Context: Evidence exists that high-volume hospitals (HVHs) have lower mortality rates than low-volume hospitals (LVHs) for certain conditions. However, few employers, health plans, or government programs have attempted to increase the number of patients referred to HVHs.
Objectives: To determine the difference in hospital mortality between HVHs and LVHs for conditions for which good quality data exist and to estimate how many deaths potentially would be avoided in California by referral to HVHs.
Design, setting, and patients: Literature in MEDLINE, Current Contents, and First-Search Social Abstracts databases from January 1, 1983, to December 31, 1998, was searched using the key words hospital, outcome, mortality, volume, risk, and quality. The highest-quality study assessing the mortality-volume relationship for each given condition was identified and used to calculate odds ratios (ORs) for in-hospital mortality for LVHs vs HVHs. These ORs were then applied to the 1997 California database of hospital discharges maintained by the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development to estimate potentially avoidable deaths.
Main outcome measures: Deaths that potentially could be avoided if patients with conditions for which a mortality-volume relationship had been treated at an HVH vs LVH.
Results: The articles identified in the literature search were grouped by condition, and predetermined criteria were applied to choose the best article for each condition. Mortality was significantly lower at HVHs for elective abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, carotid endarterectomy, lower extremity arterial bypass surgery, coronary artery bypass surgery, coronary angioplasty, heart transplantation, pediatric cardiac surgery, pancreatic cancer surgery, esophageal cancer surgery, cerebral aneurysm surgery, and treatment of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). A total of 58,306 of 121,609 patients with these conditions were admitted to LVHs in California in 1997. After applying the calculated ORs to these patient populations, we estimated that 602 deaths (95% confidence interval, 304-830) at LVHs could be attributed to their low volume. Additional analyses were performed to take into account emergent admissions and distance traveled, but the impact of loss of continuity of care for some patients and reduction in the availability of specialists for patients remaining at LVHs could not be assessed.
Conclusions: Initiatives to facilitate referral of patients to HVHs have the potential to reduce overall hospital mortality in California for the conditions identified. Additional study is needed to determine the extent to which selective referral is feasible and to examine the potential consequences of such initiatives.