Patients as Teachers: Surgeons as Students

In the July 1, 2020 issue of The Journal, Dr. C. McCollister Evarts, writes an illuminating “What’s Important” essay about learning from his most difficult cases. He recounts an event early in his career as a medical officer aboard an aircraft carrier, when a fat embolism caused the untimely death of a young adult patient he treated for a closed tibial fracture. This event spurred a lifelong quest for knowledge about surgery-associated emboli, about which cases and literature were sparse at the time (mid-1960s). My quick search of Dr. Evarts’ long list of publications shows that more than 20 of them are related to embolic events, no doubt a direct result of the experience with that seaman many years ago, and with another one of his early-career patients who died of a pulmonary embolism a week after undergoing hip surgery.

We should all look toward our patients to teach us ways to improve our craft. Not every procedure goes as planned, and the day a surgeon stops trying to get better should likely be the day he or she starts contemplating retirement. Dr. Evarts states that “each and every encountered complication should be carefully examined with the goal of ultimately providing better care.”

Instead of fearing complications, orthopaedic surgeons should carefully analyze the root causes of complications as part of their career-long effort to learn and improve. Our patients can be our teachers in these difficult situations, and we should be willing and open students. This teacher-student approach might require a difficult conversation with the patient or their family to understand why the procedure didn’t go as planned or the outcomes weren’t what was envisioned. As Dr. Evarts points out in his essay, “Most family members do not understand what has happened when a complication occurs, and they appreciate an explanation in a face-to-face meeting.”

The adage that “you learn something new every day” is more likely to come true if you pay extra attention to your most difficult cases. As practicing surgeons, we are never “finished.” We should strive to remain teachable students, always learning from our patient-teachers.

Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

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