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An Old-school Surgical Procedure Faces Obsolescence, Raising Questions

By Tinker Ready  
   April 14, 2016

Not So Dire
Still, it's not like there's a clamor for this training. Sirinek and other surgeons I talked to make a few points that should calm hospitals administrators who will read the above and think, "lawsuit":

  • If you've learned the basics of surgery and know how to remove a gallbladder, you can probably pull off an open cholecystectomy with a little practice.
  • If a surgeon has to convert from laparoscopic to open surgery, he or she have time to call for help from an older or more experienced surgeon.
  • Younger surgeons know how to handle complications laparoscopically, so demand for the open cholecystectomy will continue to drop.

H. David Reines, MD, was going over the case logs for his chief residents this week and says the shift is clear. A surgeon and director of CME for Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, Reines says his residents remove about 100 gallbladders laparoscopically each year, compared to performing between three and eight open procedures.

But he says he worries a lot less about the shift than he once did. Now 69, Reines learned open surgery during his training because that was the only option.

Even after doctors started using the laparoscope, the thinking was to switch to open surgery at any sign of trouble. That is no longer true, in part, because younger doctors have gotten better at handling complications with the scope. Reines says, "Now a lot of people feel more secure continuing on laparoscopically."

What they are uncomfortable doing, he says, is open surgery. In those cases, he and others say surgeons have plenty of time to call for help.

"If you feel you are in danger of taking a piece of the liver or getting into the common duct, you can close the patient up and go ahead and send them to a hepatobiliary surgeon," he said.

Teaching Procedures vs. Principles
Douglas Smink, MD, is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who works with both surgical residents and the hospital's STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation. He says the question of competency comes up regularly around multiple surgical procedures that are performed less and have become almost obsolete.

Open gallbladder surgery is one of them. Still, Smink doesn't think that simulation and more training is the answer. Laparoscopy is a technique. The concept surgeons need to master is removal of the gallbladder, which is sometime done during other surgical procedures, he says.

"Some of what we teach are procedures and some of what we teach are principles," he said. "So even if somebody doesn't do many open cholecystectomies in their training, they still do a fair number of (laparoscopic) cholecystectomies and they still do a fair amount of surgery."

He feels comfortable that his trainees are still getting the skills they need to be able to put those skills together if they need to do open surgery.

The fate of open biliary surgery in 2025 is better framed this way: In the push for evidence-based medicine, lots of overused or outdated treatments will emerge; some devices and procedures will fall into disuse and eventually become extinct.

The key to good outcomes and patient safety will be to ensure that doctors have the skills and tools they need to do their jobs, even as their tools and skills are changing.

Tinker Ready is a contributing writer at HealthLeaders Media.

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