It is a surgical aphorism that it is more difficult to decide when not to operate than when to operate.
In the study “Learning from Regret”1, surgeons contributing to Queensland’s Audit of Surgical Mortality were asked to reflect on deaths following surgery. They were asked whether they would have done anything differently in retrospect. The aim was to explore surgeon’s reflections on what might have been done differently for patients who died under their care. The secondary aim was to assess for the presence of regret – defined as the presence of personal responsibility and realisation that another decision could have been better.
Post-decision regret was explicitly identified in 16.9% of responses. One of the scenarios specifically referred to was regret surrounding with proceeding to surgery in cases where the likelihood of survival was slim (“the decision entailed the alternative of certain death rather than probable death”). The fields of behavioural economics and psychology give us several reasons why we shouldn’t reflexively regret decision-making in these types of charged scenarios – because regret is the de facto outcome of a decision to operate in this scenario.
Firstly, the fact of operating rather than palliating in this scenario makes us more likely to regret it in retrospect when the outcome is poor by the mere fact of one having acted rather than not acted. Actions are more salient (i.e. easier to recall) than inaction and, therefore, more prone to regret upon reflection from a psychological perspective2. Humans also tend to regret action (acts of commission) more than inaction (acts of omission) because having acted, we then attempt to mitigate the cognitive dissonance that arises between our ideal and actual selves by reducing the dissonance by deriving lessons learned from the perceived error3.
The authors of “Learning from Regret”1 highlighted that surgical decision-making in cases associated with deaths were uncertain, complex and subject to situational pressures. In not operating, the surgeon would have to violate the norms of usual surgical behaviour4 that in the face of certain death without an operation, an operation should be performed.
In fact, in scenarios where treatment is highly likely to be futile, expected utility theory would tell us that our choices are very limited. In classical economics, expected utility theory is the theory of how rational actors make decisions. That is, that rational beings choose the option to maximise the risk: benefit ratio. When applying expected utility theory to medical decision-making, as the net treatment benefits increase, we become more uncomfortable withholding treatment even when the probability of a good outcome is relatively low and the risks are substantial. Therefore, when the counterfactual treatment outcome is certain death, if we apply traditional rational economic decision-making theory, then there are few circumstances in which the certainty of this poor outcome can outweigh the small possibility of a good outcome (especially where survival and not functional outcome is the primary outcome).
Furthermore, we increasingly recognise that medical decision-making employs dual-processing theory5. Rather than employing the neural pathways utilised in rational decision analysis, medical decision-making also draws from type 1 or emotional decision-making. This tends to make medical decision makers more risk-averse. Dual-processing of this nature also means that it is more challenging to apply rational thinking behaviours to decision involving how we must act, than it is to rationally decide how others should act6.
Clearly, aiming to avoid futile treatment that increases suffering at the end of life is an important goal in emergency surgery, however, making these types of decisions will always be difficult because surgeons are human and prone to all of the cognitive biases inherent to this state.
One of the consequences of COVID-19 has been greater attention on the risks of infection to clinicians. Much has been made of the need for personal protective equipment, including FFP3 masks, visors, and respirator hoods. Unfortunately these can also impact on communication. This can be due to muffled speech, or loss of ability to read lips. This is important in an operating theatre, where clear communication is critical.
Experience suggests that surgeons probably use some gestures to aid communication when operating. The use of sign language in clinical settings has been previously addressed in the literature, mainly as a proposal to manage increased noise levels in the OR. Sign language has also been suggested as an alternative to handle language differences in surgical team members of varied nationalities, as well as to improve action response within a procedure.
A new sign-language?
To reduce verbal communication that may be limited by impaired speech or hearing, the authors have proposed a surgery-specific sign language. The vocabulary consists of technical information that is easy to learn and replicate and allows fluent communication in the OR. These are summarised in the video above.
A full version of this article can be found in special correspondence to the editor on the BJS website.
James Ashcroft (@JamesAshcroftMD) Academic Clinical Fellow, Department of Surgery, Cambridge, UK;
Salomone Di Saverio (@salo75) Consultant General and Colorectal Surgeon, Professor of Surgery, University of Insubria, Regione Lombardia, Italy;
Justin Davies (@jdcamcolorectal) Consultant General and Colorectal Surgeon and Deputy Medical Director, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK.
Key questions in the diagnosis and management of appendicitis
Throughout my surgical training, decision making and risk prediction in patients with a clinical suspicion of appendicitis has been a prominent challenge. The accurate diagnosis of appendicitis should lead to improved healthcare provision to the patient, however there is still debate amongst the use of tools and imaging to assist this. The appropriate use of antibiotics to manage appendicitis, and the use of operative techniques to remove the appendix, have recently become a global debate.
Diagnosis of appendicitis
I have personally found the diagnosis of appendicitis to be challenging, with presenting history and examination of patients with right iliac fossa pain variable and often confounded. Clinical risk scores have recently been investigated through prospective international collaborative studies.1 The Alvarado score was one of the earliest scores demonstrating efficacy in appendicitis diagnosis when confirmed to histopathological diagnosis leading to its widespread uptake.2 However, this been superseded by the Appendicitis Inflammatory Response score (AIRS) in males and Adult Appendicitis Score (AAS) in females which have demonstrated improved performance in a pragmatic clinical setting.1
I have often been taught that appendicitis is a diagnosis made on clinical judgement alone and I feel this has become one of the most prominent dogmas present in surgical practice. The use of AIRS and AAS have been recognised to decrease negative appendicectomy rates in low-risk groups and reduce the need for imaging.1,3 I believe that the use of risk scoring should be taught to all surgical trainees routinely as a standard work up for the assessment of right iliac fossa pain.
Recent news reports have disseminated to the public that “Thousands of young women have their appendix removed unnecessarily”4 and although this may represent the appropriate conservative approach to imaging in females, it emphasises that we cannot justify ignoring the diagnostic tools at our disposal. Point of care ultrasound is recommended by the World Society of Emergency Surgery for decision making as a first point of call in both adults and children, however operator variability is noted.3
In my experience, and as per the general consensus of the departments I have worked in, ultrasound imaging is often useful in female patients to identify any ovarian cause of right iliac fossa pain and inconclusive for appendicitis. However, I can envision the use of ultrasound as part of clinical-radiological scores to enhance the sensitivity of diagnosis and could assist in avoiding radiation exposure through CT scan, which remains a pertinent research question.
Non-operative and operative management of appendicitis
Mirroring teachings in the diagnosis of appendicitis, in my experience it is taught that there is only one definitive management plan for simple appendicitis – an emergency appendicectomy. When considering modern sources of evidence, my belief is that the UK national normal appendicectomy rate (NAR) of around 20% is too high, when compared to countries such as Switzerland where the NAR has been found to be around 6%.5 The high NAR in the UK was again picked up by British media outlets who published headlines such as ‘Unnecessary appendix surgery performed on thousands in UK’.4
Antibiotic-first strategy has been found to be safe and effective in selected patients with uncomplicated acute appendicitis however, the risk of recurrence has been suggested to be up to 39% after 5 years.3 A 2019 meta-analytical review of 20 studies (7 prospective RCTs, 8 prospective cohort studies, 4 retrospective cohort studies and 1 quasirandomised study) investigated outcomes in non-operative management with antibiotics in appendicitis with an overall moderate quality of evidence when regarding complications and treatment efficacy.6 Overall antibiotic therapy achieved a significantly lower post-intervention complication rate including postoperative abscesses, surgical site infections, incisional hernias, obstructive symptoms, and other general operative complications at 5 years compared to index event surgery.6 However, there was a lower complication free treatment success rate and a non-significantly higher rate of complicated appendicitis with delayed surgery in patients receiving initial antibiotic therapy.6
I feel that the stratifying of patients by risk and utilisation of outpatient surgical ambulatory units with repeated history taking, observations, and blood tests could be effective in reducing the NAR in the UK with or without imaging. Accurate diagnostic imaging in the form of a CT scan could reduce the UK’s NAR further, improving patient outcomes, surgical planning, and healthcare service provision at an organisational level. This may outweigh the impact of radiation exposure of a CT abdomen scan which has been well described by Aneel Bhangu the lead director of the RIFT/West Midlands Collaborative as giving “the same radiation as flying to New York”.4 T
his is a risk which I believe many would not be concerned about when travelling. This view is in opposition to that of the recently updated World Society of Emergency Surgery guidelines which suggest that CT imaging may be avoided prior to laparoscopic operation, but it should be noted that there was debate regarding this within the writing committee.3
I believe that more care must be taken in patients with suspected appendicitis to undertake a discussion around imaging use, operative management, and non-operative management which is unbiased and evidence based. Those opting for conservative management should be warned of the possibility of failure and misdiagnosis of complicated appendicitis. In my training so far, conservative management has been discussed in those judged to be low-risk however this does not come without the risk of the on call surgeon’s bias seeping into conversation. Further research should be undertaken to identify precisely which cohort of patients are optimal for non-operative outpatient management.
Appendicitis and COVID-19
Recent research into risk scoring in appendicitis has demonstrated a clear benefit in stratifying patients into risk categories to guide management plans.1,3 As highlighted I believe that all patients presenting with right iliac fossa pain should undergo scoring, by either AIRS or AAS. It has been suggested that due to local population characteristics and health systems, risk scores should be validated locally prior to routine adoption.7 It has further been emphasised that risk score models should not replace clinical judgement and should be used as an adjunct to enhance decision making.8
In the current COVID-19 pandemic the use of non‐operative management has been suggested to be increased for acute surgical conditions such as appendicitis9 and this has been the experience of my department. The evidence at present suggests that this is safe and feasible, and therefore the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique period for investigation.10 It could be a valuable endeavour for all centres to perform local analyses of the impact of conservative management on patients presenting with right iliac fossa pain in the COVID-19 period.
This is also being undertaken on a national level in the COVID- HAREM Study: Had Appendicitis and Resolved/Recurred Emergency Morbidity/Mortality. Locally, one year clinical outcomes could be measured for those diagnosed with appendicitis pre-COVID and during the COVID period. Finally, with the restoration of normal patient pathways post-COVID, risk scoring could be introduced to local departments with a pre-COVID / post-COVID comparison to allow for the clear demonstration of any benefit to the patient.
1. The RIFT Study Group and the West Midlands Research Collaborative. Evaluation of appendicitis risk prediction models in adults with suspected appendicitis. Br J Surg. 2019:73-86. doi:10.1002/bjs.11440
2. Alvarado A. A practical score for the early diagnosis of acute appendicitis. Ann Emerg Med. 1986;15(5):557-564. doi:10.1016/S0196-0644(86)80993-3
3. Di Saverio S, Podda M, De Simone B, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of acute appendicitis: 2020 update of the WSES Jerusalem guidelines. World J Emerg Surg. 2020;15(1):1-42. doi:10.1186/s13017-020-00306-3
5. Güller U, Rosella L, McCall J, Brügger LE, Candinas D. Negative appendicectomy and perforation rates in patients undergoing laparoscopic surgery for suspected appendicitis. Br J Surg. 2011;98(4):589-595. doi:10.1002/bjs.7395
6. Podda M, Gerardi C, Cillara N, et al. Antibiotic treatment and appendectomy for uncomplicated acute appendicitis in adults and children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Surg. 2019;270(6):1028-1040. doi:10.1097/SLA.0000000000003225
7. The RIFT Study Group and the West Midlands Research Collaborative. Author response to: Comment on: Evaluation of appendicitis risk prediction models in adults with suspected appendicitis. Br J Surg. 2020:2020. doi:10.1002/bjs.11542
8. The RIFT Study Group and the West Midlands Research Collaborative. Author response to: RIFT study and management of suspected appendicitis. Br J Surg. 2020:2020. doi:10.1002/bjs.11552
9. Di Saverio S, Pata F, Gallo G, et al. Coronavirus pandemic and Colorectal surgery: practical advice based on the Italian experience. Colorectal Dis. 2020. doi:10.1111/codi.15056
10. COVIDSurg Collaborative. Global guidance for surgical care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Br J Surg. 2020;(March). doi:10.1002/bjs.11646
The Young BJS represents a community of early-career researchers with enthusiasm for surgical academia. The ethos is aligned with that of the BJS with a mission to promote excellence in clinical and scientific research. Specific goals of the group will be to network, educate, and innovate in surgical publishing on a global scale.
The Young BJS is led by surgical trainees under the guidance and governance of the BJS and BJS Open Editorial teams and the BJS Society. Membership is free of charge and open to everyone from junior consultants to medical students. All specialties and countries are welcome to join such that the resultant spectrum of research experience, career stage, and geographic distribution will provide a welcomed diversity to the community. Members should have a reasonable command of English but this is not essential.
The aim of Young BJS is to nurture the future leaders of surgical academia by
Providing early-career researchers with an opportunity to gain editorial experience
Encouraging national and international collaborative efforts
Acting as an educational forum for surgeons-in-training
The Young BJS will provide members with the opportunity to complete formal certified training in reviewing journal manuscripts through the Young BJS Reviewer Mentoring Programme in collaboration with the Editorial team and board, the BJS Society, and the planned BJS Academy. Upon commendation trainees will enter the BJS reviewer database as certified Young BJS reviewers. They may then be invited by members of the BJS editorial team to review manuscripts.
The Young BJS will provide a platform to promote national and international collaborative projects. Members will have the opportunity to inform the community of studies involving multiple institutions, thereby encouraging connectivity among young researchers on a global scale.
The Young BJS will act as an educational forum for surgeons in training to develop a digital learning platform, complementing the aims of the BJS Academy. Members will be encouraged to complete BJS delivered or supported writing courses and workshops to develop their editorial skills.
The Young BJS will have a strong and vibrant social media presence through its own Twitter account and posts on the BJS Cutting Edge blog. One of the specific goals of the group is balancing global disparities through better access to published works.
There is huge scope as to what we can achieve as a group with plenty of opportunities for members to participate in all aspects of the initiative. So far we have over 200 students and trainees involved from over 40 countries and representing every inhabited continent in the world.
So what can you do to get involved?
Enthusiasm is all that is required. Those interested in becoming part of Young BJS, please email your details including name, institution, career stage and specialty interest (if applicable) to email@example.com. We will inform you of upcoming projects, educational opportunities, and collaborative efforts.
We look forward to welcoming you.
The Young BJS coordinating team
(On behalf of the BJS / BJS Open editorial teams and BJS Society)
Michal Daniluk, Jagiellonian University Medical College, Krakow, Poland
Antonio M. Lacy, Department of Surgery, Hospital Clinic, University of Barcelona
Tomasz G Rogula, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine & Jagiellonian University Medical College, Krakow, Poland
Antoni M. Szczepanik, First Department of General, Oncological and Gastroenterological Surgery, Jagiellonian University Medical College, Krakow, Poland
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the virus responsible for the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). The main route of transmission is through droplets and close contact.1,2 As a result of their mass, droplets spread in space is limited to 1-2 meters from the source of production. Aerosolized particles, on the other hand, are smaller in size (0.3 to 100 micrometers) and have been documented to linger in the air longer than droplets and travel up to hundreds of meters before settling on a surface.3 The role of aerosolized particles in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the community has yet to be proven, however, their presence in the hospital setting has been of greater concern.4–6
The earliest documentation of infection coming out of Wuhan, China showed that 40 out of the first 138 (29%) people infected by SARS-CoV-2 were healthcare workers.7 In an effort to help minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2, several hospitals have published their approach to the surgical management of infected or suspected COVID-19 patients. A recent PubMed search for “COVID-19” and ”surgery” yielded 224 results, of which 13 papers proposed detailed precautions when surgically managing a COVID-19 positive or suspected patient. From setup to post-operative management, this review will draw from the suggestions of these papers and outline some of the most commonly mentioned precautions. As many institutions have never experienced such a dramatic shift from their day-to-day operations, this document may provide useful information with regards to safe practice.
The Role of Hospital Management:
The majority of COVID-19 infected or suspected patients will not require surgical intervention throughout the course of their disease. Therefore, mainstream procedures and precautions focus on the management of respiratory distress, proper isolation of patients, safety of ICU personnel and emergency department organization.8 Senior surgeons should be heavily involved in the supervision of focused training and the development and update of protocols.9 All personnel should be familiarized with specific procedures related to 1) COVID-19 patient transport to the operating room (OR) 2) intra-operative, and 3) post-operative care.
A predesignated route should be the shortest possible distance from isolation to the OR. It should be cleared by security, use isolated elevators and have minimal contact with others.10 A recent study by van Doremalen et al. found that the survival time of SARS-CoV-2 on plastic and steel surfaces such as elevator buttons can last as long as 72 hours, thus supporting the notion of using separate lifts and routes for patient transportation.4
With Regards to operating theatres, all studies suggested the use of negative pressure environment to reduce the dissemination of viral particles.1,5,11–21 Van Doremalen et al. also found that in aerosolized form, SARS-CoV-2 can remain viable for up to three hours.4 Applicably, the use of a high frequency (25/hour) air exchange can significantly reduce viral load within the OR.17 All drugs and equipment should be prepared before the start of surgery to limit movement of staff in and out of the OR.17 Anaesthetic drugs should be placed on a tray to limit contact and potential contamination of the drug trolley. Hand washing and glove change should be performed in any case were additional supplies must be accessed from the trolley.20 Monitors, ultrasound machines and other devices that are difficult to disinfect, should be covered by transparent plastic wrap to decrease the risk of contamination.17
Personal Protective Equipment
Of the 13 studies reviewed, all recommended the use of eye protection in the form of goggles or a face shield as well as a filtered face-piece respirator (N95).1,5,11–21 Five out of 13 studies recommended the use of powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs)(protection factor of 25-1000) as a superior alternative to N95 respirators (protection factor of 10).1,11,17,18,20,22 In addition to the higher protection factor, PAPRs provide eye protection and unlike the N95 respirator, do not require fit testing.18,17 Finally, five out of 13 studies suggested the use of double gloves during intubation and/or surgery.12,17–19,23 Forrester et al. also recommended the implementation of a buddy system during donning and doffing to identify any breaches in protection which can be decontaminating using alcohol spray.5
Intra-Operative Precautions: Anaesthesia and Surgical Smoke
Five of the 13 papers analyzed were sent to anaesthesiology journals and focused mainly on the minimalization of viral aerosolization during induction of anaesthesia and extubation.1,15,17,19,20 Some suggestions include the use of shortest acting drugs at lowest possible dose, avoidance of awake intubation and aggressive post-operative antiemetic prophylaxis to avoid aerosol production during emesis.1,17 Four studies recommended that pre-assessment, induction and post-operative anaesthesia recovery should all take place within the procedure room.12,17,19,20 Patient documentation should be done electronically, if possible, on a tablet or iPad, which can be disinfected after handling.17
Previous studies have demonstrated that ultrasonic scalpels and electrocautery equipment produce surgical smoke or plume, capable of transmitting active viruses in aerosolized form.24–26 The risk of SARS-CoV-2 aerosolization via electrical surgical equipment has not yet been shown, however, several sources recommend the implementation of appropriate precautions. A recent publication by Zheng et al. suggested that the aerosol formed during laparoscopic surgery accumulates in the abdominal cavity.14 Sudden release of trocar valves and deflation of pneumoperitoneum may expose the healthcare team to aerosolized viral particles.21 Therefore, some collegiate bodies suggest the use of laparoscopy, only in select cases where clinical benefit to the patient substantially exceeds the risk of potential viral transmission to the environment and OR staff.27
Other committees indicate that the evidence of such viral transmission during minimally invasive surgery is weak, but nevertheless proper safety measures are recommended. The Society of Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES) and the American College of Surgeons recommend the liberal use of suction devices and smoke evacuators to limit surgical smoke release into the OR.14,16 Gas filtration systems such as the ultralow particulate air filter (ULPA) might potentially achieve COVID-19 purification of the surgical plume, but this has still to be confirmed.28
When doffing PPE, the first pair of gloves must be removed first, followed by the surgical gown, shoe covers, cap and goggles. The face mask must then be removed by the ear laces, taking care not to touch the external side. The second pair of gloves must be removed last.29 Upon leaving the operating theatre, all staff should take a whole-body shower before changing into clean scrubs and returning to their clinical duties.12,16,17,20
With regards to disinfection, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created a list of products for use against SARS-CoV-2.30 The most commonly mentioned protocols suggest the use of sodium hypochlorite, chlorine containing disinfectant, wipes that contain quaternary ammonium and alcohol, hydrogen peroxide vaporization, and ultraviolet (UV-C) light (for inactivation of aerosolized viruses).15,17,19,20,31
A major constraint reported by several centers is the shortage of PPE such as masks and gowns. Dr. Peter Tsai, the inventor of the N95 respirator, has made several suggestions regarding the re-usability of his equipment. The first recommendation is air drying for 3-4 days.32 Alternatively, masks can be oven dried for 30 minutes at 70oC.32,33 More recently, a study out of Duke University evaluated the utilization of hydrogen peroxide vapor to decontaminate N95 respirators. This validation study concluded that N95 respirators still met performance requirements even after 50 disinfections.34 It is important to note, however, that these recommendations are constantly changing and it is of utmost importance that healthcare professionals regularly assess the most up-to-date guidelines regarding N95 re-usability and the disinfection process.
The conclusions drawn from the present literature are limited by the novelty of this disease. Most of the studies presented in this review were viewpoints and recommendations based on personal experience. Due to limited experience of single institutions, efforts should be made to increase international collaboration in the era of this unprecedented pandemic. Specific data on the risk of infection among surgeons has not yet been documented, however, this should not undermine the importance of strong occupational safety. The included studies suggest a need to develop a universal, effective and affordable protocol for perioperative management of COVID-19 patients to ensure surgical staff wellbeing.
1. Rajan N, Joshi GP. The COVID-19: Role of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities in This Global Pandemic. Anesth Analg. 2020. doi:10.1213/ane.0000000000004847
6. Ong SWX, Tan YK, Chia PY, et al. Air, Surface Environmental, and Personal Protective Equipment Contamination by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS- CoV-2) From a Symptomatic Patient. JAMA. March 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3227.
7. Wang D, Hu B, Hu C, et al. Clinical characteristics of 138 hospitalized patients with, novel coronavirus–infected pneumonia in Wuhan, China. JAMA 2019; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1001/ jama.2020.1585.
8. Ahmed S, Wei T, Glenn L, Chong Y. Surgical Response to COVID-19 Pandemic: A Singapore Perspective. J Am Coll Surg. 2020.
9. Lancaster EM, Sosa JA, Sammann A, et al. Journal Pre-proof Rapid Response of an Academic Surgical Department to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Implications for Patients, Surgeons, and the Community Rapid Response of an Academic Surgical Department to the COVID-19.
10. Ti, LK, Ang LS, Foong TW, Ng BS. What we do when a COVID- 19 patient needs an operation: operating room preparation and guidance. Can J Anesth 2020; 67. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/ s12630-020-01617-4. 31.
11. Vukkadala N, Qian ZJ, Holsinger FC, Patel ZM, Rosenthal E. COVID-19 and the otolaryngologist – preliminary evidence-based review. Laryngoscope. 2020. doi:10.1002/lary.28672
12. Di Saverio S, Pata F, Gallo G, et al. Coronavirus pandemic and Colorectal surgery: practical advice based on the Italian experience. Colorectal Dis. 2020. doi:10.1111/codi.15056
14. Zheng MH, Boni L, Fingerhut A. Minimally Invasive Surgery and the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak. Ann Surg. 2020:1. doi:10.1097/sla.0000000000003924
15. Chen R, Zhang Y, Huang L, Cheng B heng, Xia Z yuan, Meng Q tao. Safety and efficacy of different anesthetic regimens for parturients with COVID-19 undergoing Cesarean delivery: a case series of 17 patients. Can J Anesth. 2020. doi:10.1007/s12630-020-01630-7
16. American College of Surgeons. COVID 19: Considerations for Optimum Surgeon Protection Before, During, and After Operation. 2020. https://www.facs.org/covid-19/ppe.
17. Wong J, Goh QY, Tan Z, et al. Preparing for a COVID-19 pandemic: a review of operating room outbreak response measures in a large tertiary hospital in Singapore. Can J Anesth. 2020. doi:10.1007/s12630-020-01620-9
18. Givi B, Schiff BA, Chinn SB, et al. Safety Recommendations for Evaluation and Surgery of the Head and Neck during the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Otolaryngol – Head Neck Surg. 2020;1:1-6. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2020.0780
19. Dexter F, Parra MC, Brown JR, Loftus RW. Perioperative COVID-19 Defense. Anesth Analg. 2020:1. doi:10.1213/ane.0000000000004829
20. Ti LK, Ang LS, Foong TW, Ng BSW. What we do when a COVID-19 patient needs an operation: operating room preparation and guidance. Can J Anesth. 2020:19-21. doi:10.1007/s12630-020-01617-4
21. Spinelli A, Pellino G. COVID-19 pandemic: perspectives on an unfolding crisis. Br J Surg. 2020:3-5. doi:10.1002/bjs.11627
22. Institute of Medicine. The Use and Effectiveness ofPowered Air Purifying Respirators in Health Care: Workshop Summary. National Academies Press; 2015.
23. Lui R, Wong S, Sánchez-Luna SA, et al. Overview of guidance for endoscopy during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2020;2019(852):0-3. doi:10.1111/jgh.15053
24. Choi SH, Kwon TG, Chung SK, Kim TH. Surgical smoke may be a biohazard to surgeons performing laparoscopic surgery. Surg Endosc. 2014, 28 (8): 2374-80.
25. Kwak HD, Kim SH, Seo YS, et al. Detecting hepatitis B virus in surgical smoke emitted during laparoscopic surgery. Occup Environ Med. 2016, 73:857––863.
26. Johnson GK, Robinson WS. Human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) in the vapors of surgical power instruments. Journal of Medical Virology. 1991;33(1):47-50.
31. Kim DK, Kang DH. UVC LED irradiation effectively inactivates aerosolized viruses, bacteria, and fungi in a chamber-type air disinfection system. Appl Environ Microbiol 2018; DOI: https:// doi.org/10.1128/AEM.00944-18.
32. Bauchner H, Fontanarosa B, Livingston EH. Conserving supply of personal protective equipment: a call for ideas. JAMA. Published online March 20, 2020.
34. Schwartz A, Stiegel M, Greeson N, et al. Decontamination and Reuse of N95 Respirators with Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor to Address Worldwide Personal Protective Equipment Shortages During the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Pandemic. Appl Biosaf. 2020;2:1535676020919932. doi:10.1177/1535676020919932
Joshua S. Ng-Kamstra, Fellow in Adult Critical Care Medicine – Department of Critical Care Medicine, University of Calgary,
Dhruvin H. Hirpara, Resident in General Surgery – Department of Surgery, University of Toronto,
John Meara, Professor of Global Surgery and Social Medicine – Program in Global Surgery and Social Change, Harvard Medical School, Boston & Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, &
Julie Hallet, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre & Department of Surgery, University of Toronto
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an acute threat to human health that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Many health systems still continue to grapple with the volume of critically ill patients suffering from the virus.. The impacts of this crisis on surgical systems are being felt worldwide by patients and surgical providers. The estimated 30% of the global burden of disease caused by surgical conditions does not pause during a pandemic.1 Each year, 16.9 million people die due to surgically treatable conditions,2 and 15.2 million new cancers are diagnosed, 80% of which will require surgery.3 The magnitude and immediacy of the threat from COVID-19 has led many jurisdictions to cancel elective surgery to preserve precious hospital and critical care beds and limit nosocomial spread of the virus. As local trajectories of the pandemic become clear, surgeons and policymakers need to determine an optimal approach to meet population-level surgical needs to avoid additional pandemic-related morbidity and mortality.
Surgical systems are logistically demanding and interconnected networks of services: adaptation to the realities of limited operating theater availability is therefore complex. Human resources will also be threatened;4 safeguarding healthcare workers despite finite availability of personal protective equipment further adds to service delivery challenges. High-volume surgical systems must have the flexibility to systematically scale back provision of surgical care in a way that makes optimal use of resources while minimizing impacts on patients, providers, and systems. Looking at structured ways to operationalize sudden reductions in resources quickly, all countries can learn from existing principles and frameworks in the global surgery literature. Indeed, in addition to advocating for the health and economic benefits of investment in surgical systems,2 the global surgery literature recognizes and addresses the challenge of working under constraint.
Prioritization of Surgical Services
Surgical societies have provided guidance to surgeons as to which procedures are essential during this crisis.5,6 Such determinations are based on acuity, complexity, and population burden of disease. In a “must do, should do, can do” procedural framework,2 most surgeons have found themselves limited to providing only the first category: high value procedures (i.e. some cancer surgery) where long-term outcomes may hinge on timely surgical intervention, and urgent life- or limb-saving procedures. Should-do procedures are important but not vital procedures that may be amenable to a temporary workaround and still add value in the long run. Finally, can-do procedures are ones that are often desirable but not necessary—they could be deprioritized first with a relatively smaller impact on patient outcomes. These categories ought to be reassessed as resources change, but this framework can support discussions at the system, institution, and service levels. Non-operative management of traditionally surgical conditions (eg. antibiotics for uncomplicated appendicitis or endoscopic management of an early-stage esophageal cancer) may also aid in resource conservation. Finally, trauma prevention campaigns can be implemented or scaled up to minimize the need for emergency surgery.7
Mitigating Harm from Delays to Care
Globally, increased delays in access to surgical care are likely. Breaking these delays down into their three constituent components may help to mitigate them.2,8 First, is the delay in seeking care. With travel restrictions or residential lockdowns, the threshold to seek answers to concerns unrelated to the pandemic will increase. Creating easy access to primary care and surgical expertise, via telehealth for example, will give populations a venue to triage health concerns. Barriers to telehealth including finance, technical considerations, and confidentiality should be addressed collectively by providers, payers, government, and regulatory colleges. Second, the delay in reaching care at an appropriate center where diagnostics and therapeutics can be applied is less amenable to a technological solution. Maintaining separate health facilities as designated non-COVID-19 centers is one strategy to allow surgical work to continue or resume shortly after the pandemic peaks. As the pandemic progresses, the number of non-COVID-19 centres are reduced proportional to need as more patients present with viral illness, expanding again once the pandemic’s initial peak has passed. Finally, mitigating the delay in receiving surgical care requires adaptive waitlist management at the hospital level when progressively narrower bottlenecks in operating room time are encountered. Managing staffing constraints and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions will be critical to ensure that the appropriate personnel and disposables are available to use operating theaters as efficiently as possible.
Stuff, staff, space, and systems and the perils of reopening
Governments are struggling to balance the devastating economic consequences of ongoing stay-at-home orders with the risk of an overwhelming second wave of infections.9 While the optimal timing and strategy for reopening the economy remain unclear, strategies to mitigate the hazard of disease resurgence include widespread testing, serological surveys to better understand community-level exposure, staged relaxation of distancing measures, and bolstering hospital capacity to manage potential new cases. What these strategies all require are staff, stuff, space, and systems, an alliterative list of necessities for global health delivery coined by Dr. Paul Farmer.10
When public health officials deem it safe to resume some elective surgery, surgical leaders can also use this model to ensure that surgery again becomes available. Staff may need to be remarshaled from deployments to other acute care services; ensuring their mental and physical health during a period of significant stress will be critical. Stuff includes not only robust supplies of the necessary personal protective equipment to safely assess, operate on, and provide postoperative care for patients, but also medications and other operating room disposables that may become scarce due to supply chain disruptions. Space implies not only physical operating room space, but also appropriate spacing between postoperative patients, ideally in individual rooms, to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 on wards. Finally, systems are required to ensure that care pathways for infected and uninfected patients are developed, staff are trained in their implementation, and their logistics are feasible.
Integrating surgery and other acute care services into global health security
Global health security (GHS) implies global collaboration to ensure that all health systems are prepared to manage public health threats and emergencies. Historically, the GHS discourse has been focused on infectious diseases as the primary public health threat born of globalization.11 The Global Health Security Agenda is a growing community of nations and organizations formed in 2014 to respond to infectious disease threats.12 By strengthening public health systems and stopping outbreaks at their point of origin, the GHSA aimed to decrease the risk of global pandemic disease. When it comes to a pandemic, the aphorism that prevention is better than cure is true. But it is an aphorism that historically excluded surgery from the global health discourse—why invest in surgery when some surgical disease is preventable?
The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery demonstrated the scale of human suffering that results when prevention is preached to the exclusion of treatment, with five billion individuals unable to access safe, affordable surgical care when needed.2 Not all surgical disease is preventable, and not every pandemic is stopped. GHS must evolve to include health services like critical care and surgery to plan for effective treatment of patients after a pandemic has emerged. If plans to address global critical care needs were in place before COVID-19, would countries have better mobilized to support beleaguered hospitals in China, Italy, or New York? If countries had anticipated the impacts of a pandemic on surgical care, would the cancellation of all elective surgery have been necessary? While these counterfactuals are unknowable, what is clear is that health services leaders must sit at the global health security table alongside infectious disease epidemiologists and public health professionals.
COVID-19 has reached almost every country on earth, and many surgical systems have already responded to the challenges it poses. The choices made in surgical system design, both historically and recently, will determine patient outcomes in the coming weeks and months. The shock to surgical systems will not be a short one—until the majority of the population has been exposed to the virus via vaccine or illness,13 the virus will pose a unique barrier to accessing safe surgical care.
Now more than ever, we must emphasize interdisciplinary collaboration, knowledge exchange, and health equity in order to maximize the efficiency of surgical access in all jurisdictions.14 Global surgery frameworks can support adaptation to rapid shifts in resource availability. More importantly, they can be used to plan the post-pandemic delivery of surgical services, serve to reconceive routine surgical care delivery systems, and plan resource scaling strategies to build more flexibility into surgical delivery in the future.
National surgical crisis planning must become part of the health systems lexicon. Mitigating acute threats to surgical systems including natural disasters, economic downturns, workforce declines, supply chain disruptions, military conflicts, and pandemic disease is not optional: our patients’ lives depend on it.
1. Shrime MG, Bickler SW, Alkire BC, Mock C. Global burden of surgical disease: an estimation from the provider perspective. The Lancet Global health 2015; 3 Suppl 2: S8-9.
2. Meara JG, Leather AJ, Hagander L, et al. Global Surgery 2030: evidence and solutions for achieving health, welfare, and economic development. Lancet 2015.
3. Sullivan R, Alatise OI, Anderson BO, et al. Global cancer surgery: delivering safe, affordable, and timely cancer surgery. Lancet Oncol 2015; 16(11): 1193-224.
4. Bundu I, Patel A, Mansaray A, Kamara TB, Hunt LM. Surgery in the time of Ebola: how events impacted on a single surgical institution in Sierra Leone. J R Army Med Corps 2016; 162(3): 212-6.
5. Mock CN, Donkor P, Gawande A, et al. Essential surgery: key messages from Disease Control Priorities, 3rd edition. Lancet 2015; 385(9983): 2209-19.
Who was the first patient you discussed their own death with?
For me, it was my grandmother. I was a medical student and she was slowly declining from heart and renal failure. During her last admission to hospital, she was clearly fearful of impending death – she told me that she felt better when I sat with her as she slept – which she did more frequently than, previously – as she feared that she might not wake up from her nap.
I assume that the medical staff noted our relationship. It was suggested to me that I might discuss resuscitation orders with her. I agreed that this was a timely discussion for her. Having participated in resuscitation during my rotation in the Emergency Department wanted to spare her this futile treatment.
I can only imagine how bumbling I was in that conversation. My mother had noted when I started medical school that I would have to work on my “bedside manner”.
I definitely lacked the requisite vocabulary to not frighten her more. However, I do remember trying to reassure her that this was to prevent harmful treatment, that wouldn’t help her. And I would have loved to have had the phrase “It’s an order so that we hold your hand when you are dying rather than pound your chest”( see here2 and here3 for more).
I would have loved to have known better to narrate the process of dying to her; to relieve her of her fear that slipping away would be painful and something that she should fight. That her increasing need for sleep was normal and it differed from slipping into unconsciousness so that she could sleep more easily.
In the end, I failed her. As her medical team predicted, she had a cardiac arrest watching a soap on TV a few weeks later. And I failed her, because I hadn’t had that delicate conversation with her wider family. In my naïve medical student approach, she was the patient and I and the medical team knew her wishes. But I forgot that she existed surrounded by a devoted family who wanted to keep her forever.
She arrested, panic ensued, an ambulance was called, CPR was commenced and she had cardiac compressions en route to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. Family members arrived to the resus bay to sit with her and hold her hand. With better communication, we could have done that in her own home.
What I wish I’d known
In the world of surgery, we are always learning4. I regularly wish that I had already mastered all of the communication skills that I need. In a recent blog post1 I wrote about an approach to end of life communication entitled “Difficult Conversations – Why we need to talk about dying”. Dr Lara Mitchell has produced resource materials with Open Change, an educational design company, to give healthcare professionals a visual approach to support these difficult conversations around dying with compassion and honesty. It aims to give framework, concepts and phrases to support these conversations for health and social care.
She has now produced a video discussing the framework in more detail and with references to other sources5. I found it useful and hope that you do too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on my bedside manner, aiming to communicate with openness, compassion and empathy.
The BJS ‘how to write a paper’ session is a fixture at many UK surgical meetings. This covers lots of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing a paper. We delivered a short version of this course at the Association of Surgeons in Training Meeting in Birmingham.
One of the fun and developing parts of publishing is the promotion of material on social media. Visual abstracts have emerged as a concise way of sharing the key points of a manuscript online. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we cover making visual abstracts in this course.
We discuss things like picking out key points and the use of icons and images. We then give the participants a choice of two abstracts and invite them to submit a visual abstract to our competition. This year we chose this paper on peripheral vascular disease and this paper on oesophageal cancer as subjects for the exercise.
We were pleased to receive a number of visual abstracts, which were of a really high standard. Most participants opted for the peripheral artery disease abstract. The team were really impressed by the abstracts that were submitted to us. Dr Jia Ying Lim (blue background) was the winner, and Dr Rucira Ooi (red background) was awarded the runner up prize. You can see these below.
Please keep an eye out for the course at future meetings. If you would like us to deliver this course at your meetings, please get in touch!
Policies and public health efforts have not addressed the impact of pandemics on the provision of surgical services and the effects on health-related outcomes on surgical patients. This also applies to the response to Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). There hasn’t been any related research or analysis despite the impact of the pandemic so far. Understanding the effects of COVID-19 on patients undergoing surgery along with the effects of this pandemic on the provision of surgical services is a fundamental step to understanding the various different effects of a healthcare emergency of that magnitude and to implement policies from the lessons learned.
Impact on surgical patients
Undoubtedly despite the global focus to encounter the pandemic itself and the need to improve provision of services and treatments related to the immediate effects of COVID-19, with intensive care playing a major role, there are still millions of patients who will need surgical treatment. Major focus should be the provision of emergency surgical care, cancer surgery and transplant surgery. There is little or no knowledge on the outcomes of surgical patients with COVID-19 related disease.
Low quality data from a case series of patients who underwent cardiac surgery and acquired Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) did show very high mortality of 83.33% (1). This has major direct implications on the management of emergency surgical patients during the pandemic as well as on the ongoing provision of organ transplantation and cancer related operations. Whether major cancer surgery and organ transplantation should be delayed and for how long, in view of the possible worse outcomes during the pandemic is one of the issues that should be investigated.
Impact on surgical services
We also need to address the effects of the current pandemic on surgical services provision. It is an unprecedented situation that has already changed the way surgeons and health systems worldwide are offering surgical services. There is also very low quality evidence available from the 2003 Hong Kong Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that showed significant reduction in the colorectal surgical caseload that had a major negative impact on waiting times and training (2). Although it’s certain that the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic will be of unprecedented severity, it’s actual consequences and the implications on resources, staff allocation and training are still uncertain. Understanding the effect of the pandemic would also inform future global policy around cancer and transplantation surgery during pandemics, and the provision of surgical services in general.
A new project
There is an urgent need to understand the outcomes of COVID-19 infected patients who undergo surgery. To address the above issues we designed CovidSurg, an international group of surgeons and anaesthetists, with representation from Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Korea, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States. Our aim is to capture real-world data and share international experience that will inform the management of this complex group of patients who undergo surgery throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, improving their clinical care and to understand the effects of the pandemic on the provision of surgical services.
Outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus Causes High Fatality After Cardiac Operations. Nazer RI, Ann Thorac Surg. 2017 Aug;104(2):e127-e129. doi: 10.1016/j.athoracsur.2017.02.072.
Tales from the frontline: the colorectal battle against SARS. Bradford IM Colorectal Dis. 2004 Mar;6(2):121-3. doi: 10.1111/j.1462-8910.2004.00600.x
Post by Claire Donohoe (@clairedonohoe6), Editorial Assistant BJS, Consultant Oesophagogastric surgeon, Dublin
We need to talk
A critical role of the surgeon is having difficult conversations with patients and their families. Continuously improving our communication skills is as important an aspect of professional development as staying abreast of technological changes. Recent papers in BJS have highlighted the importance of clear decision making at the end of life regarding when to operate1, 2. Recent global events bring the matter in sharper focus.
One potential barrier to making appropriate decisions is engagement with patients, in a time critical manner, to determine their core values and preferences regarding end of life treatment. In “Learning from Regret” the authors noted that perceived communication barriers, regarding poor prognosis with little prospect of ultimate survival, lead to surgeons undertaking emergency surgery and subsequently regretting this decision when they reviewed their patient’s death retrospectively2. In their leader on a “good surgical death” Chamberlain and Blazeby note the importance of early identification of patient’s goals and warned of the rescue culture and death denial that can results in the surgical arena1. Joliat et al. could only identify seven studies in their systematic review which addressed the impact of patient death on surgeons, none of which included interventions to reduce negative impacts3.
Approaching a difficult conversation
Story telling is a powerful tool for enhancing reflection and a potential way of promoting practice change4. “With the End in Mind” is written by a palliative care specialist Dr Kathryn Mannix. In it, she utilises a series of composite accounts of deaths of patients during her career, to illustrate how the experience of death can be managed, symptoms palliated and people comforted5. This book is available for free download in the UK and Ireland until April 6ththrough this link. This book aims to give us permission to directly discuss dying.
From a personal perspective, some of the important themes which led me to reflect on my personal practice included how to address the potential collusion of silence between patients, families and healthcare professionals by ensuring that knowledge is shared and exploring what barriers may exist to a shared understanding of what is happening. This can help promote mutual support within families and facilitate open communication by setting the tone.
By taking the lead on broaching difficult conversations, the healthcare professional can take some of the power of un-named worries away and relieve some of the burden of the taboo. Similarly, by directly addressing the usual trajectory of the decline to death in the metastatic cancer setting as well as the well-recognised in the last days and hours of night as described eloquently by Dr Mannix, I have found a sense of control can be imparted to the dying patient and their supporters.
How to put it into practice?
Some of the lessons from this book and others have been incorporated into an infographic by cohort 12 of the Scottish Quality Safety Fellowship working with design partner Open Change to illustrate an approach to end of life communication entitled “Difficult Conversations – Why we need to talk about dying”. The focus is on breaking down an approach to end of life conversations using honesty and compassion. It provides a framework for the novice and an opportunity to reflect for the more experienced practitioner.
Mastery can enhance a personal sense of control. Mastering communication skills in fraught situations is fundamental to the provision of high quality surgical care and might perhaps, reduce some of the effects of secondary victimhood experience as we care for our dying patients6.
With thanks to Dr Lara Mitchell (@laramitchdr), Consultant Geriatrician and Clinical Lead, and Hazel White, Director Open Change (@openchangeuk) for their insight and providing access to their communication resource.