The demand for preparation: from the playing field to the OR

We often pull comparisons between unexpected resources in any given profession, especially when it comes to adopting tried and true best practices. For example, I always encourage hospital systems and training institutions to look to the hospitality industry for the treatment of patients and guests, among other areas. Last year, as I settled into my seat on a cross-country flight, I witnessed a textbook example of looking outside the box for surgical training inspiration.

One aisle over from me, an NFL coach taped pages upon pages of plays across the seat in front of him, studying for an upcoming game. As a practicing head and neck surgeon and an advocate for constant education, I imagined how great our healthcare system would be if we all prepared for surgery with the matched fervor of this coach.

Before diving into the details of what surgeons can learn from football, there’s one other important story to tell. Recently, I was in the backseat of an Uber when the driver asked how long it took me to become a doctor. Anyone who is currently practicing knows this is not an easy question to address. My answer was two-fold.  First, it took me eight years of schooling, but truly 14 years before I was able to become a surgeon. It takes several years to be fully prepared to take care of patients. Physicians go through a tremendous amount of training, so we certainly can’t say that any one person (football coach vs. surgeon) is more prepared than the other. However, it’s possible for a mindset to creep in once you’ve been practicing for a significant amount of time — the mindset that it’s acceptable to continue what you’ve been doing since day one. So, how do we remedy this? We use the coach on the plane as an example.

While the ratio of cognitive to technical skills varies with different physician roles, surgeons and football coaches alike require a similar detailed plan prior to the procedure or game. Consider the concept of reviewing football tapes. Once a quarterback gets off the field, he is handed a headset or tablet to review his plays. He also sits for hours preparing for the game by watching tapes of the other teams. Modern surgeons are practicing in a time where they are more exposed than ever before, in terms of the way that robots record every surgery and can showcase each surgeon’s technique. With recent technology, surgeons can review their surgeries and peers’ surgeries to learn best practices and look for ways in which they can improve.

Surgeons can also practice, similarly to how a wide receiver can practice catching hundreds of throws with a JUGS machine, by attending courses with hands-on and simulation elements. This helps to improve their robotic skills, as tasks like knot tying on a robotic platform are much different than the knot tying in an open case.

The last couple of decades have been massive for surgical innovation, and we’ve been presented with a collection of new OR technologies that require ceaseless learning. Surgeons acquiring these new skill sets need to ask themselves if they’re doing all they can to prepare for their patients. If you’ve recently adopted a new technology, what solutions are out there to make sure you’re fully equipped to use it on a patient safely and effectively? All surgeons should be consistently taking part in training courses and utilizing digital platforms like simulation to practice and improve their skills.

Coaches and players relentlessly watch every game of the season, not only focusing on basic stats but on specific details. Surgeons should strive to always do the same. While we may not benefit from printing out cases and studying them mid-flight, we can always seek to know additional details about the patient before every procedure, ask more questions, and engage in never-ending practice via simulators and hands-on labs.

Scott Magnuson is an otolaryngologist and chief medical officer, Florida Hospital Nicholson Center.

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