Surgical residency programs have not kept up with radical changes in the practice of surgery over the past two decades, but innovations ranging from curriculum reform to increasing the length of residency could help to improve the overall performance of recent surgical residency graduates, according to an analysis in Annals of Surgery.
"The changes that have occurred have been disruptive to residency training, and to date there has been minimal compensation for these," Dr. Frank Lewis and Dr. Mary Klingensmith wrote. "Evidence is now emerging of significant issues in the overall performance of recent graduates from at least three sources – the evaluation of external agents who incorporate these graduates into their practice or group, the opinions of the residents themselves, and the performance of graduates on the oral examination of the American Board of Surgery during the last 8 years" (Ann. Surg. 2012;256:553-59).
The changes include not only the 80-hour workweek for surgical residents, but also clinical areas, according to Dr. Lewis, executive director of the American Board of Surgery, and Dr. Klingensmith, residency program director at Washington University in St. Louis.
The effect of the 80-hour workweek has been a reduction by 6 months to a year of in-hospital experience during 5 years of residency. Most of that reduced time corresponds to night and weekend experience, when residents would be more likely to see urgent and emergent conditions, and to have a greater degree of independent functioning, autonomy, and indirect supervision, they said.
The most significant clinical change has been the development of laparoscopic surgery for intra-abdominal surgical management, which is replacing open surgery and the abdominal incision. Because surgeons in academic settings have been slower to adopt laparoscopy, resident training in the use of this technology has proceeded slowly, they explained.
"While the Residency Review Committee (RRC) for Surgery has been steadily increasing the requirements for surgical resident training, it is still the rule that the most complex laparoscopic surgery is reserved for fellows in postresidency fellowships and not for residents during surgical training, although there is no reason this should be the case," they noted.
In addition, operations performed by general surgeons, and the way in which they are done, have changed significantly in the past 20 years, according to the analysis. For example, the advent of better medical management for benign peptic ulcer disease – along with flexible endoscopy and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography – means that fewer surgical interventions for peptic ulcer complications and biliary tree stone disease are necessary.
Furthermore, technological innovations have allowed vascular surgeons, rather than general surgeons, to perform most abdominal vascular surgery. Finally, the two surgeons reported, abdominal trauma injuries – which require surgical intervention in 80%-90% of cases – have declined dramatically since 1992.
These types of changes "will undoubtedly continue, and the directions in which surgery will evolve in the future are not predictable," Dr. Lewis and Dr. Klingensmith wrote.
They laid out seven potential ways in which surgical residency programs can address the changes:
• There should be a continuous process to define and continually update the surgical residency curriculum, which needs to keep pace with the fast-changing surgical practice landscape, and to "prune" information related to diseases that no longer are seen frequently in practice.
"The starting point for making changes in residency is to recognize that much of what is being taught is obsolete, and addresses diseases that are no longer a significant problem, or those for which surgical treatment is rarely needed," they said.
• Residency programs should improve the efficacy of resident learning by reducing clerical functions for residents, using physician extenders where appropriate, and utilizing mobile computing technology to deliver "a more defined and comprehensive curriculum to residents at an individual level."
• Educators could make better use of simulators in certain areas, such as laparoscopic surgery and endoscopic surgery.
• There should be an earlier specialty focus in residency training for those surgical residents who already know which specialty they would like to pursue.
• Surgical residency should include expanded laparoscopic surgery training.
• Residency programs could increase in length to make up for the time lost to the 80-hour workweek rule. Four-fifths of surgical residents already elect to take a postresidency fellowship in a specialty or subspecialty area, so "any discussion of extending residency only applies to the 20% of residents who currently complete only general surgical residency and do not seek subspecialty training," they said. "Extending residency by 1 year to obtain more extensive training in general surgery per se would not seem to be an insurmountable issue if the benefits clearly warranted it."