Four Lessons for Working with Surgeons
Written by Wendy Gort, MBA, Data Scientist/Analyst
In my twelve years of experience as a healthcare data analyst, I’ve discovered that working with surgeons can be incredibly rewarding, yet equally challenging. I’ve worked with many different types of clinicians, and while they all possess admirable qualities, I have grown to appreciate the unique relationship development that occurs with a surgeon. While some of these characteristics aren’t limited to surgeons, the distinctive combination portrays my experience uniquely with surgeons. The following list provides some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years that may help others as they work to collaborate with surgeons.
Surgeons keep track of their patients. I learned just how important this is when, early on in my career, meetings were delayed until I could precisely match patient by patient to the surgeon’s own log. Surgeon tracking methods may range from patient stickers haphazardly stuck in a notebook to a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet, but they know their caseload. The best way to start a conversation with a surgeon is to compare your volumes to theirs, and better yet, compare volumes by procedure type. Although surgeons don’t typically carry their logs around with them, they do have an approximate figure in their heads. If you start off with data that doesn’t correspond to the surgeon’s own records or memory, you’ve already lost credibility. Even if you plan to present data aggregated at the specialty, facility, or system level, start by establishing a common baseline with volumes for a more productive conversation.
Attention to Detail
According to the American Board of Surgery, a surgical resident is required to perform at least 850 operative procedures over five years for a general surgery certification (http://www.absurgery.org/default.jsp?certgsqe_training). This means that by the time you’re presenting data to a surgeon, he or she has spent hundreds of hours honing their clinical skills, and scrutinizing every detail of their patients, surgical skills, and documentation. A small detail such as an incorrect surgeon mixed into the data can be glaringly obvious to the other surgeons in the specialty, as they are familiar with their colleagues and what procedures they perform.
It is critical to work closely with the surgeons on the team during project development to collaboratively determine data definitions instead of making assumptions. This will prevent ineffective meetings down the road and time-consuming rework. It may not always be possible to have a key surgeon on hand during the project development period. If you find yourself in this situation, you can reach out to other clinicians or field experts for similar feedback. Furthermore, because there are many ways to analyze a single population, be sure to disclose all of the definitions used in the data you’re presenting.
In addition, comprehensive data validation is a must. This may seem obvious to data analysts in any field, but I’ve seen analysts in very awkward positions when showing data with obvious logic flaws or mistakes (including myself!) We’re all human and make mistakes. Having someone else review your data to look for glaring errors before presenting it to your target audience can save you potential embarrassment and loss of trust.
Time is Precious
Surgeons have very limited time for meetings, as they spend most of their scheduled “workday” in the operating room. Many meetings need to occur before 7:30 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. As you can imagine, at 6:30 a.m., their minds are on upcoming surgeries, and at 5:30 p.m., their minds are on recovering patients. Much like an elevator speech, you’ll have a limited amount of time (and attention) to discuss your amazing data. If this is your first meeting with the surgeon, you may not get the benefit of the doubt that your data is well-prepared and accurate. Remember to review your analysis with other content experts beforehand as discussed above. Excellent data preparation and validation is essential for a meaningful discussion.
Loyalty, Once Earned
Once you have earned the trust of a surgeon by providing them with clinically meaningful insights, you’ll experience strong loyalty. This relationship can take time to establish, and probably quite a few iterations of that first project or report, but the initial groundwork and attention to detail will pay off. I’ve encountered this many times when surgeons returned to me for additional projects, this time with confidence in my data from the start. In my previous role, I worked closely with the surgeon leads for several specialty-based teams. After we had established a relationship, I always had the support of the surgeon lead, even when the data presented at a team meeting wasn’t well-received by the other surgeons on the team. This support and relationship of mutual respect between us pushed me to produce my best work for the surgeon and the entire team.
If you’re working to establish and educate on best practice and to drive physician behavior change, a surgeon champion is the best way to spread the word. Not only will a surgeon return to you with trust and confidence, he or she will then reach out to colleagues to share that solid data you provided. As a healthcare data analyst, it’s critical to align with clinical champions to communicate your work among their peers and colleagues.
Healthcare data analytics is a challenging and fast-paced field. More data than ever is available due to the adoption of electronic medical records. In order to establish best practice for improved outcomes, encourage innovation, and keep costs low, data analysts need to work hand-in-hand with clinicians to turn raw data into insights. Surgeons, among all clinicians, are highly educated and care deeply about their patients; they expect a high caliber of work from their data analysts. The collaboration between data analysts and surgeons will be much more effective and rewarding when we understand each other and build on our respective strengths. To learn more about Empiric Health and the expert healthcare consulting services we provide, visit www.empirichealth.com.