The British are fond of a condiment called Brown Sauce. The product itself leaves me unmoved, but the thing I find interesting about Brown Sauce is that it purports nothing about itself whatsoever, other than a description of its colour. It claims no link to any known product of nature, just a factual statement about its appearance. Consider, for instance, tomato ketchup. If an independent lab discovers that a ketchup is, in fact, only 5% tomato and 95% starch, sugar, salt, and flavor enhancer 621, people will be justifiably irate about the “tomato” claim. If, on the other hand, Brown Sauce is eventually proven to be made from asbestos and drowned kittens, the manufacturers can quite rightly state that they only said it was brown.
The same kind of plain speech is often missing in surgery. The truth has often been a casualty in the patient consent process due to a combination of ignorance, fear, avarice, or ego on the part of the surgeon. Whatever the motivation, when we explain rates of risks and benefits to the patient before us, many of us are not giving an honest report of our own outcomes. In the case of the battle between robotic and open radical prostatectomy, for example, real-world complication rates are often ignored in favour of Walsh’s rates on one side, and Patel’s on the other. Surgeons are certainly not all the same. If you have ever considered who you would allow to perform surgery on yourself the chances are you have written a very short short-list. When we tell a patient that the rate of complication x from procedure y is only 5% and we have not audited our own outcomes, we are likely giving the rates produced by the high-volume specialist centres that had the expertise, numbers, and clout to get their rates published in a reputable journal. Most surgeons do not work in those centres.
There is an on-going debate on whether hospitals should be compelled to publish their procedure-specific outcome data, so that the public can make informed decisions about their surgical care. I think this misses the point. Yes, there are potential hazards to compulsory publishing; centres of excellence may have worse outcomes than others due to operating on the sickest patients with the slimmest hopes of success, one major complication in a lower volume centre can skew the data, and there is the potential to develop a culture of suspicion and dishonesty, but the real point is more personal. We should honestly report to the patient in front of us from our own results as a matter of honesty and ethics, regardless of hospital policies. We can then (hopefully) reassure them that our outcomes are comparable to those published, and they can expect good quality care from us. If we cannot reassure them of this, our audit process will inform us of our shortcomings and we can seek to address them. We might even consider leaving certain procedures to a colleague who is better at it than us. A bitter pill, maybe, but arrogance is the enemy of improvement.
It can be a nuisance to collect and collate operative data. It can be painful to discover that we are not as good at something as we had assumed. Thankfully surgeons are mature adults who can take these challenges on the chin, and use the results to make our patient care better. Can’t we?
Otherwise, the information we give our patients is “pork-pies”, which is Cockney rhyming slang for lies, and no amount of Brown Sauce can make those pies palatable.
James Duthie is a Urological Surgeon/Robotic Surgeon. Interested in Human Factors Engineering, training & error, and making people better through electronic means. Melbourne, Australia @Jamesduthie1