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Having surgery? Harvard study finds it pays to know not only how often the doctor has done the operation but where

August 1, 2003

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

A truism about surgery is that one wants to be operated on by a doctor who has done the procedure often rather than by one who has done it only infrequently. Now a new study, presented at the Academy of Management's 2003 annual meeting in Seattle, adds another consideration -- how often the surgeon has done the operation at the particular hospital where the procedure is to take place.

Robert S. Huckman and Gary P. Pisano of Harvard University came to appreciate the importance of that consideration by studying the outcomes of all the cardiac bypass operations in the state of Pennsylvania over a two-year period. Some 38,000 cardiac-bypass operations were performed in the state by 203 surgeons in 43 hospitals. About 30 percent of the doctors were "splitters," meaning that they performed the operation in more than one hospital in a given three-month period.

Huckman and Pisano found the more cardiac-bypasses a surgeon performed at a particular hospital in one year, the lower the number of deaths among the doctor's bypass patients during the following year at that hospital. The improvement did not extend to other hospitals; in other words, high volume at one facility did not significantly improve a surgeon's performance at other facilities.

To a considerable extent, the authors conclude, the results reflect "the productive benefits associated with a surgeon's familiarity with critical assets of the hospital organization." In view of those benefits, comments Huckman, "perhaps the medical profession should take a careful look at the relative advantages and disadvantages of splitting."

The study is relevant not only to surgery but to a larger question of great interest to management scholars -- to what extent are the skills of high-proficiency workers specific to a firm and to what extent are they transferable to another setting? The study's results, the authors conclude, should encourage corporate managers to cast a critical eye on the practice of hiring top talent from outside the company instead of developing it from within.

The Academy of Management, founded in 1936, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has nearly 14,000 members in 90 countries, including some 9,000 in the United States. The academy's 2003 annual meeting in August drew 6,500 scholars and practitioners?for more than 1,000 sessions on a host of issues relating to management-related subjects.

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