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How safe are outpatient surgery centers?

Written by Diane Archer

Medicare now covers surgeries in some 5,500 outpatient surgical centers. Patients often like receiving care from these surgical centers because they say they are often more convenient than hospitals, they don’t have to wait as long for treatment and they get more personalized care. And, according to Consumer Reports, about 54 million surgeries are performed each year at these facilities. The question remains are they as safe as hospitals?

Lisa McGiffert, who runs the Safe Patient Project at Consumer Reports questions their safety. Outpatient surgery centers like hospitals are breeding grounds for bacteria that can cause serious infections if the facilities are not kept clean. But, these centers tend not to be as tightly regulated or monitored to the same degree as hospitals. So, it’s not possible to know as much about what’s going on inside them.

In addition, these centers may not have the safety equipment available at a hospital in case of an emergency such as a defibrillator and other lifesaving equipment. Moreover, they may not have staff with the level of training and skills to handle an emergency that are on hand in hospitals.

Before getting care at an outpatient surgery center, do some research. Try to learn about the center’s infection rates. Make sure that the center is accredited, that your surgeon has experience with the procedure you are getting and that your anesthesiologist is board-certified.

Right now, it may be hard to find good data on outpatient surgery centers. We should expect it over time. If you have a serious health condition, you may be better off getting your surgery in a hospital, because they are better equipped to address complications. (You should also choose your doctors carefully.)

We are beginning to see more data rating hospitals, surgeons and doctors on a number of different metrics, including patient safety data from Consumer Reports.

If you get treated in an ambulatory surgical center, be sure you understand what will happen after you leave. Leaving has its own set of risks if you are not prepared.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is currently funding a 12-month patient safety program in which outpatient surgical centers can participate. And in 2014, Medicare began asking these centers for reports on quality, providing payment increases for those centers that comply.

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  • One of the real drawbacks to ambulatory surgical centers is that, in the event of a complication, an ambulance ride is required to get the patient to an acute care facility. If the surgery is done inpatient, the patient is already there and just a gurney ride from further help. You can’t wheel a patient on a gurney across a parking lot.

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