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Background

Healthcare professionals can be seriously affected when they are involved in major clinical incidents. The impact of such incidents on staff is of particular relevance to surgery, as the operating room is one of the highest-risk areas for serious complications. This qualitative study aimed to assess the personal and professional impact of surgical complications on surgeons.

Methods

This single time point study involved semistructured, individual interviews with general and vascular surgeons, consultants and senior registrars from two National Health Service organizations in London, UK.

Results

Twenty-seven surgeons participated. Many were seriously affected by major surgical complications. Surgeons' practice was also often affected, not always in the best interest of their patients. The surgeons' reactions depended on the preventability of the complications, their personality and experience, patient outcomes and patients' reactions, as well as colleagues' reactions and the culture of the institution. Discussing complications, deconstructing the incidents and rationalizing were the most commonly quoted coping mechanisms. Institutional support was generally described as inadequate, and the participants often reported the existence of strong institutional blame cultures. Suggestions for supporting surgeons in managing the personal impact of complications included better mentoring, teamwork approaches, blame-free opportunities for the discussion of complications, and structures aimed at the human aspects of complications.

Conclusion

Those involved in the management of surgical services need to consider how to improve support for surgeons in the aftermath of major surgical incidents.

Presented in part to the International Society for Quality in Healthcare Conference, Hong Kong, China, September 2011, and the European Health Psychology Society Conference, Crete, Greece, September 2011