University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


University of Copenhagen professor gets highest surgery prize

People have come to Denmark from throughout the world to see Henrik Kehlet's treatment method for surgical patients. His research has reduced patients' hospitalisations and significantly reduced medical complications during operations.

Who is he?

Henrik Kehlet, 81, is Professor of Perioperative Therapy at the University of Copenhagen and head of the surgical pathophysiology unit at the Rigshospitalet. He has wondered, throughout his career, why patients had to stay in hospital when their surgery had otherwise been successful.

He started systematically investigating why patients were not yet well enough to be discharged, and he found many answers – and some ground-breaking results followed.

»We used to have colon cancer patients who were 10-12 days at the hospital after an operation. Now we are down to two to three days. This also applies to elderly patients who have a high risk of complications,« says Henrik Kehlet.

The hospitalisation period has been reduced by Henrik Kehlet for this, but also other kinds of surgery. This has benefited the patients, who get better faster by combining the many treatment principles developed on the basis of his research results.

In the beginning, Henrik Kehlet and his research group focused on optimizing the patients’ pain management. But that was not enough.

»With pain treatment, we got patients who smiled and felt good. But over time, it became clear that there were also all sorts of other reasons why they remained hospitalized for a long time – because of drains, tubes, as well as unnecessary interventions and restrictions. Traditional treatment regimes were moreover not scientifically sound, but inhibited patients’ recuperation,« says Henrik Kehlet, who named his treatment regimes ‘accelerated operation processes’ or ‘fast-track surgery’, but which is now known in an international context as enhanced recovery after surgery.

Why am I reading about him now?

Henrik Kehlet has received the most important prize in the field of surgery, the BJS Society Award.

The award comes with DKK 745,000, and recognition for his efforts over many years. It is the first time that the BJS Society Award is awarded – and for Henrik Kehlet the award came as a complete surprise.

»I was very surprised when I got the phone call and was told that I had got it,« says Henrik Kehlet and explains:

»I’m not a famous surgeon who, say, has done advanced liver and heart surgery. My efforts have been in an area that surgeons usually find it difficult to relate to, or find the time to deal with. This may be the case, for example, in the case of complicated, pathophysiological metabolic stress reactions, in pain and fluid treatment, or in keyhole surgery. This is why it is incredible that the BJS Society Award has found its way to me.«

Kehlet’s treatment regimens have reduced the risk of medical complications from surgery by at least 30-50 percent. It’s a significant improvement, and many doctors have had a hard time believing it.

»Guests from throughout the world have come to see what we were doing, because they simply could not believe the results until they saw them themselves,« says Kehlet.

Where have I heard about this person before?

Henrik Kehlet has taught surgery and anaesthesia in Denmark and he reckons that he is mostly known by Danish doctors and researchers from this.

He has given a large number of lectures at anaesthesia and surgery conferences abroad.

»I have also received recognition for my work through the years, for example as an honorary member of many global scientific societies. So it’s not because I haven’t been the recipient of attention,« says Henrik Kehlet.

Articles have appeared in the media at regular intervals about his work and achievements

What should I do now?

Have you thought about how a better understanding of a patient’s physiological responses to surgery can drastically lower hospitalisation requirements and the risk of complications?

Henrik Kehlet mentions an example of a treatment regimen: If bowel surgery causes a stress reaction in the patient with, for example, nausea and a lack of bowel function, then it is important to find out how to normalize the condition and get the patient to eat again – and thereby recover faster.

If you are into scientific journals, Henrik Kehlet recommends that you read two articles:

One is called ‘Enhanced recovery after surgery’ and was published in the Danish Medical Journal 2022. The second (in Danish) is printed in Ugeskrift for Læger 2021 under the heading ‘Status og perspektiver for fast track-kirurgi’ [Status and perspectives for fast track surgery.]