In the United States today, there are more surgery centers than hospitals, yet many people do not know the difference between the two. Surgery centers are locations outside of hospitals where minor surgeries can be performed at a lower cost to the consumer and the government. The first surgery centers began about 50 years ago to provide lower-cost options for common surgeries and have steadily grown in prominence since then.
There are numerous reasons that surgery centers have grown in prominence and popularity among consumers over the last few decades. First, surgery centers can offer common surgeries at lower costs than hospitals. These low costs are a result of fewer safety requirements that surgery centers need to comply with. Additionally, fewer and less specialized staff members are needed to operate a surgery center because the surgeries performed at these centers are supposed to have few risks or complications. Both factors allow surgery centers to conduct surgeries at a lower rate than many hospitals. Additionally, because the centers are not located in hospitals, the doctors performing them have regular schedules, so it is rare for a surgery to get rescheduled due to another patient. This regularity is popular with many patients. Lastly, Medicare has been paying for surgeries conducted at these centers since 1982, as long as they are Medicare-certified. To date, there are 5,616 centers that are certified.
However, surgery centers do not have a great track record with safety. Due to a lack of requirements relating to emergency medical equipment and a lack of round-the-clock specialty staff, it is not unheard of for common surgery complications to have negative or even fatal consequences that would have been avoided in hospital settings. In fact, there have been many instances where doctors and nurses have called 911 when a patient becomes unresponsive during or after surgery. In these situations, the surgery center staff lacks the tools or expertise to handle emergency situations that sometimes occur during surgery.
One such story is that of Paulina Tam. She underwent a spinal surgery at a surgery center in North Carolina. The surgery itself went fine, but hours after her doctors had left for the day, she began having difficulty breathing. Her windpipe had been cut off due to internal bleeding, a common complication associated with the surgery she had received. However, none of the staff on duty knew how to restore breathing, so a nurse called 911. Paulina passed before the ambulance had even arrived at the hospital. Had she stayed in a hospital that night, a simple procedure would have saved her life.
Another notable fact about surgery centers is that doctors can recommend patients receive care in surgery centers that they own. This is an exception to the second Stark Law, which prohibits doctors recommending patients to other businesses they own. This loophole was created in order to promote doctors to open their own surgery centers but has also allowed doctors to directly profit from recommending patients to have surgery in centers that they own, even if the patient is unfit to have surgery in a non-hospital setting.
Laws regarding the oversight of surgery centers vary greatly by state. Surgery centers can voluntarily participate in a program to report how often patients are transferred to hospitals in case of emergency, but only 1/3 of nationwide centers do so. The industry is essentially self-regulated, which has had fatal consequences for some patients. If you believe that you or a loved one has been mistreated at a surgery center, contact The Law Offices of Hall & Copetas for a free consultation.