Editors’ note: Hospitalists face difficult decisions every day, including situations that don’t always have clear-cut answers. Beginning with this month’s “HM Debate,” The Hospitalist stares down the tough questions and presents all sides of the issues. This month’s question: You are discharging a patient after treatment for a non-ST segment myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). The cardiology team recommends nonemergent coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) for the patient’s three-vessel disease. You set up a referral for surgery, but you know the CABG morbidity and mortality rates are higher at your hospital than at a hospital 30 miles away. Should you disclose this information to your patient?
If you would tell your relative, you should tell your patient
If a patient at your hospital needs surgery or another invasive intervention, are you obligated to inform them of your hospital’s record with that procedure—particularly if the record is not as good as the one of the hospital down the street? Should loyalty to your hospital trump the risk to the patient?
In our scenario, the patient is being referred for elective surgery, and it is known that the cardiovascular team at a neighboring hospital has a better record for this procedure. It is the hospitalist’s job to present this information to the patient so that an intelligent and informed decision can be made. If the hospitalist believes the outcomes data, then an obligation exists to share that information with the patient.
If the data are subtle, one might argue that confusing the patient with more levels of decision-making is unnecessary. On the other hand, if data on performance outcomes between two institutions are clear, it presents an ethical position.
Let us assume the hospitalist is aware of poor outcomes in coronary bypass surgery at their hospital. Perhaps the mortality rates were unusually high and the hospitalist knew external consultants were brought in to identify the problems. Would you refer your patient for bypass surgery in that situation? A better question might be: Would you let a family member undergo coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) in your hospital? Probably not. So if you would inform a family member, shouldn’t you tell your patient?
A situation like this occurred in September 2005 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. Media coverage was intense, and statistics showed that thoracic surgery mortality at UMass was the highest in the state two years running. The service at the hospital was closed temporarily.1 Extensive reorganization, adoption of QI protocols, and development of oversight committees resulted in much-improved patient outcomes when the program reopened a few weeks later.
The higher-than-expected complication rate had persisted at UMass for four years before the closure and reorganization. One wonders if hospitalists and cardiologists suspected a problem with surgical outcomes before the hospital was thrust into the national spotlight. Is it our job to know our hospital’s track record in surgery and invasive procedures? Yes, it probably is. This is why a hospital’s quality-assurance committee is so important. As keeper of the outcomes data, the committee is charged with sounding an alarm when a problem is brewing.
Tech-savvy patients have access to detailed reporting on performance measures for hospitals and physicians. Interpretation of the data can be complex. High surgical complication rates might be the result of a higher-than-expected patient acuity mix—patients who were older and sicker than usual—and may not represent a system or surgeon problem. Hospitalists need to guide patients through the interpretation of this data.