At the recent ASA meeting, I attended 2 separate ethics sessions which dealt with the same question. If you know the surgeon is incompetent and the patient asks you, do you tell them? The ethical answer is yes, however you could see how this would play out in the workplace should you actually do this.
A while ago I got a phone call from an exasperated colleague complaining about one of our surgeons. This surgeon more or less restricted his practice to certain area but when on call takes on all comers. My colleague pointed out that this surgeon had taken way longer than other surgeons to do a case with the result that that OR was now backed up with emergencies. I had gotten the same impression so a day or so later I ran into the Chief of Surgery in the lounge and raised the question. I obviously wasn't the first person to do so. "His infection rate is the same as everybody else and his length of stay is the same too," spat out the Chief. I later talked to the Chief of Staff, also a surgeon, and got the same answer. Hmmm I thought if both of them know this surgeon's average length of stay and infection rate, maybe they had to look into it for some reason.
We had a now departed cardiac surgeon at the Centre of Excellence who was to say the least not very good. Bad to the extent that several cardiac anaesthesiologists actually gave up doing cardiac anaesthesia rather than work with him ever again. That's right cardiac anaesthesiologists actually gave up lucrative work because they didn't want to work with a surgeon. (Some of them later rejoined on the condition that they not have to work with this surgeon). One female anaesthesiologist said she felt like a murdress every time she worked with this surgeon. One day a bunch of them were talking in our lounge about how bad this surgeon was, when I interjected, "Do you think you may be liable for working with him when you think he is incompetent?". "That's an interesting question," replied the department chairman who had made a rare appearance to sit with the little people. This is unlike this group of anaesthesiologists at another centre who had the cojones to refuse to work with a clearly incompetent cardiac surgeon and saved countless lives.
The surgeon at the CofE continued to work on for a couple more years after this and is now working somewhere in the US interestingly enough as an anaesthesiologist, as I found out on Google, which is surprising given his poor opinion of anaesthesiologists when he worked in Canada.
There are two components to surgery. One is technical skill and one is judgement. A surgeon may have perfect technical skills but very poor judgement and inappropriate surgery well performed can be as bad as appropriate surgery badly performed.
Incompetent surgeons come can be divided into groups.
Some surgeons are just plain incompetent.
Other surgeons learn early on that they cannot handle difficult cases and restrict their practice to a small menu of cases that they know they can do. That is assuming there are any cases that they are able to do. This works out especially if they work with someone who can occasionally bail them out.
The most dangerous surgeon is the surgeon who doesn't know he is incompetent. Some of these are idiots who just blissfully ignore their bad results. Quite a few of them a sociopaths who don't care about their bad results. I suspect a large number of these surgeons actually know they are incompetent but have invested too much time and training and are working away waiting to get found out. There is a subgroup who do some types of surgery quite competently but will attempt more difficult surgery with terrible results. Quite often these individuals claim to be subspecialists in the very area they lack competence in.
A lot of us will actually tolerate an incompetent surgeon if he is pleasant to work with, works reasonably fast, doesn't do a lot of cases after hours and his cases don't come back to the OR too often. The incompetent surgeon who is a complete asshole may get caught out sooner or conversely concerns about his work may be downplayed as "you are just complaining about him because you don't like him." Or of course if he is a complete sociopath people including anaesthesiologists may be afraid to complain.
OKAY SO WHAT ABOUT INCOMPETENT ANAESTHESIOLOGISTS.
Yes they exist. Some are globally incompetent, some may just have trouble with certain aspects of care like epidurals for example. When I first started out there were still a large number of anaesthesiologists with little or no formal training who had been grand-fathered in and were still working even in large centres.
Surgeons like most bad anaesthesiologists because they rarely do regional blocks, art lines or central lines, they cut corners and never cancel cases except for the bad anaesthesiologist who has enough insight into his skills and only will do ASA 1 cases. Further bad anaesthesiologists usually don't mind working after hours and will stay late. Some surgeons know that the anaesthesiologist isn't really that good and just try to avoid him for their sicker patients. Bad anaesthesiologists are either really nice guys so the nurses and the surgeons put up with the badness or they are real assholes and everybody is afraid to confront them.
Years ago there was an older anaesthesiologist whose skills had slipped which culminated in a surgeon finally refusing to work with him while on call. This was a shock to everybody. This individual did continue to work on for a few more years but wasn't allowed to take call, an imperfect compromise. At our hospital we had to get rid of two anaesthesiologists about 5 years ago. They had been there for years after training in another country. It had been suspected for years that they less than competent but the surgeons loved them because they worked fast, never canceled cases for medical reasons and loved to work after hours. Our department chief was forced to do a prolonged chart review of all their cases before he found enough evidence to hang them which he did and they retired. All in all less than pleasant.