Study: Many Medicare Beneficiaries Obtain Surgeries in Last Year of Life

October 10, 2011
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A new study out of Harvard finds that approximately a third of all Medicare beneficiaries in the last year of life chose to have a major surgical procedure. The operative (excuse the pun) issue here is whether such timed, elective surgeries are necessary — implying a possible increase in life expectancy. Problem is, no one knows when the beneficiary will die.

A new study out of Harvard finds that approximately a third of all Medicare beneficiaries in the last year of life chose to have a major surgical procedure. The operative (excuse the pun) issue here is whether such timed, elective surgeries are necessary — implying a possible increase in life expectancy. Problem is, no one knows when the beneficiary will die.

By analyzing Medicare claims data the study authors found that, in a group of almost 2 million elderly beneficiaries, all of whom died in 2008, almost one-third had inpatient surgery in the year before they died, almost one in five in the last month of their lives and almost one in 10 in the week before they took their last breath.

The study itself is a good lesson in who exactly “benefits” in these cases. As futile as these findings may sound, there is no question that any procedure done within FFS Medicare coverage remains a reimbursement cache for the provider and hospital, crudely suggesting a financial incentive. While this scenario is entirely possible, it really doesn’t seem to be the impetus for the study’s findings, in my humble opinion. Besides being reflective of a cynical and laconic way of approaching the study’s results, it really makes no sense in a healthcare delivery system increasingly focused on positive outcomes (read: anything but mortality or unacceptable morbidity). The study, however, does usher in the need to discuss the perennial issue of quality of life versus the “appropriateness” of acute surgical treatment among consenting patients with significant chronic illness.

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