Urgent surgery deserves a separate classification from elective surgery and emergency surgery for assessments of healthcare quality and performance, because the three types of surgery have distinct morbidity and mortality profiles, according to a report published in JAMA Surgery.

Current methods of assessing pay-for-performance reimbursement, surgical outcomes, and value-based care programs all classify surgeries as either elective or emergent procedures. They do not account for the many surgeries that are instead urgent – performed after a trial of nonoperative conservative management or after patients with acute disease processes undergo a brief period of medical optimization.

In this study, urgent status implies that an operation was coded as nonelective and nonemergency, as described in ACSNSQIP protocols. Cases were excluded from analysis if either variable was not known or was omitted.

Common examples of surgeries that occupy this middle ‘urgent’ ground between elective and emergent procedures are those done for cholecystitis, adhesive small-bowel obstruction, and acute diverticulitis, said Matthew G. Mullen, MD, and his associates at the University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville.

Such urgent surgeries should not be lumped together with elective surgeries, as they usually are at present, because they carry substantially higher complication rates and mortality. “At a time when reimbursement is contingent on value-based outcomes reporting and performance, it is imperative to ensure that appropriate risk adjustment is performed,” the researchers stated.

“Surgeons who commonly operate on an urgent basis, including many acute-care and emergency general surgeons, are at risk of being penalized” in Medicare’s value-based reimbursement for their services.

“These surgeons may even unfairly be labeled as poor performers by current outcome reporting guidelines,” the investigators noted.

Morbidity and mortality rates associated with the “substantial” population of patients undergoing urgent surgery have not been well-studied until now. Dr. Mullen and his associates examined the issue using information from a national database, the American College of Surgeons’ National Quality Improvement Program Participant Use File. They focused on 173,643 general surgeries performed at 435 hospitals during a 1-year period: 130,235 (75%) were categorized as elective, 20,816 (12%) as urgent (nonelective and nonemergency), and 22,592 (13%) as emergency procedures.

Urgent general surgeries carried a 12.3% rate of morbidity and a 2.3% rate of mortality. These rates are much greater than those of elective surgeries (6.7% and 0.4%, respectively), even though urgent surgeries typically fall into the category of “elective.” In fact, the morbidity and mortality rates for urgent surgeries closely approached those of emergency surgeries (13.8% and 3.7%, respectively), the investigators said (JAMA Surg. 2017 May 10 [ doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2017.0918 ]).

In this cohort, patients in the “urgent” surgery category had the highest preoperative rates of congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, hemodialysis, corticosteroid use, and disseminated cancer – all factors that markedly elevate mortality and morbidity risks.

“We have identified operative urgency as a key consideration for patient risk stratification. If this issue is not recognized, quality outcome reporting and value-based reimbursement will continue to incentivize operating on an elective basis and will make surgeons more reluctant to operate on patients who urgently require care,” Dr. Mullen and his associates said. And such delays in surgical intervention could further increase patient morbidity and mortality.

This study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Mullen and his associates reported having no relevant financial disclosures.