Low-volume hospitals bring high risks: a drive might save your life

Patients who undergo procedures at low-volume hospitals are subjecting themselves to an increased risk of complications and death because surgical teams at those hospitals perform too few procedures to maintain adequate levels of skill. According to a U.S. News & World Report analysis, large numbers of low-volume hospitals continue to put patients at increased risks despite three decades of research tying low-volume hospitals to higher incidents of complications and death.

Increased risk

According to an evaluation of five procedures from the U.S. News analysis, as many as 11,000 deaths might have been prevented between 2010 and 2012 if patients had undergone procedures at the highest-volume fifth of hospitals rather than the lowest-volume fifth. Some evaluations suggest that if other procedures are considered, tens of thousands of deaths might have been avoided. The increased risk of dying at a low-volume hospital from relatively safe procedures is staggering. For example, at one 25-bed Colorado hospital, the relative risk of death for elective knee replacement patients at the hospital was 24 times the national average. Similarly, at a 331-bed medical center in Florida, the relative risk of dying following a hip replacement was nine times the national average and, at a 316-bed New Jersey Medical Center, the risk for patients who had heart bypass surgery was four times above the national average.


Ultra-low-volume hospitals were identified as those which treated “fewer than 25 traditional Medicare inpatients from 2010 through 2012 for nearly 20 frequent procedures and conditions.” Between 2010 and 2012, ultra-low-volume hospitals performed or treated an average of 3.3 hip replacements per year, 3.7 knee replacements per year, 4.1 basic heart bypass surgeries per year, 3.9 cases of heart failure per year, and 4.3 cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease per year. Knee-replacement patients at the ultra-low-volume hospitals had “double the national average death risk and a 25 percent higher rate of readmission because of post-discharge complications.” Similarly, “hip-replacement patients faced a 77 percent higher risk of death and a 25 percent higher risk of readmission.” The problem stems from the simple fact that surgical teams at low-volume hospitals are out of practice.


The problem is exacerbated by the fact that few patients ask hospitals or physicians how many similar procedures a hospital has treated. U.S. News offers questions that patients can ask hospitals when trying to determine whether a low-volume hospital is a safe place to undergo a particular procedure. The findings of the analysis suggests that longstanding patient preference for local care should give way to a preference for travel and better outcomes, if safety is what patients are after.