Summary: In the July issue of Annals of Surgery, Dr Schwarze and colleagues have reported on an important study of how likely surgeons are to go along with patient and/or family requests to withdraw life support after the patient has survived a high-risk operation and the role that surgeon error plays in this decision. Through the use of vignettes that alter specific aspects of the cases presented to the surgeons in the study, the authors have explored the influence on the surgeon’s postoperative decision making whether the case was an emergency or elective and whether surgeon error played any role in the outcome of the operation. Although the authors report several results, 3 in particular are highlighted because of the implications they have for the surgeon–patient relationship and therefore to the practice of surgery.
First, the study showed that despite the importance of respect for patient autonomy in contemporary surgery, 63% of the vascular surgeons, cardiac surgeons, and neurosurgeons who responded to the survey would not honor a request to withdraw life-supporting treatment. Second, the authors found that in contrast to elective cases, in emergency cases, surgeons are more likely to accede to patient and family requests to withdraw life-sustaining treatments. Third, and most importantly, the authors found that if surgeon error was thought to have contributed to the patient’s poor clinical outcome, surgeons were less likely to go along with patient and family requests to end life-sustaining treatments.
1. Why do you believe that surgeons are more likely to go along with requests to withdraw life-sustaining treatments when the operation was an emergency rather than when performed electively?
2. Is it appropriate that such a low percentage of surgeons go along with patient/family requests to withdraw life support after the patient has survived surgery? Please explain.
3. What is the explanation for why, in cases of surgeon error, surgeons are less likely to go along with requests to withdraw life-sustaining treatment?
4. Do you believe that surgeons’ choices about whether to go along with requests to withdraw life-sustaining treatments after surgery are primarily motivated by self-interest (that is avoiding blame or lawsuits) or by the belief that they are acting in the patient’s best interests?
Please feel free to comment on any or all of the questions above. We look forward to hearing from you, the Annals readers.