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Research suggests some patients get unnecessary pre-surgery exams, others not enough

Toronto, December 20, 2011

By Leslie Shepherd

Dec. 20, 2011 — Hospitals vary greatly in the number of patients who see an internal medicine specialist before major non-cardiac surgery, with rates ranging from five per cent of patients to 90 per cent, new research has found.

The findings are important because they suggest there are no commonly agreed upon standards for which patients should have such consultations, said Dr. Duminda Wijeysundera, a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES).

As a result, some patients may be getting expensive tests and exams they don’t need, while others who do need them are not getting them, said Dr. Wijeysundera, who is also an anesthesiologist at Toronto General Hospital-University Health Network.

Dr. Wijeysundera studied the records of 205,000 patients who underwent major elective non-cardiac surgery in 79 hospitals in Ontario from 2004 to 2009. His results were published today in the journal Anesthesiology.

All patients scheduled for elective surgery in Ontario must undergo a preoperative medical history and physical, which are typically done by the patient’s family physician or surgeon. Referrals to an internal medicine specialist are usually made at the discretion of the surgeon or anesthesiologist.

One-third of the patients studied underwent a pre-operative medical consultation. Not surprisingly, most were older, were patients at teaching hospitals or hospitals with high volumes of surgery, or had other, pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

However, the rates varied widely from hospital to hospital, and could not be explained based on the surgical procedure, the volume of surgeries conducted at the hospital or whether it was a teaching hospital.

"That suggests the forces driving this have little to do with how sick the patient is," Dr. Wijeysundera said. "Further research is needed to better understand the basis for this inter-hospital variation and to determine which patients benefit most from pre-operative consultation."

More research is also needed to determine whether the difference may be explained by individual surgeon’s preferences, he said.

Dr. Wijeysundera said pre-operative consultations may be helpful for patients with other medical issues, because it’s an opportunity to document and/or treat those pre-existing conditions and take steps to lower their risks for surgery, or even cancel the procedure.

But previous studies have found no clear evidence that these consultations improve patient outcomes. In fact, the studies have suggested the tests and examinations may be associated with longer hospital stays, more post-operative complications and even a slightly higher death rate.

"When performed in patients who are unlikely to benefit from them, these consultations can increase healthcare costs, while exposing some individuals to unnecessary and potentially harmful tests or interventions," he said.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 23 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, and care of the homeless are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Center, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

About ICES

ICES is an independent, non-profit organization that uses population-based health information to produce knowledge on a broad range of health care issues. Our unbiased evidence provides measures of health system performance, a clearer understanding of the shifting health care needs of Ontarians, and a stimulus for discussion of practical solutions to optimize scarce resources. ICES knowledge is highly regarded in Canada and abroad, and is widely used by government, hospitals, planners, and practitioners to make decisions about care delivery and to develop policy.

For more information, please contact:

Leslie Shepherd
Manager, Media Relations
Phone: 416-864-6094 or 647-300-1753
shepherdl@smh.ca