Surgeons Resist Withdrawing Life Support After Medical Errors

Surgeons appear to be uniquely prone to resist withdrawal of life support if their patient has difficulty recovering from surgical procedures. About two-thirds of surgeons reported in a recent study cited in Annals of Surgery that they are even less willing to end life if a surgical error had occurred. Most significant in this study was that these medical practitioners felt personal responsibility for their patients and truly believe that given sufficient time, the patient would adequately recover.

Another issue that points out differences between surgeons and patient or family member wishes is that the surgeons were more optimistic about future quality of life for their patients and they believed that a final decision should be delayed or not instituted at all. Legal ramifications were not the deciding factor for over two-thirds of surgeons, and they were especially interested in keeping patients on life support if there had been any indication of a surgical error.

The study used a typical scenario of a 75-year-old woman having difficulty post-surgery, and her family was requesting removal of life support because they believed the woman would have an unacceptable future quality of life. A majority (63%) of 912 surgeons experienced with high-risk procedures indicated they would not be likely to withdraw life support. Surgeons who were told there had been a surgical error were twice as likely to object to ending life support.

Three factors were cited for the surgeons’ optimistic outlook: personal thoughts about quality of the patient’s future life, a belief that the patient could not accurately predict the future of their health and their personal feelings about withdrawal of life support.

Source:, “Surgeons balk at withdrawing life support after medical errors,” Kevin B. O’Reilly

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