Fielding percentage for UK surgeons

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Last week I posted on how our measurements of defense in baseball have become a lot more sophisticated, and how that gave me hope for the evaluation of innovation.  If baseball, one of the most tradition-bound of US sports can adopt to new metrics, surely business can too.

I was reminded of this with the publication of a recent article about the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom and their plan to publicize the surgical success rates of clinicians across their country.  Surgeons in eight different specialities will have their mortality rates for specific procedures, length of hospital stays post surgery, and other elements published in tables for anyone to access.  The first group to have this information released is vascular surgeons.

A fascinating aspect of how this is being done is that publication of one’s rates is voluntary, but if a surgeon chooses not to have his or her rates published, that surgeon will be named.  It’s not quite putting people into stocks in the public square, but it is definitely a form of public shaming meant to increase participation.

Nevertheless, six surgeons have opted out and been named.  Game theory might predict these are surgeons on the low end of the measured metrics, who are taking a calculated risk that the negatives associated with not publishing their rates are less than the negatives that would come with disclosure of their rates.  But that’s not the case.  The NHS has stated that none of these surgeons lie outside the normal range for the reported metrics.

Instead, these doctors are protesting that the metrics are not measuring the right things.   They suggest the metrics don’t take into account the subtleties involved in surgical cases, how procedure names alone don’t properly capture how difficult or easy a procedure might be for a given patient.  Are there comorbidities?  Is a patient in generally poor health?  Is a surgeon one who specializes in tricky, difficult cases which would therefore lead to a lower success rate even though the surgeon him or herself might be highly skilled and effective?  Could these metrics scare new surgeons away from performing more difficult procedures?

This echoes the debate about defense in baseball, and whether standard metrics such as fielding percentage are the best for measuring defensive ability, or if more elaborate measures better reflect reality.

Still, while I agree with the viewpoint that we should always try to improve metrics, I also think the NHS is doing the right thing.  I think in this case the proper analogy might be baseball defense back at the time before the invention of fielding percentage.  In the practice of medicine world-wide there is a surprising lack of information about measures like success rates and efficacy.  As Sir Bruce Keogh said to the BBC: “This has been done nowhere else in the world, and I think it represents a very significant step.”  To take another quote from the article, Professor Ben Bridgewater commented, “We’ve been collecting data on cardiac surgery since 1996 and we’ve been publishing it at individual surgeon level since 2005, and what we’ve seen associated with that is big improvements in quality: the mortality rates in cardiac surgery today are about a third of what they were ten years ago.” That which we don’t measure, we can’t improve.

In the US, that idea is becoming more prominent.  Recent articles in Time and the New York Times have highlighted how transparency is lacking in the United States healthcare system, and the Obama Administration’s emphasis on comparative effectiveness is another thrust in that direction.  What the NHS is doing is a great model and a great start, and I hope they continue to both make these aspects of healthcare more transparent and work to refine their metrics so that they accurately reflect the difficulty of practicing good medicine.

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