Last month the Surgery & Emotion team held its first-ever Surgical Speed-Meet event, bringing together practitioners and members of the public to explore the emotional side of surgery.
Our aim was to demystify the often-closed world of surgical practice and we were delighted to help bust some stereotypes of surgical detachment.
Earlier this year we successfully secured almost £20,000 of Research Enrichment – Public Engagement funding from the Wellcome Trust, which has enabled us to develop an ambitious public engagement programme to run throughout the remainder of the project. A central strand of this is the Surgical Speed-Meets, which we’re planning to hold across the UK.
These evening events enable surgeons and members of the public to have candid, informal 1:1 conversations about how it feels to practise (and receive) surgery. They follow a 'speed-dating' format, with attendees spending a few minutes speaking to each other and rotating around the room. At the end of the event, we come together as a group over refreshments to reflect on what we’ve learned. The events involve a small group of around 30 participants (15 surgeons, 15 members of the public). Historical perspectives from the Surgery & Emotion team are interwoven throughout the evening.
Our first event took place on our home turf in London and was organised in association with the Royal College of Surgeons of England. We were delighted to have this support in the run-up to the event, and the College and specialty associations played an integral role in helping us reach surgeons who were keen to volunteer and test-drive this new format for public engagement.
We attracted surgeon-participants from across England (from London to Birmingham to Sheffield) and from different specialties, including orthopaedics, paediatrics, transplant surgery, and neurosurgery. Our public participants came from different backgrounds – some had had contact with surgeons through current or past careers, or through their own medical encounters, while others had never had a conversation with a surgeon before.
We began the event with a drinks reception and light buffet, before kicking off with short presentations from the project team. The core part of the evening was the speed-meets, where each pair had three minutes to interact. Each ‘round’ had a different theme. Upon arrival, participants wrote down one emotion they’d like to talk about during the evening. We read out these words to help structure each 3-minute session; discussions ranged from ‘curiosity’ to ‘stress’, ‘elation’ to ‘apprehension’.
After the speed-meets were complete, our surgeons and public participants had a quick break and re-convened for a group discussion about what attracted them to the event, what they’d gained by taking part, and what surprised them about the interactions. The conversation also broached a wide range of subjects, from surgeons’ experiences of gender and racial prejudices to patient expectations about recovery, and from the role of team-working to representations of surgeons in the media and popular culture. The surgeons reflected on their own experiences as patients, and we discussed whether the surgeons participating were representative, whether they reflected people’s wider medical encounters.
One public participant said that, having taken part, she realised surgeons were ‘just emotional beings […] my perception towards surgeons are [now] very very different’. She added, ‘I feel quite emotional because some of the answers really touched me’. Another public participant said that ‘by seeing surgeons face to face, talking to them, getting a bit more insight about them, and how they […] work, how they feel […] it’s enhanced the way I trust them’.
One surgeon suggested that participating made him ‘think a little bit more about how I approach patients’. A practitioner who mentioned he was ‘very emotional with patients’ said ‘you don’t treat them as any lesser just because they need you, need your services […] What I take home today is that I need to do more of this’. Another surgeon reflected that ‘if you cannot be emotionally engaged with your patient when they are divulging the pain and suffering they go through on a daily basis, then I think in some respects you have no business being in medicine’.
At the end of the evening, we gave feedback forms to all participants to capture their experiences and the impact the event had had. Many public participants were pleasantly surprised about how candid the surgeons were. One person appreciated ‘talking to surgeons and finding them open to talk about very personal subject[s]’. Another remarked that ‘open discussion worked well, amazing to hear surgeons/ healthcare professionals talk so openly’. ‘Surgeons are human beings and have emotions’, one attendee recognised.
When asked what could be improved, the majority of people wanted longer 1:1 conversations during the speed-meeting component. We were impressed there was so much appetite for further discussion given the event ran all evening after a busy working day. We thought it might be difficult to get people chatting but, on the contrary, pairs were engrossed in their exchanges! We’ll be looking at how to adapt the core format to give people more time to chat.
Participants were also asked whether the event had changed their opinions on the place of emotions in surgery and healthcare. The public articulated the greatest shift in attitudes. One person commented that ‘doctors seem less monolithic’ now, while another remarked that they were ‘interested in how emotionally intelligent some of the surgeons were’ as it ‘confounded [their] stereotypes’.
Asked if there was anything they had learned or would do differently as a result of the event, one surgeon reflected on their discovery that ‘patients want emotion from their surgeons’. One public participant said they would ‘feel able to divulge more to surgeons when being treated’, while another remarked they would ‘talk and think about surgeons as humans with feelings, and talk more directly to them’. One person reflected, ‘I definitely have a better opinion of surgeons - I did have the impression they were arrogant - I don't really know why - but none of them were’.
At the beginning and close of the evening we asked all our participants – surgeons and members of the public – to respond to a provocative statement: ‘Surgeons are usually emotionally detached’. They had to rate, on a sliding scale, how far they agreed or disagreed. As the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images show (see below), the event helped shift people’s perspectives – one of our core aims for the evening. Reflecting on their experience of participating, one member of the public commented ‘the opposite of the stereotype was what came through to me’.
Our first Speed-Meet has shown that not only is there considerable appetite from practitioners and the public to chat about emotions in surgery, but that these kinds of candid, informal conversations can play a crucial role in fostering open dialogue and even improving the quality of people's healthcare encounters. We're interested to see the responses that come in across the UK, and to think about how this format might be used to improve practitioner-patient relationships.
We’ll be running our next Surgical Speed-Meet in Manchester, on 21 November, as part of the Being Human Festival. If you’re a surgeon or non-surgeon interested in taking part, please get in touch with us at email@example.com.
Event photography by Ameena Rojee.