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Is The Doctor You Chose the One Performing the Procedure… or is it a Resident?

January 25, 2021

“Residents cannot do surgery without supervision of an attending physician.”

That’s what a spokeswoman for Parkland Hospital in Dallas said when asked about the performing of “ghost surgery.” That’s when the surgeon operating on a patient—the individual who’s doing the actual holding the scalpel and doing cutting—isn’t the person you thought was going to be doing the surgery.

Does “Ghost Surgery” Occur that Often?

Ghost surgery happens more often that you’d think, and it can have serious consequences for patients who are injured by inexperienced residents who are allowed to operate on behalf of the surgeon who said he or she would be doing the procedure themselves.

Ghost surgery happens frequently at hospitals affiliated with medical schools, and in many cases a patient only discovers who actually performed the procedure when something goes wrong.

At teaching hospitals, chances are high that a patient won’t have the surgeon who they believed was going to perform the procedure. Instead, it’s going to be a surgeon-in-training… a resident will actually be holding the scalpel or controlling the arthroscopic tools or endoscopic devices.

Plus, the surgeon that the patient thought was going to do the surgery may not even be in the operating room.

Research shows that many times surgeons have left the residents to operate without supervision. A Texas study found that of 161 surgeries performed by 20 different doctors which totaled about 200 hours of surgery, doctors were only present 17% of the time. That means that for 83% of the time, the attending physician or surgeon wasn’t present in the operating room. Moreover, in 18% of those 161 surgeries, the records show that the surgeon was a “no show.”

Surgeons can also schedule overlapping surgery —where a surgeon operates on two patients in different rooms during the same time period. This is called “running two rooms” or double-booking operations (simultaneous or concurrent surgeries). Again, this happens in teaching hospitals where senior attending surgeons delegate to surgeons-in-training—usually newer residents or fellows— the task of performing parts of one surgery while the attending surgeon works on a second patient in another operating room. Incredibly, in some instances, the senior surgeon who was supposed to do the operation isn’t even in the operating room at all, but is off seeing other patients. Because of this practice, there are frequent unexpected complications.

Patient Said She Was Left “Mutilated” after a Ghost Surgery

Kathryn Weber elected to have a breast reduction after she learned she had the BRCA2 gene, which puts her at high risk for breast cancer. Her medical records said that the board-certified plastic surgeon she selected “supervised” the operation. Two residents-in-training were listed as “assistant surgeons.”

“I feel like I did everything right in researching and vetting [my] doctor, and yet this is how it all turned out for me,” she said in an interview.

Weber says she’s now disfigured after complications from her surgery resulted in numerous hospital visits, follow-up procedures, infections, and months on a wound VAC (vacuum-assisted closure, a method of decreasing air pressure around a wound to help with healing).

In fact, when Weber came back to the hospital for follow-up due to the complications, the anesthesiologist from her surgery told her that the surgeon did one side, and the residents did the other. Weber feels like she was a guinea pig used by the hospital’s surgical residents to practice their skills.

Technically, Weber gave her consent when she signed a three-page informed consent form, the records show. However, she didn’t initial the second page, which contains a critical sentence that notifies patients that “residents… may perform portions of the surgical procedure.”

Weber said she never initialed the second page because she never saw it. It was a last-minute “sign this” deal presented by a resident who told her she was signing a surgery consent form for her doctor. Weber had no time to review the materials or ask questions.

What is “Informed Consent?”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) defines “informed consent” as:

[A] written agreement or written documentation of a verbal agreement executed by a recipient or his/her legal representative for treatment, medication, services or supports that is based on a full disclosure of facts needed to make a decision which evidence the elements of knowledge, comprehension and voluntariness.

That means that “informed consent” isn’t just a quick signature or initialing of a document. Instead, it should be a conversation between the surgeon and patient several days or weeks before the surgical procedure where all of the risks and potential complications and results are discussed.

Takeaway

Ghost surgery happens when a surgeon permits another surgeon to perform the agreed-upon surgery without patient’s knowledge.

Prior to signing the surgery consent form, patients must make certain the information and personnel to which you’re agreeing are those who will actually be performing the procedure.

“No one wants a resident to learn on them,” one surgeon said.

Contact us!

Ghost surgery can cause serious injury or even death when an inexperienced resident performs the operation.

For a free consultation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney in Michigan, contact Buchanan Firm. We can discuss your situation if you believe you’ve been injured as the result of a ghost surgery.

Our firm proudly serves people all across Michigan, including major cities like Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Detroit, Lansing, Holland, St. Joe, and Ann Arbor, and rural towns such as Lowell, Ada, Fremont, Newaygo, Grand Haven, Rockford, and Cedar Springs. We will meet you after-hours, at home or in the hospital to accommodate you.

Contact us today!