Sunday, December 20, 2015

Informed Consent for Simultaneous Surgeries

Two months ago (here) and again today the Boston Globe Spotlight team wrote about the practice of having one surgeon doing two operations at the same time, moving between two operating rooms and leaving fellows or residents "in charge." Dr. Dennis Burke, a prominent orthopedic surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital, brought his concerns about simultaneous surgery to the Spotlight team. Dr. Burke has been dismissed from the hospital for showing redacted records from his own patients to the Globe team. 

Physician leaders at the Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere insist that there is no evidence that simultaneous surgery has led to worse outcomes for patients. And advocates defend the practice - which is common at leading hospitals, as (a) efficient use of skilled surgical time and (b) a way to reduce waiting time for patients. 

If simultaneous surgery were recognized as having even a small effect on patient safety, for reasons of prudence (malpractice liability and terrible publicity) as well as ethics, hospitals would not allow it. But let's assume that definitive studies showed there was no increased risk. What then?

Think about it personally. If you were going under the knife, would you want to know that your surgeon would be going in and out of the operating room to do surgery on another patient at the same time? I would. 

If there's no difference in outcomes, physicians might say - "why do I need to tell patients - there's no difference in outcomes?" The answer is that we have an ethical duty to give patients information that's important to them. I've done an informal survey among friends as to whether they regard the question of whether their surgeon would be doing two operations at once as something they would want to know about as part of their decision-making process. 100% said it is.

Revealing the possibility of another surgeon taking charge in the small print of an informed consent "contract" does not do the job. Good ethics requires open discussion. This may well be uncomfortable for surgeons, just as candor about how often they have done a procedure when they are early in the learning curve is. But it's what we owe our patients, and to the reputation of our profession as trustworthy, not devious and evasive.

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