Specialty Surgical Hospitals: Part of the Solution

Published September 28, 2004

A distinguishing feature of the U.S. health care system is that it welcomes innovation. Whether we’re developing the latest and most effective drugs to combat Alzheimer’s disease or devising less-invasive procedures to fight cancer, Americans have access to the best health care in the world because innovation is encouraged and rewarded.

Innovation leads to competition and choice, which ultimately leads to increased efficiency and reduced cost–two things Americans overwhelmingly support in any industry. As a nation, we want the best health care at the most affordable price.

An excellent example of innovation is specialty surgical hospitals–facilities that specialize in one or a few surgical procedures. Approximately 100 such facilities are currently open in the U.S.

Specialty surgical hospitals offer clear benefits to patients. Among the most important is the quality of care. Specialty hospitals that routinely do the same procedures develop expertise. This results in lower mortality rates, fewer complications, and shorter hospital stays.

The ratio of patients to nurses tends to be lower at specialty hospitals, meaning patients get more personal care. It is not uncommon for the nurses who prepare patients for surgery to remain with them through post-operative recovery. This continuity of care is comforting to patients who are looking for a familiar face after a major medical procedure.

In a traditional hospital, nurses care for patients suffering from many different medical problems. Patients recovering from heart bypass surgery typically have issues that are different from the issues facing patients who have a hip replacement or corneal transplant. Caring for such a variety of patients can make it difficult for nurses to provide top-notch care to everyone.

By contrast, nurses in specialty surgical hospitals are trained and equipped to deal specifically with patients who are recovering from a particular procedure. Specialization makes it possible for these nurses to deliver outstanding care to every patient they see.

Specialty surgical hospitals offer a healthier environment for patients than traditional hospitals. Since specialty surgical hospitals generally provide elective or pre-planned surgeries, patients are rarely admitted if they are dealing with another illness, such as a cold or other contagious condition. There is less chance in a specialty surgical hospital that one unhealthy patient will spread disease or infection to healthy patients.

Specialty surgical hospitals also create a more pleasant environment that allows for comfortable recovery, providing patients with amenities you might expect from an upscale hotel–including private bathrooms, televisions with VCRs, refrigerators, and soft carpeting. Many of these facilities allow patients to design their own meals, prepared just for them by exceptionally good cooks. Eating more while also eating well are two essential aspects of recovery.

If specialty surgical hospitals are getting the job done better in a more comfortable environment, how much more do they cost? The good news: They actually cost less.

Specialty surgical hospitals typically keep patients in hospitals for a shorter period of time–a direct result of quicker recovery. Patients in one chain of specialty surgical hospitals spent 21.9 percent less time in inpatient care than those at community hospitals and 25.6 percent less time than those staying at teaching hospitals. Hospital stays can cost thousands of dollars per day, so the shorter length of stay at specialty surgical hospitals can mean major savings.

By delivering better results, comfortable care, and lower overall costs, specialty surgical hospitals are emerging as a key part of the solution to America’s health care cost and quality problems.

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president – external affairs at The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan policy research organization based in Chicago.