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Ann Surg. 2001 Oct;234(4):464-72; discussion 472-4.

A decade's experience with quality improvement in cardiac surgery using the Veterans Affairs and Society of Thoracic Surgeons national databases.

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Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, 4200 East 9th Ave., Denver, CO 80262, USA.



To review the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS) national databases over the past 10 years to evaluate their relative similarities and differences, to appraise their use as quality improvement tools, and to assess their potential to facilitate improvements in quality of cardiac surgical care.


The VA developed a mandatory risk-adjusted database in 1987 to monitor outcomes of cardiac surgery at all VA medical centers. In 1989 the STS developed a voluntary risk-adjusted database to help members assess quality and outcomes in their individual programs and to facilitate improvements in quality of care.


A short data form on every veteran operated on at each VA medical center is completed and transmitted electronically for analysis of unadjusted and risk-adjusted death and complications, as well as length of stay. Masked, confidential semiannual reports are then distributed to each program's clinical team and the associated administrator. These reports are also reviewed by a national quality oversight committee. Thus, VA data are used both locally for quality improvement and at the national level with quality surveillance. The STS dataset (217 core fields and 255 extended fields) is transmitted for each patient semiannually to the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) for warehousing, analysis, and distribution. Site-specific reports are produced with regional and national aggregate comparisons for unadjusted and adjusted surgical deaths and complications, as well as length of stay for coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), valvular procedures, and valvular/CABG procedures. Both databases use the logistic regression modeling approach. Data for key processes of care are also captured in both databases. Research projects are frequently carried out using each database.


More than 74,000 and 1.6 million cardiac surgical patients have been entered into the VA and STS databases, respectively. Risk factors that predict surgical death for CABG are very similar in the two databases, as are the odds ratios for most of the risk factors. One major difference is that the VA is 99% male, the STS 71% male. Both databases have shown a significant reduction in the risk-adjusted surgical death rate during the past decade despite the fact that patients have presented with an increased risk factor profile. The ratio of observed to expected deaths decreased from 1.05 to 0.9 for the VA and from 1.5 to 0.9 for the STS.


It appears that the routine feedback of risk-adjusted data on local performance provided by these programs heightens awareness and leads to self-examination and self-assessment, which in turn improves quality and outcomes. This general quality improvement template should be considered for application in other settings beyond cardiac surgery.

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