Hazards of benchmarking complications with the national trauma data bank: Numerators in search of denominators

Document Type



General Surgery


Background: Complication rates after trauma may serve as important indicators of quality of care. Meaningful performance benchmarks for complication rates require reference standards from valid and reliable data. Selection of appropriate numerators and denominators is a major consideration for data validity in performance improvement and benchmarking. We examined the suitability of the National Trauma Data Bank (NTDB) as a reference for benchmarking trauma center complication rates.
Method: We selected the five most commonly reported complications in the NTDB v. 6.1 (pneumonia, urinary tract infection, acute respiratory distress syndrome, deep vein thrombosis, myocardial infarction). We compared rates for each complication using three different denominators defined by different populations at risk. A-all patients from all 700 reporting facilities as the denominator (n = 1,466,887); B-only patients from the 441 hospitals reporting at least one complication (n = 1,307,729); C-patients from hospitals reporting at least one occurrence of each specific complication, giving a unique denominator for each complication (n range = 869,675-1,167,384). We also looked at differences in hospital characteristics between complication reporters and nonreporters.
Results: There was a 12.2% increase in the rate of each complication when patients from facilities not reporting any complications were excluded from the denominator. When rates were calculated using a unique denominator for each complication, rates increased 25% to 70%. The change from rate A to rate C produced a new rank order for the top five complications. When compared directly, rates B and C were also significantly different for all complications (all p < 0.01). Hospitals that reported complication information had significantly higher annual admissions and were more likely to be designated level I or II trauma centers and be university teaching hospitals.
Conclusion: There is great variability in complication data reported in the NTDB that may introduce bias and significantly influence rates of complications reported. This potential for bias creates a challenge for appropriately interpreting complication rates for hospital performance benchmarking. We recognize the value of large aggregated registries such as the NTDB as a valuable tool for benchmarking and performance improvement purposes. However, we strongly advocate the need for conscientious selection of numerators and denominators that serve as the basic foundation for research


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University

Publication (Name of Journal)

The Journal of trauma