BACKGROUND: Palliative surgery for advanced cancer patients involves complex decision making. Surgeons with a cancer-focused practice were surveyed to determine the extent to which palliative surgery was currently practiced, to identify ethical dilemmas and barriers they faced in performing palliative surgery, and to evaluate their treatment choices in four different clinical scenarios. STUDY DESIGN: A 110-item survey was devised after extensive review of the palliative care and palliative surgery literature to evaluate current practices and attitudes regarding palliative surgery. Case vignettes were devised to evaluate clinical factors influencing surgeons' selection of treatment for symptomatic patients with advanced malignancy. RESULTS: Survey response rate was 24% (419 of 1,740). Respondents reported 74% of their surgery caseload as cancer related, and 21% of these as palliative. On a scale of 1 (uncommon problem) to 7 (common problem), surgeons reported that the most common ethical dilemmas in palliative surgery were providing patients with honest information without destroying hope (5.6 ± 1.4) (mean ± standard deviation), and preserving patient choice (5.0 ± 1.7). Bound on error of the average frequency estimate for ethical dilemmas, based on response rate, was 0.08. On a scale of 1 (not a barrier) to 7 (a severe barrier), surgeons rated the most severe barriers to optimum use of palliative surgery as limitations of managed care (4.1 ± 2.0) and referral to surgery by other specialists (3.9 ± 1.8). Bound on error of the estimate for average severity of barriers, based on response rate, was 0.09. They rated the least severe barriers to palliative surgery as surgeon avoidance of dying patients (3.0 ± 1.8) and surgery department reluctance to perform palliative surgery (2.6 ± 1.6). Analysis of surgeons' treatment selection in case vignettes indicated that patient age, aggressiveness of tumor biology, local extent of disease, and severity of patient symptoms were all variables of influence for treatment selection in patients with advanced malignancies. CONCLUSIONS: Palliative surgery involves numerous ethical dilemmas, the most prominent being providing honest information to patients without destroying hope, and complex treatment decision making. We have identified variables of major influence to surgeons in the palliative treatment selection for patients with advanced, solid malignancies. Validation of these variables as meaningful will require future studies focusing on patient outcomes.
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