The Surgeon as Stakeholder: Making the Case Not to Operate


Surgeons are in a unique position, serving as gatekeepers to the operating room. They determine if operations are possible, are indicated, and have a reasonable risk–to–benefit profile. When an operation is indicated and the patient is amenable to it, the conversation between surgeon and patient is usually straightforward. On the other hand, when a patient’s co–morbidities substantially increase the risk of operative intervention, surgeons often question the utility of offering their services. These situations become immensely more difficult when patients have the expectation of being offered surgical treatment. This case describes the clinical encounter between an endocrine surgeon and an 83–year–old woman who has been incidentally found to have adrenal metastasis from melanoma. The patient wants an operation that the surgeon is reluctant to offer because of her frailty and high operative risk. The case focuses on the ethical dilemma that arises when a patient wants an operation that a surgeon does not want to perform. I was the resident in the endocrine surgery clinic the day that Ms. M came in. Given my background in bioethics, the attending physician told me about the patient’s history beforehand and asked for advice on how to approach the clinical encounter. I then accompanied him into her room to talk with her and her husband.