Most everyone who plans to undergo surgery is likely to feel anxiety about which doctor will be picking up the knife. It seems natural to want the surgeon with the greatest track record, one who has performed so many appendectomies and knee operations he or she could essential do the procedure with eyes closed.
However, a new study finds there are in fact no statistical differences in patient mortality between surgeons who are new to the field and those who have years of experience under their belts.
The two-year study, published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, involved data on 130,106 Medicare patients at 489 hospitals in the U.S., and was conducted by a research team made up of medical doctors and statisticians.
The researchers found that differences in mortality rates between more experienced and less experienced surgeons were not statistically significant. The overall rate of death in patients who underwent a procedure with a more experienced surgeon was 3.59 percent versus 3.71 percent for surgeons with less experience.
"It is reassuring that new surgeons were able to achieve similar mortality rates to experienced surgeons when caring for similar patients. However, mortality is a relatively rare event that may not expose the benefits of experience," study author Dr. Rachel R. Kelz, associate professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a press release.
This study will certainly help any patient planning to go under the knife breathe easier. Some types of surgeries accounted for in the study have incredibly low death rates, even among the greenest of surgeons.
However, the researchers acknowledge there are some limitations to their findings. For one, the study only examines patient deaths, not surgical complications and other more common risks where the difference between new and experienced surgeons may be more pronounced.
Additionally, surgical training has changed drastically in recent years. Typically medical school students now receive 6 to 12 months less training time in operating rooms than they did at least a decade ago, so more research will be needed down the road to accurately assess patient outcomes.
Dr. Keith Lillemoe, chief of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that's what fellowship programs are designed for -- to attain additional training after completing a medical residency program.
"If I'm a trainee and I don't feel comfortable at the end of my five years of training, I will then go out and do a fellowship," Lillemoe told CBS News.
Lillemoe also points out this study was published is a statistics journal rather than a medical one, which means the paper did not go through the same peer review process.
But whether or not medical school sufficiently equip future surgeons is a valid question. One study published in Annals of Surgery in 2013 indicated that many surgery fellows may be unprepared to handle the demands of the operating room. The study authors sent surveys top subspecialty program directors who oversaw training in such areas as invasive surgery, bariatric, colorectal, hepatobiliary [liver and gall bladder] and thoracic specialties.
The surveys found that 21 percent of directors felt new fellows were unprepared, 30 percent were unable to operate for 30 minutes unsupervised during a major surgical procedure and 24 percent were not able to recognize early signs of complications. When conducting laparoscopic procedures, 30 percent were viewed as unable to safely manipulate tissue, 26 percent were deemed unable to recognize anatomical planes and 56 percent could not suture a cut.
"We know for a fact that some of the more complex operations are clearly correlated with experience," said Lillemoe.