There’s a high-profile and important paper in JAMA this week by Sunil Eappen and colleagues. The study looked at surgical discharges during 2010 from a single 12-hospital system and came to the conclusion that admissions that include a surgical complication were associated with a higher profit (defined as the contribution margin) than admissions without complications. The authors conclude that this creates a disincentive for hospitals preventing surgical complications since they might see reduced profits as a result. This is a very provocative finding and it’s getting a lot of well-placed media attention, as you might expect. There is an important caveat with the study that I would like to highlight.
In the study, the authors report that admissions with surgical complications result in $39,000 higher “profits” if the care is reimbursed via a private payer and $1800 if Medicare is the payer. However, as Dr. Reinhardt correctly noted in the editorial,
“Allocating profit and loss is exquisitely sensitive to the many assumptions made in economic modeling and must be performed carefully to provide useful evidence about the financial ramifications of surgical complications and other services.“
His concern dealt mostly with how the authors allocated fixed costs in their calculations. My concern has to do with what the authors assumed happens to an empty bed once a patient is discharged in a US hospital.
I recently cared for Ms. K, an elderly black woman who had been sitting in the intensive care unit for more than a month. She was, frail, weak and intermittently delirious, with a hopeful smile. She had a big problem: She had undergone an esophagectomy at an outside hospital and suffered a horrible complication, leading her to be transferred to The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Ms. K had a large hole in her posterior trachea, far too large to directly fix, extending from her vocal cords to where her trachea splits into right and left bronchus. She had a trachea tube so she can breathe, and her esophagus was tied off high in her throat so oral secretions containing bacteria did not fall through the hole and infect her heart and lungs. It is unclear if she will survive, and the costs of her medical care will be in the millions.
Ms K’s complication is tragic—and largely preventable. For the type of surgery she had, there is a strong volume-outcome relationship: Those hospitals that perform more than 12 cases a year have significantly lower mortality. This finding, based on significant research, is made transparent by the Leapfrog Group and several insurers, who use a performance measure that combines the number of cases performed with the mortality rate. Hopkins Hospital performs more than 100 of these procedures a year, and across town, the University of Maryland tallies about 60. The hospital where Ms. K had her surgery did one last year. One. While the exact relationship between volume and outcome is imprecise, it is no wonder she had a complication.
Ms. K is not alone. Of the 45 Maryland hospitals that perform this surgery, 56 percent had fewer than 12 cases last year and 38 percent had fewer than six.
“I died last week, just a month after I said goodbye to you all from this very desk. I had a long and happy life – well, as happy as a cranky old guy could ever be. 92. Not bad. And gotta say, seeing my Margie, and Walter, and all my old friends again is great.
But then I read what killed me: ‘serious complications following minor surgery.’
Now what the heck is that?
Nobody gets run over by a ‘serious complication.’ You don’t hear about a guy getting shot in the chest with a ‘serious complication.’ Sure, I didn’t expect to live forever (well, maybe only a little bit), but I was sorta going for passing out some Saturday night into my strip steak at that great restaurant on Broadway. Maybe nodding off in my favorite chair, dreaming of reeling in a 40-pound striper. You know, not waking up. This whole ‘death by complication’ thing is just so, I don’t know … vague and annoying.
Here’s something else that bothers me. This note I got a few days ago from a lady who says she’s a fan. She talked to a reporter at a national newspaper the other day. Asked the reporter, basically, what kind of complication ‘’did me in’? The reporter said ‘No idea what killed him. Unless someone dies unusually young, we don’t deal with the cause of death.’
Now I know reporters have lots to do. I was one myself before they started paying me to just say what I think. But I guess what this reporter means is, if I was 29 instead of 92, they mighta thought it was worth asking why I went in for minor surgery and died of ‘serious complications.’