Lobectomies done by video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) result in fewer complications and less pain and save total costs compared with the traditional approach. However, the majority of procedures are still performed via open thoracotomies, because VATS lobectomy is considered difficult to learn, requiring experience in open surgery, and causing complications in the initial phase of the learning curve. The aim of this study was to describe a training model appreciating patient safety during training and to explore the initial learning curve for a trainee rather inexperienced in open surgery.
A trainee who had performed 14 lobectomies by thoracotomy was enrolled in a training programme at a high-volume VATS centre. The training model included courses and simulations followed by the selection of suitable patients operated on during close expert supervision. Data regarding time, a variety of quality indicators and complications were collected prospectively and compared with experts' performance.
Over 12 months, 29 of 214 VATS lobectomies were performed by the trainee. Twice, the supervisor had to finish the procedure due to technical difficulties. None of the operations were converted to open thoracotomy. Compared with experts, the trainee operated significantly slower [median 120 (range 74–160) vs 100 (range 42–255) min, P = 0.04]; had similar perioperative bleeding [median 100 (range 10–500) vs 50 (range 5–2500) ml, P = 0.79]; had earlier chest tube removal [median 1 (range 1–6) vs 2 (range 1–32) postoperative days, P < 0.001]; and reduced hospital stay [median 3 (range 1–10) vs 4 (range 1–41) days, P < 0.001]. Twenty-three (79%) patients had no complications, while 2 had atrial fibrillation. Pneumothorax after chest tube removal, incisional infection, prolonged pain and need for pleuracentesis were each seen once.
With thorough preparation of trainees and training on selected patients under close supervision, the learning curve can be overcome with good results even if the trainee has limited prior experience in open surgery.