It started as an offhand comment. The patient had been on the medicine service for over a week before developing acute appendicitis with an abscess requiring an emergency open appendectomy. He was a 68-year-old man who had longstanding medical issues that had given him many opportunities to interact with physicians in the prior few years.
On the second morning after surgery, a new team of surgical residents was rounding on him. The chief resident led the group of residents and students into the patient’s room and introduced himself as being part of the surgical team. The patient smiled and stated that he knew this was a group of surgeons. When asked why, the patient reported that he could always tell when surgeons enter the room. “You enter with an air of bravado and arrogance that the medical doctors do not exude.” The surgical residents commented on this fact to me later when I rounded on the patient, and it prompted discussion of the potential positives and negatives of confidence in surgical practice.
Most successful surgeons express a level of confidence in their abilities which often exceeds that of many other physicians. Such observations have led to the joke that “surgeons are often wrong, but never in doubt.” The question is whether the expression of confidence in one’s abilities as a surgeon is a requirement of a surgeon or simply a common characteristic for many people who choose to go into the field of surgery.
There is no doubt in my mind that in order to be willing to put a patient through an operation, surgeons must be confident in their skills. Surgery never achieves its benefit for patients without first causing the patient some harm. Any operation requires that the surgeon impose a violent act on the patient that, in any other context, would be illegal. To do such things to patients, surgeons must have a high degree of confidence.
Patients also appreciate a confident surgeon. Over the years, I have known many technically excellent surgeons who have never been as busy as they might have because of their inability to express confidence to their patients. The opposite, however, is also true. There are surgeons who become so overconfident in their abilities that they become reckless in recommending high-risk operations to patients.
Given that patients expect their surgeons to be confident and surgeons actually need to be confident to be successful, it might be surprising that the important attribute of self-confidence does not more frequently spill over into overbearing arrogance. Perhaps the most important temporizing of surgeon overconfidence is the unfortunate inevitable consequence of surgery that complications happen to even the best surgeons. We all know that the central question of the M & M conference is, “What could you have done differently?” Whether this question is answered publicly or only in the mind of the surgeon, the contemplation of the decisions made, and their consequences, is essential for each surgeon to consider in the face of every complication.
Much as the public should want surgeons to be confident, but not too confident, they should also want their surgeons to take complications seriously, but not too seriously. It is helpful for a surgeon to think about making a different choice in the future. But it would not be helpful if, in the face of a bad outcome, a surgeon decides that he or she can no longer perform surgery.
This balance between lack of confidence and overconfidence, and between thoughtful introspection and paralyzing fear of future complications, is challenging to teach to surgical residents and fellows. Part of the challenge is that often surgical faculty do not verbalize the challenges that we face in this realm. The perfect combination of confidence and humility is something that few of us have identified in our own lives, let alone are prepared to teach authoritatively to others. Nevertheless, teaching the next generation of surgeons to recognize the tension between confidence and humility is worthwhile. And like their elders, they may well discover that achieving the right balance is a lifelong pursuit.
Dr. Angelos is the Linda Kohler Anderson Professor of Surgery and Surgical Ethics; chief, endocrine surgery; and associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.