Right now it's more of a 'gesture'...
January 15, 2009 4:26 AM   Subscribe

In the medical world, what is the difference between an "operation" and a "procedure"?

The doctors looking after my grandfather refer to some jobs are procedures and others as operations. They can't explain to me the difference between the two.

Is this a UK distinction, or is it in the US too?
posted by twine42 to Health & Fitness (6 answers total)
I would assume that an operation is a procedure, but a procedure is not necessarily an operation. Operations involve making an incision.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:37 AM on January 15, 2009

Procedures are expensive, operations are REALLY expensive?

I always assumed that "procedure" was used to connote simplicity, easiness, lack of danger. An "operation" is a sweatty doctor demanding scalpels and brow-wipes while the medical students watch from the gallery. A procedure, on the other hand, is the doctor sticking an expensive device in you and then putting a band-aid on and sending you on your way. A cardiac bypass is an operation, a vasectomy is a procedure. Procedures are done in the comfort of your doctor's office, operations are in a hospital.
posted by gjc at 5:18 AM on January 15, 2009

I used to be a medical secretary in the UK - where I worked, a 'procedure' was something quite small, usually not involving general anaesthetic, such as for example removal of stitches or closing a chest wound (sometimes the sternotomy was left open after open heart surgery). These would be written up in the form of a 'procedure note' which was a description of what had been done. I could be wrong but a procedure could well be something done at the patient's bedside, i.e. not in theatre.

An 'operation' was usually bigger, involving general anaesthetic and an incision of some kind (though laparoscopic surgery would be an 'operation'). These would be written up as an 'operation summary' involving full description of anaesthesia given, approach, techniques used, progress etc etc.

Of course this may not be the distinction that your grandfather's hospital is drawing, and they most likely use the two words more or less interchangeably, with 'procedure' being a more general term.
posted by altolinguistic at 5:18 AM on January 15, 2009

In the practice where I work, a "procedure" is usually something that doesn't have a high risk of complications. Procedures can be done in free-standing surgical centers or hospitals or even in the office, and generally you go home the same day. "Operations" have a higher risk of comlications, almost always require at least an overnight stay, and the patient is more closely monitored afterward. As far as the docs I work for are concerned, incisions have nothing to do with the difference between a procedure and an operation.

But this is just my practice. I think that each doctor has his/her own definition of those terms. I've heard surgeons refer to everything they do as a "procedure" because what they do they've done thousands of times and is no big deal (to them anyway- I'm sure the patient would beg to differ). I've also heard God-Complexed docs refer to simnple procedures as "operations" because they want to convey that your life hangs in the balance and they are the only one who can save you. I don't care for these types.

To get back to your question, though, I don't really think there is a clear answer because it really depends on the individual doctor's definition.
posted by dogmom at 6:22 AM on January 15, 2009

All "operations" are "procedures" but not all "procedures" are "operations." "Procedure" refers to any medical process, be it a blood draw, an MRI, an X-ray, a cathaterization, or open-heart surgery. An "operation" generally refers to things which would be considered "surgery," i.e. things which involve an incision and some form of anesthetic, though it is generally reserved for the more serious forms of surgery. So bypass surgery would generally be considered an "operation" but removing a mole generally would not, though both would be referred to as a "procedure".

All of that being said, altolinguistic is correct: there is no hard-and-fast rule, and the terms are significantly interchangeable. In my experience, the term "operation" is generally disfavored, with most physicians and surgeons preferring "procedure".
posted by valkyryn at 6:44 AM on January 15, 2009

To add a little to the above, an operation can also be called a surgical procedure. We use the term "operation" pretty commonly at my hopspital, so there is apparently some regional variation there.
posted by TedW at 9:52 AM on January 16, 2009

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