General surgery

The surgery went fine. Her doctors left for the day. Four hours later, Paulina Tam started gasping for air. Internal bleeding was cutting off her windpipe, a well-known complication of the spine surgery she had undergone. But a Medicare inspection report describing the event says that nobody who remained on duty that evening at the Northern California surgery center knew what to do.

California surgery center

In desperation, a nurse did something that would not happen in a hospital. She dialed 911. By the time an ambulance delivered Tam to the emergency room, the 58-year-old mother of three was lifeless, according to the report. If Tam had been operated on at a hospital; a few simple steps could have saved her life.

But like hundreds of thousands of other patients each year, Tam went to one of the nation’s 5,600-plus surgery centers. Such centers started nearly 50 years ago as low-cost alternatives for minor surgeries. They now outnumber hospitals as federal regulators have signed off on an ever-widening array of outpatient procedures in an effort to cut federal health care costs.

For minor surgeries

Thousands of times each year, these centers call 911 as patients experience complications ranging from minor to fatal. Yet no one knows how many people die as a result; because no national authority tracks the tragic outcomes. An investigation by Kaiser Health News and the USA TODAY Network has discovered that more than 260 patients have died since 2013 after in-and-out procedures at surgery centers across the country.
Dozens some as young as 2 have perished after routine operations, such as colonoscopies and tonsillectomies. Reporters examined autopsy records; legal filings and more than 12,000 state and Medicare inspection records, and interviewed dozens of doctors; health policy experts and patients throughout the industry; in the most extensive examination of these records to date.