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Mello calls for reforms to practice of overlapping surgeries

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Stanford Health Policy’s Michelle Mello is calling for reforms to the practice of overlapping surgery, a practice in which surgeons juggle multiple operations at the same time.

Primary surgeons who run multiple operating rooms delegate “non-critical” parts of the operations to trainees or physician assistants. Overlapping scheduling is considered an important means of giving surgical trainees hands-on experience before they enter the profession with a license to operate. But patients are often unaware about the prospect that their surgeon may be double-booked.

“As patients at a teaching hospital, we know that surgery is a team sport and trainees will be involved,” Mello said in an interview. “But learning that the surgeon we’ve entrusted ourselves to may be out of the room for extended periods while we’re under anesthesia comes as a surprise to many patients. Like other aspects of surgical care, policies and procedures need to be in place to make sure this can be done safely.”

Mello, who is a professor of health research and policy at Stanford Medicine and a professor of law at Stanford Law School, wrote in this JAMA editorial that the practice has dented patient trust in the surgical profession and that better research is needed to determine how patients are impacted by double booking. Mello wrote with co-author Edward H. Livingston, MD, of the Department of Surgery at the UT Southwestern School of Medicine in Dallas. Livingston is also deputy editor of JAMA.

For example, Mello and Livingston noted that The Seattle Times reported in February about the unusually high volume of neurosurgical operations “and reportedly poor outcomes” at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute. The top two neurosurgeons each billed more than $75 million in 2015, and clinical staffers who raised concerns were ignored. The news reports prompted federal and state investigations and the resignations of the hospital’s neurosurgery chief and chief executive officer.

Medicare regulations applicable to teaching hospitals allow surgeries to overlap, but primary surgeons can’t bill the government for an operation unless they personally perform the “critical or key portions.”

The Senate Committee on Finance, which oversees Medicare, issued a report last year that said patient safety and informed consent were key concerns raised by overlapping surgery. But they also found scant research on the consequences for patients.

Mello and Livingston write that six peer-reviewed studies have been published about the safety of overlaps, but note that they were all retrospective, single-institution studies.

“These studies suggest that overlapping surgery is not associated with increased risk of patient harm, but these observational studies have important limitations,” they said. 

For example, some studies lumped cases with just one second of overlap together with cases that overlapped significantly longer, making it hard to measure the relationship between the amount of overlap and surgical outcomes. They added that the generalizability of findings beyond the small number of institutions and surgeons studied is unknown.

In ongoing work with other Stanford Health Policy faculty, Mello plans to examine data from a large number of teaching hospitals. One issue requiring further investigation, she said, is whether the longer procedure times documented for overlapping cases mean more time under anesthesia, which elevates the risk of postoperative complications.

Citing a public opinion survey showing that 69 percent of Americans oppose the practice, the JAMA authors concluded, “Overall, the modest evidence base does not suggest that overlapping surgery is unsafe, but rather that the practice is not trusted.”

They believe patients and regulators may distrust it because of the possibility of harm to patients, lack of transparency about what is going on, and surgeons’ conflict of interest in determining on their own what aspects of operations they must personally perform.

Mello and Livingston believe restoring public trust in the surgical system requires stronger proof that overlapping scheduling is safe, including evidence from randomized studies, and better informed consent practices which ensure that patients are given full information about scheduling practices well ahead of surgery.

“The disclosure should include the likelihood that the operation will involve an overlap, a description of who will perform which parts of the operation and what their qualifications are, and the patient’s option if he or she objects to the scheduling,” they said.

Finally, hospitals have an obligation to ensure that their surgeons are performing the critical parts of an operation.

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