One in four Georgia hospitals that offer knee replacement surgeries to Medicare patients has at least one surgeon with a high complication rate. Need a new hip instead of a knee? There's room for caution there too: about one in six of the state's hospitals has at least one surgeon with a high complication rate for this procedure.
Those are among the findings of the ground-breaking new "Surgeon Scorecard" published by ProPublica, a non-profit investigative reporting organization.
Plenty of patients focus on picking a hospital with a great quality record. But the Surgeon Scorecard report found that many hospitals with great reputations -- including quite a few in Georgia -- have surgeons with high complication rates practicing in the operating rooms next door to surgeons with stellar quality records.
ProPublica worked with experts to calculate death and complication rates for doctors performing one of eight elective procedures on Medicare patients across the country. The calculations factored in the age and health of patients and hospital quality to make the comparisons fair.
"We undertook this project because far too many patients are suffering harm while undergoing medical procedures," ProPublica's Marshall Allen told the AJC. "Patients have had no meaningful information to help them make a decision about where to go for surgery. And medical providers are too often failing to track the complications suffered by patients."
The report documented a costly toll for Medicare patients who went in for procedures that most consider low-risk: 3,405 deaths and about 63,000 patients seriously harmed.
The new Scorecard has its critics and even ProPublica says it shouldn't be the only source when consumers are selecting a doctor.
"Surgeon Scorecard is a great starting place for patients as they decide where to go for one of eight common elective operations." Allen said. "The complications we identified are serious - cases where patients died in the hospital while undergoing the procedure, or had to be readmitted within 30 days for a problem like an infection or blood clot that was likely related to the original surgery. And we found extreme variation in the performance of surgeons. Sometimes surgeons with high and low complication rates are performing the same procedure in the same facility."
Covering quality issues in the health care system is a high priority for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Our investigations have covered everything from c-section rates to complications related to joint surgeries to dangerous infections that patients often pick up while hospitalized. If you have a story to tell us about your health care experience, whether it's a quality problem or a billing nightmare, please email AJC investigative reporter Carrie Teegardin at email@example.com.