Shared decision-making is critical to optimal patient-centered care. For elective operations, when there is sufficient time for deliberate discussion, little is known about how surgeons navigate decision-making and how surgeons align care with patient preferences. In this context, we sought to explore surgeons’ approaches to decision-making for adults ≥65 years at high-risk of postoperative complications or death.
We conducted semistructured in-depth interviews with 46 practicing surgeons across Michigan. Transcripts were iteratively analyzed through steps informed by inductive thematic analysis.
Four major themes emerged characterizing how surgeons approach high-risk surgical decision-making for older adults: (1) risk assessment was defined as the process used by surgeons to identify and analyze factors that may negatively impact outcome; (2) expectations and goals described the process of surgeons engaging with patients and families to discuss potential outcomes and desired objectives; (3) external and internal motivating factors outlined extrinsic dynamics (eg, quality metrics, referrals) and intrinsic drivers (eg, surgeons’ personal experiences) that influenced high-risk decision-making; and (4) decision-making approaches and challenges encompassed the roles of patients and surgeons and obstacles to engaging in a true shared decision-making process.
Although shared decision-making is strongly recommended, we found that surgeons who perform high-risk operations among older adults predominantly focused on assessing risk and setting expectations with patients and families rather than inviting them to actively participate in the decision-making process. Surgeons also reported influences on decision-making from quality metrics, referrals, and personal experiences. Patient involvement, however, was seldom discussed suggesting that surgeons may not be engaging in true shared decision-making when benefits should be weighed against a high likelihood of harm.

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