Background: Rates of many surgical procedures vary widely across both large and small geographic regions. Although variation in health care use has long been described, few studies have systematically compared variation profiles across surgical procedures. The goal of this study was to examine current patterns of regional variation in the rates of common surgical procedures.
Methods: The study population consisted of patients enrolled in Medicare in 1995, excluding those enrolled in risk-bearing health maintenance organizations. Patients ranged in age from 65 to 99 years. Using data from hospital discharge abstracts, we calculated rates of 11 common inpatient procedures for each of 306 US hospital referral regions (HRRs). To assess the relative variability of each procedure, we determined the number of low and high outlier regions (HRRs with rates < 50% or > 150% the national average) and the ratio of highest to lowest HRR rates.
Results: Procedures differed markedly in their variability. Rates of hip fracture repair, resection for colorectal cancer, and cholecystectomy varied only 1.9- to 2.9-fold across HRRs (0, 0, and 4 outlier regions, respectively). Coronary artery bypass grafting, transurethral prostatectomy, mastectomy, and total hip replacement had intermediate variation profiles, varying 3.5- to 4.7-fold across regions (8, 10, 16, and 17 outlier regions, respectively). Lower extremity revascularization, carotid endarterectomy, back surgery, and radical prostatectomy had the highest variation profiles, varying 6.5- to 10.1-fold across HRRs (25, 32, 39, and 56 outlier regions, respectively).
Conclusions: Although the use of many surgical procedures varies widely across geographic areas, rates of "discretionary" procedures are most variable. To avoid potential overuse or underuse, efforts to increase consensus in clinical decision making should focus on these high variation procedures.