When I was a resident, one of the surgery faculty who often performed big, high-risk operations liked to say, “If the patient can tolerate a haircut, he can tolerate an operation.” By this, he meant that there were not patients who were too sick for surgery if the operation was indicated. However, over the last 2 decades, I have seen a handful of patients for whom the risks of the operation far outweigh the potential benefits and for whom I have said I am not offering surgery as an option.
Recently, I had a chance to discuss troubling ethics cases with group of thoughtful surgical residents. They raised concerns over the common scenario of being consulted in the middle of the night on the critically ill patient in the intensive care unit for whom the risks of surgery are extremely high. These residents asked the question of whether it is ever acceptable for surgeons to simply refuse to take such patients to the operating room if the alternative to surgery is virtually certain death. The overriding concern among the residents was whether saying “no” to a request for operative intervention in a critically ill patient can ever be justified since the surgeon is essentially “playing God” by not offering the possibility of intervention.
There is no question that there can be very sick patients who have a poor prognosis and the decision is appropriately made to recommend surgery even though the risks are very high. I also believe that there are patients for whom the risks of surgery are so high, and the prospects for a good outcome are so low, that surgery should not be recommended. However, it is important to distinguish two different scenarios. In one scenario, the surgical consultant decides that surgery is an option, but then tries to convince the surrogate decision makers (usually the patient’s family) to decline surgery because of the very high risks. In the second scenario, the surgeon decides that the risks to the patient are so high that it would be wrong to even take the patient to the operating room.
In both scenarios, the patient does not get an operation and in the vast majority of such cases, the patient will die in a short period of time. The question remains whether it is better to give families a choice or not. I believe that posing the question in this manner is misleading and presents a false dichotomy.
Although the distinctions can be subtle, it is critical for the surgeon to decide whether each patient has a high enough chance for survival that the operation is medically justifiable. If the answer is “yes,” then the next question will be one for the surrogate decision makers to decide whether to consent to the surgery or not. Based on the importance of respecting the autonomous choices of patients or their surrogates, it is important that surgeons respect the choice not to have an operation even if one is being recommended. If the answer to the question of whether the operation is medically justifiable is “no,” to offer surgery to family and then try to convince them to decline it by overstating the risks is misleading. Although such a strategy would give the family a sense of control over the situation, it would also give the false impression that surgery is truly an option. To act this way would allow the surgeon the ability to avoid “playing God” since the family is “making the decision”. However, I believe that taking that decision away from families when there is not really a reasonable choice for surgery is a better way to eliminate their potential guilt. Not only is it ethically acceptable to decline to offer an operation to an extremely high-risk patient, I would argue that such behavior is actually the ethical responsibility of the surgeon. We should take on the burden of saying “no” when surgery should NOT be performed. Forcing such a decision on families in the name of respecting autonomy is to shirk our responsibility and something that we must avoid doing whenever possible.
Dr. Angelos is an ACS Fellow; 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.