Across all of your department’s surgical customers—the operating room nurse, the surgical technologist, the nurse manager, clinic leaders—who is most often at the head of the line on their way down to sterile processing when things miss the mark in terms of quality? Or to flip this to another perspective, which of these perioperative partners is your department’s biggest fan? You have likely had experiences with each one of these types of customers at some point during your sterile processing career. But there’s one glaring piece of this perioperative puzzle that you’ve probably noticed was left out: the surgeon.

For some of you, the mere mention of your surgeon’s name makes a chill run up your spine. Like the hyenas in Disney’s The Lion King, hearing someone mention “Dr. Liao” makes you shiver as if they just shouted “Mufasa!” Even though many of us have our professional war stories to tell about the time Dr. So-and-so came down and blew a gasket, is this really the norm? Does it have to be? What if I were to tell you that this very day, there are surgeons around the country who are raving fans of their sterile processing team? In fact, I’ll even do you one better; in this article, I’ll tell you how to make it happen right where you are.

Start now, not later

The journey of a thousand miles, including the one to OR 9 where Dr. Jones is frustrated with his Kerrisons again, begins with the very first step. As you climb the steps to the back hallway from your sterile processing department, you may feel hopeless or helpless. After all, this is the third time this month you’ve gotten paged to Dr. Jones’ room, and every time it’s those darned Kerrisons.

You rehearse your first words in your head as you throw on a pair of shoe covers and a hairnet. As you walk past the schedule board at the front desk, you take a quick glance to see who else is in the room, hoping it’s a scrub tech who likes you and not one who doesn’t.

What happens next is actually much more important than today’s frustrated surgeon. This is your opportunity to do three important things that will have long-standing implications for the future of your relationship with this surgeon, and their relationship with your entire sterile processing team.

  1. Listen for understanding and with empathy: In these situations, have you ever really tried to listen to what your surgeon is actually saying, and perhaps what they are not saying? Many times the root of frustration does not lie in the specific issue or occurrence, but rather in their experience or perception of not being heard. That is why this step is so massively important. The last thing you want to do is feed into that perception by rushing to excuses or even solutions. Before you do any of that, close your mouth and open your ears to soak up exactly what this person is trying to tell you. At the same time, try your best to put yourself in their shoes. The weight of responsibility on their shoulders for the health and lives of their patients is crushing. Even the best of us would struggle if we had to carry that amid constant frustrations and irritations.
  2. Own the problem and dig into the process: When it is time to speak, let the first words be that of ownership, not excuses. Sure, there may be very little about the issue that is 100% in your control, but that’s not the point. The goal here is to build a relationship of trust, not debate the finer points of clinical responsibility. You may have been called in simply because this surgeon was angry and wanted someone to pour that out upon. Whatever their motives, your motive must be to demonstrate you are capable of serving as more than just a verbal punching bag. You do this by showing that you hear them, refusing to skirt responsibility, and explaining your next steps for digging into the process behind the current service failure.
  3. Do not make promises you cannot keep: This last point is one that is difficult to cultivate, but it will keep you from losing credibility while your team works to overcome existing process breakdowns and challenges. It is extremely tempting, in the moment, to tell Dr. Jones this issue with the Kerrisons will never happen again. You might feel like this is what they want to hear or that you need to say it to demonstrate how hard you intend to work on fixing the issue. In reality, saying something like this when the process has not been reviewed or rewired opens you up to unnecessary relational risk. It does not take a lot of those “never agains” to happen before your word is no longer taken seriously as a clinical leader. Instead, vow to review the process, develop a plan, and communicate this back to your surgeon partner.
Inside and outside of the stress

Depending on how often you are getting called to the operating room these days, this kind of conversation could happen with one of your surgeons tomorrow. But you do not need to wait until the next serious process failure occurs to begin building a relationship of mutual trust, respect, and clinical support.

One of the most valuable things you can do is catch your surgeon outside of the high stress of the operating room suite and in a setting where both of you can talk without the politics and pressures inherent in the clinical setting. Often, this could be down in your sterile processing department, in their own office, at the hospital coffee shop, or at a café down the street.

What do you discuss in this sit down conversation? The same three things mentioned above. Pepper them with questions about their service line. Ask them about their favorite instruments. Inquire about their most common issues related to your team. And then listen.

When it makes sense during these meetings, be willing to take ownership of any problem and process breakdown you can. The more you can own and move toward a solution, the greater your potential is to convert this surgeon into one of your raving fans instead of a recurring frustration. But be honest about where your department struggles, as well. Be transparent with how long you think a reasonable process change will take. Hold the line on making any promises regarding results, and focus on your commitment to stick with it until it is solved, and until this surgeon can confidently stand up in a hospital meeting and give your team clinical kudos for a job well done.

This is not some kind of fairy tale about surgeons who don’t really exist. This is real-life, career-tested relationship advice that will work, if you can find the courage to take the first step. And who knows, you might be surprised at how many surgical friends you make along the way.