Surgeon Atul Gawande writes frequently in The New Yorker about how he uses statistics on national norms for various surgeries to monitor his own performance.
After eight years, I’ve performed more than two thousand operations. Three-quarters have involved my specialty, endocrine surgery—surgery for endocrine organs such as the thyroid, the parathyroid, and the adrenal glands. The rest have involved everything from simple biopsies to colon cancer. For my specialized cases, I’ve come to know most of the serious difficulties that could arise, and have worked out solutions. For the others, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary.
As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.
Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five. Surgery is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career. It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty. Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S. & P. 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four. Surgeons apparently fall somewhere between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgment that comes with experience. Apparently, I’d arrived at that middle point.
A reader wonders whether those statistics are available to the general public. In particular, can you find out whether a surgeon you are considering having slice you open is above or below average? Anybody know?