Why do patients undergoing the same surgery experience different results and problems? Some patients are released from the hospital without any complications while others remain for weeks with infections, open wounds, and other issues. A recent report published in the New England Journal of Medicine makes clear that a surgeon’s operative skills and what occurs in the operating room directly impacts patients’ recoveries – and possible medical malpractice actions.

In the study (conducted by The Michigan Bariatric Surgery Collaborative and its leader Dr. John D. Birkmeyer), a panel of surgeons reviewed videotapes of actual surgeries and ranked them based on deftness with which tools were used, the ability of the surgeons to expose key areas, the dexterity of the surgeon’s hands, and the time and amount of movement required to perform the operation. According to Dr. Birkmeyer, the differences in the physicians’ operative skills were obvious even to non-experts – procedures performed by the surgeons who ranked the lowest resulted in a higher number of complications, more corrective surgeries and readmissions, and higher mortality rates.

In the past, most studies on surgical quality focused on easily identifiable operative protocols such as administering medication before and after surgery. Patients had few options to evaluate their prospective surgeons apart from credentials such as schooling, board certification, and hospital statistics.  With their findings, Dr. Birkmeyer and his colleagues are studying how coaching from master surgeons could help lower ranked surgeons learn and improve their skills.  They aim to ultimately provide better care overall by offering advanced training to physicians and empowering the patient with tools and information to assess and intelligently select a potential surgeon.