If you need surgery, you might want to ask your physician not to drink the night before the surgery. According to a recent study, surgeons are a lot more error-prone when operating after a night of drinking. Sixteen medical student (residents) and eight surgeons participated in the study. They were each asked to perform simulated laparoscopic surgeries without any drinking the night before. Then, they were all invited out to dinner and were asked to drink alcohol as they pleased until they felt intoxicated. The next day, each participant was asked to perform the same simulated surgeries, and the results were quite surprising.
Each medical student had made an average of 19 errors during surgery. Their sober counterparts made an average of eight errors. On a side note, the fact that so many errors were made even without any drinking is not making me feel warm and fuzzy at all. It can take one error, not eight or 19, to seriously injure a patient.
The licensed surgeons did not do much better. The ones who drank had about a 50 % spike in the error rate. Wow! So, if you see your surgeon ordering yet another Brain Hemorrhage ( 1 part peach schnapps, splash of Irish cream, and a dash of Grenadine) the day before your surgery, you might want to buy him a Virgin Bloody Mary.
Just how prevalent is alcohol abuse among surgeons?
What is the practical importance of this information? If alcohol impairs surgical performance and alcohol abuse is common among physicians, how safe are we as patients? A number of studies seem to support the conclusion that physicians are more likely to abuse alcohol than other professionals. For example, a study published in the Journal of Addiction, examined trends of alcoholism among male doctors in Scotland. Apparently, as many as 50% of the doctors found to have health problems liable to affect their professional competence were also found to have a drinking problem. According to the same study, the higher rate of liver cirrhosis among doctors suggests that doctors are at a higher risk for alcoholism. Maybe it has something to do with the wide availability of quality scotch.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the rate of substance abuse among U.S. physicians. Apparently, they are not that different from their Scottish counterparts. According to this study, U.S. physicians are more likely to consume alcohol than other professionals. I guess one good piece of news for us patients is that, although physicians were as likely to have used illicit drugs in the past, illicit drug consumption was found to be less among practicing physicians. That conclusion, however, may depend on your definition of illicit drug use. According to the same study, physicians are more likely to self-medicate with various drugs that can be just as addictive and impairing as some of the illicit drugs. By the way, it appears that physicians prefer opiates and benzodiazepine tranquilizers to “self-medicate.”
With this in mind, consider the number of surgeries that a surgeon performs a week. While the number may differ depending on the specialty, location, and other factors, many perform multiple surgeries. I have personally met orthopedic surgeons, for example, who perform as many as 5-6 surgeries a day. If you accept the proposition that surgeons like their booze and that the average surgeon operates multiple times a week, how frequently does a surgeon end operate after a night of intoxicating frivolity?
Should hospitals regulate for patient safety?
This seems to be the ultimate inquiry. Additional research may be necessary to correlate these two variables. After all, no one wants to be operated by a surgeon whose lifestyle makes him 50% more likely to make a mistake. Nevertheless, even absent such information, hospitals and surgeons should take to heart the results of the study. It might even be prudent for hospitals to enact regulations to prohibit surgeons from drinking the night before scheduled surgeries.
I am unaware of a single hospital that has enacted such a regulation. Are you aware of hospital regulations designed to prohibit surgeons from drinking the night before scheduled surgeries? Do you know of any proposed legislation in this regard? More importantly, if you advocate for such regulations, tell our readers how to get involved. Patients Against Drunk Surgeons (PADS) may be a cause worth fighting for.
Image from thegospelcoalition