You’ve heard of ghost writers, who pen books uncredited so that a different, and usually more prominent, person can publish it as their own writing. 

Did you know that a similar thing happens in medicine with what are known as ghost surgeries?

It’s true. A ghost surgery is one where the surgeon who is supposed to perform the procedure is replaced by another surgeon without the patient’s knowledge or consent. The replacement surgeon is often not even a fully licensed doctor, but a medical resident who is still technically in training. 

Real-life cases of ghost surgeries

Patients usually see this as a bait and switch and a betrayal of their trust. After all, many patients put a lot of time and effort into selecting a doctor and building a rapport with them. They don’t want just anyone performing potentially life-altering procedures on them— whether it is rhinoplasty or facelift, they want the doctor they personally vetted. 

Like the Chicago patient who underwent kidney surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Her urologist had promised her that he would perform the operation, and then didn’t. Another medical professional did. That patient ended up suing her urologist for this ghost surgery. 

Or a New Hampshire woman who also ended up taking her doctor to court after her heart surgery was performed by someone other than the prominent cardiologist she had specifically sought out. She sustained severe heart damage during her ghost surgery and now needs a pacemaker to live. 

How patients can protect themselves

Ghost surgery is not an accepted or approved practice within medicine. The American College of Surgeons has guidelines that explicitly condemn the practice of ghost surgery as unethical. These guidelines state that surgeons may not mislead their patient about who will be performing their surgery. They also state that the surgeon who is supposed to be performing the procedure “is responsible for the patient’s welfare throughout the operation, including remaining in the operating room or the immediate vicinity.”

So how can patients use this knowledge to protect themselves? It helps to read the consent forms that must be completed before the surgery. Double check that the paperwork clearly identifies the procedure and provider you agreed to. Also, discuss the matter with your doctor directly, and be explicit that you are consenting to a procedure that is performed by them and not by anyone else. 

Ghost surgeries are an unfortunate and controversial reality. It shouldn’t have to fall to the patient to be extra vigilant or proactive about who performs their surgery, but this is one important way patients can protect themselves against an unwanted outcome. 

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