Surgical experts: born or made?

Int J Surg. 2013;11(9):773-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ijsu.2013.07.001. Epub 2013 Jul 6.


The concept of surgical expertise and the processes involved in its development are topical, and there is a constant drive to identify reliable measures of expert performance in surgery. This review explores the notion of whether surgical experts are "born" or "made", with reference to educational theory and pertinent literature. Peer-reviewed publications, books, and online resources on surgical education, expertise and training were reviewed. Important themes and aspects of expertise acquisition were identified in order to better understand the concept of a surgical expert. The definition of surgical expertise and several important aspects of its development are highlighted. Innate talent plays an important role, but is insufficient on its own to produce a surgical expert. Multiple theories that explore motor skill acquisition and memory are relevant, and Ericsson's theory of the development of competence followed by deliberate self-practice has been especially influential. Psychomotor and non-technical skills are necessary for progression in the current climate in light of our training curricula; surgical experts are adaptive experts who excel in these. The literature suggests that surgical expertise is reached through practice; surgical experts are made, not born. A deeper understanding of the nature of expert performance and its development will ensure that surgical education training programmes are of the highest possible quality. Surgical educators should aim to develop an expertise-based approach, with expert performance as the benchmark.

Keywords: Competence; Expertise; Simulation; Surgical education; Surgical experts; Training.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • General Surgery / education*
  • General Surgery / standards*
  • Humans