Unintended consquences and league tables

I have just finished Simon Westaby’s memoir Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table . This is for a review which will follow in due course. The main focus of the book is on the stories of the patients and the surgeries themselves, some passages have a (literal) heart-stopping intensity.

One recurrent theme, towards the end of the book especially, is the deleterious effect of blame culture and league tables on surgical practice. Prof Westaby, it turns out, wrote a recent paper on surgeon’s perception of this:

National Survey of UK Consultant Surgeons’ Opinions on Surgeon-Specific Mortality Data in Cardiothoracic Surgery

Abstract

Background—In the United Kingdom, cardiothoracic surgeons have led the outcome reporting revolution seen over the last 20 years. The objective of this survey was to assess cardiothoracic surgeons’ opinions on the topic, with the aim of guiding future debate and policy making for all subspecialties.

Methods and Results—A questionnaire was developed using interviews with experts in the field. In January 2015, the survey was sent out to all consultant cardiothoracic surgeons in the United Kingdom (n=361). Logistic regression, bivariate correlation, and the χ2 test were used to assess whether there was a relationship between answers and demographic variables. Free-text responses were analyzed using the grounded theory approach. The response rate was 73% (n=264). The majority of respondents (58.1% oppose, 34.1% favor, and 7.8% neither) oppose the public release of surgeon-specific mortality data and associate it with several adverse consequences. These include risk-averse behavior, gaming of data, and misinterpretation of data by the public. Despite this, the majority overwhelmingly supports publication of team-based measures of outcome. The free-text responses suggest that this is because most believe that quality of care is multifactorial and not represented by an individual’s mortality rate.

Conclusions—There is evident opposition to surgeon-specific mortality data among UK cardiothoracic surgeons who associate this with several unintended consequences. Policy makers should refine their strategy behind publication of surgeon-specific mortality data and possibly consider shift toward team-based results for which there will be the required support. Stakeholder feedback and inclusive strategy should be completed before introducing major initiatives to avoid unforeseen consequences and disagreements

This was reported in the Daily Telegraph as follows:

Patients are dying because heart surgeons are too worried about their mortality ratings to operate on critically ill people, a major study has found.

One surgeon claimed he had a watched a three-year-old child die waiting for a valve replacement because a doctor was “too chicken” to operate because of the potential risk to his reputation.

Another warned that surgeons had “become experts in running away from difficult cases”.

 Patients have been able to see league tables showing how well doctors perform on an NHS website since 2014, while information about individual heart surgeons has been available for a decade.

But nine in 10 heart surgeons claim that publishing individual data has led to blame culture where the sickest patients are denied treatment for fear it will lead to an investigation if they die in theatre.

Research carried out by doctors including Stephen Westaby, of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and Professor Lord Darzi, chair of surgery at Imperial College and a government adviser, found nearly 60 per cent of surgeons said they were opposed to the current system.

Some 87 per cent of the 264 heart surgeons who replied to a survey said that publication of surgeon specific mortality data had caused a “risk averse” culture in the NHS.

Report author Dr Westaby said: “We have been trying to establish what has been happening among colleagues for some time now. It’s so damning you can hardly believe [it].

“Doctors won’t see a patient if they think it will be a risk to their reputation.

“And it’s often the guys that are doing the sickest patients who end up with the worst scores, because their patients are more likely to die.”

One wrote: “Decisions have become about protecting me, not about what is best for the patient. This is a terrible form of medicine to practice. There is no dignity at the end of life, with surgeons delaying inevitable adverse outcomes in the hope of a miracle or transferring patients to other units so that they don’t count in the figures.”

Another said: “When previously surgeons would have been willing to give it a go on a patient who was certain to die, as there as nothing to lose, now they will be concerned that there is quite a lot to lose.”

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