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Surgery. 2002 Nov;132(5):787-94.

Adjusting surgical mortality rates for patient comorbidities: more harm than good?

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  • 1VA Outcomes Group, Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, White River Junction, VT 05009, USA.


Background. Studies of medical admissions have questioned the validity of using claims data to adjust for preexisting medical conditions (comorbidities), but the impact of using comorbidities from claims data to risk-adjust mortality rates for high-risk surgery is not well characterized. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the relationship between comorbidities and mortality in administrative data in surgical populations and identify better risk-adjustment methods. Methods. Using the national Medicare database (1994-1997), we identified admissions for elective abdominal aortic aneurysm repair (140,577) and pancreaticoduodenectomy (10,530). We calculated the relative risk of mortality (adjusted for age, sex, race, and admission acuity) for 5 chronic conditions that are known (from clinical series) to increase the risk of postoperative mortality and are commonly used in claims-based risk-adjustment models. To explore the potential value of alternative risk-adjustment strategies, we examined relationships between surgical mortality and comorbidities using diagnosis codes identified from previous admissions. Results. Overall, in-hospital mortality for elective abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) repair and pancreaticoduodenectomy were 5.1% and 10.4%, respectively. For both procedures, 3 of the 5 comorbidities were associated with decreased risk of mortality: prior myocardial infarction (MI) [RR = 0.38; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.33-0.43 for AAA; RR = 0.38; 95% CI, 0.21-0.69 for pancreaticoduodenectomy), malignancy (RR = 0.67; 95% CI, 0.59-0.76 for AAA; RR = 0.74; 95% CI, 0.45-1.21 for pancreaticoduodenectomy], and diabetes (RR = 0.76; 95% CI, 0.64-0.84 for AAA; RR = 0.59; 95% CI, 0.49-0.69 for pancreaticoduodenectomy). Using comorbidities identified from prior admissions increased the mortality risk estimates for prior MI (RR = 1.22; 95% CI, 1.08-1.38 for AAA; RR = 0.80; 95% CI, 0.49-1.30 for pancreaticoduodenectomy) and diabetes (RR = 1.41; 95% CI, 1.25-1.59 for AAA; RR = 0.94; 95% CI, 0.78-1.14 for pancreaticoduodenectomy). Conclusions. Because comorbidities coded on the index admission appear protective, incorporating them in risk-adjustment models for studies comparing surgical performance may penalize providers for taking care of sicker patients. When available, comorbidity information from prior hospitalizations may be more useful for risk adjustment.

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