Operative experience of residents in US general surgery programs: a gap between expectation and experience

Ann Surg. 2009 May;249(5):719-24. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0b013e3181a38e59.


Objective: The purpose of the study was to identify a group of operations which general surgery residency program directors believed residents should be competent to perform by the end of 5 years of training and then ascertain actual resident experience with these procedures during their training.

Summary background data: There is concern about the adequacy of training of general surgeons in the United States. The American Board of Surgery and the Association of Program Directors in Surgery undertook a study to determine what operative procedures residency program directors consider to be essential to the practice of general surgery and then we measured the actual operative experience of graduating residents in those procedures, as reported to the Residency Review Committee for Surgery (RRC).

Methods: An electronic survey was sent to residency program directors at the 254 general surgery programs in the US accredited by the RRC as of spring 2006. The program directors were presented with a list of 300 types of operations. Program directors graded the 300 procedures "A," "B," or "C" using the following criteria: A--graduating general surgery residents should be competent to perform the procedure independently; B--graduating residents should be familiar with the procedure, but not necessarily competent to perform it; and C--graduating residents neither need to be familiar with nor competent to perform the procedure. After ballots were tallied, the actual resident operative experience reported to the RRC by all residents finishing general surgery training in June 2005 was reviewed.

Results: One hundred twenty-one of the 300 operations were considered A level procedures by a majority of program directors (PDs). Graduating 2005 US residents (n = 1022) performed only 18 of the 121 A procedures, an average of more than 10 times during residency; 83 of 121 procedures were performed on an average less than 5 times and 31 procedures less than once. For 63 of the 121 procedures, the mode (most commonly reported) experience was 0. In addition, there was significant variation between residents in operative experience for specific procedures. In virtually all cases, the mean reported experience exceeded the mode, suggesting that the mean is a poor measure of typical experience.

Conclusions: These data pose important problems for surgical educators. Methods will have to be developed to allow surgeons to reach a basic level of competence in procedures which they are likely to experience only rarely during residency. Even for more commonly performed procedures, the numbers of repetitions are not very robust, stressing the need to determine objectively whether residents are actually achieving basic competency in these operations. Finally, the large variations in experience between individuals in our residency system need to be explored, understood, and remedied.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • Education
  • Education, Medical, Graduate* / standards
  • Education, Medical, Graduate* / statistics & numerical data
  • General Surgery / education*
  • General Surgery / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / education*
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States