I-TEAM: Complication Rates Revealed for 17,000 Surgeons

Consumers in search of a surgeon have a new tool to help them make their decision.

ProPublica, a nonprofit partner of NBC Los Angeles, has developed a new, interactive database that allows prospective patients to see how thousands of U.S. surgeons have performed, based on the experiences of some of their patients.

To create the database, ProPublica reviewed the records of nearly 17,000 surgeons to see how Medicare patients fared following common, elective, lower-risk procedures including knee replacements, hip replacements and gall bladder removals.

The medical cases included in the survey occurred between 2009 and 2013.

ProPublica obtained the dataset from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, then developed a statistical model that attempts to adjust complication rates so surgeons who treat more complex patients are not penalized.

The data is most notable because - for the first time - the names of specific surgeons are listed next to the numbers of post-procedure complications their patients have experienced.

The results are now searchable on ProPublica's interactive "Surgeon Scorecard."

"We have transparency on Wall Street, transparency in government, [but] transparency in health care has lagged far behind," said Johns Hopkins University professor Marty Makary, who reviewed the methodology used to create the database. "For the first time ever we are collecting information on performance or result of our treatment."

But some physicians question the reliability of the data.

"Unfortunately the information is limited. So while this data can point to trends that are very helpful for further study, it's difficult to make conclusions," said Joshua Jacobs, speaking on behalf of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. "I think you need more information than just this data to choose a surgeon."

Santa Monica-based orthopedic surgeon Andrew Yun, who's pleased with his positive ranking on the new scorecard, says that releasing the data will be good for patients and physicians.

"Doctors by nature are competitive," Yun said. "When they put up the statistics, we're all going to find ways to improve."

Yun's patient, Regina Israel, agrees.

"Why wouldn't you have a database where you can go and see...what the doctors are about," Israel said. "You have it just about everywhere else -- why not your most important [concern]: your healthcare?"

The American College of Surgeons released a statement Wednesday in response to the ratings. The group said the "usefulness of the information" provided by the surgeon ratings is "questionable for a number of reasons."

Read the full statement here.

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