Incidence and causes of perioperative mortality after primary surgery for intracranial tumors: a national, population-based study

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Surgical mortality is a frequent outcome measure in studies of volume-outcome relationships, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has endorsed surgical mortality after craniotomies as an Inpatient Quality Indicator. Still, the frequency and causes of 30-day mortality after neurosurgical procedures have not been much explored. The authors sought to study the frequency and possible causes of death following primary intracranial tumor operations. They also sought to explore a possible predictive value of perioperative mortality rates from neurosurgical centers in relation to long-term survival.


Using population-based data from the Norwegian cancer registry, the authors identified 15,918 primary operations for primary CNS tumors treated in Norway in the period from August 1955 through December 2008. Patients were followed up until death, emigration, or September 2009. Causes of mortality as indicated on death certificates were studied. Factors associated with an increased risk of perioperative death were identified.


The overall risk of perioperative death after first-time surgery for primary intracranial tumors is currently 2.2% and has decreased over the last decades. An age ≥ 70 years and histopathological entities with poor long-term prognoses are risk factors. Overlapping lesions are also associated with excess risk, indicating that lesion size or multifocality may matter. The overall risk of perioperative death is also higher in biopsy cases than in resection cases. Perioperative mortality rates of the 4 Norwegian neurosurgical centers were not predictive of their respective long-term survival rates.


Although considered surgically related if they occur within the first 30 days of surgery, most early postoperative deaths can happen independent of the handiwork of the operating surgeon or anesthesiologist. Overall prognosis of the disease seems to be a strong predictor of perioperative death—perhaps not surprisingly since the 30-day mortality rate is merely the intonation of the Kaplan-Meier curve. Both referral and treatment policies at a neurosurgical center will therefore markedly affect such early outcomes, but early deaths may not necessarily reflect overall quality of care or long-term results. The low incidence of perioperative death in intracranial tumor surgery also greatly limits the statistical power in comparative analyses, such as between published patient series or between centers and certainly between surgeons. Therefore the authors question the value of perioperative mortality rates as a quality indicator in modern neurosurgery for tumors.

Article Information

Address correspondence to: Ole Solheim, M.D., Department of Neuroscience, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7005 Trondheim, Norway. email:

Please include this information when citing this paper: published online January 6, 2012; DOI: 10.3171/2011.12.JNS11339.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.



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    Graph showing the risk of perioperative mortality versus 5-year survival for patients with various intracranial lesions, data from 1990. Gray line suggests an overall inverse relationship between the 2 outcome variables.



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