By Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News and Mark Alesia, USA TODAY Network, March 2, 2018
The surgery went fine. Her doctors left for the day. Four hours later, Paulina Tam started gasping for air.
Internal bleeding was cutting off her windpipe, a well-known complication of the spine surgery she had undergone.
But a Medicare inspection report describing the event says that nobody who remained on duty that evening at the Northern California surgery center knew what to do.
In desperation, a nurse did something that would not happen in a hospital.
She dialed 911.
By the time an ambulance delivered Tam to the emergency room, the 58-year-old mother of three was lifeless, according to the report.
If Tam had been operated on at a hospital, a few simple steps could have saved her life.
But like hundreds of thousands of other patients each year, Tam went to one of the nation’s 5,600-plus surgery centers.
Such centers started nearly 50 years ago as low-cost alternatives for minor surgeries. They now outnumber hospitals as federal regulators have signed off on an ever-widening array of outpatient procedures in an effort to cut federal health care costs.
Thousands of times each year, these centers call 911 as patients experience complications ranging from minor to fatal. Yet no one knows how many people die as a result, because no national authority tracks the tragic outcomes. An investigation by Kaiser Health News and the USA TODAY Network has discovered that more than 260 patients have died since 2013 after in-and-out procedures at surgery centers across the country. Dozens — some as young as 2 — have perished after routine operations, such as colonoscopies and tonsillectomies.
Reporters examined autopsy records, legal filings and more than 12,000 state and Medicare inspection records, and interviewed dozens of doctors, health policy experts and patients throughout the industry, in the most extensive examination of these records to date.
The investigation revealed:
- Surgery centers have steadily expanded their business by taking on increasingly risky surgeries. At least 14 patients have died after complex spinal surgeries like those that federal regulators at Medicare recently approved for surgery centers. Even as the risks of doing such surgeries off a hospital campus can be great, so is the reward. Doctors who own a share of the center can earn their own fee and a cut of the facility’s fee, a meaningful sum for operations that can cost $100,000 or more.
- To protect patients, Medicare requires surgery centers to line up a local hospital to take their patients when emergencies arise. In rural areas, centers can be 15 or more miles away. Even when the hospital is close, 20 to 30 minutes can pass between a 911 call and arrival at an ER.
- Some surgery centers are accused of overlooking high-risk health problems and treat patients who experts say should be operated on only in hospitals, if at all. At least 25 people with underlying medical conditions have left surgery centers and died within minutes or days. They include an Ohio woman with out-of-control blood pressure, a 49-year-old West Virginia man awaiting a heart transplant and several children with sleep apnea.
- Some surgery centers risk patient lives by skimping on training or lifesaving equipment. Others have sent patients home before they were fully recovered. On their drives home, shocked family members in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Georgia discovered their loved ones were not asleep but on the verge of death. Surgery centers have been criticized in cases where staff didn’t have the tools to open a difficult airway or skills to save a patient from bleeding to death.
Most operations done in surgery centers go off without a hitch. And surgery carries risk, no matter where it’s done. Some centers have state-of-the-art equipment and highly trained staff that are better prepared to handle emergencies.
But Kaiser Health News and the USA TODAY Network found more than a dozen cases where the absence of trained staff or emergency equipment appears to have put patients in peril.
And in cases similar to Tam’s, upper-spine surgery patients have been sent home too soon, with the risk of suffocation looming.
In 2008, a 35-year-old Oregon father of three struggled for air, pounding the car roof in frustration while his wife sped him to a hospital. A Dallas man collapsed in his father’s arms waiting for an ambulance in 2011. Another Oregon man began to suffocate in his living room the night of his upper-spine surgery in 2014. A San Diego man gasped “like a fish,” his wife recalled, as they waited for an ambulance on April 28, 2016.
None of them survived.
Spinal surgery patient McArthur Roberson, 60, lost more than a quart of blood during the operation and struggled to breathe after surgery, his family claimed in a lawsuit. He died on the way home.
If he “had been observed in a hospital overnight,” said Dr. Daniel Silcox, an Atlanta spine surgeon and expert for the family in their lawsuit, “his death would not have occurred.”
The surgery center denied wrongdoing in the case, which reached a confidential settlement in 2017.
Many in the health care field — from doctors to private insurance companies to Medicare — have dismissed the mounting deaths as medical anomalies beyond the control of physicians.
USA TODAY Network and KHN reporters contacted 24 doctors and surgery center administrators about patient deaths and none would answer questions about what went wrong, citing patient privacy laws, or referring reporters to attorneys. Responding to lawsuits around the nation, surgery centers have argued that fatal complications were among the known outcomes of such surgeries. Two centers blamed patients for negligence in their own demise.
Bill Prentice, chief executive of the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association, declined to speak about individual cases but said he has seen no data proving surgery centers are less safe than hospitals.
“There is nothing distinct or different about the surgery center model that makes the provision of health care any more dangerous than anywhere else,” Prentice said. “The human body is a mysterious thing, and a patient that has met every possible protocol can walk in that day and still have something unimaginable happen to them that has nothing to do with the care that’s being provided.”
However, Dr. Kenneth Rothfield, board member of the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health & Safety, said many surgery centers and physicians push the envelope on how much can be done in outpatient centers.
“It’s important to realize that surgery centers are not hospitals,” he said. “They have different resources, different equipment.”
At a hospital, doctors and nurses … know how they are going to respond. These guys at the surgery centers are walking on a tightrope with no safety net.
The explosive growth of surgery centers — which receive $4.1 billion a year from Medicare — has taken place under circumstances some medical experts consider unseemly.
Federal law allows surgery center doctors — unlike others — to steer patients to facilities they own, rather than the full-service hospital down the street. In some cases, doing so could increase the risk to a patient, but double a physician’s profits.
Prentice said physician ownership of surgery centers is a good thing.
“The physicians who practice there are responsible for everything that happens in that surgery center from the moment the patient walks out of their car in the parking lot to the moment they leave,” he said.
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