Identifying potentially low value surgical care: A national ecological study in England

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Objectives: High variation in clinical practice may indicate uncertainty and potentially low-value care. Methods to identify low value care are often not well defined or transparent and can be time intensive. In this paperwe explore the usefulness of variation analysis of routinely-collected data about surgical procedures in England to identify potentially low-value surgical care.

Methods: This is a national ecological study using Hospital Episode Statistics linked to mid-year population estimates and indices of multiple deprivation in England, 2014/15-2018/19. We identified the top 5% of surgical procedures (3-character OPCS procedure codes) in terms of growth in standardised procedure rates for 2014/15 to 2018/19 and variation in procedure rates between clinical commissioning groups as measured by the systematic component of variance (SCV). A targeted literature review was conducted to explore the evidence for each of the identified techniques. Procedures without evidence of cost-effectiveness were viewed as of potentially low value.

Results: We identified six surgical procedures that had a high growth rate of 37% or more over 5 years, and four with higher geographical variation (SCV >1.6). There was evidence for two of the 10 procedures that surgery was more cost effective than non-surgical treatment albeit with uncertainty around optimal surgical technique. The evidence base for eight procedures was less clear cut, with uncertainty around clinical- and/or cost-effectiveness. These were: deep brain stimulation; removing the prostate; surgical spine procedures; a procedure to alleviate pain in the spine; surgery for dislocated joints due to trauma and associated surgery for traumatic fractures; hip joint replacement with cemented pelvic component or cemented femoral component; and shoulder joint replacement.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates that variation analysis could be regularly used to identify potentially low-value procedures. This can provide important insights into optimising services and the potential de-adoption of costly interventions and treatments that do not benefit patients and the health system more widely. Early identification of potentially low value care can inform prioritisation of clinical trials to generate evidence on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness before treatments become established in clinical practice.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Health Services Research and Policy
Early online date9 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 May 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2024.

Structured keywords

  • NIHR ARC West
  • HEHP@Bristol


  • applied health research
  • low value care
  • Unwarranted variation


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