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Are operations involving trainee surgeons riskier?

Surgical mistakes are far more common than they should be in Ohio and the rest of the nation. One might think that having a surgeon-in-training or a resident as part of the operation staff would increase the chances of surgical errors, but a recently-published study suggests otherwise.

The study surveyed data from more than 60,000 surgeries in the United States between 2005 and 2007. Researchers looked for the rate of surgical errors when a surgeon-in-training or a resident was involved. Surprisingly, they found that surgical errors were no more likely to occur when a trainee surgeon took part in the procedure.

The findings, which were recently published in the Annals of Surgery, reveal that just below 6 percent of patients suffered a major complication such as severe bleeding or a serious infection when a resident was involved with the surgery.

The rate of major complications ended up being the same when no residents participated in the surgery. The lead author of the study and a colorectal surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio said the results suggest that “resident participation is safe.”

However, there could be an explanation for the findings. Reuters reported that previous studies have documented that surgical patients are least likely to suffer a serious complication when there is an experienced surgeon involved in the operation. Typically, resident surgeons are put on surgical teams with more experienced surgeons.

The study also revealed that less-serious complications were slightly more likely to occur when a resident surgeon was involved with the procedure. Three-percent of patients with a trainee surgeon involved were said to suffer “superficial” infections at the surgical site, while only 2.2 percent of patients without a resident involved experienced the same.

Reuters reported that a possible explanation for this is that surgeries involving residents take slightly longer, on average, and studies show that longer surgeries carry a greater risk of infection.

Source: Reuters, “Having a trainee surgeon in operations is safe: study,” Aug. 15, 2012