One of the great honors of my professional career was being nominated to the presidency of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons and being given the opportunity to deliver the presidential address at the Society’s 42nd annual scientific meeting in Palm Springs, Calif.
One of the core principles of the SGS mission statement is supporting excellence in gynecologic surgery and, to that end, the main focus of my term was to address the decline in vaginal hysterectomy rates. What follows is an excerpt from my speech explaining the rationale for vaginal hysterectomy (VH) and steps the SGS is taking to reverse the decline.
Unfortunately, what is happening in today’s practice environment is declining use of vaginal hysterectomy, with concomitant increases in endoscopic hysterectomy, mostly with the use of robotic assistance. Being the president of a society previously known as the Vaginal Surgeons Society , it would not be surprising to hear that I have been accused of being “anti-robot.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
When we talk about the surgical treatment of patients with endometrial and cervical cancer, I do not need a randomized clinical trial to know that not making a laparotomy incision is probably a good thing when you’re treating these patients. There are benefits to using robotic techniques in this subpopulation; it is cost effective due to the reduced morbidity and straight stick laparoscopy for these patients is difficult to perform; therefore it’s not been as widely published or performed. I believe that robotic hysterectomy for these disorders should be the standard of care. In this regard, I am pro robot ( Gynecologic Oncol. 2015;138:457-71 ).
On the other hand, I also don’t need a randomized trial (even though randomized trials exist) to know that if you have a choice to make, or not make, extra incisions during surgery, it’s better to not make the extra incisions.
It’s certainly not rocket science to know that a Zeppelin or Heaney clamp is orders of magnitude cheaper than equipment required to perform an endoscopic hysterectomy – $22.25 USD for instrument and $3.19 USD to process per case ( Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016;214:S461-2 ]).
Level I evidence demonstrates that when compared to other minimally invasive hysterectomy techniques, vaginal hysterectomy is cheaper, the convalescence is stable or reduced, and the complication rates are lower ( Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Aug. 12;8:CD003677 ).
Moreover, if you don’t place a port, you can’t get a port site complication (these complications are rare, but potentially serious when they occur). You can’t perforate the common iliac vein. You can’t put a Veress needle through the small bowel. You can’t get a Richter’s hernia. And finally, while you can get cuff dehiscence with vaginal hysterectomy, I’ve never seen it, and this is a real issue with the endoscopic approaches ( Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Feb. 15;2:CD006583 ).
This isn’t just my opinion. Every major surgical society has recommended vaginal hysterectomy when technically feasible.
Of course, “technical feasibility” is the kicker and it’s important to ask what this means.
First, we have to look at what I call the hysterectomy continuum. There are the young, sexually-active women with uterovaginal procidentia where an endoscopic approach for sacral colpopexy might be considered. Then you have patients who are vaginally parous, have a mobile uterus less than 12 weeks in size, and have a basic gynecologic condition such as dysfunctional uterine bleeding, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, or painful menses (this is about 40%-50% of patients when I reviewed internal North Valley Permanente Group data in 2012); these patients are certainly excellent candidates for vaginal hysterectomy. Then there are patients with 30-week-size fibroid uterus, three prior C-sections, and known stage 4 endometriosis (where an open or robotic approach would be justified).
Second, we have to address the contradictory data presented in the literature regarding vaginal hysterectomy rates. On one hand, we have data from large case series and randomized, controlled trials which demonstrate that it’s feasible to perform a high percentage of vaginal hysterectomies ( Obstet Gynecol. 2004;103:1321-5 and Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2014;290:485-91 ). On the other hand, 40 years of population data show the opposite ( Obstet Gynecol. 2009;114:1041-8 ).
In the pre-endoscopic era, 80% and 20% of hysterectomies were performed via the abdominal and vaginal routes, respectively. During the laparoscopic era, 64%, 22%, and 14% of hysterectomies were performed via the abdominal, vaginal, and laparoscopic routes, respectively. And during the current robotic era, it is now 32%, 16%, 28%, and 25% performed via the abdominal, vaginal, laparoscopic, and robotic routes, respectively.
During this 40-year time frame, despite data and recommendations that support vaginal hysterectomy, there has never been an obvious incentive to perform this procedure (e.g. to my knowledge, no one has ever been paid more to do a vaginal hysterectomy, or been prominently featured on a hospital’s website regarding his or her ability to perform an “incision-less” hysterectomy ( Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012;207:174.e1-174.e7 ). Why weren’t and why aren’t we outraged about this? I have always been under the impression that cheaper and safer is better!
The first thing I hear to explain this – mostly from robotic surgeons and from the robotic surgery device sales representatives – is that the decline in the proportion of vaginal hysterectomies is irrelevant in that it has taken the robot to meaningfully reduce open hysterectomy rates. The other argument I hear – mostly from the laparoscopic surgeons – is that vaginal hysterectomy rates have not changed because most gynecologists cannot and will never be able to perform the procedure. So, what is the point of even discussing solutions?
I disagree with the laparoscopic and robotic surgeons. We should be outraged and do something to effect change. Vaginal hysterectomy offers better value (for surgeons who aren’t thinking about value right now, I suggest that you start. Value-based reimbursement is coming soon) and we know that a high percentage of vaginal hysterectomies are feasible in general gynecologic populations. Surgeons who perform vaginal hysterectomy are not magicians or better surgeons, just differently trained. We have to recognize that many, or even most, patients are candidates for vaginal hysterectomy.
Finally, when we look at robotics for benign disease, we spend more money than on other minimally invasive hysterectomy techniques but we don’t get better outcomes ( J Minim Invasive Gynecol. 2010;17:730-8 and Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 150:92-6 ). Yet surgeons currently use robotics for 25% or more of benign hysterectomies.
What are we thinking and how can we afford to continue this?
We need to counsel our patients (and ourselves) that a total hysterectomy requires an incision in the vagina, and there can be a need for additional abdominal incisions of varying size and number. Fully informed consent must include a discussion of all types of hysterectomy including both patient and surgeon factors associated with the recommended route. Ultimately, the route of hysterectomy should be based on the patient and not the surgeon ( Obstet Gynecol. 2014;124:585-8 ).
It is easy to say, and supported by the evidence, that we should do more vaginal hysterectomies. It is also easy to note that the rate of vaginal hysterectomy has been stable to declining over the last 4 decades and that there are significant issues with residency training in gynecologic surgery (serious issues, but beyond the scope of this editorial).
So, what are we at SGS doing to support increased rates of vaginal hysterectomy? Every December we sponsor a postgraduate course on vaginal hysterectomy techniques. This is an excellent learning opportunity. (Visit www.sgsonline.org for more information regarding dates and costs). We’re starting partnerships with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Foundation for Exxcellence in Women’s Health and others, to begin a “train the trainer” program to teach junior faculty how to do and teach vaginal hysterectomy. We’ve developed CREOG (Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology) modules to educate residents about the procedure, and we are in the process of communicating with residency and fellowship program directors about what else we can do to assist them with vaginal hysterectomy teaching. Other goals are to work with ACOG to develop quality metrics for hysterectomy and to develop physician-focused alternative payment models that recognize the value of vaginal hysterectomy.
I believe that in this country we should train for, incentivize, and insist upon a vaginal hysterectomy rate of at least 40% (this albeit arbitrary percentage is based upon the majority of vaginally parous women with uteri less than 12 weeks in size and a minority of the more difficult patients getting a vaginal hysterectomy). And before you say “it’s never been 40%,” please consider the famous quotation by Dr. William Mayo: “The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered.” Clearly, the best interest of the patient, if she is a candidate, is to have a vaginal hysterectomy. Our mission at SGS is to facilitate surgical education to make more patients candidates for vaginal hysterectomy so that we can achieve the 40% goal.
Dr. Walter is director of urogynecology and pelvic pain at The Permanente Medical Group, Roseville, Calif. He is also the immediate past president of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons. He reported having no financial disclosures.