The Operation—Intraoperative Responsibility of the Primary Surgeon
The primary attending surgeon is personally responsible for the patient’s welfare throughout the operation. In general, the patient’s primary attending surgeon should be in the operating suite or should be immediately available for the entire surgical procedure. There are instances consistent with good patient care that are valid exceptions. However, when the primary attending surgeon is not present or immediately available, another attending surgeon should be assigned to be “immediately available.”
The definitions at the end of this Statement provide essential clarification.
Concurrent or Simultaneous Operations
Concurrent or simultaneous operations occur when the critical or key components of the procedures for which the primary attending surgeon is responsible are occurring all or in part at the same time. The critical or key components of an operation are determined by the primary attending surgeon. A primary attending surgeon’s involvement in concurrent or simultaneous surgeries on two different patients in two different rooms is inappropriate.
Overlap of two distinct operations by the primary attending surgeon occurs in two general circumstances.
The first and most common scenario is when the key or critical elements of the first operation have been completed, and there is no reasonable expectation that the primary attending surgeon will need to return to that operation. In this circumstance, a second operation is started in another operating room while a qualified practitioner performs noncritical components of the first operation—for example, wound closure—allowing the primary surgeon to initiate the second operation. In this situation, a qualified practitioner must be physically present in the operating room of the first operation.
The second and less common scenario is when the key or critical elements of the first operation have been completed and the primary attending surgeon is performing key or critical portions of a second operation in another room. In this scenario, the primary attending surgeon must assign immediate availability in the first operating room to another attending surgeon.
The patient needs to be informed in either of these circumstances. The performance of overlapping procedures should not negatively affect the seamless and timely flow of either procedure.
Contemporary surgical care often involves a multidisciplinary team of surgeons. During such operations, it is appropriate for surgeons to be present only during the part of the operation that requires their surgical expertise. However, an attending surgeon must be immediately available for the entire operation.
Delegation to Qualified Practitioners
The surgeon may delegate part of the operation to qualified practitioners including but not limited to residents, fellows, anesthesiologists, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, surgical assistants, or another attending under his or her personal direction. However, the primary attending surgeon’s personal responsibility cannot be delegated. The surgeon must be an active participant throughout the key or critical components of the operation. The overriding goal is the assurance of patient safety.
A primary attending surgeon may have to leave the operating room for a procedure-related task, such as review of pertinent pathology (“frozen section”) and diagnostic imaging, discussion with the patient’s family, and breaks during long procedures. The surgeon must be immediately available for recall during such absences.
Unanticipated circumstances may arise during procedures that require the surgeon to leave the operating room before completion of the critical portion of the operation. In this situation, a backup attending surgeon must be identified and available to come to the operating room promptly.
Circumstances in this category might include sudden illness or injury to the surgeon, a life-threatening emergency elsewhere in the operating suite or contiguous hospital building, or an emergency in the surgeon’s family.
If more than one emergency occurs simultaneously, the attending surgeon may oversee more than one operation until additional attending surgeons are available.
The surgical team involved in an operation is dependent on the type of facility where the operation is performed and on the complexity of the surgical procedure. At a freestanding outpatient surgery center, many procedures are performed solely by the primary attending surgeon with no assistant. In contrast, a complex procedure at an academic medical center may involve multiple qualified medical providers in addition to the primary attending surgeon. As part of the preoperative discussion, patients should be informed of the different types of qualified health care professionals who will participate in their operation (assistant attending surgeon, fellows, residents and interns, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and so forth) and their respective role should be explained. If an urgent or emergent situation arises that requires the surgeon to leave the operating room unexpectedly, the patient should be informed subsequently.
In an effort to provide some standardization of nomenclature, the following definitions are provided:
Backup surgeon/surgical attending
The qualified surgical attending who has been designated to provide immediately available coverage for an operation, during a period when the primary surgeon might be unable to fill this role.
Concurrent or simultaneous operations
Surgical procedures when the critical or key components of the procedures for which the primary attending surgeon is responsible are occurring all or in part at the same time.
“Critical” or “key” portions of an operation
The “critical” or “key” portions of an operation are those stages when essential technical expertise and surgical judgment are necessary to achieve an optimal patient outcome. The critical or key portions of an operation are determined by the primary attending surgeon.
Reachable through a paging system or other electronic means, and able to return immediately to the operating room. This term should be defined more completely by the local institution.
Described in American College of Surgeons Statements on Principles.
An example of a multidisciplinary operation is a procedure in which a surgeon of one specialty provides the exposure required by a second surgeon who performs the main surgical intervention (such as a general or thoracic surgeon providing exposure for a neurosurgeon or orthopaedist to operate on the spine). Another example would be an operation that requires the involvement of two or more surgeons of different specialties (such as chest wall or head and neck resection followed by plastic surgical reconstruction, face or hand transplantation, and repair of complex craniofacial defects).
“Overlapping or sequenced” operations for surgeons
The practice of the primary surgeon initiating and participating in another operation when he or she has completed the critical portions of the first procedure and is no longer an essential participant in the final phase of the first operation. These are by definition surgical procedures where key or critical portions of the procedure are occurring at different times.
Located in the same room as the patient.
Primary attending surgeon
Considered the surgical attending of record or the principal surgeon involved in a specific operation. In addition to his or her technical and clinical responsibilities, the primary surgeon is responsible for the orchestration and progress of a procedure.
Any licensed practitioner with sufficient training to conduct a delegated portion of a procedure without the need for more experienced supervision and who is approved by the hospital for these operative or patient care responsibilities.
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