Originally published in July 2019 edition, ASA Monitor (citation below)
‘Unexpected death of a colleague,’ I read in the subject line.
As I combed through the remainder of the email, I came to learn that a second-year resident had died in a car accident near his hometown. It was his name that gave me pause.
Just a few weeks prior, I entered one of the campus cafeterias for a meal. There, I noticed a young man sitting alone wearing a navy-blue jacket. A University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine crest was stitched on his chest.
“Hey, man – I happened to notice your jacket. Did you attend UPenn?”
“Yeah, I did. I’m Joe! Nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too. A few of my closest friends also graduated from there!” I replied.
A conversation started, just pleasant banter that danced around the east coast versus west coast biases, shared colleagues and friends, Portland’s city designation with its small-town charm, and our respective medical specialties. The dialogue was short but delightful and lasted approximately five minutes in total. Before I left his table, I suggested we take a photo together to send to our mutual friends.
Our smiles are in my phone now.
In the five minutes when we spoke, a connection was formed, a foundation of trust laid. Unlikely as it seemed at the time, this simple exchange was similar to the swiftly created bond that forms when an anesthesiologist talks to their patient prior to surgery.
When I was a fourth-year medical student, I told my family and friends that I had applied to an anesthesiology residency program. Their responses varied. Most were happy but they had questions too, specifically concerns that my communication skills would be “wasted.” Knowing how much joy interacting with people brings me, they were disappointed that I would spend most of my medical practice with unconscious patients. My answer: there is a unique responsibility born in that five-minute interaction prior to surgery. In those five minutes, I may have the ability to connect to a patient, gain trust and portray a sense of safety to a complete stranger in a way someone else may not. My communication skills could be the difference between someone entering the operating room with wild fear or measured ease.
When I was a fourth-year medical student, I told my family and friends that I had applied to an anesthesiology residency program. Their responses varied. Most were happy but they had questions too, specifically concerns that my communication skills would be ‘wasted.’
I am not alone in feeling this way. “I have five minutes to convince someone I can take care of their life,” Dr. Marshall Lee – Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) attending physician – stressed during residency orientation. This time restraint is a challenge that should be decorated for anesthesiology rather than seen as a reason to choose another specialty. A patient waiting in the preoperative area is possibly in one of the most vulnerable states of their lives. Patients may find themselves anxiety-stricken for the surgery itself, fearful regarding the aftermath, pained by the financial burden of the surgery and concerned for the risk of death. Most encounters we have with our patients are brief and delicate. A patient in this highly vulnerable state – concomitant with a short window of time – clings to every word from our lips. After a postoperative call to verify the patient is recovering appropriately, it is probable you will never see nor hear from them again. This does not detract from the memory of how you made them feel – one they may carry with them for a lifetime.1
When recalling my conversation with Joe, I can no longer remember the nuances nor the minute details, yet I felt more connection and delight upon walking away from the table that day than after many hour-long discussions with others. As anesthesiologists, we only have a few minutes to gain the trust of the patient and family member, positively frame one’s outlook prior to their surgery, and provide the sense of comfort and reassurance they are seeking. During this brief encounter, we must gather information, set expectations and address concerns a patient may have – several factors underlying high-quality patient-physician encounters.2 One underestimated key is non-verbal communication – a grounding component of a therapeutic patient-physician relationship.1 And one example of this is evidenced in a study which demonstrates that sitting over standing is highly favored by patients as it creates a less dominant environment and more empathetic space.3
As I embark on my anesthesiology journey, I will recall my feelings after I left Joe and the impact of a high-quality conversation – regardless of its brevity. It is a remarkable challenge that is requested of an anesthesiologist. At OHSU, attending physician Dr. Miko Enomoto is known for her saying, “the safest anxiolytic one can administer to a patient is their time, their attention and their care.” Let us never forget that in five minutes we have limitless influence on a patient and their family during one of the most vulnerable phases of their life. They may not remember the details of the conversation, but they will most certainly remember how we made them feel.
- Ha JF, Longnecker N . Doctor-patient communication: a review. Oshcner J. 2010;10(1):38-43.
- Simpson M, Buckman R, Stewart M, et al. Doctor-patient communication: the Toronto consensus statement. BMJ. 2010; 303(6814), 1385–1387.[Article]
- Strasser F, Palmer JL, Willy J, et al. Impact of physician sitting versus standing during inpatient oncology consultations: patients’ preference and perception of compassion and duration. A randomized controlled trial. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2005; 29(5):489-497.[Article][PubMed]
Jason L. Campbell; The Importance of Five Minutes. ASA Monitor2019;83(7):44-45.