Background: There are no clear federal regulations governing innovative surgery, even though general guidelines regulating research with human subjects do exist. We hypothesized that US surgeons are unaware of Department of Health and Human Services regulations, rarely seek IRB review, generally oppose outside regulation of innovative surgery, and are uncertain what constitutes innovation and research. These circumstances, if true, would pose a significant ethical problem and present potential harm to patients as unwitting subjects of research.
Study design: In a pilot study we reviewed 527 issues of US surgical and medical journals, selecting 59 articles published between 1992 and 2000, that described innovative surgery. Corresponding authors from university hospitals (71%) and other facilities (29%) were sent an anonymous questionnaire.
Results: The survey was conducted between November 2000 and May 2001. Twenty-one questionnaires were returned, completed with responses, constituting a 35% overall response rate. Fourteen authors confirmed their work was research, yet only six had sought prior IRB review. The majority of authors (15 of 21) did not submit their protocol to IRB. Only seven authors had mentioned the innovative nature of the procedure in the informed consent form. Seven authors claimed familiarity with Office for Human Research Protections definitions of research and human subject. Two-thirds of the respondents stated that government regulations for the protection of human subjects of innovative surgery would not be appropriate.
Conclusions: The current system of definitions, ethical theories, and voluntary professional guidelines may be inadequate to meet the challenge of surgical innovation. Further research is proposed to examine the adequacy of the existing guidelines.