Conference Coverage

Travel barriers can impede patient choice for pancreatectomy

Key clinical point: Some patients face travel barriers that prevent them from reaching high-performing centers for pancreatectomy.

Major finding: About 60% of patients who didn’t travel had surgery at a low-volume hospital with a higher mortality rate and longer length of stay.

Data source: The 10-year California database review comprised 13,000 patients.

Disclosures: Dr. Fong had no financial disclosures.


WASHINGTON – Patients who have the resources to travel to higher-volume hospitals for pancreatectomy have better outcomes than do those who opt to have the surgery in local, small-volume hospitals.

A 10-year review of travel patterns associated with pancreatectomy in California found those who didn’t travel were often elderly, black or Hispanic, and were either self-pay or had public insurance.

Dr. Zhi Ven Fong speaks during the ACS Clinical Congress. Michele G. Sullivan/Frontline Medical News

Dr. Zhi Ven Fong

It’s not entirely clear why this is happening, but Zhi Ven Fong, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, has some theories.

“It’s probably because these patients don’t have the resources [finances and transportation] to travel far to the best hospitals for their surgery and have to rely on the closest hospitals for better or for worse – and it seems more like the latter,” he said in an interview at the annual clinical congress of the American College of Surgeons. “So what you see is there is an aspatial barrier to access [limited insurance], as well as spatial barriers to access.”

He and his mentor, David C. Chang, PhD, examined about 13,000 pancreatectomy records included in the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development database from 2005 to 2014. The research was conducted at Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

The majority of these patients (11,000) bypassed at least one hospital that offered pancreatectomy to reach their ultimate choice. After bypassing a median of seven facilities, they ended up traveling about 16 miles from home to reach their chosen hospital. Patients who stuck to the closest hospital traveled only about 3 miles.

Generally, bypassers tended to end up in higher-volume hospitals with better outcomes. About half had their pancreatectomy at a hospital that performed more than 20 per year; 40% were at a facility that performed in excess of 40 pancreatectomies annually. Almost 50% of the bypassers also had their surgery at a teaching hospital. The median length of stay at these facilities was 10 days, and they had a median pancreatectomy mortality rate of 3%.

In contrast, patients who didn’t travel ended up at lower-volume hospitals; 60% had their pancreatectomy at a hospital that performed fewer than 10 per year and 22% at a hospital that performed 10-20 per year. Only 18% were treated at an academic center. These hospitals had a significantly longer pancreatectomy length of stay (12 days) and significantly higher pancreatectomy mortality rate (6%).

Older patients were less likely to travel. The age difference came into play beginning at age 50 and grew stronger as patients aged.

Insurance status was highly associated with hospital destination. Privately insured patients were the most likely to travel to better hospitals, followed by those on Medicare. Patients on Medicaid and those who identified as self-pay were significantly less likely to travel. Minorities traveled far less as well; blacks were the least likely to travel from their home base.

In this time of value-based surgical outcomes, the study has some interesting implications, Dr. Fong said. Many health care systems are undertaking a volume pledge, which aims to funnel patients who need high-risk procedures to centers that perform a large number of them annually. But there is a flip side to that coin, which could, in essence, make things even tougher on patients who find travel challenging.

“The Volume Pledge aims to stop hospitals that are low volume in certain procedures from continuing to do them, on the basis that high-volume hospitals often do better in terms of outcomes. But there are very much unintended consequences of the pledge, such as hampering access to surgery. Because inevitably, you’ll increase distance needed to travel for each patient to get care if low-volume hospitals stopped offering their services.”

In his study, Dr. Fong found that some California counties had only one hospital that offered pancreatectomy, and that was a low-volume facility. If that hospital was forced to stop offering the procedure, patients with less resources could face even more obstacles to getting the treatment they need.

“Eliminating [low-volume hospital procedures] will have dire consequences. Our study showed that the elderly, racial/ethnic minorities, uninsured and those on Medicaid generally don’t travel for care, and this pledge may compound on that and widen disparity or even worse, some may not even get care as a result.”

Dr. Fong had no financial disclosures.

On Twitter @Alz_Gal

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