In the June 7, 2017 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Pincus et al. report on a careful analysis comparing outcomes from hip fracture surgery occurring “after hours” (defined by the authors as weekday evenings between 5 PM and 12 AM) with surgeries occurring during “normal hours” (weekdays from 7 AM to 5 PM). In the busy Ontario trauma center where this study was performed, it is common for patients with blunt trauma to take precedence over seniors who are relatively stable but in need of hip fracture care.
Pincus et al. found that adverse outcomes, in terms of surgical and medical complications, were similar whether the hip surgery occurred during normal hours or after hours. Interestingly, there was a higher rate of inpatient complications in the normal-hours group, and fewer patients in the after-hours group were discharged to a rehab after surgery than in the normal-hours group.
It has been my impression that highly skilled professional surgeons and their teams are going to put forward their best efforts for all patients—no matter what time of day or night they operate. Concentration, focus, and high standards can generally overcome fatigue. However, the Pincus et al. study should not be viewed as justification for hospital decision makers to forget their commitment to optimize management of all resources, including surgical teams. After-hours care should never become “routine,” and there should be continuous attention on developing alternative solutions, such as moving elective surgery to other facilities or true shift scheduling that provides all members of the team with occasional daytime hours off for rest and management of personal lives.
The authors note that in their Canadian jurisdiction, there are hospital and surgeon-reimbursement incentives that may work to promote after-hours surgery, but the long-term focus must always put patient outcomes first. And we must always remember that good patient outcomes rely on maintaining surgical teams who are experienced and not burnt out.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD