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Something interesting I learnt in the operating room…soft skills: possible and necessary.

Authors: Isaac Mendoza Morales; Research Director of the Future Surgeons Chapter, Colombian Association of Surgery; Surgical Assistant, Head and Neck Surgery; Twitter: @Isaacmenm @futuroscirascol

Historically, the protagonists of the operating room (OR) are characterized by innate talent, physical skills, and innovative techniques, to such an extent that one could even say that there is a typical surgical personality. Less attention has been paid to communication in OR, which might require specific, and softer skills. Challenges in effective and respectful communication are related in many cases to competing egos, respect for authority or lack of the same.

I belong to the head and neck oncological surgery service. In our practice we are given the opportunity to talk to patients and families, listen to life stories, and communicate news in the right tone, at the right time and with the right words, without hiding the truth. These skills are not only useful with patients and their relatives but are also applicable to OR behaviour. They are even more important when we do not want to generate conflict or misunderstanding.

Recently, we treated a patient with uncontrolled hyperthyroid goitre with clear surgical indication, who required some adjustments to the usual anaesthetic protocol. That day, our anaesthesiology team was led by a renowned Professor with great experience, who was older than my mentor, the lead surgeon. In the interest of creating a harmonious atmosphere in the OR, my mentor began to tell a story, as the team was sharing a coffee.

The story concerned a surgical procedure on a patient with similar clinical conditions to the current one. My mentor described what the environment was like at the time and placed great emphasis on the indications and actions taken by the anaesthesiologist, explaining in detail the medications and measures he took for the patient with uncontrolled hyperthyroidism before surgery.

When we entered the OR and the patient was ready, in the midst of the usual friendly conversation, the anaesthesiologist gave a detailed description of the anaesthetic measures to be used, which were just as the story she had just heard.

When we went out to scrub before starting the procedure, my mentor told me there are many ways to make yourself heard, whilst nobody gets uncomfortable and the objectives are achieved. Then he proceeded to explain to me what had just happened, the reason why he had told that story and the objective of it.

That day I learned a very valuable lesson: the art of communicating. That made me think of what Dale Carnegie, one of my favourite writers, once said: “In a negotiation, diplomacy works; diplomacy is getting others to do what we want them to do, and to do it gratefully“.

Special mention and thanks to my mentor and friend, head and neck oncologic surgeon Dr Jonathan Liendo, from whom I am learning surgical skills and, more importantly, life lessons.


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