Assessing the surgical skills of trainees in the operating theatre: a prospective observational study of the methodology

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Clinical Governance: An International Journal

ISSN: 1477-7274

Article publication date: 9 August 2011

Citation

Beard, J.D., Marriott, J., Purdie, H. and Crossley, J. (2011), "Assessing the surgical skills of trainees in the operating theatre: a prospective observational study of the methodology", Clinical Governance: An International Journal, Vol. 16 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/cgij.2011.24816caa.002

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Assessing the surgical skills of trainees in the operating theatre: a prospective observational study of the methodology

Article Type: Health technology assessment From: Clinical Governance: An International Journal, Volume 16, Issue 3

J.D. Beard, J. Marriott, H. Purdie and J. Crossley

Background

Until recently, surgical training in the UK was based upon an apprenticeship model. Trainees undertook many years of training and were required to pass knowledge-based exams before becoming consultants. Surgical skills were not formally assessed. The Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board now requires all postgraduate medical specialties to provide comprehensive curricula, in which the competencies defined in the syllabus are blueprinted to an assessment system. The introduction of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD), a shorter duration of training and UK NHS service pressures also demand the development of more efficient surgical training methods, in which supervised training opportunities are maximised.

Surgical specialties have introduced workplace-based assessment (WBA) to assess the surgical skills of trainees in the operating theatre. Some, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, have adapted an existing method, called Objective Structured Assessment of Technical Skills (OSATS). The Orthopaedic Curriculum and Assessment Project (OCAP) and the Intercollegiate Surgical Curriculum Programme (ISCP) have developed a new method called procedure-based assessment (PBA), which also predominantly assesses technical skills. The University of Aberdeen, in collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, has developed a behavioural rating system called Non-technical Skills for Surgeons (NOTSS). This is designed to rate non-technical skills including situation awareness, communication and teamwork, decision-making and leadership.

The purpose of assessment can be to aid learning (assessment for learning, or formative) and/or to demonstrate achievement (assessment of learning, or summative). Whatever the purpose, the principal consideration of a well-designed and -evaluated assessment system is to ensure that the assessment methods adopted are valid, reliable and acceptable and have educational impact.

Objective

The primary aim of the study was to compare the user satisfaction and acceptability, reliability and validity of three WBA methods for assessing the surgical skills of trainees in the operating theatre (PBA, OSATS and NOTSS) across a range of different surgical specialties and index procedures.

Methods

This was a prospective, observational study conducted over two years within the operating theatres of three teaching hospitals in Sheffield.

The methods selected for study were PBA, OSATS and NOTSS as these address different aspects of surgical performance (technical and non-technical skills) and are used in differing assessment and training contexts in the UK. The specialties selected were obstetrics and gynaecology (O&G), upper gastrointestinal surgery, colorectal surgery, cardiac surgery, vascular surgery and orthopaedic surgery. Two to four typical index procedures were selected from each specialty.

Surgical trainees in the chosen specialties were directly observed performing typical index procedures on patients who, along with the trainees, had given their informed consent to participate in the study. Trainees were assessed using a combination of two of the three methods (OSATS or PBA and NOTSS for O&G as this specialty was the only one using OSATS; PBA and NOTSS for the other specialties) by the clinical supervisor (or consultant supervisor) for the case and the anaesthetist and/or scrub nurse, as well as one or more independent assessors from the research team.

The aim was that at least two assessors would assess each surgical trainee undertaking at least two different index procedures in his or her specialty on at least two occasions, equating with a minimum of eight assessments per trainee. This sampling strategy was designed to allow the estimation of variation in trainee performance between individual cases and types of index procedure and differences in case complexity, as well as variability in assessor stringency and subjectivity. Furthermore, the procedures would be assessed as close together as possible for an individual trainee to avoid any significant training effect. In this way, the study methodology was orientated to provide performance-focused assessments most suited to reliability analysis.

Generalisability theory provides a reliability estimate. It is not a hypothesis test and does not therefore include an accepted approach for power calculation. However, to produce dependable reliable estimates it is essential to sample each relevant factor, principally trainees, cases and assessors, as widely and representatively as possible. An overall target of 450 cases was set, of which 150 were intended to be within O&G to allow comparison of PBAs and OSATSs within that speciality.

User satisfaction and acceptability data for each assessment method from clinical supervisor and trainee perspectives were obtained from structured questionnaires. The reliability of each method was estimated using generalisability theory. Evidence of validity for the methods included internal tool structure, correlation between tools, construct validity, predictive validity, interprocedural differences, the effect of assessor designation and the effect of assessment on performance.

Results

Information about the study was sent to 832 patients but 274 were not approached to give consent because of lack of availability of an inpatient bed on the day of surgery, alteration or cancellation of the operating list or known non-availability of a trainee. Of the 558 patients who were given consent, a total of 437 (78 per cent) cases were included in the study. The most common reasons for non-recruitment after consent were lack of availability of a trainee to perform the case (25 per cent), the clinical supervisor personally performing the case despite a trainee being present (20 per cent) and no list time available for training (12 per cent).

A total of 51 clinical supervisors, 56 anaesthetists, 39 scrub nurses, two surgical care practitioners (SCPs) and four independent assessors provided 1,635 assessments on 85 trainees undertaking the 437 cases. A total of 749 PBAs, 695 NOTSS and 191 OSATSs assessments were performed.

The PBA possesses high reliability (G>0.8 for three assessors judging one different case each) for assessing the same index procedure. However, good PBA reliability for a mix of index procedures can be achieved only by using large numbers of cases and assessors owing to strong procedure-specific variance in scores.

Objective Structured Assessment of Technical Skills was evaluated only within O&G. It had lower reliability than PBA (G>0.8 for five assessors judging one different case each) for assessing the same index procedure. OSATS also requires large numbers of cases and assessors for reliability over a mix of index procedures because of strong procedure-specific factors. A post hoc comparison of PBA reliability between O&G and non-O&G cases shows a striking difference. Within O&G, a good level of reliability (G>0.8) was not obtained using a feasible number of assessments. Conversely, within non-O&G cases the reliability of PBA was exceptionally high, with only two assessor judgements for a given index procedure being required. These findings reveal that both tools perform differently within O&G. The most likely reason for this is the higher proportion of O&G trainees with training concerns (42 per cent versus 4 per cent for all other specialties).

The reliability of NOTSS was lower than that for PBA or OSATS (G >0.8 for six assessors judging one different case each) for assessing the same index procedure. However, as procedure-specific factors exert a lesser influence on NOTSS, reliability for a mix of procedures can be achieved using eight assessor judgements.

Construct validity for PBA was demonstrated by the significant correlation of scores with age, specialty training (ST) level, total years and UK years of surgical training, total and recent experience of relevant index procedure (r=0.31–0.71). The OSATS tool did not demonstrate any evidence for construct validity, which may also be explained by the O&G cohort-specific factors. All of the four NOTSS categories demonstrated construct validity for many of these measures: all significantly predicted decision-making and situation awareness scores (r=0.22–0.57); only ST level, UK years of surgical training and recent experience of relevant index procedure predicted communication and teamwork and leadership scores (r=0.25–0.46). NOTSS also demonstrated a valid internal structure, with the observed factor structure of scores almost perfectly matching the intended structure of the tool.

The scores for the three WBA methods correlated strongly and statistically significantly. The strongest correlations were within each tool (r=0.73 between checklist and global ratings for PBA; r=0.84 between task-specific and generic ratings for OSATS; r=0.74–0.76 between the four categories within NOTSS), which is an indication of the good internal content validity of each tool. The correlations across the three methods (r=0.40–0.67) were strongest between NOTSS and PBA or OSATS in the “decision-making” domains in which there was the greatest overlap of assessment items. This provides evidence for criterion validity as tools measuring the same construct should correlate.

There is some evidence of predictive (outcome) validity for the study’s assessment methods. We found twice as many significant correlations between case outcomes and scores than could be expected by chance alone. This is the first time that such an effect has been demonstrated for trainee assessments.

Except for OSATS, there was little variation in scoring between different designations of assessor (1-4 per cent). Our independent assessor ratings using PBA were as reliable as the clinical supervisor ratings, and our independent assessor ratings using NOTSS were as reliable as the anaesthetist and scrub nurse ratings.

There were only 27 per cent of cases in which either the trainee or the clinical supervisor felt that performance had been affected by assessment, although there was little agreement between their judgements for individual cases. Although the cases judged to have been affected by direct observational assessment had lower scores, the video-recorded cases did not. This suggests that neither affect performance a priori but rather that a poor performance may be attributed to the assessment conditions.

User satisfaction and acceptability results are presented as descriptive statistics and as a proportion of those who responded to the questionnaires. The response rates were 85 per cent for clinical supervisors and 78 per cent for trainees regarding PBA, 85 per cent for both clinical supervisors and trainees regarding OSATS, and 67 per cent for scrub nurses and 54 per cent for anaesthetists regarding NOTSS.

Clinical supervisors and trainees provided predominantly positive responses about the use of PBA, although the most positive responses were from trainees. The majority of clinical supervisors agreed that PBA was valuable for providing feedback (77 per cent), as an assessment for learning (72 per cent) and for a summative purpose (68.5 per cent). Most clinical supervisors felt that PBA was important in surgical education (78 per cent) and were likely to use PBA in the future, even if it were not mandatory (68 per cent). The majority of trainees agreed that the PBA was valuable for providing feedback (88 per cent), as an assessment for learning (72 per cent) and for a summative purpose (64 per cent). Most trainees also felt that PBA was important in surgical education (82 per cent) and were likely to use PBA in the future (84 per cent).

Clinical supervisors in O&G provided predominantly positive responses about the use of OSATS, but with a greater number of negative responses regarding its summative use. The majority of O&G clinical supervisors agreed that OSATS was valuable for providing feedback (88 per cent) as an assessment for learning (76 per cent) and for a summative purpose (59 per cent). O&G trainees provided far less positive responses than clinical supervisors, again with the greatest number of negative responses regarding its summative use. While a majority agreed that OSATS was valuable for providing feedback (83 per cent), 50 per cent were of the opinion that OSATS was valuable as an aid to learning and only 39 per cent for a summative purpose. For those clinical supervisors and trainees who used both methods, their overall satisfaction with OSATS was less than for PBA.

The vast majority of scrub nurses agreed that NOTSS allowed them to easily rate interpersonal skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership (92 per cent), and cognitive skills such as situation awareness and decision-making (85 per cent), although there was much less agreement from anaesthetists (60 per cent and 27 per cent respectively). A majority of scrub nurses and anaesthetists agreed that NOTSS was valuable for reflective practice (91 per cent versus 73 per cent) and as an adjunct to the assessment of technical skills (81 per cent versus 60 per cent). The majority of scrub nurses agreed that NOTSS would enhance safety in the operating theatre (65 per cent), although there was less agreement from anaesthetists (27 per cent).

Discussion

The PBA tool possesses good overall utility as an assessment method given the good evidence for high reliability, validity and user satisfaction/acceptability. Our results indicate that PBA is highly suitable as an assessment for learning and as an assessment of learning. Furthermore, the ISCP and OCAP can be reassured about the continued use of PBA as their main WBA method for surgical specialty trainees. However, the high reliability results for PBA are procedure specific and therefore trainees must be adequately assessed on each individual index procedure. We have no reason to believe that PBA would be less valid or reliable in other surgical specialties, although further evaluation within other specialties may be useful.

OSATS is a less reliable method than PBA although good reliability (G>0.8) remains achievable using feasible numbers of assessor judgements. OSATS failed to demonstrate construct validity and there was lower overall user satisfaction than for PBA, especially among trainees. Owing to the lower overall utility, specialties that use OSATS might wish to consider altering the tool design or switching to PBA. However, there were fundamental cohort differences within O&G, with a higher proportion of senior trainees with training concerns. This is likely to have reduced estimated reliability and undermined construct validity for OSATS. Furthermore, our post hoc analysis of the PBA within O&G and non-O&G specialties revealed that even the reliability of PBA was reduced in O&G.

Whether PBA or OSATS are used to assess surgical skills within a training programme, the purpose, timing and frequency of WBA require detailed guidance for both trainees and clinical supervisors to ensure that they are used correctly and provide maximum educational effectiveness. Even if relatively low numbers of assessments are required for good reliability, this should not detract from their primary purpose as an assessment for learning, which requires frequent assessment. Furthermore, user satisfaction/acceptability for a summative purpose is lower. Clinical supervisors would benefit from continued training in assessment and feedback techniques to maximise the educational potential of WBA.

Non-technical Skills for Surgeons is a promising tool for the assessment of non-technical skills. Good reliability (G>0.8) can be achieved using feasible numbers of assessor judgements, without intensive assessor training. Given the prerequisite that reliable assessment using PBA/OSATS demands adequate assessment of individual index procedures, there would be no difficulty obtaining an adequate sample of a mix of procedures to permit a reliable assessment of non-technical skills using NOTSS. NOTSS may complement the more technical assessment methods, especially for trainees who have mastered the technical aspects of a procedure. Surgical specialties may wish to consider the inclusion of NOTSS into their assessment framework and/or consider integrating elements of NOTSS into their “technical” WBA tools.

The analyses used to estimate reliability for the study’s assessment methods highlighted that assessor designation contributed little variation (0-4 per cent) to scoring using PBA and NOTSS. These findings suggest that WBA could be completed by alternative assessors, such as anaesthetists, SCPs and scrub nurses.

The reliability of PBA and NOTSS was just as good for those assessors who had received less rigorous training. This has important implications for the routine implementation of WBA. However, training of clinical supervisors is required for good supervision and feedback.

Our difficulties with recruitment have shed light on the challenges faced by clinical supervisors and trainees in undertaking WBA. If the obstacles to recruitment that we have identified were addressed, we estimate that trainees might gain access to at least twice as many training cases within the same timeframe. These findings have important implications for training and assessment, given the requirement for surgical training to be more efficient within shorter training schemes with fewer hours for training. We have identified three levels of obstacles to achieving systematic supervised training in the operating theatre:

  1. 1.

    Organisational-level obstacles. These may be amenable to change by successful lobbying for improved training conditions, e.g. allocation of more theatre time per case, ring-fenced beds for elective admissions, establishment of training opportunities at local diagnosis and treatment centres.

  2. 2.

    Professional-level obstacles. These are amenable to change by forward planning and reorganisation of workload by the key stakeholders (clinical supervisors and trainees), e.g. rota design including taking trainees off on-call at night, voluntary use of the 8-hour EWTD opt-out for additional training.

  3. 3.

    Individual-level obstacles. These are amenable to direct change by individual groups of clinical supervisors and trainees, with the intention of improving their working relationship for training, e.g. better matching of suitable trainees to appropriate surgical cases, consultant commitment to regularly supervise trainees performing suitable cases, active trainee involvement in identifying and requesting opportunities for WBA.

Implications for practice

In summary, the main implications for the assessment of surgical trainees in the operating theatre are:

  • Evaluating assessment methods using the utility index provides a comprehensive estimate of their validity, reliability and user satisfaction/acceptability to guide successful implementation.

  • PBA has high utility for assessing predominantly technical skills, and relevant stakeholders can be assured of its suitability for assessment within surgical training.

  • NOTSS has high utility for assessing non-technical skills. Surgical specialties may wish to consider including the method into their assessment framework.

  • OSATS has more limited utility, but we do not know whether this finding extends to other cohorts of O&G trainees/assessors and other specialties that use OSATS.

  • Trainees need to be adequately assessed using PBA/OSATS for each individual index procedure in order to achieve good reliability (G>0.8).

  • Assessment methods, such as PBA, that use anchored and well-defined standards for performance assist assessors in making highly reliable judgements.

  • The primary purpose of WBA should be as an assessment for learning. Although we demonstrated good reliability using relatively low numbers of cases, regular assessment is desirable for maximum educational impact.

  • User satisfaction/acceptability for PBA/OSATS methods is highest for providing feedback and as an aid for learning. These purposes need re-emphasising through training to improve overall utility and implementation.

  • The good reliability of PBA and NOTSS across different assessor groups supports the use of non-surgeon assessors, e.g. anaesthetists, SCPs and scrub nurses.

  • If the organisational-, professional- and individual-level obstacles to training that we have identified were addressed, trainees could access twice as many training cases within the same timeframe.

Limitations of this study

The main limitation of our study is that it was conducted in one city. However, there were three hospital sites that had a range of working and training cultures, and trainees rotated into these teaching hospitals from surrounding district general hospitals during the study period. Our sampling strategy for cases and almost total participation from potential trainees and clinical supervisors also increases our confidence in the generalisability of our conclusions. The study could not include all surgical specialties or all index procedures, but we believe that the methods have been adequately evaluated for interspecialty and interprocedural differences.

A high proportion of senior trainees with training concerns were found in our O&G cohort, which made this population more homogeneous. Under these conditions, the reliability of a tool may be reduced. These O&G cohort-specific differences may have been responsible for the lower OSATS validity/reliability and lower O&G than non-O&G PBA reliability. It is not known whether OSATS would demonstrate better reliability using different cohorts of O&G trainees or other specialties that use OSATS.

Ongoing and future research

We are continuing our research into the following areas using the wealth of data produced by the study. These include:

  • The effect of assessment on performance: does qualitative analysis of our questionnaires suggest that WBA captures authentic performance?

  • The nature of WBA feedback: what are the characteristics and quality of the feedback that we have observed and documented clinical supervisors providing?

  • The ongoing validation of NOTSS: can our NOTSS data and DVDs be used to develop NOTSS for use in surgical training programmes?

  • The influences on WBA user satisfaction and acceptability: can qualitative analysis of our questionnaires shed more light on this?

  • The video assessment of surgical skills: can our DVDs be used to provide reliable assessments of trainees?

  • The WBA training of clinical supervisors: can our DVDs be used in workshops/courses to improve training for assessors?

Further research is required into the following areas:

  • the educational effectiveness of WBA;

  • the relationship between surgical experience, performance and outcomes;

  • the use of non-surgeon assessors to assess the surgical skills of trainees;

  • the value of using DVDs of operations for additional trainee feedback.

Conclusion

We believe that this is the largest study of the assessment of surgical skills in the workplace to have been undertaken. Despite the difficulties with recruitment, the primary aims of the study – to evaluate the reliability, validity and user acceptability and satisfaction of PBA, OSATS and NOTSS – were achieved.

Funding

Funding for this study was provided by Health Technology Assessment programme of the National Institute for Health Research.

©2010 Crown Copyright

J.D. Beard is based at the Sheffield Vascular Institute, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield, UK

J. Marriott is based in the Department of Reproductive and Developmental Medicine, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

H. Purdie is based at the Clinical Research Facility, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield, UK

J. Crossley is based in the Academic Unit of Medical Education, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

Further Reading

Beard, J.D., Marriott, J., Purdie, H. and Crossley, J. (2011), “Assessing the surgical skills of trainees in the operating theatre: a prospective observational study of the methodology”, Health Technol Assess, Vol. 15 No. 1