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Cover Focus | Mar 2018

A Surgeon’s Sudden Death

No plans were left behind for managing the practice.

Dealing with devastation, whether a natural disaster or an otherwise traumatic event, is always extremely difficult. One can never truly be prepared for what is to come, even in a large organization where risk and crisis management techniques can be planned and applied.

Many of the other articles in this issue deal with natural disasters, but a surgeon’s sudden death can be just as devastating to the individuals who must face the emotional harm that follows such an event. Beyond any defense mechanisms put in place to mitigate damage, there is still the emotional factor that must be taken into consideration, especially regarding dealing with patients and how they react to the sudden loss of their trusted doctor.

This was what I indeed experienced and eventually had to come to terms with a decade ago, when I was serving as chief operations officer at another clinic. The center’s main surgeon passed away with little warning, leaving his staff and fellow surgeons to deal with the aftermath.

A PRIVATE MAN

This particular doctor happened to be the main shareholder at the clinic. Even though the facility was manned by other equally qualified, experienced, and skillful doctors, the clinic’s daily operations revolved around his examination and OR schedule. Evidently, 40% of the clinic’s patients were his own.

He alone knew he was facing a terminal illness, and it was his personal decision not to share this information with the center’s Board of Directors. This was a relatively small clinic, and, unlike at a larger organization, there was no tangible risk management scenario to deal with the possibility of such an event.

When this surgeon eventually shared the fact of his illness with the board, he did it in a way that no one truly registered the severity of the situation. We all assumed he would undergo treatment and we would immediately begin working toward altering his already fully booked schedule for the coming months. This effort would include shifting patients around, postponing their scheduled surgeries, and even presenting some with the option to be treated by a different doctor. Unfortunately, however, he passed away a mere 2 months later.

REBOUNDING EMOTIONALLY

This presented us all with a new challenge: We would have to rebound as quickly and effectively as possible, with the main goal being to retain as many of this doctor’s patients as possible. Technically, this could be managed, as a competent team of doctors remained. Their schedules were flexible, and they were ready to take action in reallocating most of his patients.

Emotional support for his patients proved to be the cornerstone of our operation for the next 6 months. This was of course difficult, as the doctor’s passing had also taken an emotional toll on each of us. However, we didn’t have the luxury to look inward at the time, as we had to focus on the patients.

Assisted by the surgeon’s designated optometrist and nurse, we put aside all other day-to-day task and focused solely on contacting each patient individually, explaining the situation, and trying to redistribute those patients to other doctors. Approximately 10% of this doctor’s patients were his distant relatives or close friends, and it was too hard for most of them to reenter the clinic’s physical space. Yet, to our surprise, an astounding 90% of his patients trusted in our team and went ahead with their rescheduled operations and examinations with our other doctors.

This did not come easily, however; their need for emotional support was palpable, especially during surgery. We were all involved, being with each one of them. Even I ended up spending most of my working hours in the OR.

CONCLUSION

Losing a colleague is a difficult life event, but, when it also involves managing the emotional well-being of patients, it can be especially trying. Balancing one’s own emotions with patients’ feelings and making sure that the practice continues to run efficiently can be done, but it takes finesse.

However painful it may be beforehand, risk management in any practice must include preparations for a key member’s passing. Such plans can help ensure that the clinic’s daily operations continue as steadily as possible.

Eleni Georgiou

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