The impact of stress on surgical performance: a systematic review of the literature

Surgery. 2010 Mar;147(3):318-30, 330.e1-6. doi: 10.1016/j.surg.2009.10.007. Epub 2009 Dec 14.


Background: Safe surgical practice requires a combination of technical and nontechnical abilities. Both sets of skills can be impaired by intra-operative stress, compromising performance and patient safety. This systematic review aims to assess the effects of intra-operative stress on surgical performance.

Methods: A systematic search strategy was implemented to obtain relevant articles. MEDLINE, EMBASE, and PsycINFO databases were searched, and 3,547 abstracts were identified. After application of limits, 660 abstracts were retrieved for subsequent evaluation. Studies were included on the basis of predetermined inclusion criteria and independent assessment by 2 reviewers.

Results: In all, 22 articles formed the evidence base for this review. Key stressors included laparoscopic surgery (7 studies), bleeding (4 studies), distractions (4 studies), time pressure (3 studies), procedural complexity (3 studies), and equipment problems (2 studies). The methods for assessing stress and performance varied greatly across studies, rendering cross-study comparisons difficult. With only 7 studies assessing stress and surgical performance concurrently, establishing a direct link was challenging. Despite this shortfall, the direction of the evidence suggested that excessive stress impairs performance. Specifically, laparoscopic procedures trigger greater stress levels and poorer technical performance (3 studies), and expert surgeons experience less stress and less impaired performance compared with juniors (2 studies). Finally, 3 studies suggest that stressful crises impair surgeons' nontechnical skills (eg, communication and decision making).

Conclusion: Surgeons are subject to many intra-operative stressors that can impair their performance. Current evidence is characterized by marked heterogeneity of research designs and variable study quality. Further research on stress and performance is required so that surgical training and clinical excellence can flourish.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Humans
  • Intraoperative Period
  • Medical Errors*
  • Stress, Physiological*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Task Performance and Analysis