Surgery at Sea: Exploring the Training Gap for Isolated Military Surgeons

Matthew D. Nealeigh*, Walter B. Kucera, Matthew J. Bradley, Elliot M. Jessie, W. Brian Sweeney, E. Matthew Ritter, Carlos J. Rodriguez

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Objective: Newly-graduated military general surgeons often find themselves isolated at sea, solely responsible for all surgical care of several thousand sailors, regardless of the surgical specialty training required for any individual procedure. This educational need assessment explored trends in afloat surgical care over the last 25 years, and assessed trainees’ preparedness for their expected role as an isolated surgeon. Design: A sample of deidentified US Navy Ship's Surgeon case logs were reviewed to determine afloat case load trends in 5 common afloat case categories (urologic/gynecologic, anorectal, hernia, appendectomy, and hand/orthopedic/trauma) from 1990s to 2017. Individual procedures were mapped to American College of Surgeons/Military Health System Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes line items to ensure afloat-relevant skills were identified. Recent military resident case logs were then compared with afloat cases to evaluate relevant trainee experience. Setting: US Navy ships at sea from 1995 to 2017. Participants: US Navy afloat-deployed surgeons, totaling 1340 cases within the study period. Results: Case log analysis of 1340 surgeries, comprising >200 months at sea, reflected 46 named procedures; 34 of 46 (74%) correlated to an intraoperative knowledge, skills, and attitudes item. The most common surgeries were vasectomy, (304 of 1340, 23%). No difference in case mix was apparent comparing pre- and post-2000 deployments (representing afloat laparoscopic integration) in 4 of 5 categories, while hernias proportionally declined. Case volume per deployment markedly declined overall (p < 0.001) and in each category. Resident case log analysis from 2012 to 2016 showed experience was limited in urologic/gynecologic, orthopedic, and open appendectomy categories. Conclusions: No formal case repository exists for afloat surgery, making detailed analysis problematic. Current training provides excellent surgical education but minimal exposure to rare-but-real cases expected on deployments, which may not translate to competency for the isolated, afloat surgeon. Military surgical leadership should embrace training for these cases and assertively invest in the development of the military's newest surgeons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1139-1145
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Surgical Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Isolated surgeon
  • Medical Knowledge
  • Patient Care
  • Practice-Based Learning and Improvement
  • military
  • surgery resident
  • surgical education


Dive into the research topics of 'Surgery at Sea: Exploring the Training Gap for Isolated Military Surgeons'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this