It goes almost without saying that a patient’s return to work after an orthopaedic injury or musculoskeletal disorder would correlate with the severity of the condition. But what about the connection between return to work and a more “touchy-feely” parameter, such as the patient-surgeon relationship?
Dubert et al. conducted a longitudinal observational study of 219 patient who were 18 to 65 years of age and had undergone operations for upper-limb injuries or musculoskeletal disorders. In the August 7, 2019 issue of JBJS, they report that a positive relationship between patient and surgeon hastened return to work and reduced total time off from work.
At the time of enrollment (a mean of 149 days after surgery), the authors assessed the patient-surgeon relationship with a validated, 11-item questionnaire called Q-PASREL, and they collected patients’ functional and quality-of-life scores at the same time. The authors then tracked which patients had returned to work 6 months later, and they calculated how many workdays those who did return had missed.
The Q-PASREL questionnaire explores surgeon support provided to the patient, the patience of the surgeon, the surgeon’s appraisal of when the patient can return to work, the cooperation of the surgeon regarding administrative issues, the empathy perceived by the patient, and the surgeon’s use of appropriate vocabulary.
Here is a summary of the findings:
- At 6 months after enrollment, 74% of patients who had returned to work had given their surgeon a high or medium-high Q-PASREL score. By contrast, 64% of the patients who had not returned to work had given their surgeon a low or medium-low Q-PASREL score.
- The odds of returning to work were 56% higher among patients who gave surgeons the highest Q-PASREL scores compared with those who gave surgeons the lowest scores.
- The “body structure” subscore on one of the functional measurements and the Q-PASREL quartile were the only two independent predictors of total time off from work among patients who had returned to work.
After asserting that their study “confirms that surgeons’ relationships with their patients can influence the patients’ satisfaction and outcomes,” Dubert et al. go on to suggest that the findings should prompt surgeons to “work on empathy, time spent with their patients, and communication.” While they rightly claim that such improvements would entail “little financial investment and no side effects,” perhaps the authors, who practice in France, underestimate the effort that goes into changing behavior—and into addressing the time constraints imposed by the US health care system?
It has been estimated that 13% to 16% of patients who undergo arthroscopic stabilization procedures for recurrent shoulder instability are dissatisfied with their outcome, despite a technically “successful” operation. Similarly high rates of patient dissatisfaction in the face of an objectively “well-done” surgery are pervasive in most orthopaedic subspecialties and often leave both surgeon and patient frustrated and perplexed. Prior research has suggested that patient expectations, psychological characteristics, and socioeconomic factors play a major role in these cases of patient dissatisfaction. But identifying precise patient or injury factors that can alert surgeons as to which patients may be unsatisfied after their procedure has remained elusive for many common injuries.
In the June 19, 2019 issue of The Journal, Park et al. examine the bases for patient dissatisfaction after arthroscopic Bankart repair (with or without remplissage) for recurrent shoulder instability. Not surprisingly, patient age, size of the glenoid bone defect, and the number of patient postoperative instability events correlated with an objective failure of the operation (i.e., instability requiring a repeat operation). However, the study found that the number of instability events and the preoperative width of the Hill-Sachs lesion correlated with the subjective failure of the operation (i.e., the patient was dissatisfied based on response to a single question about “overall function” 2 years after surgery). For the 14 out of 180 patients who were dissatisfied despite not experiencing a revision, intermittent pain plus psychological characteristics such as apprehension and anxiety about recurrent instability were common reasons for dissatisfaction.
It is becoming clearer with each passing year that simply correcting anatomic pathologies does not always result in happy patients. Orthopaedic surgeons need to employ patient interviewing techniques to identify issues such as anxiety, depression, pain-perception concerns, and substance abuse—all of which can negatively influence the degree of patient satisfaction with the result and are somewhat modifiable preoperatively.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD
When I was a waiter during high school and college, I quickly learned the value of connecting with my customers. If I could fulfill whatever role they were looking me to fill (i.e., being fun and interactive, serious, acting invisible, or anything in between), I would usually be rewarded with a sizable tip or a compliment. I realized that I was not there primarily to help customers make food choices, but rather to make each customer feel as though I existed only to care for them. There is a big difference between those two roles, and I found myself thinking about those experiences while reading the article by Kortlever et al. in the February 20, 2019 issue of JBJS.
The authors aimed to determine whether an association existed between a patient’s wait time and the amount of time he or she spent with a surgeon and the patient’s perception of the surgeon’s empathy. Considering the well-established connection between the perceived empathy coming from a physician and patient satisfaction, this is an important question to examine. Interestingly, Kortlever et al. found that neither time-related variable was associated with perceived physician empathy, suggesting that decreasing wait times or spending more time with individual patients may not increase their satisfaction with the visit. However, the authors did find a direct, inverse association between surgeon stress levels and patient-perceived empathy. Specifically, for every 1-point increase in a surgeon’s self-reported stress (as measured with the Perceived Stress Scale short form), there was a 0.87 decrease in perceived empathy (as measured with the Jefferson Scale of Patient’s Perceptions of Physician Empathy).
Like most humans, patients value the quality of an interaction more than its duration. Similarly, patients are more concerned with what happens during their medical appointment than with the wait time that transpires before it. It probably does not take very long for a patient to feel that you are fully engaged with his or her concerns—or not—and increasing the length of a “bad” interaction usually will not increase its quality. Patients may not always know whether your medical advice is on target, but almost all of them can tell how much you care and whether you are “present” during their appointment.
I agree with the authors’ conclusion that the present findings indicate “that the patient-physician relationship is more built on actions and communications than on time spent.” I suspect that future studies will continue to show how powerful the perceptions of caring and empathy are when it comes to patient care.
Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media
Editor’s Note: Kortlever et al. cite a 2005 Instructional Course Lecture by Tongue et al. that describes easy-to-learn skills for effective and empathic patient-centered interviews. Click here for full text of that article.
OrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. In response to a recent New England Journal of Medicine Perspective, the following commentary comes from Adam Bitterman, DO.
The physician-patient relationship is highly regarded and has withstood the test of time. Unfortunately, today it appears to be under significant stress. While it is still possible to maintain a meaningful and professional doctor-patient connection, the balance between arriving at a correct diagnosis, moving down your patient list, and truly caring for each individual patient is difficult to find. The advent of electronic medical records (and their attendant task lists and button clicking) and satisfaction scores have not made maintaining meaningful patient relationships any easier.
In her February 7, 2019 Perspective piece for The New England Journal of Medicine, cardiologist Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum describes her encounters with the medical system as a patient after sustaining a Jones fracture. As she highlights her experience from the initial presentation in the emergency department to the follow-up examination with an orthopedic surgeon, she describes the repeated sensation of being a diagnosis treated by an algorithm rather than an individual with an ailment receiving care.
She also highlights an anecdote about another patient’s family pleading with a staff physician to “get off your script” and focus on treating the unique patient. Invoking the legacy of Sir Robert Jones, the orthopaedist after whom the foot fracture is named, Dr. Rosenbaum observes that “medicine teeters atop an edifice of workarounds,” as physicians try to play by the rules while taking good care of patients.
Standardization and treatment protocols have a useful role in many instances, but we physicians must remember that behind every complaint is a patient, an individual with personal connections to friends and family. It is easy to get caught up in the standardized protocols that reside within electronic medical records, but it takes only a moment to disconnect yourself from the screen and keyboard and provide the creative connection that patients desire. (A study in the upcoming February 20, 2019 JBJS addresses this topic.)
Although you may be encountering your seventh patient of the day with a Jones fracture, for each of those people, their foot is all that matters. It is our job—a decidedly difficult one—to provide the unique and sometimes creative treatment plan to all our patients, while somehow maintaining a top-tier standard of care that is reproducible for all.
Adam Bitterman, DO is a fellowship-trained foot and ankle surgeon practicing at Northwell Health in Huntington, NY. He is also a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.
Experienced orthopaedic clinicians understand that anxious patients with high levels of pain are some of the most challenging to evaluate and treat. Both anxiety and pain siphon away the patient’s focus and concentration, complicating the surgeon’s job of relaying key diagnostic and treatment information—often leaving patients confused and dissatisfied. Moreover, such patients usually want a quick solution to their physical pain and mental angst, whether that be a prescription for medication or surgery. At the same time, despite controversy, variously defined levels of “patient satisfaction” are being used as a metric to evaluate quality and value throughout the US health-care system. This reinforces the need for orthopaedists to understand the complex interplay between biological and psychological elements of patient encounters.
In the November 7, 2018 issue of The Journal, Tyser et al. use validated instruments to clarify the relationship between a patient’s pre-existing function, pain, and anxiety and the satisfaction the patient received from a new or returning outpatient visit to a hand/upper extremity clinic. Not surprisingly, the authors found that higher levels of physical function prior to the clinic visit correlated with increased satisfaction after the visit, as measured by the widely used Press Ganey online satisfaction survey. They also noted that higher antecedent levels of anxiety and pain, as determined by two PROMIS instruments, correlated with decreased levels of patient satisfaction with the visit. The authors assessed patient satisfaction only with the clinic visit and the care provider, not with any subsequent treatment.
Most patients are likely to experience some level of pain or anxiety when they meet with an orthopaedic surgeon. To leave patients more content with these visits, we need to set appropriate expectations for the visit in advance of the interaction and develop real-time, in-clinic strategies that help patients cope with anxiety. Such “biopsychosocial” strategies may not by themselves dictate the ultimate treatment, but they may go a long way toward helping patients understand their options and feel satisfied with the care provided. Secondarily, such strategies may help improve the satisfaction scores that administrators, rightly or wrongly, are increasingly using to evaluate musculoskeletal practitioners.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD
The estimated annual cost of surgical treatment for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) ruptures in the US is $2 billion. Are ACL surgery patients—and the health care system—getting significant value for all that money spent?
In the May 3, 2017 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Nwachukwu et al. set out to answer that question by retrospectively analyzing rates of return to play and satisfaction among 231 ACL-surgery patients (mean age of 27 years) who were followed for a mean of 3.7 years. The authors found that:
- 87% had returned to play at a mean of 10 months after surgery.
- 89% of the 171 athletes eligible to return to their prior level of competition did so.
- 85% said they were “very satisfied” with the outcome, and 98% stated they would have the surgery again.
Not surprisingly, patients were more likely to say they were “very satisfied” if they had returned to play.
The authors also found that the use of patellar tendon autograft increased the chance of returning to play, while preoperative participation in soccer or lacrosse decreased the likelihood of returning to play. Those who participated in basketball, football, skiing, and tennis had higher return-to-play rates than those who participated in the two aforementioned sports.
In addition, Nwachukwu et al. found that one-third of those who did not return to sports reported fear of reinjury as the reason. The authors encourage surgeons to understand that “psychological readiness, fear of reinjury, and mental resiliency influence the probability of an athlete returning to play.”
In her commentary, Elizabeth Matzkin, MD cautions readers to interpret the Level IV study’s findings cautiously. She calls for “better prospective, homogeneous studies” to more accurately assess which surgical graft types and specific sports are more or less likely to result in patients returning to play. Nevertheless, the study, she says, “forces us to look at the big picture: What can we do to make ACL [reconstruction] better for our patients?”
The main goal of orthopaedic surgeons is to help patients feel and function as well as possible. In that context, the notion of “patient satisfaction” is as old as Hippocrates himself. But in an era when patient satisfaction is eagerly measured and used to evaluate physician performance and determine compensation, the phrase takes on broader significance.
The May 20, 2015 JBJS features a retrospective study by Abtahi et al. that determined that psychologically distressed patients give significantly lower satisfaction scores following spine surgery than patients categorized as “normal.” These findings bolster an increasing body of evidence suggesting that patient-specific characteristics have a greater bearing on patient satisfaction measures than the actual quality of care delivered.
The study looked at 103 patients at a single academic spine surgery center who completed both a patient satisfaction survey (Press Ganey Medical Practice Survey, scored from 0 to 100) and a Distress and Risk Assessment Method (DRAM) questionnaire for the same clinical encounter. Using the DRAM data, researchers classified the patients into four groups: normal, at-risk, distressed-depressive, and distressed-somatic.
The mean overall patient satisfaction scores were as follows:
- 90.2 in the normal group
- 94.7 in the at-risk group
- 87.5 in the distressed-depressive group
- 75.7 in the distressed-somatic group
Mean scores for patient satisfaction with the provider, in the same group order as above, were 94.2, 94.2, 90.6, and 74.9, respectively.
The authors offer two possible explanations for the findings: “Patients with greater levels of distress and less effective coping strategies may be more likely to perceive their entire medical care experience in a more negative light, or…psychological distress negatively impacts provider empathy and the communication quality between doctor and patient.”
In a commentary on the study (free content), Robert Barth, PhD observes that implementing scientifically credible health care guidelines often conflicts with patient expectations and decreases patient satisfaction. He argues that “monitoring the scientific credibility of health care is a much more direct and valid approach than judging the quality of health care on the basis of patient satisfaction.” At the same time, Barth cites prior research connecting psychological distress to poorer surgical outcomes and says the findings from Abtahi et al. “emphasize the need for clinicians to thoroughly consider the psychological makeup of the patient when providing surgical and other general medical services.”
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners (often referred to as nonphysician practitioners, or NPPs) can be instrumental in helping physician practices speed reimbursements, increase patient satisfaction, and reduce paperwork burdens for doctors. An article on ORTHOPRENEUR, a digital journal, suggests that practices employ the following tips to ensure optimal utilization of these valuable professionals:
- Create accurate job descriptions.
- Research your payer mix and reimbursement rules.
- Coordinate a pre-employment shadowing day before making a formal offer to an NPP.
- Include professional memberships and CME allowance in the offer.
- Market your new NPP just as you would a new physician.
- Provide one-on-one training with physicians during the NPP’s orientation.
- Create patient scheduling policies and protocols for your staff; train the staff on the type of appointments for which NPPs will be utilized.
- Train your NPP on billing and documentation, including coding.