Surgical mortality as an indicator of hospital quality: the problem with small sample size

JAMA. 2004 Aug 18;292(7):847-51. doi: 10.1001/jama.292.7.847.


Context: Surgical mortality rates are increasingly used to measure hospital quality. It is not clear, however, how many hospitals have sufficient caseloads to reliably identify quality problems.

Objective: To determine whether the 7 operations for which mortality has been advocated as a quality indicator by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (coronary artery bypass graft [CABG] surgery, repair of abdominal aortic aneurysm, pancreatic resection, esophageal resection, pediatric heart surgery, craniotomy, hip replacement) are performed frequently enough to reliably identify hospitals with increased mortality rates.

Design and setting: The US national average mortality rates and hospital caseloads of the 7 operations were determined using the 2000 Nationwide Inpatient Sample (NIS), and sample size calculations were performed to determine the minimum caseload necessary to reliably detect increased mortality rates in poorly performing hospitals. A 3-year hospital caseload was used for the baseline analysis, and poor performance was defined as a mortality rate double the national average.

Main outcome measure: Proportion of hospitals in the United States that performed more than the minimum caseload for each operation.

Results: The national average mortality rates for the 7 procedures examined ranged from 0.3% for hip replacement to 10.7% for craniotomy. Minimum hospital caseloads necessary to detect a doubling of the mortality rate were 64 cases for craniotomy, 77 for esophageal resection, 86 for pancreatic resection, 138 for pediatric heart surgery, 195 for repair of abdominal aortic aneurysm, 219 for CABG surgery, and 2668 for hip replacement. For only 1 operation did the majority of hospitals exceed the minimum caseload, with 90% of hospitals performing CABG surgery having a caseload of 219 or higher. For the remaining operations, only a small proportion of hospitals met the minimum caseload: craniotomy (33%), pediatric heart surgery (25%), repair of abdominal aortic aneurysm (8%), pancreatic resection (2%), esophageal resection (1%), and hip replacement (<1%).

Conclusion: Except for CABG surgery, the operations for which surgical mortality has been advocated as a quality indicator are not performed frequently enough to judge hospital quality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aortic Aneurysm, Abdominal / surgery
  • Arthroplasty, Replacement, Hip / mortality
  • Arthroplasty, Replacement, Hip / statistics & numerical data
  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures / mortality
  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures / statistics & numerical data
  • Coronary Artery Bypass / mortality
  • Coronary Artery Bypass / statistics & numerical data
  • Craniotomy / mortality
  • Craniotomy / statistics & numerical data
  • Esophagectomy / mortality
  • Esophagectomy / statistics & numerical data
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Hospital Mortality*
  • Hospitals / standards*
  • Hospitals / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Pancreatectomy / mortality
  • Pancreatectomy / statistics & numerical data
  • Quality Indicators, Health Care*
  • Sample Size
  • Sampling Studies
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / mortality*
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / statistics & numerical data
  • United States / epidemiology