Brown K, Solomon MJ, Young J, Seco M, Bannon PG
ANZ J Surg 2019 Jun;89(6):634-638
While the introduction of new surgical techniques can radically improve patient care, they may equally expose patients to unforeseen harms associated with untested procedures. The enthusiastic uptake of laparoscopic cholecystectomy in the early 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the rate of common bile duct injuries, and was described by Alfred Cuschieri as ‘the biggest unaudited free-for-all in the history of surgery’ due to ‘a lack of effective centralised control’. Whether a new surgical intervention is considered an acceptable ‘minor’ variation of an established procedure, or is sufficiently ‘novel’ to constitute experimentation on human subjects is often unclear. Furthermore, once a new technique is identified as experimental, there is no agreed protocol for safety evaluation in a first-in-human setting. In phase I (first-in-human) pharmacological trials only small, single arm cohorts of highly selected patients are enrolled in order to establish the safety profile of a new drug. This exposes only a small number of patients to the unknown or unforeseen risks that may be associated with a new agent, in a highly regulated and scientifically rigorous manner. There is no equivalent study design for the introduction of new and experimental surgical procedures. This article proposes a practical stepwise approach to the safe introduction of new surgical procedures that surgeons and surgical departments can adopt. It includes criteria for new surgical techniques which require formal prospective ethical evaluation, and a novel study design for conducting a safety evaluation at the ‘first in human’ stage.