(Kaiser Health News) – The controversial practice has been standard in many teaching hospitals for decades, its safety and ethics largely unquestioned and its existence unknown to those most affected: people undergoing surgery.
But over the past two years, the issue of overlapping surgery — in which a doctor operates on two patients in different rooms during the same time period — has ignited an impassioned debate in the medical community, attracted scrutiny by the powerful Senate Finance Committee that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, and prompted some hospitals, including the University of Virginia’s, to circumscribe the practice.
Known as “running two rooms” — or double-booked, simultaneous or concurrent surgery — the practice occurs in teaching hospitals where senior attending surgeons delegate trainees — usually residents or fellows — to perform parts of one surgery while the attending surgeon works on a second patient in another operating room. Sometimes senior surgeons aren’t even in the OR and are seeing patients elsewhere.
Hospitals decide whether to allow the practice and are primarily responsible for policing it. Medicare billing rules permit it as long as the attending surgeon is present during the critical portion of each operation — and that portion is defined by the surgeon. And while it occurs in many specialties, double-booking is believed to be most common in orthopedics, cardiac surgery and neurosurgery.
The issue was catapulted into public consciousness in October 2015 by an exhaustive investigation of concurrent surgery at Harvard’s famed Massachusetts General Hospital by The Boston Globe. The validity of the story has been vehemently disputed by hospital officials who defend their care as safe and appropriate.
The article detailed concerns by some doctors and other hospital staff about complications — including one patient who was paralyzed and two who died — possibly linked to double-booking over a 10-year period. It described patients waiting under anesthesia for prolonged periods and surgeons who could not be located, leaving residents or fellows to perform surgeries without supervision.
Patients who signed standard consent forms said they were not told their surgeries were double-booked; some said they would never have agreed had they known.
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