God knows I’ve written more than my share of papers that the Nobel Prize Committee has rightfully chosen to ignore. I understand that academicians need to publish in order to keep their jobs. Writing a paper is hard work and I don’t really want to demean it.

A paper reports that complications of surgery are linked to increased rates of readmission, and this seems rather obvious to me. It got a lot of media attention, and comment is needed.

The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, looked at the records of over 1400 patients who had general surgical operations and found that 163 (11.3) were readmitted within 30 days of discharge.

The authors make some good points such as readmissions were not related to age, race, sex, or certain co-morbidities such as diabetes, smoking status, COPD, ascites, hypertension, steroid use, unintentional preoperative weight loss, history of bleeding disorders or renal disease. Readmissions were significantly more apt to occur if patients had preoperative dyspnea, open wounds or disseminated cancer.

But the main findings that readmissions were due to complications and the more complications a patient had, the more likely he was to have been readmitted, are not exactly earth-shattering.

The press release and articles accompanying the paper’s publication were a little over the top.

Here are some quotes from a few of the many articles about this research:

From the American College of Surgeons website: Findings published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons lead researchers to devise a patient safety plan to decrease complications for the benefit of patients and hospitals.

From a site called Redorbit: [The surgeon-author] reported that the results of this investigation provided a framework for his research team to develop a simple complication-prevention plan that minimizes the risk of surgical patients developing complications.  

No such plan is mentioned in the paper.

From Infection Control Today: This patient safety approach includes engaging the postoperative care team to start transition-of-care planning early—especially for high risk patients—to encourage early discharge from the hospital. This too is not specifically stated in the paper nor is it supported by the data. In fact, early discharge might result in more readmissions. Who knows?

Incidentally, the press release, in most cases printed verbatim by the medical news websites, was wrong about the data forming the basis of the study. It says, “Researchers conducting this retrospective study analyzed patient records from hospitals that were enrolled in the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (ACS NSQIP), which is the leading nationally validated, risk-adjusted, outcomes-based program to measure and improve the quality of care in private sector hospitals. Data from Emory University Hospital was merged with ACS NSQIP data to identify unplanned readmissions.” Not so. The paper included patients who were operated on only at Emory University Hospital.

Slight digression: Even if readmission rates were not increased by complications, I would be in favor of a plan to reduce them.

One of the reasons I am skeptical about a lot of things is that when you look into the details, you often find that the “spin” produced by stories about a research paper is not always matched by its content.

I’m not the only one. A French study on the PLoS One website in September found that the spin generated by press releases and abstracts is highly likely to influence news reports about the research and overstate its beneficial effects.

I’ve written before about the need to read the paper and not just the abstract. I’ll add that you must be cautious about what is written in the press release too.

Skeptical Scalpel is a practicing surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 300,000 page views, and he has over 3800 followers on Twitter.