There is an acknowledged need for higher-quality evidence to quantify the benefit of surgical procedures, yet not enough has been done to improve the evidence base. This lack of evidence can prevent fully informed decision-making, lead to unnecessary or even harmful treatment, and contribute to wasteful expenditures of scare health care resources. Barriers to evidence generation include not only the long-recognized technical difficulties and ethical challenges of conducting randomized surgical trials, but also legal challenges that limit incentives to conduct surgical research as well as market-based challenges that make it difficult for those funding surgical research to recoup investment costs. These legal and market dynamics differ substantially from those surrounding new drug or device development. Nevertheless, obstacles could be overcome and overall expenditures could be reduced if a share of federal health care agency budgets were reallocated to generating randomized trial data, standardizing outcome measures, and conducting observational studies analogous to those that have been facilitated for drugs via the Food and Drug Administration's Sentinel Initiative. Until better quality evidence is available, ethical principles require adequate disclosure of the limited evidence base supporting current surgical procedures.
Keywords: economics; evidence-based medicine; patents; reversals; surgical procedures.