Should we pay attention to surgeon or hospital volume in total knee arthroplasty? Evidence from a nationwide population-based study
Should we pay attention to surgeon or hospital volume in total knee arthroplasty? Evidence from a nationwide population-based study
Tsung-Hsien Yu 0 1
Ying-Yi Chou 1
Yu-Chi TungID 1
0 Department of Health Care Management, National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences , Taipei, Taiwan , 2 Institute of Health Policy and Management, National Taiwan University , Taipei , Taiwan
1 Editor: Yan Li, Cleveland Clinic , UNITED STATES
Although prior research into the relationship between volume and outcome indicates that this relationship is not linear and that an optimal volume should be specified, consensus is lacking regarding the ideal value of this optimal volume. The purposes of this study were to use a visual method to identify surgeon- and hospital-volume thresholds and to examine the relationships of surgeon and hospital volume thresholds to 30-day readmission.
A retrospective nationwide population-based study design was adopted. Patients who
received total knee replacement surgery between 2007 and 2008 in any hospital in Taiwan
were included. After adjusting for patient, physician, and hospital characteristics, a restricted
cubic spline regression model was used to identify optimal surgeon- and hospital-volume
thresholds. Further, a patient-level mixed effect model was conducted to test the respective
relationships between these thresholds and 30-day readmission.
A total of 30,828 patients who had received their surgeries from 1,468 surgeons in 437
hospitals were included in this study. Thresholds of 50 cases a year for surgeons and 75 cases a
year for hospitals were identified using a restricted cubic spline regression model. However,
only the surgeon volume threshold was associated with 30-day readmission using a
patientlevel mixed effect model after adjusting for patient-, surgeon- and hospital-level covariates.
According to the results of the restricted cubic spline models, the optimal volume thresholds
for surgeons and hospitals are 50 cases and 75 cases a year, respectively. However, only
the surgeon volume threshold is associated with 30-day readmission.
Funding: This study was supported by the Ministry
of Science and Technology
and MOST107-2410-H-227-008-SSS). The funder
had no role in study design, data collection and
analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the
The relationship between healthcare provider volume and outcomes has been extensively
studied since Luft et al published their foundational article in 1979 [
], which spurred research
interest in the volume-outcome relationship and triggered further research on various surgical
operations and medical conditions such as orthopedic surgeries [
], coronary artery bypass
grafts (CABGs) [
], acute myocardial infarction , stroke [
], and cancer [
the findings of these and other related studies have been applied by stakeholders for various
]. Although volume-outcome research supports that the volume-outcome
relationship is not linear and that there should be an optimal volume, consensus regarding the
value of this optimal volume has yet to emerge.
The need to set an optimal volume standard is grounded in the well-established
association between low volume and worse patient outcomes. Lau et al reviewed 11
volume-mortality studies for total knee arthroplasty (TKA) and found that the suggested
optimal volume standard ranges from 3 to 52 operations a year for surgeons [
] and from
25 to 110 operations a year for hospitals [
]. Studies in the literature have largely
adopted one of two major approaches to define the low-volume threshold, including
expert consensus [
] and equality distribution [
]. The former relies on expert
experience and opinion, so the representative of attendees may influence the cutoff-point
selection. The latter uses statistical methods to divide provider volume into groups such as
] and quintile [
] to determine a low-volume threshold. However, the
distribution of service volume that is used in this approach may be skewed [
]. Based on
their drawbacks, the appropriateness of using these two approaches should be reevaluated.
Besides, the heterogeneity of determining low volume may produce different results [
Therefore, a standardized and visual method of determining the low-volume threshold is
This study used TKA as its example and employed a visual method to identify surgeon and
hospital volume thresholds. Furthermore, we examined the relationships of between surgeon
and hospital volume thresholds to outcome of care.
This retrospective nationwide population-based study design was adopted to examine the
relationship between provider volume and 30-day readmission after adjusting for patient-,
physician-, and hospital-level covariates.
Data for this study was obtained from the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research
Database (NHIRD). The NHIRD, published by the Taiwan National Health Research Institute,
includes all of the original claims data and registration files for beneficiaries enrolled under the
National Health Insurance (NHI) program. The database covers the 23 million Taiwanese
enrollees (approximately 98% of the population) in the NHI program. In addition, the NHIRD
is a de-identified secondary database containing patient-level demographics and
administrative information. The data are released for research purposes. The protocol for this study was
approved by the Institutional Review Board of the National Taiwan University Hospital
(protocol #201408005W) on 12th August 2014.
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The study included all patients who received TKA surgery (International Classification of
Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification [ICD-9-CM] procedure code: 81.54) between
2007 and 2008 at any hospital in Taiwan. Patients who were under 18 years (n = 20) of age or
who had received TKA surgery 3 months or more before the index hospitalization event
(n = 1,035) were excluded in order to restrict our evaluation to an adult population and to
avoid misclassifications of readmission. In addition, patients whose surgeon?s age or seniority
was unknown (n = 33) were excluded.
Definition of variables
Readmission within 30 days of discharge for total knee replacement was used as the measure
of outcome of care because this indicator is commonly used in the literature and practice [
]. Surgeon and hospital volumes were used as independent variables, defined as the number
of knee replacement procedures (both primary and revision) performed by the operating
surgeon or hospital during the 12 months prior to the index procedure in order to reflect the level
of experience of the provider at the time when patients received healthcare services [
addition to surgeon and hospital volumes and 30-day readmission, patient-, physician-, and
hospital-level data were also collected. Patient-level variables included age, gender, low-income
status, Deyo0s Charlson Comorbidity Index (CCI), congestive heart failure (CHF) status,
diabetes mellitus (DM) status, obesity status, renal failure status, and intensive care unit (ICU)
admission; physician-level variables included age, orthopedic surgeon, and seniority; and
hospital-level variables included accreditation status, teaching status, and geographic location.
Cutoff point selection
Due to the potential for the relationships between surgeon and hospital volumes, respectively,
and 30-day readmission to be non-linear, restricted cubic splines regression with five knots
] was applied to model the relationship between provider volume and the risk of the
provider-level, risk-adjusted 30-day readmission rate (transformed by logarithm) in order to
identify any inflection point that could be used to distinguish the service volume into categories
after adjusting for the abovementioned patient, surgeon, and hospital variables.
All of the statistical analyses of the volume-outcome relationship were performed using SAS
(version 9.4, SAS Institution Inc., Cary, NC, USA). In the statistical tests that were conducted
in this study, a two-sided p value 0.05 was considered statistically significant. The
distributional properties of continuous variables were expressed as mean ? standard deviation (SD),
whereas categorical variables were represented as frequency and percentage. In univariate
analysis, the potential three-level predictors of 30-day readmission were examined using a
chisquare test or two-sample t-test, as appropriate. Next, in order to account for the correlations
between physician (level-2) and hospital (level-3), a multivariate analysis to estimate the effects
of three-level predictors on the probability of 30-day readmission was conducted by fitting
mixed-effects logistic regression models to the data of each patient.
The 30,828 patients whose data were included in this study received surgeries from 1,468
surgeons in 437 hospitals. The descriptive analysis (Table 1) showed that the mean age of patients
was 69.96 years and that the majority of patients were female (75.44%). Only 0.47% of patients
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were identified as low income. Over two-thirds (19,733; 64.01%) of patients scored a 1 or less
on the Charlson comorbidity index, with the remainder scoring 2 points or higher. In terms of
comorbidity, the numbers of patients who had CHF, DM, obesity, and renal failure were 1,798
(5.83%), 7,013 (22.75%), 15 (0.05%), and 667 (2.16%), respectively. Only 0.81% of patients
were admitted to the ICU during hospitalization. As for surgeon characteristics, the mean age
of surgeons was 48.41 years, around three-quarters of the surgeons were orthopedic surgeons,
and the average seniority was 7.70 years. Slightly over one-third (38.33%) of patients received
their surgeries in medical centers, with rest receiving their surgeries in regional hospitals
(30.82%) and community hospitals (30.85%). Three-quarter (75.36%) of the patients received
their surgery in a teaching hospital and 45.40% received their surgery in hospitals located in
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Fig 1. Restricted cubic spline plot of the adjusted log of the 30-day readmission rate versus annual total knee
replacement volume performed per hospital and per surgeon. Note: The light dotted curve presents the 95%
confidence intervals for the predicted limits. The dark line presents the fit regression model. The dark area presents the
95% confidence intervals for the regression limits.
northern Taiwan (Taipei and Northern divisions). The average hospital and surgeon volumes
were 74.35 and 22.51, respectively. A total of 1,267 patients were readmitted within 30 days of
discharge, yielding a 30-day readmission rate of 4.11%.
The results of restricted cubic splines regression showed surgeon volume as inversely
associated with the surgeon-level log of risk-adjusted 30-day readmission rates. However, this
relationship was not linear. The optimum cutoff points of surgeon and hospital volumes were 50
and 75 procedures a year, respectively because the slopes were changed dramatically (Fig 1).
Based on the results of the restricted cubic splines regression model, this study identified
optimal volume standards of 50 for surgeons and 75 for hospitals.
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Based on these cutoff points, 42.16% of patients received their surgeries from low volume
surgeons. Patients whose surgeon was in the low volume group were slightly older (70.08 vs.
69.87, p-value = 0.029), more likely to be men (26.95% vs. 22.81%; p-value<0.001), more likely
to come from a low-income household (0.72% vs 0.29%; p-value<0.001), and more likely to
have comorbidities and pre-existing CHF, DM, and renal failure. In addition, this group
faced a higher rate of ICU admission during their index hospitalization. The mean age and
seniority of the surgeons in low volume group were, respectively, younger (45.36 vs. 50.63;
p-value<0.001) and lower (7.17 vs. 8.08; p-value<0.001) and the proportion of orthopedic
surgeons was higher (81.52 vs. 70.93; p-value<0.001). Moreover, the patients of surgeons who
were in the low-volume group were more likely to live in central and eastern Taiwan, more
likely to receive their surgeries in regional hospitals, and slightly more likely to receive their
surgeries in teaching hospitals (76.59 vs. 74.47; p-value<0.001). Finally, the regional location
of hospitals varied among these two groups as well (Table 2).
Table 3 compares the characteristics of low-volume and high-volume hospitals. One-fifth
(21.36%) of the patients received their surgeries in low-volume hospitals. The differences of
patient-, surgeon-, and hospital-level characteristics between high- and low-volume hospitals
were largely the same as the differences between high- and low-volume surgeons, with the
notable exceptions of patient age, pre-existing DM, and renal failure.
Finally, Table 4 shows the results of the multilevel logistic regression model, which
demonstrate that patients who received their surgeries from a low-volume surgeon faced a higher risk
of 30-day readmission after discharge, after adjusting for patient-, surgeon-, and hospital-level
covariates. In addition to surgeon volume, the results also revealed that patient age, patient
gender, Charlson Comorbidity Index score, DM status, obesity status, renal failure status, ICU
admission, and surgeon seniority were each risk factors as well.
Thresholds of 50 cases a year for surgeons and 75 cases a year for hospitals were identified.
However, only the surgeon volume threshold was associated with TKA 30-day readmission.
The surgeon and hospital volume thresholds for TKA were identified using a restricted
cubic spline regression model. The effects of cutoff point selection on the study of
volume-outcome issues have been discussed, with many studies indicating that this may lead to disparate
and controversial findings. In addition, existing studies typically assumed the relationship
between volume and outcome to be linear. Moreover, the most common method of
categorization used in these studies, the percentile method (e.g., quartile, tertile), is also built upon the
assumption of a normal distribution of provider volume. Thus, the appropriateness of existing
categorization methods should be reviewed if this assumption is not valid [
limitations of categorizing quantitative measurements, including loss of information and reduction
in power, have been described previously . The appropriate application of categorization
may be one of the most important current issues in the field of volume-outcome studies [
Most recently, studies on the volume-outcome relationship have adopted spline function
methods such as restricted cubic spline functions [
29, 35, 36
] and the locally weighted
scatterplot smoothing (LOESS) method [
]. The categorization method used in this study allows
researchers to visualize the cutoff point in order to determine the optimal volume threshold.
This study found that physician volume rather than hospital volume was associated with
TKA outcomes, which is similar to Wei et al [
] and different from Manley et al [
Paterson et al [
] (only hospital volume was significant), and Bozic et al (both surgeon and hospital
volumes were significant) [
]. Except for Manley et al, the other studies used quartile to
categorize service volume and to define the low-volume group. Furthermore, the outcome
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30-day readmission, n (%)
Age, mean (S.D)
Male, n (%)
Female, n (%)
Low income, n (%)
Charlson Comorbidity Index
0, n (%)
1, n (%)
2, n (%)
>2, n (%)
CHF, n (%)
DM, n (%)
Obesity, n (%)
RF, n (%)
ICU admission, n (%)
Age, mean (SD)
Seniority, mean (SD)
Orthopedic surgeon, n (%)
Medical Center, n (%)
Regional Hospital, n (%)
Community Hospital, n (%)
Teaching status (yes), n (%)
? ?2 test
CHF: Congestive heart failure; DM: diabetes mellitus; RF: Renal failure; ICU: Intensive Care Unit
variables among these studies differed. Manley et al focused on revision; Patersen et al focused
on complications, 90-day mortality, 1-year readmission, and revision; and Bozic et al focused
on mortality, 30-day readmission and reoperation, complications, and length of stay. Finally,
the definition of service volume used in this study differed significantly from the definitions
used in prior research. Thus, directly comparing the results of this study to those of previous
studies may not be appropriate.
?Practice makes perfect? and ?selective referral? are the two primary hypotheses as to why a
relationship exists between volume and outcome in TKA [
]. The former presumes that
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? ?2 test
CHF: Congestive heart failure; DM: diabetes mellitus; RF: Renal failure; ICU: Intensive Care Unit
surgeons who perform more (higher volumes) of a particular procedure become increasingly
proficient in that procedure. The latter postulates that patients are referred to hospitals and
physicians, respectively, based on their track records of better outcomes. The findings of this
study seem to support the ?practice makes perfect? hypothesis over the ?selective referral?
hypothesis. Lin et al suggested that if the hospital volume effect is not statistically significant
when physician volume is added into the statistical model, then the practice makes perfect
hypothesis is sustained [
]. Further, the Taiwan government has operated the NHI program
since 1995, which today covers more than 99% of the population and gives people complete
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freedom of choice among providers. Centralization has also not been implemented for TKA in
Taiwan. High volume may serve as a proxy for other factors such as experience and skill. In
addition, high-volume surgeons may be more familiar with treatment guidelines and newer
techniques and be better able to treat related complications [
The strength of this study was that a population-based study was conducted and a restricted
cubic spline model was applied to determine an optimal volume threshold to account for the
non-linear relationship between volume and outcomes. This study was potentially affected by
several limitations. Firstly, the cutoff point of service volume per year may not be generalizable
beyond the studied setting. Future research may adopt the technique used in this study to
identify appropriate volume thresholds in other settings. Secondly, due to the limitation of
retrospective study design in which not all information can be obtained, although claims data offer
a significant amount of clinical information, potential confounders that we were unable to
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adjust for include body mass index, smoking status, duration of operation, guideline
adherence, and American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) grade, among others.
In this study, according to the results of the restricted cubic spline models, the optimal volume
thresholds for surgeons and hospitals are 50 cases and 75 cases a year, respectively. However,
only the surgeon volume threshold is associated with 30-day readmission. The optimal volume
is not a difficult bar to achieve. Policy makers may consider regularly publishing operating
volumes or setting the optimal volume levels for surgeons and hospitals. Further, it may be
possible to provide service-volume-related information to help guide patients to select experienced
providers. In addition, setting the optimal volume as a criterion of recertification may be a
feasible method to ensure the quality of TKA surgeries.
Conceptualization: Tsung-Hsien Yu, Ying-Yi Chou, Yu-Chi Tung.
Data curation: Tsung-Hsien Yu.
Formal analysis: Ying-Yi Chou, Yu-Chi Tung.
Investigation: Yu-Chi Tung.
Methodology: Ying-Yi Chou, Yu-Chi Tung.
Project administration: Yu-Chi Tung.
Resources: Yu-Chi Tung.
Software: Ying-Yi Chou, Yu-Chi Tung.
Supervision: Yu-Chi Tung.
Validation: Yu-Chi Tung.
Writing ? original draft: Tsung-Hsien Yu, Yu-Chi Tung.
Writing ? review & editing: Tsung-Hsien Yu, Yu-Chi Tung.
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