Patient-reported limitations to surgical buy-in: A qualitative study of patients facing high-risk surgery

Michael J. Nabozny, Jacqueline M. Kruser, Nicole M. Steffens, Kristen E. Pecanac, Karen J. Brasel, Eva H. Chittenden, Zara Cooper, Martin F. McKneally, Margaret L. Schwarze

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Objective: To characterize how patients buy-in to treatments beyond the operating room and what limits they would place on additional life-supporting treatments. Background: During a high-risk operation, surgeons generally assume that patients buy-in to life-supporting interventions that might be necessary postoperatively. How patients understand this agreement and their willingness to participate in additional treatment is unknown. Methods: We purposively sampled surgeons in Toronto, Ontario, Boston, Massachusetts, and Madison, Wisconsin, who are good communicators and routinely perform high-risk operations. We audio-recorded their conversations with patients considering high-risk surgery. For patients who were then scheduled for surgery, we performed open-ended preoperative and postoperative interviews.We used directed qualitative content analysis to analyze the interviews and surgeon visits, specifically evaluating the content about the use of postoperative life support. Results: We recorded 43 patients' conversations with surgeons, 34 preoperative, and 27 postoperative interviews. Patients expressed trust in their surgeon to make decisions about additional treatments if a serious complication occurred, yet expressed a preference for significant treatment limitations that were not discussed with their surgeon preoperatively. Patients valued the existence or creation of an advance directive preoperatively, but they did not discuss this directive with their surgeon. Instead they assumed it would be effective if needed and that family members knew their wishes. Conclusions: Patients implicitly trust their surgeons to treat postoperative complications as they arise. Although patients may buy-in to some additional postoperative interventions, they hold a broad range of preferences for treatment limitations that were not discussed with the surgeon preoperatively.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-102
Number of pages6
JournalAnnals of surgery
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2017


  • Advance directives
  • High-risk surgery
  • Intensive care conflict
  • Medical ethics
  • Palliative care
  • Patient communication
  • Surgical buy-in

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery


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