What’s Your Surgeon’s Score for ‘Complication-Free’?

A newly launched website tracks the complication rates of about 17,000 surgeons across the country. The idea is to help patients choose the person who’s going to operate on them based on his or her safety and performance records in comparison with their peers.

The database, Surgeon Scorecard, was established by ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news site. It analyzed 2.3 million hip and knee replacements, spinal fusions, gallbladder removals, prostate resections and prostate removals done between 2009 and 2013 on patients in Medicare, which pays for two out of every five U.S. hospital stays.

Complications directly related to the operations included infections, blood clots, misaligned orthopedic devices and uncontrolled bleeding. ProPublica counted only cases in which the patient died in the hospital or had a complication requiring readmission within 30 days.

The analysis factored in patients’ health and age. To qualify for comparison, surgeons had to have performed a certain number of the given procedure within five years, so that apples could be compared with apples, so to speak. The team analyzed only elective surgeries because they typically involve healthier patients with the best odds of a smooth recovery.

About 11 in 100 doctors accounted for about 1 in 4 complications, but the rates for hundreds of surgeons were double or triple the national average. About 63,000 Medicare patients suffered serious harm, and 3,405 died after they had procedures generally considered low risk.

The cost of complications was considerable: Taxpayers paid hospitals $645 million solely for readmissions (inpatients who had to be readmitted within 30 days of discharge due to complications).

Another important finding was that even when hospitals identify problems with doctors’ competency or practices, significant barriers impair disciplining the poor performers. Their rights of due process prolong what ProPublica deemed even clear-cut cases.

ProPublica’s analysis has some limitations,” it acknowledged. “Patients covered by private insurance were not included, which in some instances omits a substantial portion of a surgeon’s practice. And our definition of complications does not cover other types of patient harm, such as diagnostic errors or readmissions more than 30 days after an operation.”

Among the site reviewers who considered Surgeon Scorecard’s limitations as problematic was the writer of the Skeptical Scalpel blog He or she is a retired surgeon who said that “big data is not enough” to make sweeping comparisons about surgeon competence and safety.

“It took me less than a minute to discover some interesting omissions from the application,” the anonymous blogger wrote. He/she said that one procedure, laparoscopic cholecystectomy (minimally invasive removal of the gall bladder), was the only general surgery procedure listed, and that approximately one-third of the hospitals in his/her state were not surveyed.

“It looks like the problem is that using Medicare fee-for-service data does not yield enough surgeons performing 20 or more cases in some categories such as laparoscopic cholecystectomy for the five years included in the database.”

At one of the biggest hospitals in his/her state, “apparently only one surgeon performed 20 laparoscopic cholecystectomies on fee-for-service Medicare patients in the five years studied; 23 other surgeons were listed as having performed fewer than 20 laparoscopic cholecystectomies on patients in the target population. I don’t see how patients who want to use that hospital for their gallbladder surgery will benefit from the Surgeon Scorecard.”

But he/she understands why ProPublica chose that procedure to review. “They needed to select a procedure that was done frequently enough to yield a sufficient number of cases for analysis. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the Medicare fee-for-service data and the low complication rate of the procedure, the Surgeon Scorecard is useless for anyone looking to compare general surgeons.”

He/she finds similar shortcomings with prostate surgery, a procedure also chosen because it’s done a lot. But many surgeons of the blogger’s acquaintance also didn’t perform 20 cases on fee-for-service Medicare patients, so they escaped review.

“Perhaps the next iteration of the scorecard will utilize a data set that contains enough patient and surgeon records to make a meaningful comparison.”

Those are valid points. But that doesn’t mean Surgeon Scorecard lacks value for people who want to know about potentially dangerous surgeons before they commit to their care.

Like the surgeon at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is renowned for excellence and a commitment to patient safety. He had more complications from prostate removal surgery than all 10 of his colleagues combined even though they performed nine times as many of them.

Like the Florida surgeon who performed spinal fusions at Citrus Memorial, which was rated among the top 100 nationally for spinal procedures, but he had one of the highest rates of complications in the country for spinal fusions. His two colleagues had rates among the lowest for postoperative problems such as infections and internal bleeding.

Like the chairman of surgery and medical director for orthopedics at Chicago’s Weiss Memorial Hospital who had among the nation’s highest complication rates for knee replacement operations.

“It’s conventional wisdom that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hospitals,” according to the ProPublica story, “and that selecting a good one can protect patients from the kinds of medical errors that injure or kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

“But … when it comes to elective operations, it is much more important to pick the right surgeon.”

Many hospitals don’t track the complication rates of individual surgeons, so they can’t exercise any quality control over those who don’t measure up. The government doesn’t track doctors either.

The database reflects the fact that some subpar performers work at elite medical centers considered among the nation’s best, and that some surgeons with impressively low complication rates work at small-town clinics.

ProPublica found that overall complication rates were relatively low, ranging from 2 in 100 to 4 in 100 procedures, depending on the type of surgery. “But experts who reviewed ProPublica’s results say they strongly suggest that the typical surgeon’s rate can and should be significantly lower,” according to the story.

For example, more than 750 surgeons who did at least 50 operations did not record a single complication in the five years covered by the analysis. And more than 1,400 had only one.

Rating sites other than Surgeon Scorecard do exist, but without a report as thorough as ProPublica’s it’s difficult to know exactly how the databases were developed and their shortcomings. One new one was established by Consumers’ Checkbook, a nonprofit whose site enables consumers to type in a Zip code and search for the top-performing surgeons in 14 types of major surgery.

Its ratings also rely on Medicare claims data from more than 4 million surgeries performed by more than 50,000 doctors. Its criteria include death rates, other bad outcomes, such as infections, falls or other complications and recommendations by other doctors
It’s worth a patient’s time to learn about their surgeon’s track record. Certainly George Lynch thinks so. He nearly died from complications after a 2013 knee replacement performed by a surgeon at New York Methodist Hospital who had one of the highest complication rates on knee replacements in New York State.

Lynch contracted multiple postsurgical infections, went into septic shock and almost died. Now, he needs another knee replacement and, as ProPublica reported, “This time, he’s peppering his doctors with questions and said performance data will help guide his choice of a surgeon and a hospital.”

“I’d rather be a difficult live patient,” he said, “than a compliant dead patient.”

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