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Context Evidence to guide selection of optimal surgical treatment for patients with painful chronic pancreatitis is limited. Baseline assessment data are limited and thus patients in different centres may be presenting at different stages of their illness. Objective This study undertakes a systematic overview of reports of elective surgical intervention in chronic pancreatitis with particular reference to reporting of quality of life and baseline assessment and relation between disease and type of procedure. Methods A computerised search of the PubMed, Embase and Cochrane databases was undertaken for the period January 1997 to March 2007 yielding 46 manuscripts providing data on 4,626 patients undergoing elective surgery for chronic pancreatitis. The median number of patients per study was 71 (range: 4-484). The median period for recruitment of patients was 10 years (range: 2-36 years). Results An externally validated quality of life questionnaire is reported in 8 (17.4%) of 46 manuscripts covering 441 (9.5%) of 4,626 patients. Formal comparison of pre-operative and post-operative pain scores was provided in 15 (32.6%) of manuscripts. Only seven (15.2%) reports provide a formal rationale or indication for selection of the type of elective surgical procedure for a stated disease variant and these papers cover 481 (10.4%) patients. Conclusion In conclusion, this study demonstrates that there is a lack of standardization between units of the criteria for operative intervention in painful chronic pancreatitis. At a minimum, formal quality of life testing using a validated system should be undertaken in all patients prior to elective surgery for painful chronic pancreatitis.