Background: Current policies related to organ transplantation in the United States are designed to ensure that centers and physicians with experience in transplantation perform these procedures. It is essential to confirm the validity of such policies, since they may limit access to transplantation services.
Methods: To determine the relation between experience with heart transplantation and mortality after the procedure, we merged data from the registry of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation with data from a survey that provided additional information about patients and transplantation centers. Our study included 1123 patients who received a heart transplant at one of 56 hospitals in the United States from 1984 through 1986. We used univariate and bivariate techniques, as well as logistic regression, to analyze our data.
Results: We observed an institutional learning curve for heart transplantation. Patients who received one of a center's first five transplants had higher mortality rates than patients who received a subsequent transplant (20 percent vs. 12 percent; P = 0.002; relative risk = 2.2; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.6 to 3.4). In addition, we found a correlation between the training of key personnel on the transplantation team and mortality at new transplantation centers. For example, new centers staffed by cardiologists with previous training in heart transplantation had lower mortality rates among heart-transplant recipients than centers without experienced cardiologists (7 percent vs. 16 percent; P = 0.001; relative risk = 2.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.3 to 5.9). By contrast, the previous training of the surgeons who performed transplantations was not related to the mortality rate associated with the procedure.
Conclusions: Experience with heart transplantation is associated with a better outcome for patients after that procedure. Opportunities exist to refine transplantation policies on the basis of the experience of a center and its transplantation team and to develop similar policies for other forms of organ transplantation.