Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Principal agent problems, where the agent is a surgeon and the principal is a patient

Pauline Chen writes in the NY Times about The Surgeon’s Pact With the Patient
"[The] belief — that surgeons can be both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to the doctor-patient relationship — has been embraced for generations by more than a few nonsurgical doctors, nurses and patients. Heroic in their devotion to patients when they are at their best, surgeons inexplicably seem to transform when they are at their worst. That worst usually comes on the heels of a high-risk operation and a complicated and protracted postoperative course. The nurses, other doctors and sometimes even the patient and family request palliation only; in response, the surgeon often stalls, hesitates or simply refuses.

"Since the late 1970s, ethicists and social scientists have tried explain what they viewed as surgeons’ paradoxical behavior with postoperative patients. One of the earliest researchers attributed to self-protection the surgical imperative to “do everything possible.” Inevitably, this medical sociologist reasoned, all surgeons commit a technical error over the course of their careers. By doing everything possible “for the patient,” surgeons protected themselves against the emotional distress of failure. The rationale behind this common-sense theory was straightforward: At least I did all that I could possibly do.
"A study* published this year offers an interesting possible answer...
"In interview after interview, the surgeons referred to a negotiation and agreement — what the researchers called “surgical buy-in” — that occurred during the consent process, long before these doctors and their patients ever entered the operating room. The surgeons believed that patients not only consented to the operation itself but also committed themselves to any care after the operation necessary for successful outcomes. They talked about the operation and postoperative care as being a “package deal” and about a tacit “two-way agreement” that included even well-articulated and well-defined numbers of postoperative days. ...
“Surgeons don’t want to invest themselves in a relationship and a technical tour de force, then have to walk away.”

*Schwarze, Margaret L. MD, MPP; Bradley, Ciaran T. MD, MA; Brasel, Karen J. MD, MPH, "Surgical "buy-in": The contractual relationship between surgeons and patients that influences decisions regarding life-supporting therapy," Critical Care Medicine: March 2010 - Volume 38 - Issue 3 - pp 843-848

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