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Database scores surgeons by rates of surgical complication

If you are a fan of any of the dozens of medical dramas on television, you have probably seen that surgeons are often portrayed as a distinct breed of physicians. Television tends to show surgeons as fiercely competitive, arrogant and focused on problem-solving rather than patient healing.

Obviously, television isn’t reality, and not all surgeons are like this. Still, surgeons are not always rated and scrutinized the way that other doctors are unless they are accused of medical malpractice. Part of the reason for this is that it is difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of surgical outcomes due to the many variables involved.

Thankfully, the public-interest journalism group ProPublica may have come up with a solution. The organization created a “Surgeon Scorecard” for nearly 17,000 surgeons who perform common, low-risk procedures. The scores are calculated using what ProPublica calls an “Adjusted Complication Rate.” The ACR apparently corrects for variables outside of a surgeon’s control, such as a patient’s age and the overall quality of the hospital a surgeon works in.

Rather than tracking serious surgical errors (retained foreign objects, for instance), the scorecard looks at complication rates related to surgeries. These include blood clots, infections, sepsis and other problems requiring post-operative care.

As with most measures of performance, this one is already proving controversial within the healthcare community. Some surgeons don’t want their stats made publicly available, especially if they think their score doesn’t accurately reflect their work. But for too long, Americans have been unable to make informed healthcare decisions because data simply wasn’t available. Anything that improves transparency and helps patients choose providers wisely should be considered a benefit to healthcare and not a detriment.

Source: USA Today, “‘Surgeon scorecard’ measures docs by complications,” Nick Penzenstadler, July 14, 2015