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Surgeon Scorecard Targets Complications

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ProPublica.org

An investigation into doctors performing common elective surgeries is placing the spotlight on a Citrus County physician and hospital.

The non-profit news organization ProPublica sorted 2.3 million low-risk procedures on Medicare patients - from hip and knee replacements to back surgery. It published its Surgeon Scorecard on eight different procedures on Tuesday.

At Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, ProPublica reporters found Dr. Constantine Toumbis was one of three surgeons conducting spinal fusions.

According to the Florida Department of Health’s medical license database, Toumbis hasn't faced formal discipline in at least the past decade. But ProPublica found he has one of the highest complication rates in the country.

Reporter Marshall Allen said Toumbis’s record of post-surgery complications was widely known among hospital staff. But the release of ProPublica’s Surgeon Scorecard is the first time the public can see it.

“People did know that there was a difference between these doctors, and yet the patients would not have any way of knowing that until our information became public,” he said.

The scorecard compares 17,000 U.S. doctors to peers performing the same procedures over a five-year period. Of the more than 800 surgeries in Florida, a third of the patients experienced complications, such as post-surgery infections or death.

The database is part of ProPublica's ongoing coverage on patient harm, which also includes the ongoing collection of Patient Harm Questionnaires from patients in Florida and across the country. 

Allen says the Surgeon Scorecard database only includes hospital billing claims to Medicare - the government insurance for Americans 65 and older. Private insurance information isn't available to the public.

Allen says releasing this information educates patients -- and reminds doctors -- there's no guarantee a procedure is 100 percent safe.

“Not every surgery is low risk,” he said. “It really does depend on the surgeon performing the procedure it appears...This wasn’t just at Citrus Memorial. It was at hospitals across the country.”

Mary Shedden is a reporter with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.