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Monday, March 16, 2015
A Surgery Standard Under Fire
What she wanted, the patient told the geriatricians evaluating her, was to be able to return to her condominium in Boston. She had long lived there on her own, lifting weights to keep fit and doing her own grocery shopping, until a heart condition worsened and she could barely manage the stairs.
So at 94, she consented to valve replacementsurgery at a Boston medical center. “She never wanted to go to a nursing home,” said Dr. Perla Macip, one of the patient’s geriatricians. “That was her worst fear.”
Dr. Macip presented the case on Saturday to a meeting of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. The presentation’s dispiriting title: “The 30-Day Mortality Rule in Surgery: Does This Number Prolong Unnecessary Suffering in Vulnerable Elderly Patients?”
Like Dr. Macip, a growing number of physicians and researchers have grown critical of 30-day mortality as a measure of surgical success. That seemingly innocuous metric, they argue, may actually undermine appropriate care, especially for older adults.
The experience of Dr. Macip’s patient — whom she calls Ms. S. — shows why.
After two weeks, “she was depressed and stopped eating,” Dr. Macip said. The geriatricians recommended a “goals of care” discussion to clarify whether Ms. S., who remained mentally clear, wanted to continue such aggressive treatment.
But “the surgeons were optimistic that she would recover” and declined, Dr. Macip said.
Thirty-day mortality serves as a traditional yardstick for surgical quality. Several states, including Massachusetts, require public reporting of 30-day mortality after cardiac procedures. Medicare has also begun to use certain risk-adjusted 30-day mortality measures, like deaths after pneumonia and heart attacks, to penalize hospitals with poor performance and reward those with better outcomes.
However laudable the intent, reliance on 30-day mortality as a surgical report card has also generated growing controversy. Some experts believe pressures for superior 30-day statistics can cause unacknowledged harm, discouraging surgery for patients who could benefit and sentencing others to long stays in I.C.U.s and nursing homes.