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"Although watchful waiting remains a safe strategy, even on long-term follow-up, patients who present to their physician to have their hernia evaluated, especially if elderly, should be informed that almost certainly they will come to surgery eventually ... The logical assumption is that watchful waiting is not an effective strategy, as with time almost all men cross over," Dr. Robert J. Fitzgibbons Jr. explained at the annual meeting of the American Surgical Association.
He offered a caveat regarding the study findings: Participants were enrolled after they sought medical attention because of their hernias, even though they were asymptomatic or only minimally symptomatic. So the study results are most applicable to men concerned enough about their hernias that they visit a physician for that reason.
"It’s probably not valid to extrapolate the conclusions in this study to the entire population of minimally symptomatic inguinal hernia patients," the surgeon said. "Physicians have been observing elderly patients for years and would be loath to believe a crossover rate this high."
Nevertheless, the results of this study are virtually identical to those of the only other randomized trial of watchful waiting, which was conducted by surgeons at the University of Glasgow. The most recent update from that study showed an estimated crossover rate in the watchful waiting group of 16% at 1 year, 54% at 5 years, and 72% at 7.5 years. As in the American study, the rate of acute incarceration was reassuringly small. The investigators concluded that watchful waiting appears pointless, and they recommended surgical repair for medically fit patients ().
Discussant Dr. Michael E. Zenilman commented that his own approach is to individualize patient management based in large part upon activity level.
"When I see patients who are 80 years old in the office with an asymptomatic hernia, my conversation with them is about what their lifestyle is like. If they’re an active golfer I know that they’re going to end up getting their hernia fixed. If they’re sedentary, sitting at home in retirement, they don’t. So I think the next step in your research project should be to find out what the activity level is of these patients who are getting older and have asymptomatic hernias," said Dr. Zenilman, vice chair and regional director of surgery for the Washington, D.C., region, Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Dr. Fitzgibbons’ trial was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality with support from the American College of Surgeons. He reported having no financial conflicts.