What We Talk About When We Talk About Risk

Current efforts to improve the cost-effectiveness of health care focus on assessing accurately the value of technologically complex, costly medical treatments for individual patients and society. These efforts universally acknowledge that the determination of such value should incorporate information regarding the risks posed by a given treatment for an individual, but they typically overlook the implications for medical decision-making that inhere in how notions of risk are understood and used in contemporary medical discourse. To gain perspective on how the hazards of surgery have been defined and redefined in medical thought, the authors examined changes over time in notions of risk related to operative care.

Historical writings were reviewed on risk assessment and patient selection for surgical procedures published between 1957 and 1997 and informal interviews were conducted with experts. To examine changes attributable to advances in research on risk assessment, the authors focused on the period surrounding the 1977 publication of an influential surgical risk-stratification index.

Writings before 1977 demonstrate a summative, global approach to patients as “good” or “poor” risks, without quantifying the likelihood of specific postoperative events. Beginning in the early 1980s, assessments of operative risk increasingly emphasized quantitative estimates of the probability of dysfunction of a specific organ system after surgery. This new approach to establishing surgical risk was consistent with concurrent trends in other domains of medicine. In particular, it emphasized a more “scientific,” standardized approach to medical decision making over an earlier focus on individual physicians’ judgment and professional authority.

Recent writings on operative risk reflect a viewpoint that is more specific and, at the same time, more generic and fragmented than earlier approaches. By permitting the separation of multiple component hazards implicit in surgical interventions, such a viewpoint may encourage a distinct, permissive standard for surgical interventions that conflicts with larger policy efforts to promote cost-effective decision-making by physicians and patients.