What makes a surgeon truly great?


I often hear descriptions of famous surgeons as “great”, “amazing”, “brilliant”, etc. and wonder how those adjectives get decided. The corollary used in describing a surgeon is somewhat akin to a performing artist or an athlete. The problem with such an approach is unlike an athlete who can be assessed by statistics or artists who is assessed by cultural expertise of common people, a surgeon does not lend himself to such assessment. A surgeon does not have a publicly available success rate statistic nor do common people have any expert knowledge of surgical procedures to know if a surgeon is great or not.

Is surgery so hard? Yes and No.

YES because one needs to put in years and years of study to even have the opportunity to hold a scalpel and from then on has to practice relentlessly for many more years to actually master the surgeries in his/her specialty. For that relentless pursuit the surgeons usually have to sacrifice the prime years of their lives to this task, having no time of their own, decreased social and personal life and often living under debt or their parents’ financial benevolence for a little less than half their lives.

NO because its not magic. Most surgical procedures have certain established techniques which if practiced over many years become second nature to the surgeon. So if you know the rules you are set. Of course it goes without saying that you would need a certain level of aptitude and intelligence to learn the complex machinations of the human body, decent memorization ability and a whole load of patience but essentially surgeons are human beings like the rest of us. Only that we surgeons are the lucky ones among humanity who get to wield the scalpel to help humanity as a reward for all those years of hard work.

Skill can vary of course like in any profession, they can be excellent, good, average, poor and miserable. Skill, we surgeons are often told is what separates the great from the rest and yet there are many average skilled surgeons doing incredible service to mankind which many highly skilled surgeons could not.

So does mere skill of a surgeon decide his greatness? Here its a big no. From what I see from the inside of a surgeon’s world, having started my surgical career 6 yrs back, the greatness of a surgeon has to be measured beyond just skill. Like my Professor in college used to say, “ Anybody can operate,even that cobbler on the street or that OT technician, maybe even skillfully but what should separate you from those people is that you should be able to judge what surgery the patient needs or if he needs surgery at all?” (he had more colourful words to say, this is the watered down version of it, LOL). I recently heard an amazing perspective from a very famous surgeon (he’s a brilliant surgeon by the way): “The reason older experienced surgeons do lesser types of  surgical procedures than younger newer surgeons is not because they are any less fearless or capable than the younger ones its because they are tempered with the wisdom of what works and how well. The ability to cut down on trying too many things and to bring more efficiency and longevity to surgery is what experience brings”  These are two different perspectives with a converging opinion on the importance of clinical judgement of a surgeon being paramount!

Doing too much or doing too little? Where do surgeons draw the line?
For that the “art of judgement” is the crucial quality of a surgeon. I sometimes feel we as surgeons are often guilty of “surgical over-aggressiveness.” There are times when doctors operate when in hindsight just waiting would have done the trick. Sometimes when a medical treatment would be far more beneficial than a surgical one. Other instances when after surgery the patient is worse off than before. It’s not to say these doctors have any vested interests to operate. They mostly always want to help the patient and often in their zeal probably do too much. Sometimes its more harder for the doctor than the patient to accept that nothing more can be done. But again in trying to solve the “doing too much” problem, surgeons should not fall into the “doing too less” trap which so often happens in many hospitals these days where patients aren’t demanding or in the know. There are several instances when doctors just chooses to delay instead of taking that acceptable risk to operate since they don’t want to be responsible for somebody’s poor surgical outcome. Some don’t even refer to a specialist who is capable of doing the surgery with lesser risk. In the end such a patient’s surgery is not done at the correct time resulting in handicap or he/she succumbs to the disease. This attitude is worse than the “doing too much” phenomenon. As an example i distinctly remember one little girl of 5yrs who came with multiple metastatic cancer to my hospital when the original small eye tumour which was detected a year earlier was not operated by the doctor assuming it to be benign. A clear case of doing too less and the experience is so heartbreaking for everybody concerned.

There are no definite answers to most surgical decisions because medicine is a field where results cannot be predicted with pinpoint accuracy like a mathematical model. But surgeons have to take these calls everyday and no one else can do it for them.The surgeon’s judgement sometimes lies between life and death of a patient so its not as simple as people believe it is. I am happy to say with full confidence though that for the most part more good than bad gets done in the full balance of things. The ability to do as much as possible to help the patient yet never letting one go overboard is a balance every surgeon should aspire to attain and this balanced judgement is what makes a surgeon truly GREAT.



Raghuraj  S.Hegde