Introduction: Although the relationship between surgical volume and mortality is well established, the mechanisms underlying these associations remain uncertain. We sought to determine whether increased mortality at low-volume centers was due to higher complication rates or less success in rescuing patients from complications.
Methods: Using 2005 to 2007 Medicare data, we identified patients undergoing 3 high-risk cancer operations: gastrectomy, pancreatectomy, and esophagectomy. We first ranked hospitals according to their procedural volume for these operations and divided them into 5 equal groups (quintiles) based on procedure volume cutoffs that most closely resulted in an equal distribution of patients through the quintiles. We then compared the incidence of major complications and "failure to rescue" (ie, case fatality among patients with complications) across hospital quintiles. We performed this analysis for all operations combined and for each operation individually.
Results: With all 3 operations combined, failure to rescue had a much stronger relationship to hospital volume than postoperative complications. Very low-volume (lowest quintile) hospitals had only slightly higher complications rates (42.7% vs. 38.9%; odds ratio 1.17, 95% confidence interval, 1.02-1.33), but markedly higher failure-to-rescue rates (30.3% vs. 13.1%; odds ratio 2.89, 95% confidence interval, 2.40-3.48) compared with very high-volume hospitals (highest quintile). These relationships also held true for individual operations. For example, patients undergoing pancreatectomy at very low-volume hospitals were 1.7 times more likely to have a major complication than those at very high-volume hospitals (38.3% vs. 27.7%, P<0.05), but 3.2 times more likely to die once those complications had occurred (26.0% vs. 9.9%, P<0.05).
Conclusions: Differences in mortality between high and low-volume hospitals are not associated with large differences in complication rates. Instead, these differences seem to be associated with the ability of a hospital to effectively rescue patients from complications. Strategies focusing on the timely recognition and management of complications once they occur may be essential to improving outcomes at low-volume hospitals.