The more we think we know, the less we actually may know. As new techniques develop and their use is closely examined and reported, details about the patient’s disease and the surgeon’s skill and judgment turn out to matter more and more in the decision-making process. So it is with acute cholecystitis.
I have recently been puzzled and intrigued by changing trends in the management of acute cholecystitis that are apparent in the medical literature, discussions in the ACS Communities, and practice in my local community.
When I was a resident, the debate about early cholecystectomy vs antibiotics with interval operation 6 weeks later was just being settled in the literature in favor of early cholecystectomy. The weight of evidence in the surgical literature found that delay made the eventual operation more difficult and costly.
In the following 2 decades, early cholecystectomy became the indicated treatment for acute cholecystitis. In that era, of course, these operations were open, as that was our only option and one which we all learned to perform with confidence during residency. Tube cholecystostomy was a rarity reserved only for the most severely ill and feeble, and done by surgeons, since interventional radiologists had not yet appeared on the scene.
In the rare instance of acute cholecystitis so severe, and anatomic landmarks so obscured, that the gallbladder could not be safely dissected away from the common bile duct, a remnant of the gallbladder might be left behind, the mucosa cauterized, and the right upper quadrant drained.
Fast forward 40 years, and we find a distinctly different landscape. As the Boomer generation reaches geriatric age in expanding numbers, surgeons encounter an increasingly older patient population, often with numerous comorbidities and high surgical risk. Our increased critical care capability to rescue patients from sepsis and organ failure also introduces new challenges in decision-making about whether immediate cholecystectomy or a temporizing option is better for the elderly septic ICU patient before us.
At the same time, our overwhelmingly most common elective biliary procedure has become a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (LC), with which our younger surgeons have become comfortable and facile. Multiple randomized studies also confirm the superiority of early LC for acute cholecystitis, although LC is associated with a higher rate of conversion to open cholecystectomy in acute cholecystitis than in the elective setting. Since it is acknowledged that the mortality and morbidity of an open cholecystectomy is greater than that of its laparoscopic counterpart, especially in the setting of severe inflammation, and the younger surgeons are less confident in performing open cholecystectomy, it is not surprising that they embrace a strategy that allows them to avoid surgical management of acute cholecystitis in the high-risk patient with severe disease.
The ready availability of interventional radiologists in the past 30 years also offers a less invasive option than surgery – the percutaneous tube cholecystostomy (PC). It is no wonder that PC has increasingly become the “go-to” early option when the patient is old and sick or the surgeon lacks confidence in his/her open surgical skills in a potentially hostile, inflamed right upper quadrant. If the increasing number of articles on PC appearing in the literature is any indication, its use has proliferated in the recent past. As yet, no randomized clinical trials or other high-quality evidence have emerged to support its increased use, but a consensus panel of experts has issued the Tokyo Guidelines, recommending PC as primary therapy for stage III acute cholecystitis, the form of disease associated with organ failure, but not citing evidence to support this recommendation (). Although the rate of PC use in Medicare patients with stage III acute cholecystitis has more than doubled in the past 20 years, Tokyo Guidelines have clearly not been uniformly adopted in the U.S., since PC use in patients with stage III acute cholecystitis is only 10% ( .
Whether the increase in PC use is appropriate or not remains undetermined. Other uncertainties about PC need clarification. When patients have a PC placed for acute cholecystitis, do they always need their gallbladders removed later? The rate of recurrent acute cholecystitis after PC is variable in the literature, although it appears to be more likely in patients with acute calculous than acalculous cholecystitis. The likelihood that the patient will later undergo a cholecystectomy varies from a low of 3% to a high of 57% in various studies.(; ).
The exact rate may not even accurately be known, since some patients may be lost to follow-up or get subsequent care in another facility. The decision to perform cholecystectomy after PC involves assessment of patient risk for surgery and, ultimately, surgeon judgment. Other questions also remain unanswered: What is the role of surgeon experience in the decision to defer surgical therapy for acute cholecystitis? Is the surgeon even the one who is in charge of the decision in all cases, or is that decision being made by an internist, intensivist, or hospitalist, who may judge the patient’s risk differently than a surgeon would? Are we witnessing an evolution in management of severe cholecystitis in the high-risk, septic and elderly patient towards antibiotics and PC unless the patient fails that treatment? This strategy appears to be gaining in popularity, since several studies have shown that the minority of patients who have PC end up having their gallbladders removed. If symptoms recur and nonoperative treatment has clearly failed, should the decision be made to refer to a highly experienced surgeon (by virtue of laparoscopic skills or reputation as a hepatic-pancreatic biliary specialist)? Recent studies show that 46%-86% of elective interval cholecystectomies after successful PC can be performed laparoscopically with low complication rates, although those studies came from institutions with notable laparoscopic expertise (; ).
One of my most revered senior surgical mentors recently opined that the safest strategy for the high-risk patient with severe acute cholecystitis was indeed PC and antibiotics followed by watchful waiting, and reserving cholecystectomy only for those who fail nonoperative therapy. I initially bristled at that concept as being antithetic to the surgical bias in favor of cholecystectomy as the answer to all gallbladder evils. But after reflecting further on the changing landscape of our therapeutic options and our changing surgical training, I’m thinking that his strategy may be reasonable.
After all, it’s about choosing the safest path for the patient. All cholecystectomies are not routine.
Dr. Deveney is professor of surgery and vice chair of education in the department of surgery, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. She is the coeditor of ACS Surgery News.