JACC: Should cards base surgery referrals on report cards?

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The healthcare industry is always looking for ways to improve patient outcomes. One possible avenue is grading physicians using outcomes data. In a recent viewpoint, the writers argued that it is cardiologists’ duty to make these data known to patients, especially during referrals, while others countered that referrals should be based on patient history and surgeon experience.

“There has been growing international interest, particularly in developed countries, in providing greater transparency in healthcare,” David L. Brown, MD, Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., et al wrote. “Public reporting of clinical outcomes data is one response to calls for increasing transparency in healthcare.”

Brown et al, in a viewpoint published in the June 19/26 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, asked whether cardiologists' ethical principles should obligate them to discuss outcomes data with patients as they refer them to cardiac surgery. They recommended that cardiologists use these report cards during referrals, despite the fact that the benefits of making these data publicly available remain unknown.

“We believe that strong grounds for this ethical obligation exist, whether or not patients themselves make use of such report cards in evaluating and making decisions about individual cardiac surgeons,” the authors wrote.

They highlighted three ethical arguments for cardiac surgeon report cards:

  • Surgeon report cards enable patients to make better decisions about surgery;
  • Report cards help surgeons meet their professional accountability obligations by demonstrating to the community that surgical care is being provided to requisite levels of quality; and
  • Report cards are believed to improve the safety and quality of patient care overall.

The authors noted that patients are entitled to be told the risks of certain surgeries but also said that part of these risks depend on the surgeon performing the procedure.

“Thus, the provision of surgeon performance information to patients who see this as material to their decision making about surgery is required by widely accepted conceptions of the ethical doctrine of informed consent,” the authors wrote.

Brown et al said that while these surgeon report cards are widespread, they are not being used when cardiologists are referring patients into surgery.

“We argue that cardiologists have an ethical obligation to use cardiac surgeon report cards to refer patients to the best available cardiac surgeon,” they wrote. “Because the welfare of a patient will be maximally promoted by referring that patient to the best available surgeon, cardiologists have a responsibility to refer their patients to the surgeon with the best risk-adjusted outcomes.”

However, two editorialists felt differently. “How could one possibly argue with the notion that cardiologists should refer their patients to the 'best' available surgeon with the 'lowest mortality rates'?" wrote David M. Shahian, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Sharon-Lise T. Normand, PhD, of Harvard School of Public Health, both in Boston, in an accompanying commentary.

While Shahian and Normand said that they support transparency and accountability, they expressed concern with Brown et al’s proposal, saying that more objective, evidence-based approaches should be used.

“It presupposes an extremely restrictive view of what it means to be the 'best,' it makes paternalistic judgments about what should be most important to patients, and its expectations regarding the capabilities of provider profiling are unrealistic,” the editorialists wrote.

Shahian and Normand questioned what Brown et al meant by “lowest risk-adjusted mortality rate” and questioned the fact that Brown et al defined “best” surgeon on the basis of lowest risk-adjusted mortality.

Brown et al acknowledged that their viewpoint was controversial. They wrote that  there likely will be skepticism about the accuracy of these types of report cards, concerns about conflicting loyalties and questions about responsibility.

Brown et al wrote that they agreed these data should be accurate, but they believed it would not be appropriate to withhold the information from patients. The authors suggested that the best approach is having the cardiologist refer the patient to the cardiac surgeon and then share any concerns about the accuracy of these data with the patients.

"Many cardiologists may prefer to refer patients to cardiac surgeons operating