Variability in clinicians' understanding and reported methods of identifying high-risk surgical patients: a qualitative study

Amanda Selwood, Brette Blakely, Siva Senthuran, Paul Lane, John North, Robyn Clay-Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
44 Downloads (Pure)


Background: High-risk patients presenting for surgery require complex decision-making and perioperative management. However, given there is no gold standard for identifying high-risk patients, doing so may be challenging for clinicians in practice. Before a gold standard can be established, the state of current practice must be determined. This study aimed to understand how working clinicians define and identify high-risk surgical patients. Methods: Clinicians involved in the care of high-risk surgical patients at a public hospital in regional Australia were interviewed as part of an ongoing study evaluating a new shared decision-making process for high-risk patients. The new process, Patient-Centred Advanced Care Planning (PC-ACP) engages patients, families, and clinicians from all relevant specialties in shared decision-making in line with the patient's goals and values. The semi-structured interviews were conducted before the implementation of the new process and were coded using a modified form of the 'constant comparative method' to reveal key themes. Themes concerning patient risk, clinician's understanding of high risk, and methods for identifying high-risk surgical patients were extricated for close examination. Results: Thirteen staff involved in high-risk surgery at the hospital at which PC-ACP was to be implemented were interviewed. Analysis revealed six sub-themes within the major theme of factors related to patient risk: (1) increase in high-risk patients, (2) recognising frailty, (3) risk-benefit balance, (4) suitability and readiness for surgery, (5) avoiding negative outcomes, and (6) methods in use for identifying high-risk patients. There was considerable variability in clinicians' methods of identifying high-risk patients and regarding their definition of high risk. This variability occurred even among clinicians within the same disciplines and specialties. Conclusions: Although clinicians were confident in their own ability to identify high-risk patients, they acknowledged limitations in recognising frail, high-risk patients and predicting and articulating possible outcomes when consenting these patients. Importantly, little consistency in clinicians' reported methods for identifying high-risk patients was found. Consensus regarding the definition of high-risk surgical patients is necessary to ensure rigorous decision-making.

Original languageEnglish
Article number427
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Frailty
  • High-risk patients
  • Patient risk
  • Qualitative research
  • Shared decision-making
  • Surgery


Dive into the research topics of 'Variability in clinicians' understanding and reported methods of identifying high-risk surgical patients: a qualitative study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this