Death rates in hospitals are more to do with poorly trained medical staff than complications from major surgery, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A report from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor says it is the ability of doctors to “rescue” patients from life threatening events that makes the difference.

This is particularly the case with complications that are common after major surgery, such as wound infections, pneumonia, kidney failure, blood clots and strokes.

According to Professor John Birkmeyer, the chance of dying of a serious complication is doubled if skilled and competent post-operative care is lacking.

He said: “Early recognition of a potential problem is crucial, and may be related to the quality and quantity of nursing staff and relationships among team members - for example, whether nurses are afraid to call the doctor at night.”

He said death rates varied from 3.5 per cent to 6.9 per cent despite similar numbers of serious complications. At low-mortality hospitals, 12.5 per cent of patients died from complications, compared with 21.4 per cent at high-mortality hospitals.