Surgical innovation and ethical dilemmas: Precautions and proximity

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A second point that stems from Cushing’s comment about the burdens of operative work and surgical research is how personally taxing that responsibility can be. Without making progress, he said, the “ responsibilities would be insufferable 17 (my italics).

Even the great Harvey Cushing perceived the weight of these burdens, suggesting that any effort to depersonalize the ethics of surgical innovation would be naïve. The singularity of Cushing’s surgical accomplishments (his operative excellence as compared with his peer group) and the felt weight of these achievements suggest that surgical innovation is highly personal and proximate to the surgical researcher in a way that is distinct for surgical innovation. This relationship of operative causality and personal culpability can be subsumed under what I will call surgical proximity .


Surgical proximity has several implications for the conduct of research. In this section I will address two issues: conflicts of interest and clinical equipoise.

Surgical proximity and conflicts of interest

As the Cushing example illustrates, at least at the outset of a clinical trial the surgeon himself is part of the actual design of the trial. The same surgical method in the hands of one of his contemporaries would have led to a dramatically different result. The surgeon who is at the forefront of innovation becomes an experimental variable until the methods can be generalized.

The importance of the operator as an essential ingredient in early surgical research points to a key difference with pharmaceutical trials, where the purity of the drug-based intervention can be maintained. This difference has implications for the “rebuttable presumption” stance promulgated by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which looks askance at innovators conducting clinical trials if they have a conflict of interest, such as intellectual property rights for their discoveries. 19,20

In many cases, the work that surgical innovators do, as in the case of device development, could not be done without collaborations with industry. Taking the surgical talent of the potentially conflicted—but highly talented—innovator out of the equation may be counterproductive.

Time does not allow me to fully address the conflict-of-interest issue in this forum; suffice it to say that the differential knowledge, skill, and talent of early surgical innovators may be the difference between a trial’s early success or failure. The role of such innovators should neither be truncated or precluded nor be viewed a priori in a prejudicial fashion. Instead, their talents and vision should be welcomed as instrumental to the potential success of the work, managed of course with the proper degree of transparency and disclosure.

As I have noted previously, 4,21 if the rationale for a conflict of interest is to allow laudable work to continue that otherwise could not occur without the personal intervention, and talents, of a surgical innovator, it seems prejudicial to view the conflict of interest as disqualifying until proven otherwise. This view is consistent with the legal framework of the US Constitution, which explicitly authorizes Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” 22 It is also embedded in the Patent Act of 1790, 23 which balances the patent’s period of exclusivity against the inventor’s obligation to share and disseminate expertise. This role for the innovator is also consistent with the intent and incentives within the framework of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, 24 which was passed with the expectation that industrial partnerships would move ideas from the bench to the bedside.

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