SAN ANTONIO – About a decade ago, the Northern California Permanente Medical Group realized it had a problem: There were too many open hysterectomies being performed.
“We had a large number of low-volume surgeons doing a lot of open hysterectomies,” said Andrew Walter, MD, a gynecologic surgeon at the Permanente Medical Group (TPMG) campus in Roseville, Calif., part of Kaiser Permanente. Across 15 hospitals in the system, “our open rate was 64% in 2007.”
To address the problem, “our leadership basically set targets; we then provided surgical education and training in minimally invasive hysterectomy,” Dr. Walter said at the annual scientific meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons.
Kaiser Permanente is a capitated system, but even so, its experience in reducing open hysterectomy rates may be useful for other systems dealing with the same problem.
At first, Dr. Walter and his colleagues didn’t know how much of an improvement could be made. “In 2008, we said, ‘Okay, 60% seems doable’” as a minimally invasive target rate, Dr. Walter said. TPMG hit that target, and “the chiefs looked at the numbers and said we can do a little bit better.” With some more effort, the rate of minimally invasive hysterectomies hit 80%, and then 90%, about where it stands today, with a corresponding drop in open rates.
“It will be interesting to see if someone says, ‘Let’s try 95%,’ ” Dr. Walter said.
However, the process hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been entirely evidence based, he said. “We are working with hundreds of gynecologists, and very few of them have had advanced training. But ultimately, it worked.”
Surgeons trained with TPMG peers experienced in minimally invasive hysterectomy, and both surgeons were kept on full salary during the learning process. It took about 5-15 cases before learner surgeons were considered proficient. “Funded proctoring is the most important aspect of the program,” he said.
TPMG also reduced the number of physicians doing hysterectomies from 416 to 228 in 2015. “This was the hard part, deciding who is a surgeon and who is not,” Dr. Walter said. “I would like to tell you that these were Kumbaya moments, but there was consternation, and there remains consternation about the process.” A number of ob.gyns. voluntarily gave up their surgical privileges, saying, ‘Thank God I don’t have to operate anymore,’ ” he said.
For low-volume surgeons – those who performed 10 or fewer hysterectomies a year – who wanted stay in the operating room, “we either had to push them into this training or encourage them to give up their surgical practices.” The more than 3,600 hysterectomies performed annually at TPMG facilities are now mostly done by surgeons doing at least 11 of these procedures a year, and often more than 20.
TPMG also paid for training courses at outside institutions, and department chiefs were held accountable for performance.
“Obviously, there are unique processes within Kaiser Permanente that facilitated this, but some of them are not unique. Physician support by enhanced training – that’s something that can be done. The barriers are reimbursement, and deciding who is a surgeon,” he said.
The next target is vaginal hysterectomy. Rates have been stable lately at about 30%, but “we have found that many patients, when reviewed, are vaginal hysterectomy candidates. We’ve set a target of 40%.” The procedure needs to be incentivized, Dr. Walter said, but it’s unclear how to do that at this point.
Dr. Walter reported having no relevant financial disclosures.
* The meeting sponsor information was updated 6/9/2017.