Author: Hiroki Ueo, Department of Surgery and Sciences, Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan; Ueo Breast Cancer Hospital, Oita, Japan
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and its incidence continues to increase worldwide. From the patient’s perspective, breast conserving surgery (BCS) with radiation achieves a balance between a satisfactory cosmetic result and a low recurrence rate. Although it has been established as a routine surgery, surgeons need to be careful about positive surgical margins. Remnant cancer cells in the preserved tissue increase the risk of recurrence. Therefore, a positive margin on postoperative pathology warrants additional surgery. In these cases, the additional treatment harbours unexpected outcomes, including physical, mental, cosmetic, and economic burden on the patients.
To avoid the additional operation, pathological evaluation using an intraoperative frozen section is conducted. It is the most reliable method to prevent misdiagnosis and to achieve clear surgical margins. However, this conventional method is time consuming and costly. Moreover, it is dependent on the skill and experience of the pathologists and personnel, and it requires space for preparation of the frozen sections. Therefore, only a limited number of samples are examined to save time and resources. An alternative, rapid, and reliable technique to detect cancer in surgical margins enables simultaneous testing, leading to a reduced false negative rate of local recurrence incidence. In addition, pathologists can focus on the definitive diagnosis using permanent paraffin sections because it is difficult to make a diagnosis based on intraoperative frozen sections without pathological architecture. Pathologists only need to make an intraoperative diagnosis when the specimen cannot be evaluated via the fluorescence procedure. Thus, it is important to enhance the rapid fluorescent detection of breast cancer during surgery. To address these diagnostic issues, Prof. Urano invented chemical reagents (gamma-glutamyl hydroxymethyl rhodamine green [gGlu-HMRG]) that quickly fluoresce by reacting with an enzyme (gamma-glutamyl transferase [GGT]), overexpressed in cancerous tissues. It exhibits strong fluorescence a few minutes after reacting with GGT in vitro. A gGlu-HMRG solution is applied to the surgical margins to recognize cancer cells as green fluorescence intraoperatively. A previous study in 2015 documented the ability of this reagent to mark cancerous tissues in surgical breast tissues. Furthermore, this reagent did not interfere with the pathological examination, while the frozen section analysis tissues were difficult to reuse as formalin-fixed and paraffin-embedded permanent pathological specimens.
The clinical utility of this technique was examined. The results were published in the British Journal of Surgery. Since the initial report in 2015, a more feasible and reproducible sample preparation protocol has been developed. Then, a dedicated apparatus, including a built-in camera, software program, and multiple sample wells, was developed. This system automatically measured and analyzed the increase in fluorescence of multiple samples simultaneously. Then, the increase in fluorescence of gGlu-HMRG, applied to breast tissues, was measured in four different institutes. The sample tissues were examined by four pathologists independently. These pathologists diagnosed the samples without knowing the background information of the patients. The clinical utility of the current fluorescent procedure was evaluated by comparing the fluorescence data and the pathological diagnosis.
A clear threshold to distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous tissues was not determined due to the heterogeneity of breast cancer tissues. Instead, the negative threshold to achieve a false negative rate <2% and the positive threshold to achieve a false positive rate <2% were established. Samples in which the increase in fluorescence was below the negative threshold value were considered cancer-free margins with a false negative rate <2%. The false negative samples in our study were tissues containing non-invasive cancer. This suggested that the samples below the negative threshold can be considered free of invasive cancer. Samples in which the increase in fluorescence was above the positive threshold value were considered cancerous tissue with a false positive rate <2%.
The disease prevalence determines the performance of a diagnostic tool. The percentage of positive and negative test results among those with or without the disease are the positive and negative predictive values, respectively. These positive and negative predictive values depended on the prevalence. Therefore, to estimate the performance of this technique, the prevalence and margin positive rate in this case should be considered. The margin positive rate was expectedly lower than that of our clinical study. In our protocol, three pieces of tissue were sampled: the central portion, where the breast cancer is located; its periphery, which contains non-invasive cancer; and the distal portion, which ideally contains normal mammary tissue. Cancer was detected in 46% of the samples. Based on the actual margin assessment, the prevalence was lower than that of our study. Assuming a prevalence <30%, the negative predictive value, the ratio of true negative samples among fluorescent negative samples, was larger than 98%. This indicated that this method was useful for detecting negative margins.
According to this multicenter study, the fluorescent diagnosis was applicable to any breast cancer subtype, regardless of its pathological findings and subtype. Moreover, the similar accuracy among several institutes confirmed that the fluorescent diagnosis was applicable to any institute, following the protocol. Compared to the intraoperative frozen section analysis, the fluorescent diagnosis was a more rapid and accessible method with a low cost. It was not dependent on the skills of pathologists, and it did not require a large amount of space.
In conclusion, this method can facilitate the rapid assessment of negative surgical margins during BCS while reducing the testing time, cost of diagnosis, and tasks of the pathologists and staff.
Authors: A G N Robertson (Twitter: @robertson_a), T Wiggins (@TomWiggins23), F P Robertson, L Huppler (@LucyLucyHuppler), B Doleman, E M Harrison (@ewenharrison), M Hollyman (@misshollyman), R Welbourn
Obesity is the preventable and reversible disease of our lifetime. It is a worldwide health, economic and environmental problem in need of urgent and essential attention, and it has become clear that the world needs more than the traditional recommendations to survive this metabolic pandemic. The traditional advice has been acknowledged for centuries and even more so since the worldwide prevalence of obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 20161. These lifestyle recommendations include physical exercise, less high calorific food content, balanced meals, optimising portion size, intermittent fasting and so on; we all know them. However, the human race is still falling short of tackling the major public health concern that this disease threatens to be.
Bariatric or weight loss surgery is a surgical sub-speciality which has been evolving since the first procedures of this type in the mid 20th century. Its development has led to the most effective method to achieve long-term weight loss, as well as the additional health benefits weight loss offers as a by-product. However, accessibility to this specialist treatment is limited with only 1% of eligible patients going on to receive bariatric surgery.2Reasons for this limited access are multifactorial, however a considerable factor is thought to be concerns regarding the perceived risks of weight-loss surgery from patients across all populations. We should therefore aim to give our patients the most up to date worldwide risk of mortality of these potentially life-saving procedures.
This month in the BJS, we’ve published the largest meta-analysis asking this question to date – and the findings are pivotal at providing a unanimous international statistic on this discussion. We’ve looked at perioperative mortality rates (inpatient, 30 day and 90 day mortality) of a range of bariatric procedures to include laparoscopic adjustable gastric band (LAGB), sleeve gastrectomy (SG), Laparoscopic Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (LRYGB), one-anastomosis gastric bypass (OAGB), biliopancreatic diversion/duodenal switch (BPD-DS) and other malabsorptive procedures. We’ve included 58 studies in our meta-analysis which has given us information on roughly 3.6 million patients over a 6-year period from worldwide practice. Multiple sources for data were used including administrative datasets, bariatric surgery registries, large scale case series as well as randomised controlled trials (RCTs).
The paper looks at mortality within each subgroup of operation. There are interesting findings within this showing significant differences in perioperative mortality between procedures (P<0.001) with biliopancreatic diversion/duodenal switch or other malabsorptive procedures having the highest perioperative mortality rates (0.41%) and laparoscopic adjustable gastric band (LAGB) followed by sleeve gastrectomy (SG) being the procedures with the lowest perioperative mortality rates (0.03% and 0.05% respectively). This naturally reflects the trend towards these latter procedures being offered more commonly in international practice. Although this paper looks closely at perioperative mortality it is noteworthy to mention that it doesn’t look at long term morbidity following these procedures or their potential complication rates.
Without a doubt, our most noteworthy finding has been the discovery that overall perioperative mortality following bariatric surgery is likely much lower than previously thought, with our pooled perioperative mortality rate at 0.08% (95% CI 0.06%-0.10%). It perhaps makes this statistic even more relatable when this is compared to other procedures we consider as ‘low-risk’ in our daily surgical practice. For example, laparoscopic cholecystectomy or fundoplication have comparable perioperative mortality rates reported at 0.1%. This new statistic is also lower than previously quoted in the literature from smaller scale studies. The mortality rate calculated in this meta-analysis puts bariatric surgery as a whole at lower risk of mortality as knee arthroplasty (0.3%)3. With this in mind, we hope that there can be a culture shift from avoidance of bariatric surgery due to risk, to giving patients the correct information to confidently weigh up the true risks and benefits of these procedures when indicated.
How should these findings shape the future of bariatric surgery in Europe and beyond? Certainly in the UK, the acceptability of bariatric surgery as a viable treatment option for obesity is limited. It is surprising how often we see patients who are eligible for bariatric surgery and who have met the criteria for some time yet to be offered this as a treatment option. There is a distinct barrier to accessing bariatric surgery for the wider population, perhaps due to taboo surrounding broaching the issue of weight in the primary care setting, and although many general practitioners do this very well, there remain limiting factors. Another stand-out factor includes lack of funding or commissioning within the public health service for referral for weight loss specialist services. Therefore, with the addition of this new internationally applicable statistic, our hope is that the most effective treatment option for sustained weight loss can now be available for all that require it. Bariatric surgery is safe.
By Hannah Javanmard-Emamghissi (@hannahjavanmard), NELA Research Fellow and RCSEng Research fellow on behalf of the COVID:HAREM Collaborative
Keyhole surgery (laparoscopic appendicectomy) has been the mainstay of adult appendicitis treatment in Europe and the United States for the last several decades. In spite of this numerous trials have been ongoing exploring if there is a role for non-operative management of appendicitis with antibiotics. The APPAC and CODA trials both demonstrated that antibiotics were effective at treating simple appendicitis that was not perforated, gangrenous or associated with an abscess in the majority of patients.(1,2) However, it remained an underutilised treatment strategy.
This all changed during February and March of 2020, when the Sars-COV-2 virus (COVID-29) swept across much of the globe. Healthcare providers were forced to make contingency plans for hospitals that faced being overwhelmed by patients infected with COVID-19. Much of the anaesthetic workforce had been redeployed to intensive cares and there was uncertainty of the safety of general anaesthesia for patients with peri-operative COVID-19 and of the safety of the theatre teams exposed to virus aerosols during laparoscopy.(3,4) Non-operative management strategies were implemented recommended by surgical professional bodies across many surgical disciplines as a way of mitigating for these uncertainties.(5)
Our collaborative’s report, just published in BJS, represents the first time non-operative management of appendicitis has been implemented on a wide scale in the United Kingdom. We collected data on patients over the age of 18 presenting during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic presented with signs and symptoms suggestive of acute appendicitis, whether they were managed operatively and non-operatively. These patients were followed up for 90 days for length of hospital stay, complications, representation to hospital and appendicitis recurrence. Patients managed non-operatively were matched with similar patients managed operatively using propensity score matching, and their outcomes were compared.
Patients from 97 hospitals across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland were included in our study. Three thousand four hundred and twenty patients were included, of which 41% had initially been treated with antibiotics. When they were matched using propensity score matching with similar patients who had non-operative management, the group treated with antibiotics spent less time in hospital and had fewer complications than those who had an operative management. Non-operative management was successful in 80% of the patients managed in this way, with 20% going on to have an appendicectomy in the 90 days after their first attendance.
We also teamed up with a health economics team from the London School of Tropical Medicine to calculate the costs associated with each treatment method. We found that, even when accounting for the 20% of patients that had surgery within the 3 months of being treated with antibiotics, non-operative management was associated with a cost reduction of €1034 per patient compared to operative management.
This study proves that antibiotics are an effective management strategy for appendicitis and can be utilised on a large scale beyond trials for the first time ever. Patients may be keen to avoid surgery for a number of reasons and going forward surgeons should incorporate a discussion about the risks, benefits and uncertainties of non-operative management into conversations they have with patients about appendicitis management options. Our results have shown how reducing the number of operations we do for appendicitis can have benefits for the patient in terms of complications and days in the hospital away from work and home, but it may have wider benefits to the hospital and world. Not only is non-operative management cheaper for the hospital, but reducing the number of appendicectomies performed can free up theatre time so the most urgent surgical emergencies have less delay accessing theatre. All operations are associated with a significant amount of carbon emissions and single use plastic waste, but despite our best efforts to reduce the harm that surgery can cause to the environment the most effective strategy remains reducing the amount of unnecessary surgery performed.(6)
That is not to say that the study of non-operative management of appendicitis is over, there is still debate about the long-term efficacy of antibiotic management and concern that some cancers of the appendix may be missed by not removing the appendix at the first presentation, as well as questions about how acceptable patients find non-operative management. Our collaborative hopes to answer these questions and more in a one year follow up study and ongoing patient and public involvement work.
Conflicts of Interest
None to declare
No funding was received for this blog article
1. Salminen P, Tuominen R, Paajanen H, Rautio T, Nordström P, Aarnio M, et al. Five-year follow-up of antibiotic therapy for uncomplicated acute appendicitis in the APPAC randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2018 Sep 25;320(12):1259–1265.
2. CODA Collaborative, Flum DR, Davidson GH, Monsell SE, Shapiro NL, Odom SR, et al. A Randomized Trial Comparing Antibiotics with Appendectomy for Appendicitis. N Engl J Med. 2020 Nov 12;383(20):1907-1919.
3. Nepogodiev D, Bhangu A, Glasbey JC, Li E, Omar OM, Simoes JF, et al. Mortality and pulmonary complications in patients undergoing surgery with perioperative SARS-CoV-2 infection: an international cohort study. Lancet [Internet]. 2020 Jul 4 [cited 2020 Nov 5];396(10243):27–38. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/
5. Hettiaratchy S, Deakin D. Guidance for surgeons working during the COVID-19 pandemic from the Surgical Royal Colleges of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Intercollegaite Royal Colleges of Surgery. London; 2020.
6. MacNeill AJ, Lillywhite R, Brown CJ. The impact of surgery on global climate: a carbon footprinting study of operating theatres in three health systems. Lancet Planetary Health [Internet]. 2017 Dec 1 [cited 2021 Sep 5];1(9):e381–8. Available from: http://www.thelancet.com/article/S2542519617301626/fulltext
Image source: Robinson Poffo et. al. Robotic surgery in Cardiology: a safe and effective procedure. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The emergence of minimally invasive surgery has led to the development of three new surgical techniques for oncological rectal resections: laparoscopic, robot-assisted and transanal TME (TaTME). When we compared the three techniques executed in expert centres, we expected to find an advantage for one of the three techniques in terms of reduced complication rates. But contrary to our expectations, no difference was seen. There was one striking difference however, when comparing these techniques, though it might be something different than you might have thought. We shine a light on all three techniques to explain their advantages.
Laparoscopy: minimally invasive surgery
In the 1980’s, Heald introduced the total mesorectal excision (TME) principle, which comprises excision of the rectum and its surrounding fatty envelop with preservation of the autonomic nerves . TME has become the golden standard for surgical resection for rectal cancer and helped dropping local recurrence rates drastically. The past decades laparoscopy has been introduced and gradually replaced open surgery. Laparoscopy offers short term benefits of minimally invasive surgery, such as faster recovery and reduced complication rates [2, 3]. It offers similar long-term outcome as open surgery . But laparoscopy is technically demanding because it is difficult to work with rigid instruments in the narrow and confined area of the pelvis. Therefore, conversion rates to open surgery of more than 10% were seen . Conversion is linked to increased morbidity and worse oncological outcome . In order to overcome those technical limitations of laparoscopic TME, new techniques have been introduced; robot-assisted TME and TaTME.
Robot-assisted TME: the same, but different
Robot-assisted TME comprises the same approach as laparoscopy, but with the use of a surgical robot. The surgical robot provides a stable platform with supreme vision and supreme instrument handling. Surgeons thought this technique might improve results in terms of reduced complication rates and reduced conversion rates. However, the largest randomized trial so far comparing robot-assisted and laparoscopic TME failed to show any difference in these outcomes . This might have been the result of a methodological flaw, because the robotic surgeons in that trial were not as experienced as their laparoscopic colleagues . In our study, we tried to eliminate this by only selecting experienced centres that were beyond their learning curve. However, we did not see reduced complication rates or reduced conversion rates after robot-assisted TME compared to laparoscopy.
Transanal TME: a different approach
TaTME comprises a different approach to address the most difficult part of the dissection. In TaTME the most distal and difficult part of the rectum is dissected from below using a transanal insufflator port. However, this is a technically demanding technique and has a long learning curve . Some initial series showed high loco regional recurrence rates, which even led to a halt of TaTME in Norway [10, 11]. The potential learning curve effect is now part of an ongoing debate about the oncological safety of this technique. Most initial results however looked promising and showed consistently good quality specimen and lower conversion rates [12, 13]. In our study, conversion rates, number of complete specimen and morbidity rates did not differ from the other laparoscopy and robot-assisted TME.
The results of our study showed similar and acceptable short-term results for all three techniques in expert centres. The most striking difference was that in centres with robot-assisted or TaTME, more primary anastomoses were made. The technological advantage of the two new techniques could have contributed to higher restorative rates. Both robot-assisted and TaTME provide better access and visibility to the distal rectum, enabling surgeons to complete the TME dissection safely and create an anastomosis. Robot-assisted TME could overcome technical limitations of laparoscopy in the narrow pelvis thanks to the use of 3D vision, lack of tremor, and superior instrument handling, thereby facilitating safe creation of an anastomosis [7, 14]. TaTME does not need multiple staple firing to transect the distal rectum and without requiring conversion to open surgery . In fact, TaTME does not need cross-stapling at all, preventing the creation of dog-ears which are prone to ischemia .
In conclusion, the technological advantage of robot-assisted TME and TaTME manifests itself in higher restorative rates. Each technique seems to be equally beneficial in terms of oncological outcomes and morbidity. However, anastomosis creation, quality of life and functional outcome are becoming of great importance to patients. It seems to be that an increasing proportion of patients is now in pursue of an anastomosis. The overall anastomosis rate of more than 84% for robot-assisted and TaTME in our study was higher than the anastomosis rate of 50% in a previous national study . A note of caution should be added, as an anastomosis might not be always better in terms of functional outcome and quality of life. Patients with a low anastomosis are at risk of developing severe low anterior resection syndrome (LARS) symptoms. Severe LARS symptoms can have a detrimental effect on quality of life . Further research should be undertaken to investigate whether a higher anastomosis rate is beneficial in terms of quality of life and functional outcome and whether this higher anastomosis rate actually leads to increased patient satisfaction.
1. Heald, R.J., E.M. Husband, and R.D. Ryall, The mesorectum in rectal cancer surgery–the clue to pelvic recurrence? Br J Surg, 1982. 69(10): p. 613-6.
2. Stevenson, A.R., et al., Effect of Laparoscopic-Assisted Resection vs Open Resection on Pathological Outcomes in Rectal Cancer: The ALaCaRT Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 2015. 314(13): p. 1356-63.
3. van der Pas, M.H., et al., Laparoscopic versus open surgery for rectal cancer (COLOR II): short-term outcomes of a randomised, phase 3 trial. Lancet Oncol, 2013. 14(3): p. 210-8.
4. Bonjer, H.J., et al., A Randomized Trial of Laparoscopic versus Open Surgery for Rectal Cancer. N Engl J Med, 2015. 373(2): p. 194.
5. Chen, K., et al., Laparoscopic versus open surgery for rectal cancer: A meta-analysis of classic randomized controlled trials and high-quality Nonrandomized Studies in the last 5 years. Int J Surg, 2017. 39: p. 1-10.
6. Allaix, M.E., et al., Conversion of laparoscopic colorectal resection for cancer: What is the impact on short-term outcomes and survival? World J Gastroenterol, 2016. 22(37): p. 8304-8313.
7. Jayne, D., et al., Effect of Robotic-Assisted vs Conventional Laparoscopic Surgery on Risk of Conversion to Open Laparotomy Among Patients Undergoing Resection for Rectal Cancer: The ROLARR Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 2017. 318(16): p. 1569-1580.
8. Corrigan, N., et al., Exploring and adjusting for potential learning effects in ROLARR: a randomised controlled trial comparing robotic-assisted vs. standard laparoscopic surgery for rectal cancer resection. Trials, 2018. 19(1): p. 339.
9. Koedam, T.W.A., et al., Transanal total mesorectal excision for rectal cancer: evaluation of the learning curve.Tech Coloproctol, 2018. 22(4): p. 279-287.
10. Larsen, S.G., et al., Norwegian moratorium on transanal total mesorectal excision. Br J Surg, 2019. 106(9): p. 1120-1121.
11. van Oostendorp, S.E., et al., Locoregional recurrences after transanal total mesorectal excision of rectal cancer during implementation. Br J Surg, 2020.
12. Detering, R., et al., Three-Year Nationwide Experience with Transanal Total Mesorectal Excision for Rectal Cancer in the Netherlands: A Propensity Score-Matched Comparison with Conventional Laparoscopic Total Mesorectal Excision. J Am Coll Surg, 2019. 228(3): p. 235-244 e1.
13. Grass, J.K., et al., Systematic review analysis of robotic and transanal approaches in TME surgery- A systematic review of the current literature in regard to challenges in rectal cancer surgery. Eur J Surg Oncol, 2019. 45(4): p. 498-509.
14. Kim, M.J., et al., Robot-assisted Versus Laparoscopic Surgery for Rectal Cancer: A Phase II Open Label Prospective Randomized Controlled Trial. Ann Surg, 2018. 267(2): p. 243-251.
15. Penna, M., et al., Four anastomotic techniques following transanal total mesorectal excision (TaTME). Tech Coloproctol, 2016. 20(3): p. 185-91.
16. Borstlap, W.A.A., et al., Anastomotic Leakage and Chronic Presacral Sinus Formation After Low Anterior Resection: Results From a Large Cross-sectional Study. Ann Surg, 2017. 266(5): p. 870-877.
17. Emmertsen, K.J. and S. Laurberg, Low anterior resection syndrome score: development and validation of a symptom-based scoring system for bowel dysfunction after low anterior resection for rectal cancer. Ann Surg, 2012. 255(5): p. 922-8.
Cancerous tissue behaves differently from non-cancerous tissue. Every academic oncology paper ever written tells us this. The appearances of any cancer primary (or indeed secondary lesion) result from biological and molecular processes that are the hallmarks of malignancy including dysregulated cell function and composition, host-cancer stromal and inflammatory response and angiogenesis. However, we surgeons haven’t really yet been able to exploit this knowledge during surgery in a way that helps us make a better operation. Instead, our learning and research about oncological cellular processes has predominantly advanced through basic science geared more towards perioperative prognostication and/or adjuvant therapy stratification. Wouldn’t it be great if realisation of cancer microprocesses could usefully inform decision-making intraoperatively?
We’ve just published an initial report in the BJS showing this very thing – that it is indeed possible to ‘see’ cancer by its behaviour in real-time intraoperatively. We’ve used Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods in combination with near-infrared fluorescence laparoendoscopy to judge and classify neoplastic tissue nature through the observation of differential dye diffusion through the region of interest in comparison with that happening in normal tissue being viewed alongside it. Through our understanding of biophysics (flow parameters and light/dye interaction properties), a lot of information can be drawn out over short periods of times via advanced computer vision methodology. With surgical video recording in the region of 30 frames per second, big data generates over the time frame of a few minutes. While the gross signal shifts are discernible even without AI, smart machine learning capabilities certainly mean their interrogation becomes really usable in the provision of classification data within moments. What’s more, while we’ve focused initially on colorectal cancer, the processes we are exploiting seem common across other solid cancers and using other camera-based imaging systems. By combining with the considerable amount of knowledge we already have accrued regarding tissue biology, chemistry, physics as relate and indeed surgery, our AI methods are giving explainable and more importantly interpretable recommendations with confidence using a smaller dataset than that demanded by deep learning methodologies.
This though is just an early exemplar of what’s becoming possible through ‘Digital Surgery’, a concept that seems far more likely to transform contemporary surgical practice than our current general surgery “robotic” systems, hulking electromechanical tools entirely dependent on the user – a rather 20th century concept! Indeed, there is sophisticated technology everywhere in today’s operating theatres – surgeons sure don’t lack technical capability. Yet often despite vaulting costs, advance of real, value-based outcomes has been disappointingly marginal in comparison over the last two decades. The key bit for evolved surgery is instead going to be assisting surgeons to make the best decision possible for each individual patient by providing useful, discerning information regarding the surgery happening right now, and somehow plugging this case circumstances directly into the broad knowledge bank of expertise we have accrued as a profession (and not just be dependent on any single surgeon’s own experience).
To do this we need to realise the importance of visualisation in surgical procedures versus manual dexterity. All surgery is performed through the visual interpretation of tissue appearances and proceeds via the perception-action cycle (‘sense, predict, act, adjust’). This is most evident during minimally invasive operations where a camera is used to display internal images on a screen but applies of course to open procedures as well. As all intraoperative decisions are made by the surgeon, the entire purpose of surgical imaging has been to present the best (‘most visually appealing’) picture to the surgeon for this purpose. Experiential surgical training is for the purpose of developing the ‘surgical eye’, that is learning how to make qualitative intraoperative judgments reliably to a reasonable standard. We haven’t however gotten the most out of the computer attached to the camera beyond image processing where we have concerned ourselves with display resolutions and widths.
Imagine instead if some useful added interpretations of images could be made without adding extra cognitive burden to the surgeon, perhaps with straightforward on-screen prompts to better personalise decisions? This would be particularly exciting if these data were not otherwise easily realisable by human cognition alone and could be immediately and directly relevant to the person undergoing the operation. Every operation is in effect a unique undertaking, informed by probabilities accruing through individual and collected prior experience for sure but a new thing in and of itself for which the outcome at the time of its performance is unknown. How this individual patient differs from others and most especially how might an adverse outcome be avoided is a crucial thing to flag before any irreversible surgical step that commits an inevitable future.
Right now, we are in a golden age of imaging. This is intricately linked to advances in computer processing and sharing power along with AI methods. This means we can harvest great additional information from the natural world around us across the spectrum of enormous (radio waves spanning the universe) to tiny (high resolution atomic imaging) distances and apply methods to help crystalise what this means to the observer. While a lot of AI is being directed at the easier and safer areas of standard patient cohort datasets, increasingly it’s possible to apply computer intelligence to the data rich surgical video feeds being generated routinely during operations to present insights to the surgeon. While early first steps at the moment relate to rather bread and butter applications such as instrument or lesion recognition and tracking as well as digital subtraction of smoke or anonymization protocols to prevent inadvertent capture of operating rooms teams when the camera is outside the patient, soon the capability to parse, segment and foretell likely best next operative steps will be possible at scale.
At present, the biggest limitation is that surgery lacks large warehoused archives of annotated imagery because operative video is a more complex dataset to scrutinise than the narrower image datasets available in specialities such as radiology, pathology and ophthalmology. Thanks to advances in computing, this is changing. Surgical video aggregation to enable building of representative cohorts is increasingly possible and, by combining with metadata and surgical insights, its full value can begin to be realised. GDPR frameworks provide structure and surgeons are increasingly understanding of the value of collaborating in research, education and practice development. However, while certain siloed sites focused around specific industry projects are already manifesting, the key area for greatest general advance lies within the surgical community combining broadly to construct appropriately developed and secured, curated video banks of procedures that can then be made accessible to entities from regulators and standard bodies, academia and indeed corporations capable of advancing surgery. This gives by far the greatest chance of the best of surgical traditions carrying through the 21st century while our weak spots are fortified for better surgery in the public interest.
Recently published as open access in BJS, this prospective quality improvement study showed a reduction in surgical site infections using an adaptive, multimodal surgical infection prevention programme for low-resource settings. Further information can be found at the Lifebox website.
When the first cases of the disease that would have been later named COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) caused by SARS-CoV2 were described in Wuhan approximately three months ago, it would have been difficult to predict the impact and the burden that the subsequent outbreak would have had globally. The first case was tracked back to November 2019, indeed the spread COVID-19 proved to be incredibly rapid, and is currently causing several challenges to most health systems.
Among European countries, Italy has been hit first and more deeply, the reasons for this still being analysed, and no agreed explanation available. Since the first cases were described on the 30th January 2020, two Chinese tourists, the outbreak showed a logarithmic growth, and by today (16/03/2020), the overall number of individuals who tested positive was 24 747 (20 603 still positive) with 1809 deaths. This would mean a mortality rate overall as high as 7.3%, and 43.6% of those who had an outcome. Of those currently infected, approximately 8% is in serious/critical conditions. Lombardy, considered the economic heart of Italy, where an ideal health system is in place, registered the highest number of COVID-19, exceeding 13 200 patients, more than half than all Italian cases. The outbreak is rapidly spreading to the entire peninsula, islands not being spared: almost 1000 cases between South and Islands (3.73%). Even if these figures might not seem worrisome, they actually are, as facilities and infrastructures might not be prepared to afford a similar outbreak as that observed in Northern Italy, and the system could collapse. Restrictive measures had to be taken, and the Italian Government ordered an unpreceded lockdown effective as the 12th March 2020, and its effect and meaning are well testified by the empty Italian cities. Florence’s Uffizi Gallery is closed; St. Peter’s Square in Rome is empty.
These images are self-explanatory. Similar measures are being taken in other European countries, even if the strategies to face COVID-19 were not consistent. Spain followed a similar pathway observed in Italy, with 7753 cases and 288 death as of today, mainly in Madrid, and adopted the same measures.
The impact of COVID-19 on our society is already immense, and some have suggested that the post-pandemic era is likely to blow away the world as we used to know it.
COVID-19 and Cancer
Liang et al. analysed the cases of COVID-19 in China, and found that patients with cancers were at higher risk of developing the symptoms from SARS-CoV2 infection. Out of 1590 COVID-19 cases analysed, an history of cancer was found in 1% of them, versus 0.29% observed in the general population. One out of four had received chemotherapy or surgery within 30 days from infection, whereas another 25% were on follow-up after treatment. This might suggest that cancer patients might be at increased risk, even after curative treatment of the disease, for reasons that are not completely understood. Liang et al. also suggested that severe events were more common in cancer patients with COVID-19, as more patients in this population required invasive treatment measures or died compared with patients without cancer (even [39%] of 18 patients vs 124 [8%] of 1572 patients; Fisher’s exact p=0·0003); the risk was even higher if chemotherapy or surgery were performed in the last month, administered. These findings raise concerns on the ideal care to provide to such patients and whether or not should chemotherapy be continued during the outbreak, or at least stopped or reduced in selected patients at higher risk of infection. Of note, the actual impact of COVID-19 on the outcome of cancer patients in this specific cohort remains to be clearly proven, as the age of this cohort was higher than that of non-cancer patients with COVID-19. Moreover, they were more frequently smokers, and more frequently had polypnea. These considerations advocate for prudence at the time of interpreting the findings of studies which are currently being published on the topic, due to the limited knowledge available and to the relatively low (yet) number of cases described in these publications, which might be underpowered to show clinically relevant findings.
Similar concerns are applicable to patients who are chronically immunodepressed and to those with chronic conditions that might expose them to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, and with potentially detrimental outcomes.
COVID-19 and usual hospital routine
The effects on COVID-19 on patients with chronic diseases or cancers are more extensive than the risk of contracting the virus for carriers of these conditions. The health system is almost collapsing in several countries, with few available beds in intensive care units. Elective surgery has been stopped in many hospitals, giving priority to cancer patients and to emergency. The personnel is being shortened to the minimum necessary to deliver the basic services, and, while intensive care units and medical wards are saturated, the current appearance of surgical wards is appalling.
Notwithstanding the effort put in treating as many cancer patients as possible, the timeliness of cures is inevitably delayed, and the outcomes of treatment might well be affected in the long-term. At the same time, screening is not being offered consistently. A delayed diagnosis is associated with worse outcome in cancer surgery. Sanjeevi et al. showed that potentially curable pancreatic cancers had 0% unresectability rate at surgery when the interval between imaging and resection was shorter than 23 days, highlighting the importance of acting within a window of opportunity to achieve optimal survival results. An analysis of a US National Cancer database with over 60 thousands patients with curable colon cancer, found that overall survival was longer in patients operated on within 16 days from diagnosis compared with those operated on after 37 days or more (5-year survival 75.4 vs 71.9%, 10-year survival 56.6 vs 49.7%, both p<0.001). Moreover, the long-term effects and associated indirect costs of cancer surgery include the assessment of lost work-hours due to sick leave after surgery. Postoperative recovery after colorectal cancer surgery might be slower than thought, and advanced disease further impair return to work, suggesting that delaying diagnosis and surgery impacts the economy further.
Many chronic conditions are likely to be affected by delayed treatment. Patients waiting for transplantation are another facet to consider. Discussions are ongoing globally in order to face these difficult situations, and how to deal with the current status of things still remains to be clarified.
Patients, family, and COVID-19
During crisis, priorities are being reorganized, meaning that priority is given to patients with more worrisome conditions or those more likely to benefit from a treatment. However, this generates a stressful environment and brings about nonnegligible consequences to individuals’ wellbeing. Surgical patients with conditions that are not being regarded as priority may feel let down by the doctors and the health system, and they need appropriate support to face this new condition, and their families to be cared for, and this will be much more relevant once the current acme of the outbreak has settled. Many societies and patients’ associations have made available for patients’ guidance and suggestions to help them during these difficult times.
Moreover, family visits to patients who are currently being hospitalized are being strictly controlled, so that the postoperative recovery or the in-hospital stay in general are made even more challenging by an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
Emergencies can bring to light the worst aspects of humanity, but they can also strengthen the spirit of collaboration against a common issue. Even if many have been forced in isolation or quarantined, even if travel is forbidden from and to several countries, social media proved again to be a powerful means to disseminate knowledge, to facilitate discussions, and to establish collaborative initiatives on a global scale.
The response to the fears of doctors and patients on how to deal with COVID-19 and how to act during the outbreak has been immediate, and several scientific societies have provided documents and platforms to be used as guidance. The Spanish Association of Surgeons (Asociación Española de Cirujanos, AEC) released on the 15th March a Position Statement that can be freely accessed on the measures to be taken for patients needing surgery during the pandemic, and a similar initiative has been announced by the Spanish Association of Coloproctology (Asociación Española de Coloproctología, AECP), with specific focus on patients needing surgery for colorectal conditions. These documents are being developed with an innovative format, meaning that they are solidly grounded on available evidence but they are dynamic, open to updating that can occur within hours.
This is relevant at a time when no agreed policy has been decided to face the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, not all nations have decided to adopt the same stringent measures acting in Italy and Spain, and likely to be extended to France and other countries. For example, UK has announced a different strategy, relying on the development of an immunity against COVID-19, with no need for restrictive measures. Indeed, this was not agreed by the entire scientific community, and hundreds of UK scientists signed an open letter pressing the Government to enforce social distancing. It is difficult to identify which strategy is the more appropriate, but a common effort towards an agreed strategy is desirable in the following months.
A joint GI Society Message on COVID-19 was released on the 16th March by the American Gastroenterology Association, the American Association for Liver Disease, the American College of Gastroenterology, and the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. The document deals with recommendations to provide care, including endoscopy, to patients with gastrointestinal conditions during the pandemic.
An initiative that rapidly captured the attention of the surgical community globally was the launch of an international prospective registry of patients operated on for whichever condition while positive for COVID-19. The initiative was launched by Aneel Bhangu on the 14th March on Twitter and is open for registration. A draft protocol is available to access and registration can be performed at this link.
These initiatives will hopefully help to clarify the actual impact of COVID-19 on surgical patients, and help to define the ideal pathways and perioperative management of these patients.
Impact on psychical well-being of healthcare professionals: who cares for the carers?
Last but not least, healthcare professionals are being exposed on the frontline. They are working in extremely difficult conditions, far different from what most of them were trained to work. The intensely stressful conditions in which doctors, surgeons and all healthcare professionals are called to work, is exposing them and their families to unpredictable consequences.
Not being able to treat everyone, the need to do extra shifts, wearing protective equipment during the entire shifts as well as the lack of protective devices, the fear of getting infected, all contribute to a potential burnout.
Doctors are choosing to isolate themselves from their relatives, in order to protect them, even if asymptomatic. The fear of being tested positive, apart from the fact that being affected already implies, brings about the necessity of being quarantined, and further reduces the number of available team members. This is further aggravated by the required quarantine for those colleagues who were in contact with the index healthcare professional tested positive.
Indeed, many institutions and entities are providing help to doctors struggling with the current crisis. The Physician Council of Barcelona (Colegio de Medicos de Barcelona, COMB), for example, established a telephone-based service to support doctors who are experiencing psychological stress and difficulties while in isolation, and a similar service was offered to struggling doctors at local hospitals (e.g. Hospital Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona). Similar initiatives are needed, and must not be limited to the emergency only, but should last long after this has been controlled.
Things are changing rapidly with COVID-19. A financial crisis is likely to occur, that will require to be faced jointly when the emergency has been resolved. It is however needed to maintain our focus on what we are doing every day with every single patient, and those of us who are isolated need not to forget that this is part of caring for the others. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, all the healthcare professionals need to feel backed by the institutions and by the people. In Italy and Spain, people under lockdown have started clapping their hands as a tribute to healthcare professionals. During such difficult times, similar spontaneous acts are fuel for our practice and help us to cope with the burden and the negativity that COVID-19 has spread, while scanning the horizon in search of the end of the current crisis.
Gianluca Pellino (@GianlucaPellino) and Antonino Spinelli (@AntoninoSpin) are surgeons from Italy.
A young surgeon’s experience as a patient with bowel cancer
If you ask any clinician, becoming a patient is an unusual experience. When you couple that with the naivety of youth, embracing the role of a patient is particularly challenging.
“We are taught that we when we hear hoof beats, we should think horses, not zebras.”
As part of surgical training, and even in medical school, there are specific red flags that are taught to all of us. ‘Bowel habit change’ and ‘per rectal bleeding’ are not a great combination. We are also taught that we when we hear hoof beats, we should think horses, not zebras. So when I developed these symptoms I just assumed that I probably had a benign cause of bleeding. I assumed this for six weeks while I worked in a high volume liver and kidney transplant unit until I decided it was bothersome. I picked up the phone to one of my mentors, a colorectal surgeon. She subsequently performed my low anterior resection.
My story is different. I class myself as one of the lucky ones. I was aged 33, with no significant family history, only stage 3. I underwent a low anterior resection, fertility treatment and then 6 months of adjuvant FOLFOX. FOLFOX was not very kind. I didn’t require neoadjuvant radiotherapy, had clear margins and only 2 positive nodes. It is amazing how different your perspective is after such an unexpected life interruption. My life changed completely in one single moment.
From the beginning I called myself a lucky unlucky person. I had encountered young people with colorectal cancer in my surgical training, however, in clinics with 30-50 people being followed up in our public health system, it was still a rarity. When I was diagnosed in 2018 I only really began to appreciate the growing trend of young people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. People that are not considered at risk. People under the age of 50. Where screening programs exist, all of these people would be too young to be screened. The age for screening in the United States has recently been lowered. It is still not practical for many reasons to extend population based screening to include those who are even younger. While the figures are alarming us all and steadily climbing, they still don’t meet criteria to support population based screening.
“Becoming a patient reveals so much more about patient care and management.”
What is practical and even more alarming is these people’s stories. Bowel Cancer Australia and Bowel Cancer UK frequently highlight individuals who I never thought I would relate to. I am one of many in a long list of patients who are only too happy to tell their story in hope that someone might not have to go through and live with the effects of cancer. Becoming a patient reveals so much more about patient care and management. The anxiety relating to waiting, having scans, and to having your first operation as such a major one. The knowing too much, from the very beginning. After I was told that my surgeon found a cancer, I know I asked where it was. I meant anatomically. I asked this as I knew what the next investigations would be and what treatment (if I wasn’t metastatic) was being considered. It’s not a normal opening question from any other patient.
It is really encouraging to see increasing attention being paid by researchers and surgical journal editors to the rising rate of colorectal cancer in young people, because it means that the message is being delivered regarding the need to investigate symptomatic people. This is separate to any screening argument. I have been part of the #Never2Young campaign and consider myself obliged to advocate for such awareness campaigns not only as a health professional, but as a colorectal cancer patient. I have become a statistic. I am one of those people diagnosed with a left sided colorectal cancer in the age group 20-49.
Publishing real data and real stories and disseminating them will reach our communities and our clinicians working on the front line, trying to sort through who to investigate further or not. The message is becoming clearer for them now. Symptomatic people need investigating. I have seen firsthand only too many young people who have dismissed their own symptoms or had them dismissed by all levels of care. There are barriers to appropriate investigation with colonoscopy for many reasons. We need to make sure patients are better supported.
“Cancer does not discriminate.“
I have completed treatment. I have had highs and lows within my surveillance already. I am lucky enough to have returned to work finishing my time in general surgical training. Navigating through life post treatment has days of uncertainty and sadness. I never stay sad too long. I constantly get reminders of just how lucky I am to still have this life that could have so easily been taken from me.
Cancer does not discriminate. It will choose anyone at any time. Anyone with symptoms needs to be investigated, as sometimes those hoof beats are actually zebras.
Katherine Goodall is a general surgical registrar from Queensland Australia
Randomized controlled trial of plain English and visual abstracts for disseminating surgical research via social media
BJS started with the aim of of being a medium through which surgeons “can make our voice intelligibly heard”, according to Sir Rickman Godlee, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1913.
The aim of a recently published paper in BJS was to increase the engagement (defined compositely as the total number of replies, retweets, or likes on Twitter) of clinicians and patients in the communication of surgical research – part of the core values of BJS.
Ibrahim et al. showed in the Annals of Surgery that visual abstracts increased engagement on Twitter in their case-control study, but plain English summaries have not previously been studied in the context of surgical research. Plain English summaries are becoming a real priority for funders (e.g. NIHR), as well as for clinical practice (BMJ, AoMRC). Patients are involved in the development of research, and need to have access to it.
This was a three-arm, randomized controlled trial with crossover of two intervention arms. Manuscripts that were eligible for inclusion were randomly allocated to three arms and disseminated via Twitter. The arms were standard tweets, plain English abstracts & visual abstracts.
Visual abstracts are a simplified graphical summary of a study’s scientific abstract. Plain English abstracts were developed according to NIHR INVOLVE ‘make it clear’ guidance and edited to satisfy a minimum readability index.
The primary outcome was online engagement by the public within 14 days of dissemination. The secondary outcome was online engagement by healthcare professionals.
The results can be seen in the visual abstract, with more details available in the paper. Overall: visual abstracts attracted a greater number of total engagements than plain English abstracts, and engagement by members of the public was low across all abstract types.
Note that this study only looked for the potential benefits from the point of view of the journal – not data from the perspective of patients, although a Twitter poll suggested that there was an appetite for informing the public about the findings of research studies.
More work needs to be done in collaboration with the public to understand how and in what format they prefer to engage with surgical research. We need to avoid soundbites of results, and instead provide a balanced & educated interpretation, to help to counter the avalanche of false information to which the public is exposed.