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Surgical innovation and ethical dilemmas: Precautions and proximity

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I hope that others at this conference will be able to return to the issue of conflicts of interest and how the question of surgical proximity may, or may not, alter our ethical judgments about the surgeon’s role in research where there may be a conflict of interest.

Surgical proximity and equipoise

Surgical proximity also has an impact on clinical equipoise, the ethical neutrality about outcomes felt necessary for the conduct of clinical trials. 25 The surgeon’s sense of causality and proximity to the operative act makes surgical research different because the equipoise, which exists objectively about the research questions at hand, may not exist in the mind of the surgical researcher. Let me explain.

Taking a patient to surgery is highly consequential. As we have seen from Bosk’s work, 16 surgeons feel a sense of responsibility for their operative acts and surgical work. This felt responsibility, inculcated in surgical training and surgical culture, obligates the surgeon to make a proportionality judgment about bringing a patient to the operating room, be it for research or for clinical practice. In this way, surgical investigators have determined, at least in their own minds, that net benefits outweigh net risks, thus breaching clinical equipoise.

It is hard for a surgeon to commit to an operative procedure—be it for clinical care or for research— with all its attendant risks if he or she does not believe that the intervention is safe and effective. We can appreciate the importance of the surgeon’s perspective on the utility of any proposed operation if we consider the opposing question of futility in clinical practice. 26 Whereas internists or intensivists might be compelled by families to continue aggressive intensive care, surgeons cannot be compelled to take a patient to the operating room when they deem that the risks outweigh the benefits. Because the surgeon is such a proximate moral agent, he or she will be held culpable for the actions that occur in theater. This degree of responsibility is accompanied by a retained degree of discretion—an almost old-world paternalistic discretion 27—to counter the demands for disproportionate care.

This same sense of culpability and responsibility informs the surgeon’s willingness to take any patient to the operating room. In the case of research, this willingness becomes an issue of concern because it means that in the surgeon’s mind, favorable operative proportionality has been achieved.

This process of self-regulation 28 can have implications for the informed-consent process because surgeons believe in their work and can exert a strong dynamic transference on subjects who may be desperate for cure. 29 Because of this potential bias, surgical research may become especially prone to a therapeutic misconception. That is, if the surgeon is willing to take the risks of doing an innovative procedure in the operating room, then it has crossed some sort of internal threshold of proportionality in which the risks, whatever they are, have become acceptable given the putative benefits. Given what Bosk has written about surgical failure, 16 a high bar is crossed when a surgeon takes a patient to the operating room for a novel procedure, even though motivations at that bar may occasionally be mixed.* (*Lest I be misconstrued as too idealistic, this burdens-vs-benefits equation may be fueled by a complex mosaic of motivations and may not always be informed fully by patient-centered benefits. If the surgeon is the innovator and the inventor, these benefits may be for the pursuit of a hypothesis and associated with potential fame or fortune. But even in these cases, judgments about proportionality are informed by surgical proximity. [For more on the ethics of conflicts of interest, see references 4 and 21.])

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