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i Editor's Letter: Is it wise to publish surgeon death rates?



Who wants to find the grim reaper of surgeons looming over the end of the operating table, with a scythe instead of a scalpel?

The NHS decision to publish individual surgeons’ death rates is borne of a commendable desire for transparency in an age of fractured public trust. The dangers are already apparent, though.

Some of Britain’s most skilled, experienced surgeons are renowned for taking on the trickiest cases. So a doctor whose stats suggest he’s taking commission from the Big Man may in fact be beating the odds every week in keeping so many of his patients alive.

When a chum of mine agreed to an operation to try to remove a rare cancer of the spine (it’s disconcerting when the consultant smiles and declares: “Yes, very unusual!”) he was warned that it carried a risk of paralysis, maybe death. But the surgeon suggested they proceed with the op – rather than send him away to die slowly, far from the statistics columns. My friend recovered.

Publishing death rates will “put pressure on younger surgeons not to do any difficult surgery at all”, vascular surgeon Peter McCollum claimed yesterday, explaining why he has chosen to opt out.

Wise, then, while welcoming doctors’ disclosure, to take these death ratings with a healthy pinch of salt.


Thanks for such generous messages after yesterday’s Letter. Three days on and I’m still beaming.

Should rains fall on the Glastonbury 180,000 this weekend, please spare a thought for our colleague Chris Blackhurst, who is preparing for his new Wednesday column in i (hooray) by sleeping in a Somerset field in his yurt. Rumours of his Pyramid Stage debut are unfounded.

Twitter.com: @olyduff

Twitter.com: @olyduff