What REALLY happens in the operating theatre: Egos run rife as surgeons argue, flirt and throw things while patients are under the knife, reveals study

By Mario Tacher on Jul 03 in Health.

People may imagine the operating room to be a place of intense concentration and serious silence as expert surgeons perform lifesaving operations every day.

But what goes on behind the theatre doors could sometimes be more like a soap opera, according to a new study into surgical staff’s behaviour.

Surgeons and their assistants argue, flirt, throw things across the room and poke fun at their patients while they are under the knife, research has revealed.

The social structure of a surgical team has even been compared to that of a family of monkeys, in which conflict is useful.

For the study a researcher from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, sat in on 200 operations and recorded more than 6,000 conversations.

She found just over one in every 40 interactions between surgical staff is a fight or argument.

More than one in every 40 conversations between staff in operating theatres are arguments, new research has revealed

Television shows and movies may give the wrong impression when they portray a surgeon in a silent room asking to be handed a scalpel as a single bead of sweat runs down their forehead.

In fact, they’re just as likely to be gossiping or chatting about sports or the news, The Times reports.

She sat in on the procedures to watch how surgeons and their assistants behave at work.

Medics throw rubbish, dance, and flirt with one another

Medical staff were seen throwing rubbish across the room into the bin and celebrating when it went in, dancing to music, and rubbing each other’s legs flirtatiously, according to the study.

One reportedly called an unconscious patient ‘gigantic’ and said they would need ten people to move her.


A Scottish NHS hospital has become the first in the UK to use pioneering robot surgery on lung-cancer patients.

Known as Da Vinci robots, the state-of-the-art technology allows surgeons to perform complex operations with just a few incisions, speeding up patient recovery more than invasive procedures.

The Golden Jubilee Hospital, Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, is the first in the UK to use such robots, which have five octopus-like arms that end with tiny instruments which can bend and rotate 360 degrees.

Patient Geraldine MacAulay, 55, who suffered from cancer of the mucus-secreting glands, has already benefited after spending just five nights in hospital after having part of her lung removed by the robots.

Within a week Ms MacAulay was able to climb the 80 steps to her top-floor Glaswegian flat.

Doctors believe the £1.3 million system will pay for itself in the long term by allowing patients to return home quicker with less hospital-care needs.

And another stormed out of the operating room in a huff when an assistant accidentally squirted him in the eye with bodily fluids from an infectious patient.

Dr Jones’s study suggests status and ‘ego’ is a main cause of arguments in the theatre, and they are most likely to happen when high-ranking male surgeons try to exert their dominance.

And the main surgeons are almost always responsible – they were the cause of 118 out of 175 arguments Dr Jones observed.

Fewer conflicts when more women are in the room

However, arguments are less common when there are more women in the room, or if the surgeon is outnumbered by members of the other sex.

Nurses and junior colleagues have more chance of being the ones at whom the anger is directed.

Risky operations also get tensions running higher in the room: around 5 per cent of heart surgeries ended in a bust-up, whereas fewer than one per cent did if a patient was having a gynaecological or orthopaedic procedure.

Another of the paper’s authors, Frans de Waal, an expert in the behaviour of primates, says conflict can be useful.

The researchers think the operating room has a similar structure to primates’ biology – men try to gain power and authority while women want social status – but that mixed groups or gender roles can keep this more controlled.

‘Avoiding conflict is not possible’ 

‘Avoiding conflicts altogether is not going to be possible,’ he said. ‘It’s not even good. Certain things need to be said.’

Despite the conflicts, some of which Dr Jones said could be jeopardising the safety of the unconscious patient, nearly six out of ten (59 per cent) of interactions between surgical staff were positive scenes of co-operation.

Only 2.8 per cent of interactions were conflicts.

The researchers’ findings were published in the journal PNAS.