The Right Choice? Paternalism, Autonomy, and the Incidental Finding



The case had been straightforward. My patient had primary hyperparathyroidism and her localization studies had shown a single parathyroid adenoma. In the operating room, with her under general anesthesia, I had found and removed the abnormal parathyroid gland. The intraoperative parathyroid hormone levels were being run outside the OR door. I was getting ready to close with my fellow when I happened to palpate the thyroid isthmus. There was a firm nodule right in the center of the isthmus. The thyroid looked fine, but the nodule was unmistakable.

This was a surprise. The patient had undergone an ultrasound in radiology the week before, and the study was notable for there being no thyroid nodules. We had performed our own ultrasound in the OR. We had confirmed the location of the parathyroid adenoma and saw no thyroid nodules. I was faced with the initial question of what to do with this incidental finding. Although I could not see the nodule, certainly by feel, it was suspicious, but it was also very small – several millimeters at most. One option was to simply ignore the finding – certainly a bad choice. I knew that the patient had come to the hospital with her sister and a close friend. They were both in the waiting room expecting my update as soon as we were finished. I could have discussed this unexpected finding with the sister and friend, but I felt certain that no one would object to me removing a small piece of thyroid when this added little or no risk. It seemed unnecessary to seek permission to do this small additional procedure.

We proceeded to resect the nodule within the thyroid gland, taking enough adjacent thyroid tissue that I never actually saw the nodule. Once it was removed, I faced another question: Should I send it for frozen section? This seemed to be an easy one to answer. If I was suspicious enough to remove it, I should also know what it is.

The frozen section report was called in a short time later. It was a 4-mm papillary thyroid cancer (PTC) that was within normal thyroid tissue. I had been expecting this possible result. Now I had more choices. I could talk with the family/friend in the waiting room and seek advice on what to do. Alternatively, I could simply say that the presence of PTC was enough of a reason to just take out the thyroid gland since I had not expected this finding and the negative preoperative ultrasound had certainly missed this small tumor (and there might even be others). Finally, I could simply close the patient based on the fact that a 4-mm PTC is of no real clinical significance. Certainly, if this small PTC had been removed with a thyroid lobe for other reasons, we would never go back to take out the rest of the thyroid gland.

As I considered these options, it seemed clear to me that if I went to talk with the family/friend with an unexpected diagnosis of cancer, it was very likely that the patient would wind up with a bigger operation than might be necessary. Ten or fifteen years ago, most surgeons would have removed the thyroid gland for almost any diagnosis of PTC so that patients could go on to receive radioactive iodine. However, today many patients with small incidental PTCs found on lobectomy are simply followed with surveillance ultrasounds because the risks of recurrence or spread are very low. It was clear that I had no basis to take out the whole thyroid gland for a small PTC that was already out. It also seemed unwise to ask what to do, when I felt certain that I knew what was best for the patient. Of course, the suggestion that “I knew what was best for the patient” is a very paternalistic thing to say. It suggests that the medical issues trump all others. It is also quite contrary to the movement of medical ethics in the last several decades that has emphasized shared decision making yet doing what is best for the patient is what surgical patients expect of their surgeons.

I decided to close the patient and then explain what I did and why I did it. She might have been angry with me that I had found a cancer and had not taken out her thyroid gland. However, I felt that the medical evidence supported a less-aggressive surgical approach. In addition, I could always take out her thyroid if she was too worried by the concept of surveillance but I could never put it back if I had removed it!

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