Surgical innovation and ethical dilemmas: Precautions and proximity

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Despite Eliot’s invocation of “a patient etherised upon a table,” 13 the poem shares little with the surgical life. It has much more in common with the precautionary principle. Like Prufrock, the precautionary principle favors what is known— the status quo—as what is unknown is invariably more risky than the familiar. Needless to say, this is antithetical to innovation because discovery invariably requires scenarios that involve novelty and unknown risks. When faced with the certain security of stasis or the potential dangers of innovation, the precautionary principle will invariably choose stasis, leading us, as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein notes, “in no direction at all.” 14

Seen through the prism of the precautionary principle, then, surgical innovation invariably presents a dilemma. Discovery and innovation are fundamentally at odds with the precautionary principle, because of their potential for risk. 15

The challenge posed by the precautionary principle—which, to be fair, is seen in all areas of clinical research—becomes even more pronounced in surgical research because of the size and scope of clinical trials. As is well appreciated here, compared with drug trials, surgical trials are small. Sometimes they can involve a single subject, whereas drug trials may include thousands of participants. Because of drug trials’ large volume of subjects, therapeutic effects can be small to justify ongoing research. In a surgical trial or a device trial, the number of subjects is smaller, so the therapeutic impact has to be larger to warrant further development and ongoing study. This burden of scale increases the probability of reciprocally large adverse effects. This potential for disaster magnifies the impact of the precautionary principle and may lead to a distortion in ethical judgment along the lines of Hans Jonas’ admonition. 12

By all of this I am not suggesting that we abandon precautions and prudence. Instead, my point is to explicate the additional challenges faced by surgical research and the sway of the precautionary principle over this area of inquiry and innovation. By being explicit about the impact of this principle, we can be cognizant of its potential to distort judgments about risks and benefits. Only then can we hope to balance the pursuit of progress with that of safety.


These distortions also need to be recognized, and made explicit, because surgical research, more so than pharmacologic research, is much more personal and intimate. This point becomes clear if we consider a surgical trial that does not succeed.

In the surgical arena, such failures are taken to heart and personalized. Unlike trials that involve drugs, surgical research is more proximate. It is not just the failure of a drug or of pharmacology; it is also possibly the failure of the operator, the surgeon who did not achieve the desired goal because of poor execution of surgical technique.

This crucial difference in medical versus surgical cultures is captured by Charles Bosk in his magisterial sociological study of surgery, Forgive and Remember: Managing Medical Failure . In a discussion of morbidity and mortality rounds, Bosk writes:

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