CORONADO, CALIF. – About half of patients decide to undergo head and neck surgery even before meeting their surgeon, and concerns about cost of the procedure weigh heavily on their minds, results from a pilot study demonstrated.
In an effort to determine which factors influence patient decision making about elective surgery in otolaryngology, lead study author Dr. Maya G. Sardesai and her associates surveyed 48 consecutive adults who underwent head and neck surgery performed by one of six surgeons at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, between March and September 2014.
The effort “rose from an observation in her clinical practice that, despite similar degrees of disease burden and similar counseling, patients sometimes show widely divergent degrees of enthusiasm for elective procedures,” Dr. Sardesai of the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the medical center said at the Triological Society’s Combined Sections Meeting. “This prompted the question: What information influences decision making in this setting?”
Current guidelines emphasize discussing the risks and benefits of surgery in the informed consent process, she continued, “but some studies of decision making in this setting have suggested that other factors might also influence decisions, such as family advice, social perception, and cost. There’s limited data in the otolaryngology literature about this, even though there’s a preponderance of quality-of-life surgery with low but potentially significant risks.”
With input from patients and surgeons, the researchers created a 35-question survey and administered it in the surgeon’s office, with questions that centered around the timing of the procedure, advice of others, sources of information, and their approach to decision making. More than half of patients (56%) were undergoing tonsillectomy, followed by a nasal procedure (48%), palate procedure (44%), midline glossectomy (35%), hyoid suspension (4%), genioglossus advancement (4%), laryngeal procedure (2%), and other (6%). (The numbers exceeded 100% because some patients underwent more than one procedure.)
Nearly half of subjects (49%) reported making their decision to pursue surgery even before their surgical consultation or meeting their surgeon. The researchers then divided the cohort into patients who had decided to pursue surgery before or after meeting their surgeon. Among those who made the decision before meeting the surgeon, 64% rated information they received from their primary care provider as very important, while 100% rated information they received from the surgeon as very important. These percentages were similar among patients who made the decision after meeting the surgeon (43% and 96%, respectively).
Patients who made their decision to pursue surgery after meeting their surgeon also were more likely to weigh information received from the Internet as more important, compared with patients who made their decision before meeting their surgeon (38% vs. 20%). “This difference was not statistically significant,” Dr. Sardesai said at the meeting, which was jointly sponsored by the Triological Society and the American College of Surgeons. “All patients felt that Internet information seemed important.”
Patients in both groups weighed concerns about symptoms as very important (in the range of 83%), which rated “highly if not more than concerns about the risks with or without surgery (70%).” Finally, she and her associates found that 49% of patients in both groups considered the cost of medical bills as very important, “which is an interesting finding, because our current consent process doesn’t include much discussion about monetary costs of treatment.”
Overall, the findings suggest that otolaryngologists and head and neck surgeons should reach out to referring providers “to ensure that they are well informed about the indications, benefits, limitation, and risks of head and neck surgeries,” Dr. Sardesai concluded. “This may also enhance opportunities for shared and collaborative decision making. If decisions are being made prior to consultation, it begs the question about whether there are potential surgery candidates who defer surgical consultation altogether, and thus may be missing opportunities for better care. As otolaryngologists, we should also take an active role in providing and curating information from the Internet, since this is currently likely an increasingly important source of information for patients.”
She acknowledged certain limitations of the study, including its small sample size and the potential for recall bias. In addition, the survey “was administered in a surgeon’s office, which might bias patients to overemphasize the role of the surgeon,” she said. “Our future plans are to administer an enhanced version of the survey to broader [practice settings] to better understand these differences.”