Two weeks ago I posted about the practice of simultaneous surgeries. It had been the focus of a Boston Globe Spotlight series. Two days ago, the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine - the body that regulates medicine on behalf of the state - ruled that surgeons must record when they leave and reenter the operating room. Nurses currently do this. At many hospitals, surgeons don't.
Simultaneous surgery raises two central questions: What is its impact on patient safety and surgical outcomes? And, what is the impact on patient and public trust of physicians and hospitals?
Dr. James Rickert, president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, correctly identified informed consent as the central ethical issue:
“I know that surgeons don’t think this is an important issue, so they assume that it’s not important to patients. However, this thinking is wrong. Patients want to know that their surgeon is the individual who actually operated on them, and I think they have a right to this information. We are talking about situations where patients are completely vulnerable and, by definition, there is a risk of death or severe bodily injury.”I learned from an op ed piece in today's Boston Globe that the American College of Surgery has created a committee to develop policy about simultaneous surgery. The committee includes proponents and opponents of the practice.
There's an important lesson about health system ethics in all of this. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes multiple components of civil society to promote an ethical health system. With regard to the practice of simultaneous surgery, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team brought the issue to a wider public. Individuals, like the author of the op ed I cited (Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan Komen breast cancer charity) pitched in thoughtfully. A professional association - the American College of Surgery - is working on evidence-based guidelines for how the practice should be handled. Another professional organization - the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics - nailed the fact that meaningful informed consent must be part of the process.
We tend to think about ethics in terms of individual conscience and behavior. But just as we have come to see quality of care as a system responsibility and errors as not simply the result of individual "bad apples," we must understand health system ethics as the responsibility of organizations as well as individuals. To improve the ethics of the health system we depend on ethical health organizations as well as vigilant individuals.