located, is on a stay-at-home lockdown. We have essential employees that are managing because we are still supporting surgery. ASCs are still doing surgery where they can and we're continuing to supply and support cases.

It really has been phenomenal to see everyone figuring out ways to pull together. I think our surgeons, nurses and hospital staff will get through this. However, it's really the sentiment of patients and how they feel about coming back into the system — are they going to be afraid to come into these healthcare facilities for fear of being sick? I think that's where the roads get a little bumpier. But if anyone can help out, they probably should. 

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