Deaths Rare in Tonsillectomy, but Some Children at More Risk

Lorraine L. Janeczko, MPH

June 22, 2022

It's rare for a child to die after a tonsillectomy, but children who die are more likely to have a complex chronic condition such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, according to a retrospective cohort study published in JAMA.

"Among children undergoing tonsillectomy, the rate of postoperative death was 7 per 100,000 operations overall, [but] among children with complex chronic conditions, the rate of postoperative death was 117 per 100,000 operations, representing 44% of overall deaths," write researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "These findings may inform decision-making for pediatric tonsillectomy."

The rate of death in children after tonsillectomy has been uncertain, the authors write. Specific mortality rates for children at increased risk for complications, including those under 3 years old and those with sleep-disordered breathing or complex chronic conditions, have not been available.

To learn how likely children undergoing tonsillectomy are to die after their surgery, as well as which children are most at risk, lead study author M. Bruce Edmonson, MD, MPH, Department of Pediatrics, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, and his colleagues drew data from five states, including ambulatory surgery, inpatient, and emergency department discharge data sets provided by the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for California, Florida, Maryland, New York, and Wisconsin.

Participants included 504,262 patients under 21 years of age whose discharge records linked their inpatient or outpatient tonsillectomy, with or without adenoidectomy, with at least 90 days of follow-up.

In a longitudinal analysis, the research team investigated postoperative death within 30 days or during a surgical stay lasting over 30 days. They calculated postoperative mortality per 100,000 operations, both overall and classified by age group, sleep-disordered breathing, and complex chronic conditions.

The 504,262 children ranged in age from 0 to 20 years and underwent a total of 505,182 tonsillectomies. Of these, 10.1% were performed in children aged under 3 years, 28.9% in children with sleep-disordered breathing, and 2.8% in those with complex chronic conditions.

The 36 linked postoperative deaths occurred between 2 and 20.5 days after surgical admission, and 19 (53%) of the deaths occurred after surgical discharge.

The unadjusted mortality rate was 7.04 (95% confidence interval, 4.97 - 9.98) deaths per 100,000 procedures. In multivariable models, children younger than 3 years and children with sleep-disordered breathing were not significantly more likely to die.

But children with complex chronic conditions were significantly more likely to die than were children without those conditions (117.22 vs 3.87 deaths per 100,000 procedures, respectively).

Children with complex chronic conditions underwent only 2.8% of all tonsillectomies, but they accounted for 44% of postoperative deaths. Most deaths linked with complex chronic conditions occurred among children with neurologic, neuromuscular, congenital, or genetic disorders.

Findings Can Help Providers Advise Patients and Their Families About Tonsillectomy Risks

Kavita Dedhia, MD, MSHP, attending otolaryngologist, Division of Otolaryngology, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told Medscape Medical News that she was not surprised by the findings.

"This study suggests that mortality is an extremely rare complication of tonsillectomy, and that children with complex medical conditions are at highest risk," Dedhia, who was not involved in the study, said in an email.

"Due to their underlying comorbidities, medically fragile children are considered to be at higher risk while undergoing anesthesia and surgical procedures," she added.

Dedhia noted that nonpatient factors the study did not explore may have affected the mortality rates, including each hospital's experience with managing children with complex medical conditions, as well as whether the hospitals were tertiary care facilities, and pediatric or adult hospitals.

She would like to know what hospital or practice characteristics may have contributed to the mortality risk, and whether increased mortality in these patients is limited to tonsillectomy or is also found with other surgical procedures.

"The strength of this study is that it is large and multi-regional, and that it informs providers about patient factors impacting mortality in pediatric tonsillectomy," Dedhia said. "This study arms surgeons with data to discuss mortality risk with the families of medically complex children undergoing tonsillectomy."

JAMA. Published online June 21, 2020. Abstract

The study authors and Dedhia report no relevant financial relationships. Funding information was not provided.

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