Does Being Polite Save Lives in the OR? One Surgeon Says Yes

If you believe the stereotype, surgery isn’t a warm and fuzzy medical specialty (that would be family doctors), it’s a cold, clinical engineering-like pursuit. And a surgeon is more likely to be known as “the knife” than “the smile.”

The head of one major transplant center, however, would like to rearrange the stereotypical furniture. Says Andrew Klein, M.D., “Operating rooms are social environments where everyone must work together for the patient’s benefit. When a surgeon, who is in the position of power, is rude and belittles the rest of the staff, it affects everything.”

Klein and Pier Forni, Ph.D., authors of an article about civility and medicine in the Archives of Surgery, said an operating room is a crucible of stress that can manifest in bad personal behavior that isn’t good for anybody. They acknowledge that scientific studies are reinforcing perceptions that outcomes improve when the surgical team cooperates.

As reported in MedPage Today, Klein and Forni found that rancor and the rudeness it engenders may be tied to heart disease and depression. They point to one study that deemed that “high-risk” uncivil behavior in the surgical suite increased the risk of postoperative death and complications.

The incivility extends beyond the OR and so do its side effects. In one study, 96% of nurses for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ reported witnessing disruptive physician behavior. A survey by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices showed that 75% of nurses sought a co-worker’s help to understand a confusing physician’s order because they didn’t want to interact with the doctor themselves. Seven percent of the nurses blamed doctor intimidation for medication errors.

In their article, Klein and Forni lobby for surgeons and OR teams “to lead a civility initiative in healthcare.” That includes reviewing hiring criteria for surgical employees to look beyond the traditional standards of “accomplishments, knowledge, training, and productivity” in the hope of identifying ways in which prospective candidates can be assessed for how they function in a social environment.

We’re thankful that there appears to be a growing awareness of the value of the “what you learned in kindergarten” approach to a collegial work environment. See: Testing for Life-Saving Communications Skills in Young Doctors

“The temptation to ignore warning signs that a surgeon will not play well in the sandbox with peers and co-workers is seductive when large clinical practices and (National Institutes of Health) funding are at stake,” Klein said.

Like other workplaces, the writers suggest, hospitals should develop a code of conduct for medical and administrative staff. They also champion the idea of cultivating relationships at work, because a culture of caring fosters loyalty.

If your doctor, your nurses, your patient advocate cooperate and have empathy for each other’s professional roles and responsibitlities, your care will improve. Ask if the hospital where you are scheduled to be treated has a code of conduct. As a patient, you should not tolerate rude behavior among the people caring for you. If you don’t think someone on your care team is being treated properly, speak up. It’s the right thing to do for her, and the best thing for you.

Article first published as Does Being Polite Save Lives in the OR? One Surgeon Says Yes on Technorati.

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