More hospitals are meeting the surgical volume threshold, a key patient safety measure, although there is still room for growth.
– Adherence to key patient safety protocol during high-risk surgery may be getting better, but steps lay ahead for organizations delivering a slate of certain medical procedures, according to a new report from the Leapfrog Group.
The report, Safety in Numbers: Hospital Performance on Leapfrog’s Surgical Volume Standard Based on Results of the 2019 Leapfrog Hospital Survey, looked at how hospitals adhere to certain patient safety protocol when delivering one of eight common but high-risk surgeries.
Specifically, the report investigated how many hospitals deliver certain surgeries and meet what the Leapfrog Group calls its surgical volume threshold for those procedures. The surgical volume threshold refers to the minimum and maximum amount of times an organization administers a surgery.
When a hospital meets the minimum volume threshold, it is doing the surgery frequently enough to have experience in the area. But perform the procedure too often, the hospital runs the risk of spreading resources too thin.
The Leapfrog Group research team looked at how many hospitals meet the recommended volume thresholds for eight surgeries: bariatric surgery for weight loss, carotid endarterectomy, esophageal resection for cancer, lung resection for cancer, open aortic procedures, mitral valve repair and replacement, pancreatic resection for cancer, and rectal cancer surgery.
A higher percentage of hospitals met the surgical volume standard in 2019 than did in 2018, save for esophageal resection for cancer. In 2018, 2.6 percent of organizations hit the volume standard compared to 2.5 percent of hospitals that did in 2019.
However, the overall number of hospitals performing high-risk surgeries and hitting the volume thresholds is still less than ideal. The surgery type with the highest rate of organizations hitting the volume threshold was for bariatric surgery for weight loss, and even then, only 48 percent hit the threshold in 2019.
Next up was carotid endarterectomy, but only about 22 percent hit the threshold.
“The good news is we are seeing progress on surgical safety,” Leah Binder, the president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group, said in a statement. “The bad news is the vast majority of hospitals performing these high-risk procedures are not meeting clear volume standards for safety. This is very disturbing, as a mountain of studies show us that patient risk of complications or death is dramatically higher in low-volume operating rooms.”
“It’s time for hospitals and health systems to upgrade their surgical volume policies,” she added. “It will save lives.”
These figures differed slightly for rural hospitals, with rural hospitals being less likely to hit the volume threshold than urban ones. However, when viewed as a proportion of hospitals offering a high-risk procedure and hitting the volume threshold, rural facilities fared better.
“To the credit of rural hospitals, most choose not to perform elective procedures for which they have inadequate patient volume,” the researchers said. “Hospitals that cannot perform a safe volume of procedures should follow the lead of the vast majority of rural hospitals and refer patients to safer options.”
In other words, rural hospitals are aware of their low volume and make a judicious decision not to offer the procedure. The most common high-risk surgery a rural hospital will opt into is a rectal cancer surgery, and even then, 73.2 percent are opting not to offer that surgery and refer patients to safer options.
The report also looked at protocol to ensure organizations only conduct a certain surgery or procedure when it is absolutely necessary. For cancer surgeries, hospitals must convene a multidisciplinary group to review cases, or they must have national accreditation from the American College of Surgeons.
For other high-risk surgeries, organizations must report on hospital policy for reviewing surgical necessity and preventive measures geared at preventing surgery overuse.
Hospitals are very likely to have adequate procedures in place. Over 70 percent of hospitals had adequate appropriateness procedures in place for cancer surgeries.
Fewer had them in place for other high-risk surgeries. Only 32.1 percent of hospitals had appropriateness procedures in place for open aortic procedures, while 43.2 percent had them in place for Mitral valve repair and replacement. Up to about 60 percent had appropriateness procedures in place for bariatric surgery for weight loss.
When stratifying for hospitals that meet the volume standard, Leapfrog found that hospitals commonly had adequate appropriateness standards. The number of hospitals offering surgery for cancers with appropriateness standards reached up into the low 90 percent for various procedures. For other high-risk surgeries, those numbers crept up to between 55 and 70 percent, depending on the procedure.
“It is critical that hospitals do not perform surgery when the procedure is not appropriate for the patient,” said Binder. “In addition to the increased potential for harm to patients, unnecessary surgeries contribute to the burden of overuse and excess expense in the U.S. health care system.”
This information is key for patient decision-making, the researchers said.
“While progress has been made, far too many hospitals are performing surgeries too infrequently to be deemed safe for patients,” the research team wrote. “Abundant evidence suggests that for certain procedures, patients can save their lives by choosing a hospital and a surgeon with adequate, ongoing experience performing that surgery and as well as a hospital that protects against unnecessary surgery.”
Many hospitals do opt into sharing this kind of data with the Leapfrog Group, but currently there are not requirements for hospitals to do so. This means patients can miss out on important information that could help them make a care access decision based on safety.
“Hospitals should implement policies to ensure safe volumes,” the report authors concluded. “If they cannot achieve a minimum volume for safety, they should not electively perform that procedure. Physicians should be willing to have a conversation with their patients about facility or surgeon alternatives that will improve the patient’s odds of a better outcome.”