Differences in rural and urban outcomes: A national inspection of emergency general surgery patients

Document Type



General Surgery


Background: About 19% of the United States population lives in rural areas and is served by only 10% of the physician workforce. If this misdistribution represents a shortage of available surgeons, it is possible that outcomes for rural patients may suffer. The objective of this study was to explore differences in outcomes for emergency general surgery (EGS) conditions between rural and urban hospitals using a nationally representative sample.
Methods: Data from the 2007-2011 National Inpatient Sample were queried for adult patients (≥18 years) with a primary diagnosis consistent with an EGS condition, as defined by the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma. Urban and rural patients were matched on patient-level factors using coarsened exact matching. Differences in outcomes including mortality, morbidity, length of stay (LOS), and total cost of hospital care were assessed using multivariable regression models. Analogous counterfactual models were used to further examine hypothetical outcomes, assuming that all patients had been treated at urban centers.
Results: A total of 3,749,265 patients were admitted with an EGS condition during the study period. Of 3259 hospitals analyzed, 40.2% (n = 1310) were rural; they treated 14.6% of patients. Relative to urban centers, EGS patients treated at rural centers had higher odds of in-hospital mortality (odds ratio [OR]: 1.24; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.21-1.28) and lower odds of major complications (OR: 0.98; 95% CI: 0.96-0.99). Rural patients had 0.51 d (95% CI: 0.50-0.53) shorter LOS and $744 (95% CI: 712-774) higher cost of hospitalization compared to urban patients. In counterfactual models overall odds of death decreased by 0.05%, whereas the overall odds of complications increased by 0.02%. Overall difference in LOS and total costs were comparable with absolute differences of 0.08 d and $98, respectively.
Conclusions: Despite the statistically significant difference in mortality and cost of care at rural versus urban hospitals, the magnitude of absolute differences is sufficiently small to indicate limited clinical importance. Large urban centers are designed to manage complex cases, but our results suggest that for cases appropriate to treat in rural hospitals, equivalent outcomes are found. These findings will inform future work on rural outcomes and provide impetus for regionalization of care for complex EGS presentations


This work was published before the author joined Aga Khan University


Journal of Surgical Research