Defining the autonomy gap: When expectations do not meet reality in the operating room

Shari L. Meyerson*, Ezra N. Teitelbaum, Brian C. George, Mary C. Schuller, Debra A. Darosa, Jonathan P. Fryer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

97 Scopus citations


Objective To develop operative independence with essential procedures by the end of their training, residents need graded autonomy as they progress through training. This study compares autonomy expectations, as defined by faculty and residents, with autonomy measured in the operating room.

Methods Operative procedures performed by general surgery residents between November 2012 and June 2013 were each assigned an autonomy score by the operating attending physician using a previously described rating scale (Zwisch). Scores range from minimum autonomy, "show and tell," to maximum autonomy, "supervision only." Autonomy expectations were defined by a survey asking faculty and residents what autonomy-level residents should achieve during each year of training for each of the 10 most commonly performed procedures. Faculty expectations, resident expectations, and actual operating room autonomy data were compared using analysis of variance with post hoc analysis by Tukey honestly significant difference test.

Results A total of 1467 operative cases were scored using the Zwisch scale over the period of the study. The 10 most common procedures accounted for 56.3% (827) of the cases. Resident and faculty expectations of resident operative autonomy were similar. For only laparoscopic cholecystectomy, residents expected significantly more autonomy than the faculty did during the junior years but they agreed with the faculty for the chief year. When expectations were compared with actual performance, the resident autonomy level achieved was significantly less than that expected by residents or faculty or both for all 10 procedures in at least one postgraduate level. For every procedure performed more than 5 times during the study period by postgraduate years 3 to 5 residents, autonomy was significantly less than expected.

Conclusions Surgical faculty and residents had similar expectations for resident operative autonomy, yet actual resident performance failed to achieve those shared expectations for even the most common procedures. This autonomy gap provides more evidence for concerns about the preparedness of graduating residents for independent practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e64-e72
JournalJournal of Surgical Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2014


  • autonomy
  • graduate medical education
  • perform- ance
  • surgery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Education


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