Emergency surgery is a surgery that must take place immediately. It contrasts with other surgery types where there is more time to make a decision, like elective and semi-elective surgeries. The delay or refusal of an emergency surgery might forever damage a patient’s health, significantly reduce function, or cause death. Although these operations vary in type, they must be performed right away. Surgeons may have certain rights when performing them that don’t apply in other cases.
There are three types of surgery defined by the time available to decide: emergency, semi-elective, and elective. Semi-elective surgeries need to be done to preserve health, life, or bodily function, but there is a larger window of time in which they can be performed. For example, a baby with mild heart defects might need them repaired eventually. The timing might not be urgent, and several months or years could elapse before these defects damage health.
In contrast, elective surgeries are performed for conditions that don’t necessarily imply health risk. Many cosmetic surgeries are elective. Any procedure that has a viable non-surgical alternative, and which doesn’t compromise health or function, is potentially elective.
The situations requiring an emergency surgery are varied. Wounds from things like knives or bullets, which are compromising the function of organs, need immediate surgical attention. Partial or total detachment of limbs, and severe fractures with the bone penetrating the skin are additional examples.
Total dysfunction of organs, like the heart, lung, brain, spleen or appendix, often must be treated right away. During pregnancy, profound maternal or fetal distress might necessitate an emergency c-section. Any form of severe internal bleeding also potentially requires emergency surgery.
Patients who are in a position to consent for emergency surgery have the option to decline it, and are told what their risks are if they do. Some people don’t want an operation and create an advanced directive that states their wishes. This step is important, because surgeons may have the power to make a decision about emergency surgery without patient consent.
Unlike elective and semi-elective surgeries, emergency operations can usually be performed without consent. When a condition is judged to be potentially fatal or likely to permanently impair function, medical staff make every effort to get consent from the patient or a family member. If that consent can’t be obtained, due to the patient being unconsciousness or family being unavailable, the doctor proceeds with treatment because continued waiting risks the health or life of the patient.
Typically, surgeons won’t delay saving a life if they don’t have consent. They usually have legal protection for making a decision of such magnitude. This scenario doesn’t occur with elective and semi-elective surgeries. There is time to plan for these procedures and to employ standard measures to acquire patient and/or family permission.