For the most part today, doctors determine if a patient can withstand the stress of surgery based on the "eyeball test," a loose and variable judgment based on "a look-over or a glance," says Martin A. Makary, MD, associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
"We as doctors communicate among ourselves by saying, ‘She looks 60 going on 90' or, ‘He doesn't look very strong.'" These assessments and communications aren't scientific ways to determine if someone can endure an operation, Makary says.
That's why he and his colleagues derived the first test of its kind, a simple, 10-minute "frailty" evaluation tool, for doctors to use in their offices to much more accurately gauge whether elective surgery is more likely to help or harm a patient.
The measure, described in the June issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, uses an objective five-point scale to score the chance that a patient will develop post-operative complications such as develop infections or blood clots, suffer a fall, die, have a longer than usual length of stay, require readmission, or need discharge to a nursing home or assisted living facility.
"Now with this data, we have an ethical duty to tell patients that out of the past 100 patients in your situation that have been studied, a large portion required a nursing home after this surgery," Makary says. "It's our duty to tell them what it means to be frail, and to not tell them, I think, would not be forthright."
Patients then can make their own decisions whether to forward with surgery.
Use of such a measure across the country may go a long way to reduce regional variation in the number of costly surgeries that do not make patients better, he says.
Currently, for example, some surgeons and physicians test a patient's ability to withstand chest surgery on whether they can walk up one flight of stairs, says Paul Speckart, MD, a San Diego internist. "To a thoughtful physician who knows the patient, that's usually a pretty good test," he says. But for a referring doctor who doesn't know the patient, it may not be.
"It's important to incorporate an objective standardized way to measure frailty that's the same in every part of the country in every hospital," Makary says. "Every surgeon has seen someone too frail being operated on and every surgeon has seen a non-frail patient being denied an operation because of the risks."
"We can't forget the fact that there's a strong financial incentive for surgeons to operate based on current fee for service system," he says.
The scale, developed at Johns Hopkins, scores patients based on answers to these five questions:
Makary and colleagues used this scoring system in 594 patients over age 65. They found that patients who were considered frail were 2.5 times as likely as those who were not frail to spend more time in the hospital. And, frail patients were 20 times as likely to be discharged to a nursing home or assisted living facility 30 days after surgery when previously they lived at home.