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Original Investigation
Association of VA Surgeons
December 2016

Complications and Failure to Rescue After Inpatient Noncardiac Surgery in the Veterans Affairs Health System

Author Affiliations
  • 1Veterans Affairs Health Services Research and Development Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness, and Safety, Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Houston, Texas
  • 2Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas
  • 3Department of Surgery, Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
JAMA Surg. 2016;151(12):1157-1165. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2016.2920
Key Points

Question  Have 30-day postoperative surgical outcomes changed in the Veterans Affairs health system over time?

Findings  In this cohort study of 704 901 patients in the Veterans Affairs Surgical Quality Improvement Program data set, absolute rates and the likelihood of complications, mortality, and failure to rescue have significantly decreased for the past 15 years. These decreases were observed system-wide at all Veterans Affairs hospitals, not just those with the best performance.

Meaning  Perioperative outcomes in the Veterans Affairs health system have consistently improved for the past 15 years.


Importance  The quality of surgical care in the Veterans Health Administration improved markedly in the 1990s after implementation of the Veterans Affairs (VA) National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (now called the VA Surgical Quality Improvement Program). Although there have been many recent evaluations of surgical care in the private sector, to date, a contemporary global evaluation has not been performed within the VA health system.

Objective  To provide a contemporaneous report of noncardiac postoperative outcomes in the VA health system during the past 15 years.

Design, Setting, and Participants  A retrospective cohort study was conducted using data from the VA Surgical Quality Improvement Program among veterans who underwent inpatient general, vascular, thoracic, genitourinary, neurosurgical, orthopedic, or spine surgery from October 1, 1999, through September 30, 2014.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Rates of 30-day morbidity, mortality, and failure to rescue (FTR) over time.

Results  Among 704 901 patients (mean [SD] age, 63.7 [11.8] years; 676 750 [96%] male) undergoing noncardiac surgical procedures at 143 hospitals, complications occurred in 97 836 patients (13.9%), major complications occurred in 66 816 (9.5%), FTR occurred in 12 648 of the 97 836 patients with complications (12.9%), FTR after major complications occurred in 12 223 of the 66 816 patients with major complications (18.3%), and 18 924 patients (2.7%) died within 30 days of surgery. There were significant decreases from 2000 to 2014 in morbidity (8202 of 59 421 [13.8%] vs 3368 of 32 785 [10.3%]), major complications (5832 of 59 421 [9.8%] vs 2284 of 32 785 [7%]), FTR (1445 of 8202 [17.6%] vs 351 of 3368 [10.4%]), and FTR after major complications (1388 of 5832 [23.8%] vs 343 of 2284 [15%]) (trend test, P < .001 for all). Although there were no clinically meaningful differences in rates of complications and major complications across hospital risk-adjusted mortality quintiles (any complications: lowest quintile, 20 945 of 147 721 [14.2%] vs highest quintile, 18 938 of 135 557 [14%]; major complications: lowest quintile, 14 044 of 147 721 [9.5%] vs highest quintile, 12 881 of 135 557 [9.5%]), FTR rates (any complications: lowest quintile, 2249 of 20 945 [10.7%] vs highest quintile, 2769 of 18 938 [14.6%]; major complications: lowest quintile, 2161 of 14 044 [15.4%] vs highest quintile, 2663 of 12 881 [20.7%]) were significantly higher with increasing quintile (P < .001). However, across hospital quintiles, there were significant decreases in morbidity (20.6%-29.9% decrease; trend test, P < .001 for all) and FTR (29.2%-50.6% decrease; trend test, P < .001 for all) during the study period. After hierarchical modeling, the odds of postoperative mortality, FTR, and FTR after a major complication were approximately 40% to 50% lower in the most recent study year compared with 15 years ago (P < .001 for all).

Conclusions and Relevance  For the past 15 years, morbidity, mortality, and FTR have improved within the VA health system. Other integrated health systems providing a high volume of surgical care for their enrollees may benefit by critically evaluating the system-level approaches of the VA health system to surgical quality improvement.