Jacob Lurie and Anthony Nguyen: Medical students can help to provide the human touch in surgical settings

Medical students are uniquely placed to improve patients’ experience of surgery, say Jacob Lurie and Anthony Nguyen

Around the time of surgery patients meet dozens of surgical team members—a blur of faces and names—and can be inundated with complex information from numerous sources. Many people arrive at the hospital with family members, who can help to situate and comfort them, but not everyone has this network of support. For such patients, physician communication and demonstrations of empathy are particularly essential. 

We know that people place a lot of value on physician empathy and view this patient centred approach as part of being an effective doctor. In the surgical setting, research suggests that there is a strong correlation between physician empathy and patient satisfaction, but that empathy tends to dwindle throughout surgical training and ongoing teaching in this area is warranted. A lack of kindness or simple recognition of a patient’s concerns can be detrimental to a patient’s surgical experience and result in unnecessary or avoidable stress and trepidation. While it is important to address all of the barriers hindering compassionate and effective physician-patient communication, it may be helpful to underscore a valuable and perhaps neglected resource in accomplishing this aim: the presence of medical students in the hospital setting.

Medical students can have a substantial impact on a patient’s comfort around the time of their surgical procedure. Although they are not yet healthcare providers, medical students can perform simple actions to calm patients, and such actions should be encouraged by the healthcare team. For example, by sitting with a patient and distracting them from their surroundings, or helping to answer simple questions (or working with the surgical team to find the answers to more nuanced or complex ones), a medical student can enhance a patient’s experience and provide comfort in what is otherwise a difficult experience. 

By functioning as a patient’s support network prior to (and following) their surgery, medical students can develop a rapport with the patient and improve a patient’s surgical experience. Medical students on their rotations can easily feel as though herculean efforts are required to excel at patient care, but in reality it is often these modest but sincere acts of kindness that can have the most impact on patients.

It is important to remember how much potential power medical students have and the ways in which they can make a real impact during their clinical and surgical rotations. Medical students are unique in that they are unbridled by the time constraints of physicians and nurses. These medical professionals are frequently limited in their ability to speak to patients for great lengths of time, but medical students face no such limitations. This greater flexibility means that medical students have the potential to make a meaningful impact on a patient’s time in the hospital through human connections, demonstrations of empathy, and sincere, active listening. Medical students can help preserve the human element of medicine, and neither the treatment team nor the medical students should overlook this possibility. 

It is not uncommon for medical students to feel out of place during their surgical clerkships, as the role of the medical student tends to be undefined in the perioperative setting. The tasks of medical students can be vague and vary greatly from team to team. In moments where one’s responsibilities are uncertain, it can sometimes feel as if one’s role is inconsequential or that the student is hardly contributing to a patient’s treatment. Yet this is one area where students really could make a difference. 

Treatment teams would benefit from encouraging medical students to sit down with patients and getting to know them. Often, it is these moments of connection that remain in a student’s mind long after a patient leaves the hospital. A student may remember, long after their clerkship ends, a patient with a rare or unusual presentation or illness, and retain that knowledge for the rest of their training. Having medical students spend more time with patients will also encourage them to develop the skills they need to provide empathetic care. Patients, in turn, benefit from these more personal connections, perhaps temporarily forgetting their cold, sterile surroundings and instead finding solace and support in a moment of companionship. 

Jacob M Lurie is a medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, USA.

Competing interests: None declared


Anthony Nguyen is an MD-PhD student at Duke University School of Medicine, USA.

Competing interests: None declared