Exploring Emotional Responses After Postoperative Complications: A Qualitative Study of Practicing Surgeons

C Ann Vitous, Mary E Byrnes, Ana De Roo, Sara M Jafri, Pasithorn A Suwanabol
Annals of Surgery 2021 January 11

OBJECTIVE: This qualitative study explored the impact of postoperative complications on surgeons and their well-being.

BACKGROUND: Complications are an inherent component of surgical practice. Although there have been extensive efforts to reduce postoperative complications, the impact of complications on surgeons have not been well-studied. Surgeons are often left to process their own emotional responses to these complications, the effects of which are not well characterized.

METHODS: We conducted 46 semi-structured interviews with a diverse range of surgeons practicing across Michigan to explore their responses to postoperative complications and the effect on overall well-being. The data were analyzed iteratively, through steps informed by thematic analysis.

RESULTS: Participants described feelings of sadness, anxiety, frustration, grief, failure, and disappointment after postoperative complications. When asked to elaborate on these responses, participants described internal processes such as feelings of personal responsibility and failure, self-doubt, and failing the patient and family. Participants also described external pressures influencing the responses, which included potential impact to reputation and medicolegal issues. Experience level, type of complication, and the surgeon's individual personality were specific factors that influenced the intensity of these responses.

CONCLUSION: Surgeons' emotional responses after postoperative complications may negatively impact individual well-being, and may represent a threat to the profession altogether if these issues remain inadequately recognized and addressed. Knowledge of the impact of unwanted or unexpected outcomes on surgeons is critical in developing and implementing strategies to cope with the challenges frequently encountered in the surgical profession.

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