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Association Between Surgeon Technical Skills and Patient Outcomes

Educational Objective
To examine the variation in technical skills of practicing surgeons, the association between skills and patient outcomes, and the amount of variation in patient outcomes explained by technical skills.
1 Credit CME
Key Points

Question  Is the technical skill of a surgeon associated with patient outcomes?

Findings  In this quality improvement study including 17 practicing surgeons and outcome data from the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program as a reference group, better technical skill scores, assessed via intraoperative video, were statistically significantly associated with lower rates of any complication, unplanned reoperation, and death or serious morbidity. Overall, technical skill scores were associated with approximately 26% of the variation in risk-adjusted complication rates.

Meaning  Quality improvement efforts aimed at improving patient outcomes should include a focus on improving surgeon-level technical skill.

Abstract

Importance  Postoperative complications remain common after surgery, but little is known about the extent of variation in operative technical skill and whether variation is associated with patient outcomes.

Objectives  To examine the (1) variation in technical skill scores of practicing surgeons, (2) association between technical skills and patient outcomes, and (3) amount of variation in patient outcomes explained by a surgeon’s technical skill.

Design, Setting, and Participants  In this quality improvement study, 17 practicing surgeons submitted a video of a laparoscopic right hemicolectomy that was then rated by at least 10 blinded peer surgeons and 2 expert raters. The association between surgeon technical skill scores and risk-adjusted outcomes was examined using data from the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program. The association between technical skill scores and outcomes was examined for colorectal procedures and noncolorectal procedures (ie, assessed on whether technical skills demonstrated during colectomy were associated with patient outcomes across other cases). In addition, the proportion of patient outcomes explained by technical skill scores was examined using robust regression techniques. The study was conducted from September 23, 2016, to February 10, 2018; data analysis was performed from November 2018 to January 2019.

Exposures  Colorectal and noncolorectal procedures.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Any complication, mortality, unplanned hospital readmission, unplanned reoperation related to principal procedure, surgical site infection, and death or serious morbidity.

Results  Of the 17 surgeons included in the study, 13 were men (76%). The participants had a range from 1 to 28 years in surgical practice (median, 11 years). Based on 10 or more reviewers per video and with a maximum quality score of 5, overall technical skill scores ranged from 2.8 to 4.6. From 2014 to 2016, study participants performed a total of 3063 procedures (1120 colectomies). Higher technical skill scores were significantly associated with lower rates of any complication (15.5% vs 20.6%, P = .03; Spearman rank-order correlation coefficient r = −0.54, P = .03), unplanned reoperation (4.7% vs 7.2%, P = .02; r = −0.60, P = .01), and a composite measure of death or serious morbidity (15.9% vs 21.4%, P = .02; r = −0.60, P = .01) following colectomy. Similar associations were found between colectomy technical skill scores and patient outcomes for all types of procedures performed by a surgeon. Overall, technical skill scores appeared to account for 25.8% of the variation in postcolectomy complication rates and 27.5% of the variation when including noncolectomy complication rates.

Conclusions and Relevance  The findings of this study suggest that there is wide variation in technical skill among practicing surgeons, accounting for more than 25% of the variation in patient outcomes. Higher colectomy technical skill scores appear to be associated with lower complication rates for colectomy and for all other procedures performed by a surgeon. Efforts to improve surgeon technical skills may result in better patient outcomes.

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CME Disclosure Statement: Unless noted, all individuals in control of content reported no relevant financial relationships. If applicable, all relevant financial relationships have been mitigated.

Article Information

Accepted for Publication: April 28, 2020.

Published Online: August 19, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2020.3007

Corrections: This article was corrected on October 21, 2020, to fix an error in the author byline and on May 12, 2021, to fix an error in the Methods and Table 2.

Corresponding Author: Jonah J. Stulberg, MD, PhD, MPH, Surgical Outcomes and Quality Improvement Center, Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Surgery, Northwestern University, 633 N St Clair St, 20th Floor, Chicago, IL 60610 (jonah.stulberg@northwestern.edu).

Author Contributions: Dr Stulberg had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: Stulberg, Kreutzer, Ban, Champagne, Holl, Greenberg, Bilimoria.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: Stulberg, Huang, Ban, Steele, Johnson, Holl, Greenberg, Bilimoria.

Drafting of the manuscript: Stulberg, Huang, Kreutzer, Holl, Bilimoria.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.

Statistical analysis: Stulberg, Huang, Bilimoria.

Obtained funding: Bilimoria.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Stulberg, Kreutzer, Ban, Champagne.

Supervision: Stulberg, Champagne, Steele, Bilimoria.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Stulberg reported paid consultant services for Intuitive Surgical and receiving an Intuitive Foundation grant for unrelated work. Dr Greenberg reported receiving nonfinancial support from Johnson & Johnson outside the submitted work and is president and founder of the Academy for Surgical Coaching. No other disclosures were reported.

Meeting Presentation: This work was presented in part at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress; October 22, 2018; Boston, Massachusetts.

Additional Contributions: We thank the members of the Video-Based Coaching Collaborative for their efforts throughout this project. We also acknowledge the work of the Wisconsin Coaching Collaborative from the University of Wisconsin (Janet Dombrowski, MHSA, Caprice C. Greenberg, MD, MPH, and Sudha R. Pavuluri Quamme, MD, MS), who worked with us throughout this project on efforts to improve surgical care through coaching; they were paid as consultants to conduct the coach training.

Additional Information: Information about the Illinois Surgical Quality Improvement Collaborative can be found at http://www.ISQIC.org.

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