Neurosurgical guidelines are fundamental for evidence-based practice and have considerably increased both in number and content over the last decades. Yet, guidelines in neurosurgery are not without limitations, as they are overwhelmingly based on low-level evidence. Such recommendations have in the past been occasionally overturned by welldesigned randomized controlled trials (RCTs), demonstrating the volatility of poorly underpinned evidence. Furthermore, even RCTs in surgery come with several limitations; most notably, interventions are often insufficiently standardized and assume a homogeneous patient population, which is not always applicable to neurosurgery. Lastly, guidelines are often outdated by the time they are published and smaller fields such as neurosurgery may lack a sufficient workforce to provide regular updates. These limitations raise the question of whether it is ethical to use low-level evidence for guideline recommendations, and if so, how strictly guidelines should be adhered to from an ethical and legal perspective. This article aims to offer a critical approach to the ethical and legal status of guidelines in neurosurgery. To this aim, the authors discuss: 1) the current state of neurosurgical guidelines and the evidence they are based on; 2) the degree of implementation of these guidelines; 3) the legal status of guidelines in medical disciplinary cases; and 4) the ethical balance between confident and critical use of guidelines. Ultimately, guidelines are neither laws that should always be followed nor purely academic efforts with little practical use. Every patient is unique, and tailored treatment defined by the surgeon will ensure optimal care; guidelines play an important role in creating a solid base that can be adhered to or deviated from, depending on the situation. From a research perspective, it is inevitable to rely on weaker evidence initially in order to generate more robust evidence later, and clinician-researchers have an ethical duty to contribute to generating and improving neurosurgical guidelines.

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Department of Public Health

Tewarie, I.A., Hulsbergen, A.F.C., Volovici, V., & Broekman, M. (2020). The ethical and legal status of neurosurgical guidelines: the neurosurgeon's golden fleece or Achilles' heel?. NEUROSURGICAL FOCUS, 49(5). doi:10.3171/2020.8.Focus20597