Importance Retrospective studies of large administrative databases have shown higher mortality for procedures performed by low-volume surgeons, but the adequacy of risk adjustment in those studies is in doubt.
Objective To determine whether the relationship between surgeon volume and outcomes is an artifact of case mix using a prospective sample of carotid endarterectomy cases.
Design Observational cohort study from January 1, 2008, through December 31, 2010, with preoperative, immediate postoperative, and 30-day postoperative assessments acquired by independent monitors.
Setting Urban, tertiary academic medical center.
Patients All 841 patients who underwent carotid endarterectomy performed by a vascular surgeon or cerebrovascular neurosurgeon at the institution.
Intervention Carotid endarterectomy without another concurrent surgery.
Main Outcome Measures Stroke, death, and other surgical complications occurring within 30 days of surgery along with other case data. A low-volume surgeon performed 40 or fewer cases per year. Variables used in a comparison administrative database study, as well as variables identified by our univariate analysis, were used for adjusted analyses to assess for an association between low-volume surgeons and the rate of stroke and death as well as other complications.
Results The rate of stroke and death was 6.9% for low-volume surgeons and 2.0% for high-volume surgeons (P = .001). Complications were similarly higher (13.4% vs 7.2%, P = .008). Low-volume surgeons performed more nonelective cases. Low-volume surgeons were significantly associated with stroke and death in the unadjusted analysis as well as after adjustment with variables used in the administrative database study (odds ratio, 3.61; 95% CI, 1.70-7.67, and odds ratio, 3.68; 95% CI, 1.72-7.89, respectively). However, adjusting for the significant disparity of American Society of Anesthesiologists Physical Status classification in case mix eliminated the effect of surgeon volume on the rate of stroke and death (odds ratio, 1.65; 95% CI, 0.59-4.64) and other complications.
Conclusions and Relevance Variables selected for risk adjustment in studies using administrative databases appear to be inadequate to control for case mix bias between low-volume and high-volume surgeons. Risk adjustment should empirically analyze for case mix imbalances between surgeons to identify meaningful risk modifiers in clinical practice such as the American Society of Anesthesiologists Physical Status classification. A true relationship between surgeon volume and outcomes remains uncertain, and caution is advised in developing policies based on these findings.