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Skills Needed for a Surgeon

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A surgeon’s technical skills can make the difference between life and death. Her skills can also make a difference in the size of the surgical scar, whether the patient develops an infection and whether he develops other postoperative complications. However, surgeons need other skills, some of which are common to all physicians, and others specific to the practice of surgery.

Assessment and Intuition

All physicians need assessment and diagnostic skills. In the case of a surgeon, these skills allow her to perform a physical examination and -- in many cases -- make a diagnosis even before her findings are confirmed by laboratory tests or X-rays. Surgeons need to develop intuition, according to “Smart Surgeons; Sharp Decisions: Cognitive Skills to Avoid Errors & Achieve Results.” Author Uttam Shiralkar, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgery of England, takes the position that while surgeons gain intuitive skills through experience, they can also sharpen intuition through practice.

Speed and Skill

In the operating room, technique makes a difference in speed. In a study of bariatric surgeons reported in the October 2013 “New England Journal of Medicine,” the authors report technically skilled surgeons could operate more quickly. A short operation decreases anesthesia time and can help to prevent complications such as blood clots in the legs that result when a patient spends longer periods in the operating room. The surgeons who rated their peers assessed the operating doctors’ gentleness, how they exposed tissues, how they handled instruments, overall time and motion, and the flow of the operation. The most skillful surgeons spent less time on the surgical procedure and their patients had fewer complications.

Non-Technical Skills

A February 2006 article published in “Surgery” reviewed a number of sources to determine what skills a surgeon needs in the operating room other than technical skills. Communication and teamwork were two of these skills. The surgeon must be able to communicate effectively with other members of the team such as the anesthesiologist, nurse, surgical technicians and surgical assistants. Leadership and decision-making, the other two non-technical skills, ensure that decisions are made quickly and with sound medical judgment.

Communication Outside the O.R.

Although communication in the operating room is important, communication with the patient and patient’s family are equally, if not more important, wrote Mark C. Gebhardt for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Gerhardt notes that the surgeon uses her communication skills to obtain accurate patient information and explain treatment plans to patients. Good communication can also help keep the surgeon from being sued if there is a poor outcome, as communication helps build rapport between patient and surgeon. Even a surgeon’s tone of voice can affect the way a patient feels about the therapeutic relationship.


Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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