Last year, Benjamin Schwartz, a surgeon who specializes in gynecologic cancer, made a "simple yet remarkable adjustment in how [his surgical team] prepare[s] for surgery" that made patients facing scary procedures more comfortable and helped his surgical team better know their patients, Schwartz writes in a STAT News opinion piece.
A career-changing meeting
Before an operation, surgeons typically focus on the technical aspects of the procedure they're about to perform, but they often know very little about who the patient lying before them truly is, Schwartz, who is chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwell's Southside Hospital, writes.
That disconnect came to a head for Schwartz last year during a conversation with his mentor. The mentor, or "'career coach,'" told Schwartz he'd recently undergone treatment for prostate cancer. But the treating physician did something "quite surprising": the physician asked to meet with both Schwartz's mentor and his family, "and then asked the family members if he could email them," Schwartz writes.
The treating physician, Schwartz writes wanted the family members to "share stories about the patient" to learn who he was as a person and "what made him special."
A new protocol
After hearing his mentor's story, "[a] lightbulb went off," and Schwartz decided to do the same with his patients.
He started with a female patient, whom he learned had a secret penchant for Pink Floyd.
"I asked my patient permission to email her family members," Schwartz writes, and her husband revealed that the woman loved Pink Floyd—"a fact she hid from even her closest friends," Schwartz writes.
Schwartz asked the surgical team to play Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" as the woman came into the OR. The effect was immediate. While the patient "was understandably tense, nervous, and frightened about having surgery, she relaxed upon hearing the music," Schwartz writes.
Now, Schwartz takes the same approach with all of his patients. One patient's family told Schwartz that the patient was a gospel singer, so Schwartz played gospel music in the OR before her surgery. The music made "the sterile and uninviting room less ominous," Schwartz recalls. "Her tension and fear dissipated."
The human side of medicine
After a few procedures, "something magical happened," Schwartz writes. Schwartz's team became curious about the music being played before operations.
"I explained how it wasn't about the music but making a human connection," he writes. Soon the team was asking about the emails, and some wanted to read them.
"The power of an individual's story is so strong that it can't help but focus us on the humanistic side of medicine," Schwartz writes.
For example, Schwartz recalls one memorable email from a patient's 13-year-old grandson who wrote "how he was terrified he'd never see [his grandmother] again." After reading the email, Schwartz writes, "[T]here wasn't a dry eye among the surgical team. We went from that lump-in-the-throat moment to an adrenalin surge that resulted in a hyper-sense of focus."
These interactions have "changed [the team's] approach to surgery" and have made the procedures more fulfilling, Schwartz writes. But, he writes, this aspect of medicine that is "most definitely at risk" in the United States, where clinicians sometimes value the "process" over the patient.
"The power of an individual's story prevents us from becoming comfortable and focusing only on process," Schwartz writes. "It's a reminder that a loved one's note contains special words that enable us to make the human connection—the very thing that got us into medicine in the first place" (Schwartz, STAT News, 5/16).
Meet the rising bar for virtual patient experience
Most patients today report high satisfaction with virtual visits. But as the virtual care market expands to include not only local competitors, but disruptors who have made significant investments in designing an optimal virtual experience, the bar for what constitutes a positive virtual patient experience will rise.
Read on for three imperatives for how health care organizations can keep up with evolving patient expectations.