Surgical innovation and ethical dilemmas: Precautions and proximity

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No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…

—T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Let me start by thanking the organizers for their invitation to be here and to start this off. I am not sure if that invitation was an act of kindness or of throwing a fellow bioethicist to the lions, as we will be addressing a complicated set of issues upon which well-intentioned folks disagree and sometimes disagree with a passion.

What I would like to do is to lay out some of the inherent ethical problems related to surgical innovation. I will argue that some of these problems are unique to surgery and that others relate to how we have chosen to define categories like research and practice. Other problems involve how we view the proportionality of risks and benefits in surgical research. I will argue that we have falsely analogized surgical progress to progress made in other areas of biomedical research and misunderstood the highly personal, or proximate, nature of surgical inquiry. Without appreciating the import of what I will call “surgical proximity,” we will be unable to adequately address ethical issues in surgical innovation.


So let me begin with the title of our session, “Surgical Innovation and Ethical Dilemmas,” and why this juxta position is counterproductive. A colleague long ago taught me to distinguish problems from dilemmas—the former being resolvable, the latter intractable, often involving a choice between two equally unfavorable choices.

Although I may be making too much of the semantics, I do think the title betrays a presumption that surgical innovation invariably forces adversarial choices. It tends to dichotomize ethical reflection, pitting those who favor prudence against those who endorse progress, or it creates too stark a difference between ethical issues in surgical practice and those encountered in the conduct of surgical research.

Even therapeutic, validated surgery in many ways has the potential to become innovative, if not outright experimental. Patients may have anatomical differences that require surgical improvisation, or complications may arise during “routine” surgery, creating the need for an imaginative response. 1 At what point do these departures from expected care become novel interventions, innovative or even experimental? A routine case with an unexpected turn can even become a case report opening up a new field of endeavor.

For instance, the field of stereotactic functional neurosurgery was born out of a “routine” case of ablative surgery for Parkinson’s disease in the 1980s, when the French neurosurgeon Alim Benabid was using electrodes to determine which areas of the brain should be destroyed. As he was mapping the thalamus, he noted that the tremor of his patient abated. This led him to wonder if one could treat drug-resistant Parkinson’s with electrical stimulation instead of destructive lesioning. 2 Benabid’s translational insight during an ordinary case led to the development of the rather extraordinary field of stereotactic functional neurosurgery and neuromodulation. 3,4


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