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Plast Reconstr Surg. 1998 Oct;102(5):1375-84.

The effect of surgeon experience on velopharyngeal functional outcome following palatoplasty: is there a learning curve?

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  • 1Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, St. Louis Children's Hospital at Washington University School of Medicine, MO 63110, USA.


There is little information in the cleft palate literature concerning the relationship between surgeon volume and clinical outcomes. It is unknown whether such a relationship applies specifically to velopharyngeal dysfunction and the need for secondary physical management of the velopharynx. The purpose of this paper was to explore the concept of an operative learning curve for different surgeons with respect to palatoplasty. Impact of case volume and procedure type on the occurrence of secondary palatal management (the main outcome measure) was assessed. The charts of 472 consecutive palatoplasty patients were reviewed by one speech and language pathologist to determine when the palatoplasty was performed, which surgeon (n = 9) performed the palatoplasty, whether velopharyngeal status was documented at a minimum of 6 years of age, and whether secondary palatal management was prescribed. The results were analyzed by year of palatoplasty, by surgeon, and by number of operations per surgeon to determine total and individual surgeon rates of secondary palatal management. There were 401 palatoplasties (85 percent recovery) with adequate documentation of velopharyngeal status by at least 6 years of age. Palatoplasty rates ranged between 1 and 258 palatoplasties per surgeon. Over the 12 years reviewed, secondary palatal management was performed for 92 patients (23 percent) of the study population. Examination of the proportion of palatoplasty patients receiving secondary palatal management by surgeon and by year showed only one surgeon with a pattern suggesting a learning curve. The proportion of patients receiving secondary palatal management was plotted against the total number of surgeries the surgeon performed. There was a strong relationship between experience and success. The number of procedures this surgeon performed per year increased at approximately the same time as the success rate improved. The categories of "total procedures" and "procedure per year" were highly correlated with each other. Success rates were analyzed by number of procedures performed per year, and there was a clear association between the two variables. To separate the effect of the two variables, a multiple regression model was constructed. The category of "total procedures" was statistically significant in the model, whereas procedures per year was not, suggesting that the key to the dominant surgeon's improvement was cumulative experience rather than frequency of performance of the operation. Palatoplasties performed by high-volume surgeons are more likely to result in better postoperative outcomes (i.e., lower rates of secondary palatal management) as compared with palatoplasties performed by low-volume surgeons. The influence of the surgeon's cumulative experience on improvement seems to be more important than the frequency of performance of primary palatoplasty.

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