Surgical Consultation as Social Process: Implications for Shared Decision Making

Ann Surg. 2019 Mar;269(3):446-452. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000002610.


Objective: This qualitative study examines surgical consultation as a social process and assesses its alignment with assumptions of the shared decision-making (SDM) model.

Summary of background data: SDM stresses the importance of patient preferences and rigorous discussion of therapeutic risks/benefits based on these preferences. However, empirical studies have highlighted discrepancies between SDM and realities of surgical decision making. Qualitative research can inform understanding of the decision-making process and allow for granular assessment of the nature and causes of these discrepancies.

Methods: We observed consultations between 3 general surgeons and 45 patients considering undergoing 1 of 2 preference-sensitive elective operations: (1) hernia repair, or (2) cholecystectomy. These patients and surgeons also participated in semi-structured interviews.

Results: By the time of the consultation, patients and surgeons were predisposed toward certain decisions by preceding events occurring elsewhere. During the visit, surgeons had differential ability to arbitrate surgical intervention and construct the severity of patients' conditions. These upstream dynamics frequently displaced the centrality of the risk/benefit-based consent discussion.

Conclusion: The influence of events preceding consultation suggests that decision-making models should account for broader spatiotemporal spans. Given surgeons' authority to define patients' conditions and control service provision, SDM may be premised on an overestimation of patients' power to alter the course of decision making once in a specialist's office. Considering the subordinate role of the risk/benefit discussion in many surgical decisions, it will be important to study if and how the social process of decision making is altered by SDM-oriented decision aids that foreground this discussion.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cholecystectomy / methods
  • Cholecystectomy / psychology
  • Decision Making, Shared*
  • Elective Surgical Procedures / methods
  • Elective Surgical Procedures / psychology
  • Female
  • General Surgery*
  • Herniorrhaphy / methods
  • Herniorrhaphy / psychology
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / psychology
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Patient Participation / psychology*
  • Patient Preference
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Referral and Consultation*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Surgeons / psychology*