In this study, we analyzed 2758 consecutive POP operations over 12 years in comparable patients undergoing their first recurrent POP surgery in the anterior compartment. The strength of this material is its size and completeness. A weakness of non-randomized studies like ours is the risk of confounding because prolapse operations have many levels of difficulty, ranging from simple procedures in day surgery to very advanced operations with unsolved reconstructive problems. We tried to compensate for this by strict selection, resulting in a group of highly comparable patients, thus avoiding confounding by special anatomical or technical/operative necessities and enabling us to evaluate surgeons’ decision making.
At the national level, the use of mesh for recurrent cystocele has been fairly stable, giving an illusion of a certain consensus: in 2006–2009 (which can be interpreted as the learning period), there was a stepwise increase in mesh use followed by two stable rates of around 66% from 2009 to 2012 and around 47% from 2013 onwards.
Among the Swedish counties, however, the use of mesh differed by a factor of 11 (range 8.6–95.3%) in our observation period. The decision-making patterns in the individual counties remained the same from 2006 to 2017: Counties with low use of mesh kept having low use and counties with high use continued high use through all 12 years. The FDA warning led to a general decrease in mesh application, but the divergent pattern of mesh use prevailed.
Evidence-based decision making is one of the core values of any health care organization, and the choice between different treatment options is assumed to be a rational process. Based on this principle, the greater the amount of valid scientific information physicians receive, the more structured their beliefs should become and the more convergence it is reasonable to expect in their decision-making patterns when treating comparable patients [15,16,17].
A decade ago, when decisions regarding mesh use were hampered by limited evidence, different surgeons drew different conclusions from the available information. This has led to clear “communities of practice” at the county level regarding interpretation of existing scientific information about the effectiveness of mesh.
In the last decade, the amount of scientific information on the use of mesh in POP has increased enormously. A PubMed search for “(Pelvic organ prolapse AND (mesh OR implant))” in July 2018 yielded more than 2200 articles on the subject. A Cochrane review on transvaginal mesh compared with native tissue repair analyzed 37 randomized controlled trials of the intervention .
Since 2006, GynOp has distributed annual quality reports to all Swedish gynecological surgeons. The results are stratified according to the regional, county, and hospital level; consequently, the differences among counties are well known to the surgeons. Still, unaltered through 12 years, these groups have made mesh decisions in a clearly biased fashion, highly influenced by geographical factors, with unchanged disparity and with no measurable change toward consensus in the treatment of recurrent cystocele. It is not within the scope of this article to argue whether the use of mesh should be low or high. However, when the application of mesh ranges from 8.6 to > 95% in treatment of the same condition in comparable patients, the greater part of the underlying decisions must be suboptimal; the surgeons just cannot agree on which part.
The fact that Swedish surgeons’ decision-making patterns have remained unchanged, despite mounting information on the conditions under which mesh is useful or not, suggests that Swedish surgeons’ decisions may be attributable to two factors: (1) The available scientific information may not qualify, or be interpreted, as evidence and/or (2) surgeons may read scientific information selectively. In the case of POP surgery, where surgeons have worked on patients and drawn their own conclusions regarding the conditions under which mesh is useful or not, this may make them susceptible to favoring information that supports their own prior hypotheses. Whether one or a combination of both of the above factors is the underlying reason, the result is disturbing and unsettling.
A large disparity in surgeons’ decisions can be stimulating. It is an indication that there is potential for improvement and can be seen as a challenge to communicate and learn from each other. However, Swedish surgeons have maintained their contradictory positions for more than a decade with unchanged disparity. This indicates that the necessary scientific communication and learning process has stopped—despite the abundance of publications and the steady supply of new types of mesh to replace withdrawn ones .
For surgeons, this shows an astonishing mismatch between learning needs and learning readiness.
For patients, this represents 12 years of a geographical lottery concerning whether mesh is used or not.
The extraordinary disparity in mesh use between 15 OECD countries, shown in a 2012 survey, indicates that this is by no means a Swedish problem alone, but an international challenge .
To invigorate the surgical learning process, it seems prudent to question the apparently biased ways we glean evidence from the available information.
A sensible way forward would be to focus on increased communication across established consensus groups to enhance awareness of and curiosity about different solutions, increase willingness to learn from each other, and view differences as a possibility to learn and not a chance to dominate. In Sweden, this communication would need to take place between counties—in the OECD, between member countries.