Surgeons need a dose of empathy

John Crawford, National Cancer Institute |  Free Stock Photos

John Crawford, National Cancer Institute | Free Stock Photos

In NBC’s medical drama Chicago Med, the character Samuel Abrams, portrayed by Brennan Brown, is a brilliant neurosurgeon who is able to step in and save lives. 

However, he is also depicted as rude and cantankerous, yelling at other doctors and dealing coldly with patients. 

This is a relatively common portrayal of surgeons in the mainstream media.

This is not an uncommon experience in real-world hospitals.

NPR even reports that “while poor manners aren't commonly accepted in most professional circles, representations of surgeons in popular culture often link technical prowess with rude behavior, and some surgeons have even argued that insensitivity can be helpful in such an emotionally strenuous profession.”

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network’s surgery section  challenges this stereotype among doctors. The study found that patients of surgeons who exhibit unprofessional behavior, like that of Abrams, are more likely to have complications within 30 days of being under the knife. 

The study reports that “surgeons who model unprofessional behaviors may help to undermine a culture of safety, threaten teamwork, and thereby increase risk for medical errors and surgical complications.”

NPR highlighted that the study took a look at 13,653 patients from 202 surgeons and questioned the surgeon’s colleagues to find reports of four types of unprofessional behavior: “unclear or disrespectful communication, poor or unsafe care, lack of integrity and failure to follow through on professional responsibilities.” 

The study found that when surgeons treated their coworkers poorly, it increased the likelihood of errors being made and of patients winding up with post-surgery complications.

When nurses are disrespected by surgeons, it makes them less likely to speak up and tell them about safety and sanitary concerns for fear of being ridiculed or just a desire to avoid unpleasant interactions.

Medical centers need to put a greater emphasis on the behavior of their staff. 

Medical schools and residencies need to preach empathy and politeness to their doctors and surgeons, not just because it’s the right way to act, but also it promotes their patients’ wellbeing. This can be done through seminars, such as the sensitivity trainings that companies like Sephora and Starbucks have held for their workers. 

Additionally, the media needs to change their illustration of surgeons, from hard and ill-tempered to compassionate and understanding, in order to aid the perception of surgeons.