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Hum Factors. 2009 Feb;51(1):67-77.

Decision making during preoperative surgical planning.

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University of Southern Brittany, Vannes, France.



This study analyzes decision making during preoperative surgical planning through two cognitive indicators: conflict and cognitive control.


Planning is a critical stage in naturalistic decision making, and there is some evidence suggesting that this activity depends on the level of expertise and the demands of the task. The specificity of surgery resides in the necessity to cope with (potential) conflicts between the purpose of the surgical intervention and the biological laws governing the patient's body.


Six neurosurgeons (two board-certified neurosurgeons, two chief residents, and two residents) described the operative procedure envisaged on nine surgical cases of increasing surgical complexity. A detailed analysis of one surgical case described by one expert was performed. Moreover, we measured the number of conflicts and controls reported by each surgeon.


Two experts were the only ones for which the report of conflicts increased with surgical complexity (respectively, 75% and 73% of the conflict variance predicted by complexity). The two experts significantly activated a higher proportion of knowledge-based control (respectively, 43% and 38%) than did intermediates and residents. The residents significantly activated more motor skill-based controls (respectively, 40% and 44%) than did intermediates and experts.


It seems that expert surgical decision making to cope with task demands is significantly associated with conflict monitoring. Knowledge-based control to regulate conflict is mainly produced by experts.


Conflicts and controls analyzed through verbal reports can be used as relevant indicators to highlight critical moments in decision making that potentially require assistance from information systems.

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