Explaining the absence of surgical procedure regulation

Cornell J Law Public Policy. 2017;27(1):189-206.


Each year in the United States, surgeons perform approximately 64 million surgical procedures, ranging from tooth extraction to open heart surgery. Yet, notwithstanding the frequency of surgical procedures and their often critical importance to patient health, no state or federal agency either approves the use of new surgical procedures or directly regulates existing procedures. The absence of surgical procedure regulation differs from the regulation of new pharmaceutical products, which can be introduced into interstate commerce only after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed "adequate and well-controlled [clinical] investigations" and concluded the data from those studies sufficiently establish the drug's safety and efficacy. Surgical procedures, by contrast, are more often conveyed from professor to student, the result being that surgical approaches may vary considerably from one geographic region to another. Whether different techniques produce different outcomes is not always clear, in part because the absence of regulation means that evidence often has not been systematically generated or may be in a form not suitable for comparison. Commentators have noted the differing treatment that persists between surgery and pharmaceuticals and have offered a number of justifications. For example, they have suggested that the surgical profession should self-regulate, that excessive regulation could deter surgeries of unproven benefit even when the surgery may be in the best interest of the patient, and that surgical trials could disrupt the doctor-patient relationship, such as by emphasizing uncertainty in a context where patient trust is important. In the context of innovative (as opposed to established) surgical procedures, controlled trials might be disfavored due to concern that desperate patients might unwisely submit themselves to risky experimental treatments undertaken by overzealous researchers. When commentators advocate for increased surgical regulation, they generally limit their calls for reform to innovative surgical procedures. The absence of direct regulation, however, has implications for the quality of evidence available to support an optimal choice from among all of the alternatives in the surgeon's armamentarium, whether innovative or standard, and whether surgical or non-surgical. This Article first examines the current framework of indirect regulation surrounding surgical procedures and then offers potential explanations as to why surgical procedures themselves are not already subject to direct federal regulation. Finally, it considers possible contributions of increased surgical regulation, including the identification of evidence gaps, the generation or collection of evidence to fill those gaps, and the impact on surgeon decision-making and patient consent.

MeSH terms

  • Credentialing
  • General Surgery / standards*
  • Government Regulation*
  • Humans
  • Medical Staff Privileges
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / standards
  • Terminology as Topic
  • United States