Lottery of death rates after cancer ops revealed

Major differences in death rates after surgery for a common cancer are revealed today in a landmark study.

Experts found on average 6.7 per cent of patients – more than 10,700 people – died within a month of operations for bowel cancer in England between 1998-2006.

The study of 160,000 cases at 150 hospitals found fewer than two per cent of patients died at one Manchester NHS trust, rising to 15 per cent in Burton, Staffordshire.

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In Rotherham, a mortality rate of 11.4 per cent was among five described as “very high”, while rates overall in South Yorkshire and the North Midlands were “high”.

York hospital had the lowest death rate in the region at 4.2 per cent.

The findings today prompted one top expert to call on all cancer surgeons to follow the lead of heart specialists and make their results public. In a pioneering initiative, surgical masterclasses are also being launched in Yorkshire by local specialists which they hope will be adopted nationwide.

Leeds pathologist Prof Phil Quirke, a lead author of the study funded by the charities Yorkshire Cancer Research and Cancer Research UK, said death rates were falling but there was “considerable scope for improvement”.

“It is now time for colorectal cancer, and subsequently other cancer teams, to follow the example of the UK’s cardiothoracic surgeons who have openly reported their surgical outcomes since 1998, leading to improved outcomes for cardiothoracic surgical mortality across the country.”

Co-author Prof Paul Finan, of Leeds General Infirmary, said: “It’s vital to learn from the trusts with very low post-operative mortality so that we can identify and spread best practice across the NHS and so help to reduce post-operative mortality further.”

Ciarán Devane, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, described the differences as “worrying” and added: “Such variation in care, and the fact it impacts on how likely a patient is to live, is simply unacceptable.”

Prof Walid Al-Wali, medical director at Rotherham, said latest figures showed mortality rates had significantly improved. “However, it is vital that we identify any issues that may still need to be addressed and the trust is therefore undertaking its own internal review in conjunction with the team of specialist surgeons responsible for delivering this service,” he added.

A North Trent Cancer Network spokesman said latest figures showed mortality rates were now similar to the national average.