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Original Investigation
August 19, 2020

Association Between Surgeon Technical Skills and Patient Outcomes

Author Affiliations
  • 1Surgical Outcomes and Quality Improvement Center, Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Surgery, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois
  • 2Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois
  • 3American College of Surgeons, Chicago, Illinois
  • 4Department of Colorectal Surgery, Cleveland Clinic, Fairview, Ohio
  • 5Department of Colorectal Surgery, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio
  • 6Biological Sciences Division, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  • 7Department of Surgery, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison
JAMA Surg. 2020;155(10):960-968. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2020.3007
Key Points

Question  Is the technical skill of a surgeon associated with patient outcomes?

Findings  In this quality improvement study including 17 practicing surgeons and outcome data from the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program as a reference group, better technical skill scores, assessed via intraoperative video, were statistically significantly associated with lower rates of any complication, unplanned reoperation, and death or serious morbidity. Overall, technical skill scores were associated with approximately 26% of the variation in risk-adjusted complication rates.

Meaning  Quality improvement efforts aimed at improving patient outcomes should include a focus on improving surgeon-level technical skill.


Importance  Postoperative complications remain common after surgery, but little is known about the extent of variation in operative technical skill and whether variation is associated with patient outcomes.

Objectives  To examine the (1) variation in technical skill scores of practicing surgeons, (2) association between technical skills and patient outcomes, and (3) amount of variation in patient outcomes explained by a surgeon’s technical skill.

Design, Setting, and Participants  In this quality improvement study, 17 practicing surgeons submitted a video of a laparoscopic right hemicolectomy that was then rated by at least 10 blinded peer surgeons and 2 expert raters. The association between surgeon technical skill scores and risk-adjusted outcomes was examined using data from the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program. The association between technical skill scores and outcomes was examined for colorectal procedures and noncolorectal procedures (ie, assessed on whether technical skills demonstrated during colectomy were associated with patient outcomes across other cases). In addition, the proportion of patient outcomes explained by technical skill scores was examined using robust regression techniques. The study was conducted from September 23, 2016, to February 10, 2018; data analysis was performed from November 2018 to January 2019.

Exposures  Colorectal and noncolorectal procedures.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Any complication, mortality, unplanned hospital readmission, unplanned reoperation related to principal procedure, surgical site infection, and death or serious morbidity.

Results  Of the 17 surgeons included in the study, 13 were men (76%). The participants had a range from 1 to 28 years in surgical practice (median, 11 years). Based on 10 or more reviewers per video and with a maximum quality score of 5, overall technical skill scores ranged from 2.8 to 4.6. From 2014 to 2016, study participants performed a total of 3063 procedures (1120 colectomies). Higher technical skill scores were significantly associated with lower rates of any complication (15.5% vs 20.6%, P = .03; Spearman rank-order correlation coefficient r = −0.54, P = .03), unplanned reoperation (4.7% vs 7.2%, P = .02; r = −0.60, P = .01), and a composite measure of death or serious morbidity (15.9% vs 21.4%, P = .02; r = −0.60, P = .01) following colectomy. Similar associations were found between colectomy technical skill scores and patient outcomes for all types of procedures performed by a surgeon. Overall, technical skill scores appeared to account for 25.8% of the variation in postcolectomy complication rates and 27.5% of the variation when including noncolectomy complication rates.

Conclusions and Relevance  The findings of this study suggest that there is wide variation in technical skill among practicing surgeons, accounting for more than 25% of the variation in patient outcomes. Higher colectomy technical skill scores appear to be associated with lower complication rates for colectomy and for all other procedures performed by a surgeon. Efforts to improve surgeon technical skills may result in better patient outcomes.

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