Gynecologic Oncology Consult

Surgery in an aging population, part 2



Because of the increased risks associated with surgery in an elderly population, a thorough preoperative assessment should include identification of medical problems and important risk factors for increased perioperative morbidity and mortality, a thorough evaluation of the patient’s activities of daily living, and a mini–mental status exam (Primary Care 1989;16:361-76).

Dr. Kari Hacker

The severity of a patient’s illness is a better predictor of perioperative morbidity than age, and therefore age alone should not determine whether gynecologists operate (Clin. Podiatr. Med. Surg. 2003;20:607-26). In elderly patients, we should consider preoperative consultation with the patient’s primary care physician, subspecialists, geriatricians, physical and occupational therapists, and anesthesiologist to evaluate comorbidities and optimize preoperative status. Posthospitalization discharge planning also should start preoperatively if there is a concern that a patient may not be able to be discharged home.

Gynecologists also should consider the indications for surgery and a patient’s life expectancy. Prior to surgery, surgeons should believe that each patient has an expected life span such that they will benefit from the surgery. We should perform the most appropriate and least aggressive surgery and take into consideration the duration of the procedure. Surgeons also should consider functional outcomes, including quality of life, and the goal should be a postoperative return to normal function (Mt. Sinai J. Med. 2012;79:95-106).

Other factors to consider once a gynecologist has decided to operate on an elderly patient include surgical approach, mode of anesthesia, and the need for operative staging. An abdominal surgery is a risk factor for perioperative morbidity. Therefore, a laparoscopic or vaginal approach should be considered in elderly patients. These surgeries may promote more rapid return to functional status, thereby decreasing the risk of postoperative respiratory complications, length of hospital stay, and risk of delirium and postoperative cognitive decline (Curr. Opin. Obstet. Gynecol. 1997;9:300-305).Unfortunately, changes in cardiovascular physiology during abdominal insufflation and desufflation may lead to decreased peripheral perfusion and increased cardiac output. Additionally, a laparoscopic approach can lead to increases in operating time. Therefore, a gynecologist must carefully consider surgical approach.

Dr. Daniel L. Clarke-Pearson

Another important aspect to consider prior to surgery is whether the procedure can be performed under neuraxial anesthesia. An epidural could be left in place for postoperative pain control and eliminate the need for general anesthesia and postoperative pain control with narcotics. Gynecologic oncologists specifically must consider whether extending the procedure to include surgical staging is necessary and appropriate for each individual patient. A specific example concerns lymph node dissection in endometrial cancer. A recent study has shown that 5-year survival does not differ in women older than 80 years with low-grade endometrial cancer if lymph node dissection is omitted (Gynecol. Oncol. 2012;126:12-15).This may be important in limiting total anesthetic time to under 3 hours in an attempt to decrease perioperative morbidity and mortality.

Specific operating room considerations include patient position, coverage, and orientation. Elderly patients have fragile skin with decreased elasticity and decreased muscle mass. Therefore, they are more sensitive than their younger counterparts to bruising, skin tears, pressure ulcers, and hypothermia. Extra care must be taken during patient positioning to pad joints, avoid tape on fragile skin, and keep her covered with blankets or a warming device. Elderly patients also are at increased risk for venous thromboembolism; therefore sequential compression devices and, potentially, chemoprophylaxis should be used intraoperatively. On emergence from anesthesia, elderly patients should be given their glasses, and operating room staff should speak clearly and loudly to orient the patient to their situation.

Postoperatively, providers and family should continue to orient and reorient elderly patients to person, place, and situation. Good pain control is important, especially with larger abdominal incisions, to decrease respiratory complications and promote early ambulation. NSAIDs or neuraxial anesthesia should be considered to decrease the use of potentially sedating opioids. But avoid NSAIDs in patients with dehydration, congestive heart failure, and preexisting renal disease. It also is important to get patients back to their activities of daily living as soon as possible; therefore inpatient physical and occupational therapy should be considered on the day following surgery. Prior to discharge, care to avoid too many additional medications and attention to potential medication interactions are critical.

Elderly women are at risk for increased postoperative morbidity and mortality; however, with appropriate perioperative planning, these risks can be minimized. Each patient and her situation should be carefully evaluated, and a multidisciplinary team assembled to assist with taking the steps necessary to promote a smooth transition to the outpatient setting and decrease complications.

Dr. Hacker is a rising fourth-year resident in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Clarke-Pearson is the chair and the Robert A. Ross Distinguished Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and a professor in the division of gynecologic oncology at the university. E-mail them at

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