Preoperative Frailty Evaluation: A Promising Risk-stratification Tool in Older Adults Undergoing General Surgery

Clin Ther. 2019 Mar;41(3):387-399. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2019.01.014. Epub 2019 Feb 22.


Purpose: General surgical procedures are among the most commonly performed operations in the United States. Despite advances in surgical and anesthetic techniques and perioperative care, complications after general surgery in older adults remain a significant cause of increased morbidity, mortality, and health care costs. Frailty, a geriatric syndrome characterized by multisystem physiologic decline and increased vulnerability to stressors and adverse clinical outcomes, has emerged as a plausible predictor of adverse outcomes after surgery in older patients. Thus, the goal of this topical review is to evaluate the evidence on the association between preoperative frailty and clinical outcomes after general surgery and whether frailty evaluation may have a role in surgical risk-stratification in vulnerable older patients.

Methods: A PubMed database search was conducted between September and October 2018 to identify relevant studies evaluating the association between frailty and clinical outcomes after general surgery. Key words (frailty and surgery) and Medical Subject Heading term (general surgery) were used, and specific inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied.

Findings: The available evidence from meta-analyses and cohort studies suggest that preoperative frailty is significantly associated with adverse clinical outcomes after emergent or nonemergent general surgery in older patients. Although these studies are limited by a high degree of heterogeneity of frailty assessments, types of surgery, and primary outcomes, baseline frailty appears to increase risk of postoperative complications and morbidity, hospital length of stay, 30-day mortality, and long-term mortality after general surgical procedures in older adults.

Implications: Evidence supports the further development of preoperative frailty evaluation as a risk-stratification tool in older adults undergoing general surgery. Research is urgently needed to quantify and differentiate the predictive ability of validated frailty instruments in the context of different general surgical procedures and medical acuity and in conjunction with existing surgical risk indices widely used in clinical practice. Practical applicability of frailty instrument as well as geriatrics-centered outcomes need to be incorporated in future studies in this line of research. Furthermore, clinical care pathways that integrate frailty assessment, geriatric medicine focused perioperative and postoperative management, and patient-centered interdisciplinary care models should be investigated as a comprehensive intervention approach in older adults undergoing general surgery. Finally, early implementation of palliative care should occur at the outset of hospital encounter in frail older patients who present with indications for emergent general surgery.

Keywords: frailty; general surgery; mortality; postoperative complications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Frailty*
  • General Surgery*
  • Geriatric Assessment*
  • Humans
  • Preoperative Care*
  • Risk Assessment