The Association Between Factors Promoting Nonbeneficial Surgery and Moral Distress: A National Survey of Surgeons

Christopher J. Zimmermann, Lauren J. Taylor, Jennifer L. Tucholka, Anne Buffington, Karen Brasel, Robert Arnold, Zara Cooper, Margaret L. Schwarze

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Objective:To assess the prevalence of moral distress among surgeons and test the association between factors promoting non-beneficial surgery and surgeons' moral distress.Summary Background Data:Moral distress experienced by clinicians can lead to low-quality care and burnout. Older adults increasingly receive invasive treatments at the end of life that may contribute to surgeons' moral distress, particularly when external factors, such as pressure from colleagues, institutional norms, or social demands, push them to offer surgery they consider non-beneficial.Methods:We mailed surveys to 5200 surgeons randomly selected from the American College of Surgeons membership, which included questions adapted from the revised Moral Distress Scale. We then analyzed the association between factors influencing the decision to offer surgery to seriously ill older adults and surgeons' moral distress.Results:The weighted adjusted response rate was 53% (n = 2161). Respondents whose decision to offer surgery was influenced by their belief that pursuing surgery gives the patient or family time to cope with the patient's condition were more likely to have high moral distress (34% vs 22%, P < 0.001), and this persisted on multivariate analysis (odds ratio 1.44, 95% confidence interval 1.02-2.03). Time required to discuss nonoperative treatments or the consulting intensivists' endorsement of operative intervention, were not associated with high surgeon moral distress.Conclusions:Surgeons experience moral distress when they feel pressured to perform surgery they believe provides no clear patient benefit. Strategies that empower surgeons to recommend nonsurgical treatments when they believe this is in the patient's best interest may reduce nonbeneficial surgery and surgeon moral distress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)94-100
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of surgery
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022


  • burnout
  • ethics
  • futility
  • moral distress
  • nonbeneficial surgery
  • shared decision making
  • surgical palliative care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery


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