It would appear that this is true for surgical patients.

A study from England found that mortality rates for patients admitted with high-risk general surgery diagnoses were significantly lower in National Health Service Trust hospitals that used more CT scans and ultrasounds and had more ICU beds.

During the first decade of this century, nearly 368,000 patients were admitted as emergencies to English hospitals with surgical diagnoses carrying mortality rates in excess of 5%.

The diseases were bowel obstruction, liver/biliary conditions, hernias with obstruction or gangrene, peritonitis, gastrointestinal ulcers, perforated diverticulitis, bowel ischemia and miscellaneous diagnoses.

The 30-day risk-adjusted in-hospital mortality rate for the eight illnesses was 15.5% with a range of 9.2% in low-mortality hospital trusts (LMHTs) to 18.2% in high mortality hospital trusts (HMHTs). An operation was performed in 37.4% of patients, and 14.9% were readmitted within 28 days.

Three factors significantly differentiated LMHTs from HMHTs:

LMHTs had 20 ICU beds per 1000 beds vs. 14 for HMHTs, p = 0.017.

LMHTs performed 24.6 CT scans per bed per year vs. 17.2 for HMHTs, p < 0.001.

LMHTs performed 42.5 ultrasounds per bed per year vs. 30 for HMHTs, p < 0.001.

Some limitations of the study included the fact that it was based on administrative data. There was no way to determine if the increased use of imaging or availability of ICU beds had a direct effect on patients admitted with emergency surgical diagnoses. Also, variables such as delays in surgery or competence of surgeons could not be investigated.

Despite its limitations, this study is provocative.

No doubt the HMHT hospitals, which have fewer ICU beds and perform fewer imaging studies, are not as expensive.

But the study suggests that if you have the misfortune to arrive at an HMHT hospital with one of the surgical diagnoses listed above, you may have twice the chance of dying than if you had gone to an LMHT hospital that utilizes more resources.

This study is supported by a Viewpoint article in October’s JAMA Surgery, which looked at two studies of postoperative care in the UK and Europe. In both papers, many seriously ill postoperative patients did not receive appropriate levels of critical care. “Among patients who died during hospitalization after major surgical procedures in the United Kingdom in 2001, approximately 8.5% were admitted to an ICU at some point in their hospital stay. During the same period in the United States, this figure was 7 times greater, 61%.”

In the European study, only 5% of surgery patients had planned admissions to intensive care, and 75% of those who died postop did not spend any time in an ICU.

The authors added, “in efforts to achieve good surgical outcomes, there really may be no free lunch: tradeoffs between cost and quality are inherent to the contemporary delivery of intraoperative and postoperative care.”

What do you think?

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at and tweets as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 1400 page views per day, and he has over 9700 followers on Twitter.