Tag Archives: resident

More on Malpractice: Can Surgical Residents Be Sued?

Respondeat superior. Let the master answer. This is a common law term that allows employers to be held responsible for the misdeeds of their employees or agents.

And more than half a century ago, the “captain of the ship” doctrine arose in surgery. This held the supervising surgeon responsible for everything that happened in the operating room.

And because of these two premises, there has been widespread presumption that surgical trainees are immune to being named in a malpractice action. Unfortunately, this is not true! There is no law that prevents residents from being included in a lawsuit.

So how common is resident involvement in malpractice suits? What are the damages? What are the consequences?  Researchers at the Mayo Clinic reviewed 10 years of data from the Westlaw online legal research database. They included all cases that involved surgical interns, residents, or fellows.

Here are the factoids:

  • A total of 87 malpractice cases involving surgical trainees were identified over 10 years (!)
  • 47% involved general surgical cases, 18% orthopedics, and 11% OB. The remainder were less than 5% each.
  • 70% of cases involved elective surgical procedures. The most common one was cholecystectomy (6 cases).
  • Half involved nonoperative decision making, and 39% involved intraoperative errors and injuries. The remainder had both components.
  • Failure of the trainee to evaluate a patient in person was cited in 12% of cases.
  • Lack of attending supervision was involved in 55%.
  • Informed consent issues were cited in 21%, documentation errors in 15%, and communications problems in 10%
  • There were twice as many cases involving junior residents compared to seniors and fellows
  • Median payout to the patient (and his attorney) was about $900K

Bottom line: At first, I though this was going to be an interesting paper. But it went downhill as soon as I started to read the analysis. Yes, it scanned 10 years worth of detailed malpractice data. BUT IT DIDN’T GIVE US A DENOMINATOR! There must have been tens of thousands of surgical malpractice cases during that time period across the US. And they found only 87 involving surgical trainees!

The authors conclude that this work “highlights the importance of perioperative management, particularly among junior residents, and appropriate supervision by attending physicians as targets for education on litigation prevention.”

This is ridiculous. The mere fact that the authors do not mention the total number of surgical malpractice cases in the database over the study period (denominator) implies that they were trying to emphasize the numbers they did publish. They didn’t want to show you how low the resident numbers were by comparison. On average, 9 were involved in a lawsuit every year. 

How many surgical residents and fellows are there? This is a bit hard to pin down. There are roughly 1200 categorical surgical residency spots every year. And then there are some prelim spots. Let’s add a few thousand more (wild ass guess), so that puts us at 5,000. Include orthopedics and other surgical specialty residencies? Add a few thousand more. And then fellows. Who knows? Add another  thousand? (If anybody has more accurate answers, please leave a comment!)

So 9 out of 10,000+ surgical trainees get sued every year. Do we really need to set up some kind of formal education on malpractice avoidance??? Not for those numbers. Just read, see your patients, especially when they are having problems, document everything you do, and practice good handoff communications. Then worry about more important things!

Reference: Medical malpractice lawsuits involving surgical residents  JAMA  Surg, published online Aug 30, 2017  

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Procedural Complications: Residents vs Advanced Practice Providers

With the implementation of resident work hour restrictions 10 years ago, resident participation in clinical care has declined. In order to make up for this loss of clinical manpower and expertise, many hospitals have added advanced clinical providers (ACPs, nurse practitioners and physician assistants). These ACPs are being given more and more advanced responsibilities, in all clinical settings. This includes performing invasive procedures on critically ill patients.

A recent study from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte NC compared complication rates for invasive procedures performed by ACPs vs residents in a Level I trauma center setting.

A one year retrospective study was carried out. Here are the factoids:

  • Residents were either surgery or emergency medicine PGY2s
  • ACPs and residents underwent an orientation and animal- or simulation-based training in procedures
  • All procedures were supervised by an attending physician
  • Arterial lines, central venous lines, chest tubes, percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, tracheostomy, and broncho-alveolar lavage performances were studied
  • Residents performed 1020 procedures and had 21 complications (2%)
  • ACPs performed 555 procedures and had 11 complications (2%)
  • ICU and hospital length of stay, and mortality rates were no different between the groups

Bottom line: Resident and ACP performance of invasive procedures is comparable. As residents become less available for these procedures, ACPs can (and will) be hired to  take their place. Although this is great news for hospitals that need manpower to assist their surgeons and emergency physicians, it should be another wakeup call for training programs and educators to show that resident education will continue to degrade.

Reference: Comparison of procedural complications between resident physicians and advanced clinical providers. J Trauma 77(1):143-147, 2014.

Placement of ICP Monitors By Non-Neurosurgeons

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a common injury world-wide, but neurosurgeons are scarce. Traditionally, neurosurgeons are the ones to place invasive monitors to watch intracranial pressure (ICP). But what about injured people who are taken to a hospital where there is no available neurosurgeon?

A group at Wichita, Kansas looked at their 10 year experience with ICP monitor placement, where it can be done by neurosurgeons, trauma surgeons or general surgical residents (under trauma surgeon supervision). A total of 63 were placed by neurosurgeons, 30 by trauma surgeons, and 464 by residents under supervision. The usual demographics, including hospital stay, were the same across groups. There were essentially no significant differences based on who placed the monitor. Curiously, the article does not state whether the monitors were extradural or intraventricular, or both. The discussion section alludes to the fact that they were “parencyhmal.”

There were only three iatrogenic bleeds, and all occurred with resident placed monitors. None were clinically significant. Malfunction rate was about 5% across all groups. Monitors had to be replaced at some point in about 11% of all three groups. One CNS infection occurred in a patient with a resident-placed monitor.

Bottom line: With proper training and supervision, ICP monitors can be placed by just about anyone. This is particularly important in more rural locations where there are few if any neurosurgeons. But as always, this process needs to be monitored carefully by the hospital’s Trauma Performance Improvement / Patient Safety program (PIPS).

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Reference: Placement of intracranial pressure monitors by non-neurosurgeons: excellent outcomes can be achieved. J Trauma 73(3):558-563, 2012.

Fatigue Week III: Trauma Surgeon Fatigue

The effects of fatigue on the surgeon have been looked at a number of times over the years. Most of this work focuses on resident physicians, however. Another problem with the majority of these studies is that they did not test the surgeon or resident on tasks that reflect real life practice. 

A study from Arizona State University used a laparoscopic simulation that tested both psychomotor and cognitive skills that would be called on during real surgical procedures. In addition to the purely manual task of stacking varied sizes of rings using laparoscopic instruments, exercises were developed and validated that tested attention, tracking and other critical components. Monitored parameters included hand and tool movement, smoothness and economy of motion, and time required to complete the task. An overall proficiency score was calculated.

Five residents and nine attending physicians were tested. They were all given 4 practice sessions with the simulator before the study began. Sleep hours and caffeine use during call were recorded using a questionnaire. Each individual was then tested three times prior to being on call and three times post-call.

As would be expected, attending surgeons showed higher proficiency scores than residents both pre-call and post-call. However, both groups experienced significant declines in proficiency and significant increases in cognitive errors post-call. Interestingly, attending surgeons made 25% fewer cognitive errors post-call when compared to residents, and their psychomotor skills were unchanged. This suggests that the attendings were focused on skills at the expense of decision making.

Two other interesting items from this paper:

  • Errors increased exponentially with subjective reported fatigue in the attending surgeons. This means that a small amount of attending surgeon fatigue led to a large increase in errors. The implication is that the older attendings had less reserve, and that their greater skills and experience could be quickly overwhelmed.
  • Caffeine intake had no effect on motor skills or cognitive errors.

Bottom line: Fatigue from post-call sleep deprivation impedes psychomotor and cognitive functions, as well as performance. Residents are affected more than attending surgeons, but attending performance declines more rapidly as they grow fatigued. As any post-call surgeon knows, activities the day after call should be limited to the mundane to optimize patient safety.

Reference: The effect of fatigue on cognitive and psychomotor skills of trauma residents and attending surgeons. Am J Surg 196(6):8133-820, 2008.