For Residents

Surgical Dermatoethics for the Trainee

Author and Disclosure Information

Proficiency in performing dermatologic procedures is obtained by practice, and residents practice with real patients. The imperative of training new generations of dermatologists must be achieved while patient autonomy is respected and the highest standards of patient safety are upheld. This article examines ethical considerations that are inherent to the training process in procedural dermatology, including disclosing training status, informing patients of experience level with a particular procedure, and the need for graded responsibility under appropriate supervision.

Resident Pearl

  • As residents, we must gain experience performing procedures on real patients to enter independent practice as proficient dermatologists. It is important to be mindful of the ethical challenges inherent to the hands-on training process and to understand the ethical principles that guide best practices.



It is an uncomfortable and unavoidable reality as physicians that for every procedure we learn, there must be a first time we perform it. As with any type of skill, it takes practice to become proficient. The unique challenge in medicine is that the practice involves performing procedures on real patients. We cannot avoid the hands-on nature of the training process; we can, however, approach its ethical challenges mindfully. Herein, I will discuss some of the ethical considerations in providing care as a trainee and identify potential barriers to best practices, particularly as they relate to procedural dermatology.

Tell Patients You Are in Training

In every patient encounter, we must introduce ourselves as a trainee. The principle of right to the truth dictates that we are transparent about our level of training and do not misrepresent ourselves to our patients. A statement released by the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs asserts that “[p]atients should be informed of the identity and training status of individuals involved in their care.”1

Although straightforward in theory, this mandate is not always simple in practice. With patients unfamiliar with the health care system, it could be more onerous to clearly communicate training status than simply introducing oneself as a resident. A study conducted in the emergency department at Vanderbilt University Hospital (Nashville, Tennessee) found that many patients and their family members (N=430) did not understand the various roles and responsibilities of physicians in the teaching hospital setting. For example, 30% believed an attending physician requires supervision by a resident, and an additional 17% of those surveyed were not sure.2 The AMA requests we “refrain from using terms that may be confusing when describing the training status of the students,”1 which evidently is audience specific. Thus, as with any type of patient education, a thorough introduction may require assessment of understanding.

Disclosure of Experience Level With a Particular Procedure

There is a clear professional expectation that we disclose to patients that we are in training; however, a universal standard does not exist for disclosure of our exact level of experience in a particular procedure. Do we need to tell patients if it is our first time performing a given procedure? What if it is our tenth? Multiple studies have found that patients want specifics. In one study of bariatric surgery patients (N=108), 93% felt that they should always be informed if it was the first time a trainee was performing a particular procedure.3 A study conducted in the emergency department setting (N=202) also found that the majority of patients thought they should be informed if a resident was performing a procedure for the first time, but the distribution differed by procedure (66% for suturing vs 82% for lumbar puncture).4

Despite these findings, this degree of specificity is not always discussed with patients and perhaps does not need to be. LaRosa and Grant-Kels5 analyzed a hypothetical scenario in which a dermatology resident is to perform his first excision under attending supervision and concluded that broad disclosure of training status would suffice in the given scenario, as it would not be necessary to state that it was his first time performing an excision. It is unclear if the same conclusion could be drawn for all procedures and levels of experience. Outcome data would help inform the analysis, but the available data are from other specialties including general surgery, gynecology, and urology. Some studies demonstrate an increased risk of adverse outcomes with trainee involvement in procedures such as bariatric surgery and emergency general surgery, but the data are mixed and may not be generalizable to dermatologic procedures.6-8


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