Attributes of a Good Surgeon
Realising the benefits that good leadership and teamwork can deliver requires commitment from all those involved in patient care. From the surgeon’s viewpoint there are numerous desirable attributes which are developed through medical school education, foundation training, core training and into professional practice. These are outlined below:
1. Clinical Care
An obvious consideration of what makes a “good surgeon” is the care provided to patients throughout the patient journey. This includes technical ability in the operating theatre and non-technical skills.
2. Maintenance and Improvement
Remaining up-to-date with innovations in surgical practice and patient are is an important attribute of a good surgeon. In doing so, one is able to inform patients and explain the reasons for and against procedures, allowing them to make an informed decision. Willingness to learn from others and improve from others by reviewing personal practice forms part of Continuing Professional Development; this is a requirement in a portfolio to meet revalidation and recertification criteria.
3. Teaching, Training and Supervision
Educating others forms part of professional development and surgeons frequently oversee projects for medical students or trainees. This requires knowledge of the objectives of the tasks undertaken, knowledge of what technical and non-technical skills should be improved and knowledge of how to encourage the development of these skills. The mentormentee relationship should work both ways, such that the mentee is able to approach their supervisor for assistance and is accepting of any constructive criticism delivered.
4. Relationships with Patients
Relationships with patients are fundamentally based on trust; the patient trusts that the surgeon will do all in their power to help them and their surgical journey. Obtaining informed consent prior to clinical care is based on trust and allows patient autonomy to be upheld. Developing relationships with patients begins from the first consultation and is continued after the day of an operation being undertaken. Acknowledging the needs of the individual and employing effective communication helps in developing an open relationship. In this way patients disclose their medical history and admit underlying fears, allowing better patient care to be delivered.
5. Relationships with Colleagues
Partnership with all members of the multidisciplinary clinical team, management, technicians and support staff fosters healthy working relationships. Consequently, patient care is enhanced through communication, enhanced productivity and an improved team dynamic. Understanding how a colleague works and taking action to facilitate a positive working environment is beneficial to all. Emotional intelligence forms an important component of working relationships, through the ability “to understand and recognize emotional states and to use that understanding to manage one’s self and other individuals or teams”.
Maintenance of good personal health and knowing when you must stop working is important in the protection of patient safety. The relevant senior staff must be informed of communicable disease or blood-borne disease transmission. In addition, being vigilant of the health of colleagues forms part of protecting patient safety, for example, failure to report suspicion that the consultant consistently operates after several glasses of wine or that the CT2 has been seen smoking drugs can facilitate the propagation of errors in the workplace. Finally, surgeons are renowned for working at all hours, however acknowledgement that we all need rest is crucial in good patient care.
“At the University of Chicago, members of the Department of Surgery decided to investigate this issue more precisely. As stay-at-home restrictions in some states are easing, and as non-emergency medical care is being reconsidered, how does one possibly triage the thousands upon thousands of patients whose surgeries were postponed? Instead of the term “elective,” the University of Chicago’s Department of Surgery chose the phrase “Medically-Necessary, Time Sensitive” (MeNTS). This concept can be utilized to better assess the acuity and safety when determining which patients can get to the operating room in as high benefit/low risk manner as possible. And unlike in any recent time in history, risks to healthcare staff as well as risks to the patient from healthcare staff, are now thrown into the equation. The work was published in the April issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.
On March 17, 2020, the American College of Surgeons recommended that all “elective” surgeries be canceled indefinitely. These guidelines were published, stating that only patients with “high acuity” surgical issues, which would include aggressive cancers and severely symptomatic disease, should proceed. Based on the Elective Surgery Acuity Scale (ESAS), most hospitals were strongly encouraged to cancel any surgery that was not high acuity, including slow-growing cancers, orthopedic and spine surgeries, airway surgeries, and any other surgeries for non-cancerous tumors. Heart surgeries for stable cardiac issues were also put on hold. Patients and surgeons waited. Some patients did, indeed undergo non-Covid-19-related surgeries. But most did not. Redeployment is gradually turning to re-entry.
The re-entry process for non-urgent (yet necessary) surgeries is a complicated one. Decisions and timing, based on a given hospital’s number and severity of Covid-19 patients, combined with a given city or state’s current and projected number of Covid-19 cases, how sick those patients will be, and whether or not a second surge may come, involves a fair amount of guesswork. As we have all seen, data manipulation has become a daily sparring match in many arenas. The authors of the study created an objective surgical risk scoring system, in order to help hospitals across this country, as well as others across the world, better identify appropriate timing regarding which surgeries can go ahead sooner rather than later, and why. They factored several variables into their equation, to account for the multiple potential barriers to care, including health and safety of hospital personnel. They created scoring systems based on three factors: Procedure, Disease and Patient Issues.
The authors of the study created an objective surgical risk scoring system, in order to help hospitals across this country, as well as others across the world, better identify appropriate timing regarding which surgeries can go ahead sooner rather than later, and why. They factored several variables into their equation, to account for the multiple potential barriers to care, including health and safety of hospital personnel. Each patient would receive an overall conglomerate score, based on all of these factors, with the lower risks giving them more favorable scores to proceed with surgery soon, and the higher risks giving patients a higher score, or higher risk regarding proceeding with surgery, meaning it may be safest, for now, to wait.
Dr. Jeffrey Matthews, senior author of the paper, and Department Chair at the University of Chicago, stated that this model is reproducible across hospital systems, in urban, rural, and academic settings. And in the event of potential unpredictable surges of Covid-19 cases, the scoring system “helps prioritize cases not only from the procedure/disease standpoint but also from the pandemic standpoint with respect to available hospital resources such as PPE, blood, ICU beds, and [regular hospital] beds.”
The scoring system is extremely new, and the coming weeks will reveal how patients, surgeons and hospitals are faring as patients without life-and-death emergencies and/or Covid-19 complications gradually begin filling the operating rooms and hospital beds. In addition, and perhaps just as important, the study authors note that creating systems whereby healthcare resources, safety, and impact on outcomes need to be considered more carefully for each patient intervention, the larger impact of each intervention on public health will be better understood: not only for today’s pandemic, but also in future, as yet unknown, global events.”
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Gallbladder cancer is uncommon disease, although it is not rare. Indeed, gallbladder cancer is the fifth most common gastrointestinal cancer and the most common biliary tract cancer in the United States. The incidence is 1.2 per 100,000 persons per year. It has historically been considered as an incu-rable malignancy with a dismal prognosis due to its propensity for early in-vasion to liver and dissemination to lymph nodes and peritoneal surfaces. Patients with gallbladder cancer usually present in one of three ways: (1) advanced unresectable cancer; (2) detection of suspicious lesion preoperatively and resectable after staging work-up; (3) incidental finding of cancer during or after cholecystectomy for benign disease.
Although, many studies have suggested improved survival in patients with early gallbladder cancer with radical surgery including en bloc resection of gallbladder fossa and regional lymphadenectomy, its role for those with advanced gallbladder cancer remains controversial. First, patients with more advanced disease often require more extensive resections than early stage tumors, and operative morbidity and mortality rates are higher. Second, the long-term outcomes after resection, in general, tend to be poorer; long-term survival after radical surgery has been reported only for patients with limited local and lymph node spread. Therefore, the indication of radical surgery should be limited to well-selected patients based on thorough preoperative and intra-operative staging and the extent of surgery should be determined based on the area of tumor involvement.
Surgical resection is warranted only for those who with locoregional disease without distant spread. Because of the limited sensitivity of current imaging modalities to detect metastatic lesions of gallbladder cancer, staging laparoscopy prior to proceeding to laparotomy is very useful to assess the
abdomen for evidence of discontinuous liver disease or peritoneal metastasis and to avoid unnecessary laparotomy. Weber et al. reported that 48% of patients with potentially resectable gallbladder cancer on preoperative imaging work-up were spared laparotomy by discovering unresectable disease by laparoscopy. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy should be avoided when a preoperative cancer is suspected because of the risk of violation of the plane between tumor and liver and the risk of port site seeding.
The goal of resection should always be complete extirpation with microscopic negative margins. Tumors beyond T2 are not cured by simple cholecystectomy and as with most of early gallbladder cancer, hepatic resection is always required. The extent of liver resection required depends upon whether involvement of major hepatic vessels, varies from segmental resection of segments IVb and V, at minimum to formal right hemihepatectomy or even right trisectionectomy. The right portal pedicle is at particular risk for advanced tumor located at the neck of gallbladder, and when such involvement is suspected, right hepatectomy is required. Bile duct resection and reconstruction is also required if tumor involved in bile duct. However, bile duct resection is associated with increased perioperative morbidity and it should be performed only if it is necessary to clear tumor; bile duct resection does not necessarily increase the lymph node yield.
Patients with acute appendicitis can present at different stages of the disease process, ranging from mild mucosal inflammation to frank perforation with abscess formation. The reported overall incidence of acute appendicitis varies with age, gender, and geographical differences. Interestingly, while the incidence of non-perforated appendicitis in the United States decreased between 1970 and 2004, no significant decline in the rate of perforated appendicitis was observed despite the increasng use of computed tomography (CT) and fewer negative appendectomies.
Of 32,683 appendectomies sampled from the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (ACS-NSQIP) hospitals between 2005 and 2008, 5,405 patients (16.5%) had a preoperative diagnosis of acute appendicitis with peritonitis/abscess.
The definition of complicated appendicitis varies slightly in the literature. Clinicopathological diagnoses (gangrenous, perforated, appendiceal abscess/phlegmon) of acute appendicitis are commonly used for its definition. Classically, patients at the extremes of age are more likely to present with complicated appendicitis. Similarly, pre-morbid conditions including diabetes and type of medical insurance are significantly associated with the risk of perforation.
The importance of early appendectomy has also been emphasized to prevent perforation of the appendix and the sub- sequent negative impact on patient outcomes. However, more recent meta-analysis data supports the safety of a relatively short (12–24 h) delay before appendectomy, which was not significantly associated with increased rate of complicated appendicitis. Teixeira et al. also showed that the time to appendectomy was not a significant risk factor for perforated appendicitis but did result in a significantly increased risk of surgical site infection.
The outcome of patients with complicated appendicitis is significantly worse than patients with uncomplicated appendicitis. A population-based study from Sweden showed that, in a risk-adjusted model, patients with perforated appendicitis were 2.34 times more likely to die after appendectomy than non- perforated appendicitis patients. Because of its higher mortality and morbidity in patients with complicated appendicitis, the management of complicated appendicitis has evolved significantly over the last few decades.
Open or Laparoscopic Surgery
Since the first laparoscopic appendectomy was described by Semm in 1983, multiple studies have compared operative time, complication rates, length of hospital stay, hospital cost, and other outcomes between open and laparoscopic appendectomy for acute appendicitis. The most recent Cochrane review included 67 studies showing that laparoscopic appendectomy was associated with a lower incidence of wound infection, reduced postoperative pain, shorter postoperative length of hospital stay, and faster recovery to daily activity. In contrast, reduced risk of intra-abdominal abscesses and shorter operative time were found as the advantages of open appendectomy.
Due to increased surgeon experience in uncomplicated appendicitis, laparoscopic appendectomy is more frequently attempted even in complicated appendicitis cases as an alternative approach to open appendectomy. Although the general surgical steps for complicated appendicitis are similar to those for uncomplicated appendicitis, the laparoscopic procedure can be more technically demanding. Therefore, conversion from laparoscopic appendectomy to open appendectomy can be expected.
Despite these concerns, the laparoscopic approach in patients with com- plicated appendicitis has been proven to be safe and comparable to open appendectomy. Retrospective studies using a large database in the United States uniformly showed more favorable clinical outcomes (mortality, morbidity, length of hospital stay, readmission rate) and hospital costs in patients who underwent laparoscopic appendectomy when compared to open appendectomy. The real risk of developing an intra- abdominal abscess after laparoscopic appendectomy remains unclear. A meta-analysis by Markides et al. found no significant difference in the intra-abdominal abscess rate between laparoscopic and open appendectomy for complicated appendicitis, whereas Ingraham et al. showed a higher likelihood of developing an organ-space surgical site infection in patients undergoing laparoscopic appendectomy.
Hepatocellular carcinoma is the second most common cause of cancer mortality worldwide and its incidence is rising in North America, with an estimated 35,000 cases in the U.S. in 2014. The best chance for cure is surgical resection in the form of either segmental removal or whole organ transplantation although recent survival data on radiofrequency ablation approximates surgical resection and could be placed under the new moniker of “thermal resection”. The debate between surgical resection and transplantation focuses on patients with “within Milan criteria” tumors, single tumors, and well compensated cirrhosis who can safely undergo either procedure. Although transplantation historically has had better survival outcomes, early diagnosis, reversal of liver disease, and innovations in patient selection and neo-adjuvant therapies have led to similar 5-year survival. Transplantation clearly has less risk of tumor recurrence but exposes recipients to long term immunosuppression and its side effects. Liver transplantation is also limited by the severe global limit on the supply of organ donors whereas resection is readily available. The current data does not favor one treatment over the other for patients with minimal or no portal hypertension and normal synthetic function. Instead, the decision to resect or transplant for HCC relies on multiple factors including tumor characteristics, biology, geography, co-morbidities, location, organ availability, social support and practice preference.
Resection Versus Transplantation
The debate between resection and transplantation revolves around patients who have well compensated cirrhosis with Milan criteria resectable tumors. Patients within these criteria represent a very small proportion of those who initially present with HCC. This is especially true in western countries where hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver failure and HCC is a result of the progressive and in most cases advanced cirrhosis.
Given the need for a large number of patients to show statistical significance, it would be difficult to perform a high-quality prospective randomized controlled trial comparing resection and transplantation. In fact the literature revealed that no randomized controlled trials addressing this issue exist. Instead, outcomes of surgical treatment for HCC stem from retrospective analyses that have inherent detection, selection and attrition biases.
Given the numerous articles available on this subject, several meta-analyses have been published to delineate the role of transplantation and resection for treatment of HCC. However, there is reason to be wary of these meta-analyses because they pool data from heterogeneous populations with variable selection criteria and treatment protocols. One such meta-analysis by Dhir et al. focused their choice of articles to strict criteria which excluded studies with non-cirrhotic patients, fibrolamellar HCC and hepato-cholangiocarcinomas but included those with HCC within Milan criteria and computation of 5-year survival; between 1990 and 2011 they identified ten articles that fit within these criteria, of which six were ITT analyses, six included only well-compensated cirrhotics (Child-Pugh Class A without liver dysfunction) and three were ITT analyses of well-compensated cirrhotics.
Analysis of the six ITT studies that included all cirrhotics (n = 1118) (Child-Pugh Class A through C) showed no significant difference in survival at 5 years (OR = 0.600, 95 % CI 0.291– 1.237 l; p=0.166) but ITT analysis of only well-compensated cirrhotics (Child- Pugh Class A) revealed that patients undergoing transplant had a significantly higher 5-year survival as compared to those with resection (OR=0.521, 95 % CI 0.298–0.911; p=0.022).
A more recent ITT retrospective analysis from Spain assessed long-term survival and tumor recurrence following resection or transplant for tumors <5 cm in 217 cirrhotics (Child-Pugh Class A, B and C) over the span of 16 years. Recurrence at 5 years was significantly higher in the resection group (71.6 % vs. 16 % p<0.001) but survival at 4 years was similar (60 % vs. 62 %) which is likely explained by the evolving role of adjuvant therapies to treat post-resection recurrence.
- Patients with anatomically resectable single tumors and no cirrhosis or Child-Pugh Class A cirrhosis with normal bilirubin, HVPG (<10 mmHg), albumin and INR can be offered resection (evidence quality moderate; strong recommendation).
- Patients with Milan criteria tumors in the setting of Child- Pugh Class A with low platelets and either low albumin or high bilirubin or Child-Pugh Class B and C cirrhosis, especially those with more than one tumor, should be offered liver transplantation over resection (evidence quality moderate; strong recommendation).
- Those with Milan criteria tumors and Child-Pugh Class A cirrhosis without liver dysfunction should be considered for transplantation over resection (evidence quality low; weak recommendation).
- No recommendation can be made in regard to transplanting tumors beyond Milan criteria (evidence quality low) except to follow regional review board criteria.
- Pre-transplant therapies such as embolic or thermal ablation are safe and by expert opinion considered to be effective in decreasing transplant waitlist dropout and bridging patients to transplant (evidence quality low, weak recommendation). These interventions should be considered for those waiting longer than 6 months (evi- dence quality low, moderate recommendation).
- Living donor liver transplantation is a safe and effective option for treatment of HCC that are within and exceed Milan criteria (evidence quality moderate, weak recommendation).
Surgery is a profession defined by its authority to cure by means of bodily invasion. The brutality and risks of opening a living person’s body have long been apparent, the benefits only slowly and haltingly worked out. Nonetheless, over the past two centuries, surgery has become radically more effective, and its violence substantially reduced — changes that have proved central to the development of mankind’s abilities to heal the sick.
Consider, for instance, amputation of the leg.
The procedure had long been recognized as lifesaving, in particular for compound fractures and other wounds prone to sepsis, and at the same time horrific. Before the discovery of anesthesia, orderlies pinned the patient down while an assistant exerted pressure on the femoral artery or applied a tourniquet on the upper thigh.
Surgeons using the circular method proceeded through the limb in layers, taking a long curved knife in a circle through the skin first, then, a few inches higher up, through the muscle, and finally, with the assistant retracting the muscle to expose the bone a few inches higher still, taking an amputation saw smoothly through the bone so as not to leave splintered protrusions. Surgeons using the flap method, popularized by the British surgeon Robert Liston, stabbed through the skin and muscle close to the bone and cut swiftly through at an oblique angle on one side so as to leave a flap covering the stump.
The limits of patients’ tolerance for pain forced surgeons to choose slashing speed over precision. With either the flap method or the circular method, amputation could be accomplished in less than a minute, though the subsequent ligation of the severed blood vessels and suturing of the muscle and skin over the stump sometimes required 20 or 30 minutes when performed by less experienced surgeons.
No matter how swiftly the amputation was performed, however, the suffering that patients experienced was terrible. Few were able to put it into words. Among those who did was Professor George Wilson. In 1843, he underwent a Syme amputation — ankle disarticulation — performed by the great surgeon James Syme himself. Four years later, when opponents of anesthetic agents attempted to dismiss them as “needless luxuries,” Wilson felt obliged to pen a description of his experience:
“The horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close on despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget, however gladly I would do so. During the operation, in spite of the pain it occasioned, my senses were preternaturally acute, as I have been told they generally are in patients in such circumstances. I still recall with unwelcome vividness the spreading out of the instruments: the twisting of the tourniquet: the first incision: the fingering of the sawed bone: the sponge pressed on the flap: the tying of the blood-vessels: the stitching of the skin: the bloody dismembered limb lying on the floor.”
It would take a little while for surgeons to discover that the use of anesthesia allowed them time to be meticulous. Despite the advantages of anesthesia, Liston, like many other surgeons, proceeded in his usual lightning-quick and bloody way. Spectators in the operating-theater gallery would still get out their pocket watches to time him. The butler’s operation, for instance, took an astonishing 25 seconds from incision to wound closure. (Liston operated so fast that he once accidentally amputated an assistant’s fingers along with a patient’s leg, according to Hollingham. The patient and the assistant both died of sepsis, and a spectator reportedly died of shock, resulting in the only known procedure with a 300% mortality.)
Surgical stereotypes are remnants of the days of pre-anaesthesia surgery and include impulsivity, narcissism, authoritativeness, decisiveness, and thinking hierarchically. Medical students hold these stereotypes of surgeons early in their medical training. As Pearl Katz says in the The Scalpel’s Edge: ‘Each generation perpetuates the culture and passes it on by recruiting surgical residents who appear to resemble them and training these residents to emulate their thinking and behaviour.’ The culture of surgery has evolved, and certain behaviours are rightly no longer seen as acceptable, Non-technical skills such as leadership and communication have become incorporated into surgical training. Wen Shen, Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery at University of California San Francisco, argues that this has gone too far: ‘Putting likeability before surgical outcomes is like judging a restaurant by the waiters and ignoring the food,’ I would argue that operative and communication skills are indivisible, An aggressive surgeon is a threat to patient safety if colleagues are frightened to speak up for fear of a colleague shouting or, worse, throwing instruments. Conversely, a flattened hierarchy promotes patient safety.