Bile duct injury is an important unsolved problem of laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Duct misidentification was the cause of injury in 42 out of the 49 reviewed patients. Underestimation of risk, cue ambiguity and visual misperception were important factors.
Bile duct injury is an important unsolved problem of laparoscopic cholecystectomy, occurring with unacceptable frequency even in the hands of experienced surgeons. This suggests that a systemic predisposition to the injury is intrinsic to cholecystectomy and indicates that an analysis of the psychology and heuristics of surgical decision-making in relation to duct identification may be a guide to prevention. Review of published reports on laparoscopic bile duct injury from 1997 to 2007 was carried out. An analysis was also carried out of the circumstances of the injuries in 49 patients who had transection of an extrahepatic bile duct and who were referred for reconstruction or were assessed in a medicolegal context. Special emphasis was placed on identifying the possible psychological aspects of duct misidentification. Review of published work showed an emphasis on the technical aspects of correct identification of the cystic duct, with few papers addressing the heuristics and psychology of surgical decision-making during cholecystectomy. Duct misidentification was the cause of injury in 42 out of the 49 reviewed patients (86%). The injury was not recognized at operation in 70% and delay in recognition persisted into the postoperative period in 57%. Underestimation of risk, cue ambiguity and visual misperception ('seeing what you believe') were important factors in misidentification. Delay in recognition of the injury is a feature consistent with cognitive fixation and plan continuation, which help construct and sustain the duct misidentification during the operation and beyond. Changing the 'culture' of cholecystectomy is probably the most effective strategy for preventing laparoscopic bile duct injury, especially if combined with new technical approaches and an understanding of the heuristics and psychology of the duct misidentification error. Training of surgeons for laparoscopic cholecystectomy should emphasize the need to be alert for cues that the incorrect duct is being dissected or that a bile duct injury might have occurred. Surgeons may also be trained to accept the need for plan modification, to seek cues that refute a given hypothesis and to apply 'stopping rules' for modifying or converting the operation.