Improving surgical outcomes is a little easier when a hospital has a treasure trove of data and a team of experts supporting its efforts.

Northwestern Medicine, the Illinois chapter of the American College of Surgeons and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois are teaming up to transform surgery in the state using a pool of patient data the collaborative is pulling together.

The partnership is unlike others that have been launched in other states in its use of mentors and grants of up to $20,000 for hospitals to start pilot programs that tackle surgical quality improvement.

Key to it all is gathering reliable, risk-adjusted data that surgeons can easily use to compare with the best of the field, says Clifford Ko, M.D., director of the division of research and optimal patient care at the American College of Surgeons. "When we start giving back data, most people are surprised that they're not 100 percent perfect," says Ko, who is a practicing colorectal surgeon. "We need to have data telling us how we're doing, and once we have that data, most providers want to get better."

Northwestern and BCBS, the latter of which is funding the effort, started working with ACS in December. The three members of the Illinois Surgical Quality Improvement Collaborative hope to have participants set by the summer, when data collection will begin.

Each hospital involved will have its own data abstractor who will gather information on outcomes and surgical practices. The collaborative will send reports to hospitals, specifying areas in which to improve. Hospitals also will receive quality and process improvement mentoring, training and coaching.

After data are gathered for a year, BCBS plans to offer grants for hospitals to design pilot programs on how to improve surgical outcomes.

Carol Wilhoit, M.D., senior medical director of quality and outcomes for the insurer, declined to say how much it might cost to run the program, but suggests that savings from improved outcomes will far outweigh the expense. One study, published by the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, estimated that preventing even a minor surgical complication could save upward of $30,000.