Who was the first patient you discussed their own death with?
For me, it was my grandmother. I was a medical student and she was slowly declining from heart and renal failure. During her last admission to hospital, she was clearly fearful of impending death – she told me that she felt better when I sat with her as she slept – which she did more frequently than, previously – as she feared that she might not wake up from her nap.
I assume that the medical staff noted our relationship. It was suggested to me that I might discuss resuscitation orders with her. I agreed that this was a timely discussion for her. Having participated in resuscitation during my rotation in the Emergency Department wanted to spare her this futile treatment.
I can only imagine how bumbling I was in that conversation. My mother had noted when I started medical school that I would have to work on my “bedside manner”.
I definitely lacked the requisite vocabulary to not frighten her more. However, I do remember trying to reassure her that this was to prevent harmful treatment, that wouldn’t help her. And I would have loved to have had the phrase “It’s an order so that we hold your hand when you are dying rather than pound your chest”( see here2 and here3 for more).
I would have loved to have known better to narrate the process of dying to her; to relieve her of her fear that slipping away would be painful and something that she should fight. That her increasing need for sleep was normal and it differed from slipping into unconsciousness so that she could sleep more easily.
In the end, I failed her. As her medical team predicted, she had a cardiac arrest watching a soap on TV a few weeks later. And I failed her, because I hadn’t had that delicate conversation with her wider family. In my naïve medical student approach, she was the patient and I and the medical team knew her wishes. But I forgot that she existed surrounded by a devoted family who wanted to keep her forever.
She arrested, panic ensued, an ambulance was called, CPR was commenced and she had cardiac compressions en route to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. Family members arrived to the resus bay to sit with her and hold her hand. With better communication, we could have done that in her own home.
What I wish I’d known
In the world of surgery, we are always learning4. I regularly wish that I had already mastered all of the communication skills that I need. In a recent blog post1 I wrote about an approach to end of life communication entitled “Difficult Conversations – Why we need to talk about dying”. Dr Lara Mitchell has produced resource materials with Open Change, an educational design company, to give healthcare professionals a visual approach to support these difficult conversations around dying with compassion and honesty. It aims to give framework, concepts and phrases to support these conversations for health and social care.
She has now produced a video discussing the framework in more detail and with references to other sources5. I found it useful and hope that you do too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on my bedside manner, aiming to communicate with openness, compassion and empathy.
The BJS ‘how to write a paper’ session is a fixture at many UK surgical meetings. This covers lots of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing a paper. We delivered a short version of this course at the Association of Surgeons in Training Meeting in Birmingham.
One of the fun and developing parts of publishing is the promotion of material on social media. Visual abstracts have emerged as a concise way of sharing the key points of a manuscript online. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we cover making visual abstracts in this course.
We discuss things like picking out key points and the use of icons and images. We then give the participants a choice of two abstracts and invite them to submit a visual abstract to our competition. This year we chose this paper on peripheral vascular disease and this paper on oesophageal cancer as subjects for the exercise.
We were pleased to receive a number of visual abstracts, which were of a really high standard. Most participants opted for the peripheral artery disease abstract. The team were really impressed by the abstracts that were submitted to us. Dr Jia Ying Lim (blue background) was the winner, and Dr Rucira Ooi (red background) was awarded the runner up prize. You can see these below.
Please keep an eye out for the course at future meetings. If you would like us to deliver this course at your meetings, please get in touch!
Policies and public health efforts have not addressed the impact of pandemics on the provision of surgical services and the effects on health-related outcomes on surgical patients. This also applies to the response to Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). There hasn’t been any related research or analysis despite the impact of the pandemic so far. Understanding the effects of COVID-19 on patients undergoing surgery along with the effects of this pandemic on the provision of surgical services is a fundamental step to understanding the various different effects of a healthcare emergency of that magnitude and to implement policies from the lessons learned.
Impact on surgical patients
Undoubtedly despite the global focus to encounter the pandemic itself and the need to improve provision of services and treatments related to the immediate effects of COVID-19, with intensive care playing a major role, there are still millions of patients who will need surgical treatment. Major focus should be the provision of emergency surgical care, cancer surgery and transplant surgery. There is little or no knowledge on the outcomes of surgical patients with COVID-19 related disease.
Low quality data from a case series of patients who underwent cardiac surgery and acquired Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) did show very high mortality of 83.33% (1). This has major direct implications on the management of emergency surgical patients during the pandemic as well as on the ongoing provision of organ transplantation and cancer related operations. Whether major cancer surgery and organ transplantation should be delayed and for how long, in view of the possible worse outcomes during the pandemic is one of the issues that should be investigated.
Impact on surgical services
We also need to address the effects of the current pandemic on surgical services provision. It is an unprecedented situation that has already changed the way surgeons and health systems worldwide are offering surgical services. There is also very low quality evidence available from the 2003 Hong Kong Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic that showed significant reduction in the colorectal surgical caseload that had a major negative impact on waiting times and training (2). Although it’s certain that the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic will be of unprecedented severity, it’s actual consequences and the implications on resources, staff allocation and training are still uncertain. Understanding the effect of the pandemic would also inform future global policy around cancer and transplantation surgery during pandemics, and the provision of surgical services in general.
A new project
There is an urgent need to understand the outcomes of COVID-19 infected patients who undergo surgery. To address the above issues we designed CovidSurg, an international group of surgeons and anaesthetists, with representation from Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Korea, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States. Our aim is to capture real-world data and share international experience that will inform the management of this complex group of patients who undergo surgery throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, improving their clinical care and to understand the effects of the pandemic on the provision of surgical services.
Outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus Causes High Fatality After Cardiac Operations. Nazer RI, Ann Thorac Surg. 2017 Aug;104(2):e127-e129. doi: 10.1016/j.athoracsur.2017.02.072.
Tales from the frontline: the colorectal battle against SARS. Bradford IM Colorectal Dis. 2004 Mar;6(2):121-3. doi: 10.1111/j.1462-8910.2004.00600.x
Post by Claire Donohoe (@clairedonohoe6), Editorial Assistant BJS, Consultant Oesophagogastric surgeon, Dublin
We need to talk
A critical role of the surgeon is having difficult conversations with patients and their families. Continuously improving our communication skills is as important an aspect of professional development as staying abreast of technological changes. Recent papers in BJS have highlighted the importance of clear decision making at the end of life regarding when to operate1, 2. Recent global events bring the matter in sharper focus.
One potential barrier to making appropriate decisions is engagement with patients, in a time critical manner, to determine their core values and preferences regarding end of life treatment. In “Learning from Regret” the authors noted that perceived communication barriers, regarding poor prognosis with little prospect of ultimate survival, lead to surgeons undertaking emergency surgery and subsequently regretting this decision when they reviewed their patient’s death retrospectively2. In their leader on a “good surgical death” Chamberlain and Blazeby note the importance of early identification of patient’s goals and warned of the rescue culture and death denial that can results in the surgical arena1. Joliat et al. could only identify seven studies in their systematic review which addressed the impact of patient death on surgeons, none of which included interventions to reduce negative impacts3.
Approaching a difficult conversation
Story telling is a powerful tool for enhancing reflection and a potential way of promoting practice change4. “With the End in Mind” is written by a palliative care specialist Dr Kathryn Mannix. In it, she utilises a series of composite accounts of deaths of patients during her career, to illustrate how the experience of death can be managed, symptoms palliated and people comforted5. This book is available for free download in the UK and Ireland until April 6ththrough this link. This book aims to give us permission to directly discuss dying.
From a personal perspective, some of the important themes which led me to reflect on my personal practice included how to address the potential collusion of silence between patients, families and healthcare professionals by ensuring that knowledge is shared and exploring what barriers may exist to a shared understanding of what is happening. This can help promote mutual support within families and facilitate open communication by setting the tone.
By taking the lead on broaching difficult conversations, the healthcare professional can take some of the power of un-named worries away and relieve some of the burden of the taboo. Similarly, by directly addressing the usual trajectory of the decline to death in the metastatic cancer setting as well as the well-recognised in the last days and hours of night as described eloquently by Dr Mannix, I have found a sense of control can be imparted to the dying patient and their supporters.
How to put it into practice?
Some of the lessons from this book and others have been incorporated into an infographic by cohort 12 of the Scottish Quality Safety Fellowship working with design partner Open Change to illustrate an approach to end of life communication entitled “Difficult Conversations – Why we need to talk about dying”. The focus is on breaking down an approach to end of life conversations using honesty and compassion. It provides a framework for the novice and an opportunity to reflect for the more experienced practitioner.
Mastery can enhance a personal sense of control. Mastering communication skills in fraught situations is fundamental to the provision of high quality surgical care and might perhaps, reduce some of the effects of secondary victimhood experience as we care for our dying patients6.
With thanks to Dr Lara Mitchell (@laramitchdr), Consultant Geriatrician and Clinical Lead, and Hazel White, Director Open Change (@openchangeuk) for their insight and providing access to their communication resource.
In light of the need to assess priorities of surgical treatment in a resource-limited environment, NHS England have set out clinical priorities for cancer surgery. However, these priorities do not take into account the vulnerability of the patient to excess morbidity and mortality in the event of Covid-19 infection. It seems evident that, particularly when undertaking elective surgery, the vulnerability of a patient to Covid-19 related morbidity and mortality might be equally important to considerations of the timing of surgery as the underlying disease for which surgery is proposed.
The resource allocation system currently in use at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust (which has since been adopted throughout other hospitals at Northern care Alliance) takes both of these factors into account, by producing a score based upon the need to prioritise treatment on purely disease related grounds and also the vulnerability of the patient to Covid-19. The aim is to generate a score which can be used to determine the overall surgical treatment priority of a group of patients, possibly from different surgical subspecialties, when surgical resources have become limited as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The score allows different groups of surgeons and hospital management to objectively determine how temporarily limited resources might be allocated. It is meant to help guide collective discussions, not to be a rigid indicator of those patients for whom surgical treatment should be deferred, and it should be used to support, not to replace MDT discussions.
Cancer Surgery Priority
The NHS England Suggested Priority for Cancer surgery is summarised in table 1 below.
Priority level 1a
• Emergency: operation needed within 24 hours to save life
Priority level 1b
• Urgent:operation needed with 72 hours Based on: urgent/emergency surgery for life threatening conditions such as obstruction, bleeding and regional and/or localised infection permanent injury/clinical harm from progression of conditions such as spinal cord compression
Priority level 2
Elective surgery with the expectation of cure, prioritised according to: • Surgery within 4 weeks to save life/progression of disease beyond operability. Based on:urgency of symptoms, complications such as local compressive symptoms, biological priority (expected growth rate) of individual cancers
NB. Local complications may be temporarily controlled, for example with stents if surgery is deferred and /or interventional radiology.
Priority level 3
Elective surgery can be delayed for 10-12weeks with no predicted negative outcome.
Table 1: NHS England Suggested Priority for Cancer surgery
However we could make resource allocation easier if we devised a simple, objective and consistent way of summarising the two variables which influence decision making – clinical treatment priority and risk of COVID-related adverse outcome, into one numerical score;
The “Salford Score” simplifies this to:
Priority 1a = score (P)1
Priority 1b = score (P)2
Priority 2 = score (P)3
Priority 3 = score (P)4
A second component of this relates to vulnerability of the patient in case of a COVID infection (see table 2).
Outcome in case of COVID infection
Vulnerability level 1
• Unlikely to have excess mortality (compared to a completely fit individual < 70 years old) in the event of Covid infection
Vulnerability level 2
• Likely to have significant excess mortality compared to a completely fit individual < 70 years old in the event of Covid-19 infection, but would ordinarily receive invasive ventilation in that eventuality
Vulnerability level 3
• Extremely likely to succumb to Covid-19 infection and would not ordinarily receive invasive ventilation in that eventuality
Table 2: Vulnerability score
A resource allocation score of PxV, is then calculated so that a fit patient at high risk of imminent death of underlying disease (P1or 2) and unlikely to have excess Covid mortality (V1) would score 1 or 2 (and get urgent surgical treatment), whereas a patient with a non-immediately life threatening condition (P4) for which surgical treatment could be safely be delayed for 12 weeks and who would not, as a result of severe pre-existing medical comorbidity, be intubated etc. should they develop Covid and respiratory failure (V3) would score 12 and we would not proceed to offer surgery until the current resource position changes.
Min-Hoe Chew1, Lester WL Ong1, Frederick H Koh1, Aven Ng1, YHA Tan1, Biauw-Chi Ong2
1 Department of General Surgery, Sengkang General Hospital, Singapore
2 Department of Anaesthesiology, Chairman Medical Board, Sengkang General Hospital, Singapore
On 11th March 2020, World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak a pandemic.  Over 509,164 people have been infected worldwide with 23,335 deaths . (case fatality-rate 4.6%)
The first imported case of COVID-19 in Singapore occurred on 23rd January 2020.  Local transmission was confirmed on 4th February 2020 and the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) was raised (Orange) on 7th February 2020 [4-5]. As of 27th March 2020, there have been 732 cases in Singapore and 2 deaths.  Sengkang General Hospital (SKH) is a 1,400-bed hospital serving a population of 900,000. SKH confirmed its first case on 26th January 2020 and has managed 32 cases to date.  SKH Department of General Surgery (GS) has developed response measures to ensure all staff were ready to perform surgery for COVID-19 cases, reduce risks of nosocomial infection, and ensure continuity of care for patients. We describe the Preparation Phase in the initial outbreak, the Evolution Phase (DORSCON Orange), and Crisis Phase planning norms (DORSCON Red). [8-9]
Preparation Phasebegan before the first case was reported in Singapore. Cases were initially limited to China . Information was limited; thus, planning was based on experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 [11-12]. A departmental task force was formed to enforce measures implemented by the hospital and develop knowledge specific workflows. Importantly, besides fever and upper respiratory tract symptoms, COVID-19 patients could mimic surgical conditions and have diarrhoea and abdominal pain [13-15].
The task force ensured accuracy of information disseminated. This suppressed falsehood from social media and maintained morale. This also allowed rapid and effective communication between junior and senior staff, and obtained feedback regarding policies.
Internal surveillance measures
Staff conducted twice daily temperature monitoring. Temperatures were entered into web-based forms via personal smartphones. All staff had Radiofrequency Identification tags facilitating contact tracing should there be exposure. Staff who developed symptoms were to only seek medical consultation within the hospital staff clinic. This enabled symptomatic staff to be identified promptly.
Training and rehearsals
Hospital-wide refresher training on the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was conducted. This included N95 mask fitting as well as training on Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR) (CleanSpace® HALOTM, CleanSpace Technology Pty Ltd, Artarmon, NSW, Australia).
Business Continuity Plan (BCP)
The GS department split into two working teams. One team handled all inpatient services, which included emergency admissions, elective and emergency surgeries and ward rounds; the other team managed outpatient clinics and endoscopy procedures. Every seven days, teams would exchange duties.
The segregation of teams ensured that the department would remain functional should any team member fall ill. Under Singapore guidelines, close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases without adequate PPE, will serve a 14-day quarantine.  A seven-day cycle was appropriate in view of the reported mean incubation period of 5 days. 
This BCP was executed when Singapore raised the DORSCON level (Orange) on 7th Feb 2020.
Elective and emergency surgeries
Non-urgent, non-cancer surgeries were postponed. Time-sensitive surgeries, such as cancer-related work and limb salvage procedures, could proceed. Surgeons performed elective surgeries during designated weeks.
Outpatient clinics and endoscopy
Outpatient clinic patient volume was reduced by 30%. Non-urgent endoscopy procedures were postponed. Patients attending appointments had temperature checks and performed declarations of travel history and symptoms. Ill patients were diverted to the Emergency Department (ED).
There was a spontaneous reduction in hospital attendances. ED admissions to the surgical department fell 11% (from a median of 156 per week) initially. (Figure 1) OR utility for surgeries reduced by 13% (from a median of 155 per week). (Figure 2) Median outpatient clinic attendances also decreased by 22% compared to the same period (1674 per week in 2019), without any hospital-initiated postponement. (Figure 3)
However, between the fifth and seventh week, the number of emergency admissions increased by 7 to 14% compared to the past year. OR utility returned to normal and outpatient clinic numbers surpassed previous year numbers by 24% in the seventh week. This was likely due to increased public confidence in Singapore’s response. 
Team segregation was subsequently stopped for junior staff to meet manpower demands. Team segregation for senior staff continued.
Crisis Phase (Preparing for DORSCON Red)
In a Crisis phase, it would necessitate expansion of departments such as ED and Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The objective of Crisis Phase planning was to facilitate manpower allocation while maintaining essential surgical capabilities. (Figure 4)
Key aspects of the Crisis Phase plan are:
Reducing OR workload to allow anesthetists to support ICU
Reducing outpatient clinic and endoscopy workload to free staff for deployment
The course for the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be protracted.  A surgical department must plan a stepwise reduction of elective work to allow for sustained deployment of manpower to frontline departments, and team segregation to allow for continuity of essential services.
The protection of healthcare staff is vital. Ng et al. reported 85% of 41 healthcare workers were exposed to a COVID-19 patient during an aerosol generating procedure . None acquired the infection even though not all were in N95. Standard hand hygiene practices remain important.
Our department statistics provide a snapshot of Singapore’s health-seeking behaviors. Postponing elective surgeries did not reduce workload and more patients were admitted as emergency cases.
We acknowledge that we have had a very controlled increase in the number of COVID-19 cases; much of this is a result of a national strategy of rapid detection and isolation of cases and aggressive contact tracing.  Nonetheless, it is challenging to strike a balance between complacency and overreaction. Premature implementation of drastic measures can lead to staff burnout and resource wastage. Indecisive action however, may result in nosocomial spread and a loss of confidence in hospital leadership. The department has benefitted from the hindsight of the SARS outbreak in 2002.
In the COVID-19 pandemic battle, there are multiple considerations in how a surgical unit functions. Phases of Preparation, Evolution and Crisis will require hard decisions, strong leadership and decisive communication. A robust BCP is essential to ensure that surgical patients continue to have quality care.
12. Chow KY, Lee CE, Ling ML, et al. Outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in a tertiary hospital in Singapore, linked to an index patient with atypical presentation: epidemiological study. BMJ. 2004 Jan 24;328(7433):195.
13. Chen N, Zhou M, Dong X, et al. Epidemiological and clinical characteristics of 99 cases of 2019 novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan, China: a descriptive study. Lancet 2020; 395: 507-13.
14. Wu Z, McGoogan JM. Characteristics of and important lessons from the coronavirus disease, (COVID-19) outbreak in China: summary of a report of 72 314 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. JAMA. 2020 Feb 24. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.2648. [Epub ahead of print]
15. Huang C, Wang Y, Li X, et al. Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan. China. Lancet 2020; 395: 497-506.
A young surgeon’s experience as a patient with bowel cancer
If you ask any clinician, becoming a patient is an unusual experience. When you couple that with the naivety of youth, embracing the role of a patient is particularly challenging.
“We are taught that we when we hear hoof beats, we should think horses, not zebras.”
As part of surgical training, and even in medical school, there are specific red flags that are taught to all of us. ‘Bowel habit change’ and ‘per rectal bleeding’ are not a great combination. We are also taught that we when we hear hoof beats, we should think horses, not zebras. So when I developed these symptoms I just assumed that I probably had a benign cause of bleeding. I assumed this for six weeks while I worked in a high volume liver and kidney transplant unit until I decided it was bothersome. I picked up the phone to one of my mentors, a colorectal surgeon. She subsequently performed my low anterior resection.
My story is different. I class myself as one of the lucky ones. I was aged 33, with no significant family history, only stage 3. I underwent a low anterior resection, fertility treatment and then 6 months of adjuvant FOLFOX. FOLFOX was not very kind. I didn’t require neoadjuvant radiotherapy, had clear margins and only 2 positive nodes. It is amazing how different your perspective is after such an unexpected life interruption. My life changed completely in one single moment.
From the beginning I called myself a lucky unlucky person. I had encountered young people with colorectal cancer in my surgical training, however, in clinics with 30-50 people being followed up in our public health system, it was still a rarity. When I was diagnosed in 2018 I only really began to appreciate the growing trend of young people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. People that are not considered at risk. People under the age of 50. Where screening programs exist, all of these people would be too young to be screened. The age for screening in the United States has recently been lowered. It is still not practical for many reasons to extend population based screening to include those who are even younger. While the figures are alarming us all and steadily climbing, they still don’t meet criteria to support population based screening.
“Becoming a patient reveals so much more about patient care and management.”
What is practical and even more alarming is these people’s stories. Bowel Cancer Australia and Bowel Cancer UK frequently highlight individuals who I never thought I would relate to. I am one of many in a long list of patients who are only too happy to tell their story in hope that someone might not have to go through and live with the effects of cancer. Becoming a patient reveals so much more about patient care and management. The anxiety relating to waiting, having scans, and to having your first operation as such a major one. The knowing too much, from the very beginning. After I was told that my surgeon found a cancer, I know I asked where it was. I meant anatomically. I asked this as I knew what the next investigations would be and what treatment (if I wasn’t metastatic) was being considered. It’s not a normal opening question from any other patient.
It is really encouraging to see increasing attention being paid by researchers and surgical journal editors to the rising rate of colorectal cancer in young people, because it means that the message is being delivered regarding the need to investigate symptomatic people. This is separate to any screening argument. I have been part of the #Never2Young campaign and consider myself obliged to advocate for such awareness campaigns not only as a health professional, but as a colorectal cancer patient. I have become a statistic. I am one of those people diagnosed with a left sided colorectal cancer in the age group 20-49.
Publishing real data and real stories and disseminating them will reach our communities and our clinicians working on the front line, trying to sort through who to investigate further or not. The message is becoming clearer for them now. Symptomatic people need investigating. I have seen firsthand only too many young people who have dismissed their own symptoms or had them dismissed by all levels of care. There are barriers to appropriate investigation with colonoscopy for many reasons. We need to make sure patients are better supported.
“Cancer does not discriminate.“
I have completed treatment. I have had highs and lows within my surveillance already. I am lucky enough to have returned to work finishing my time in general surgical training. Navigating through life post treatment has days of uncertainty and sadness. I never stay sad too long. I constantly get reminders of just how lucky I am to still have this life that could have so easily been taken from me.
Cancer does not discriminate. It will choose anyone at any time. Anyone with symptoms needs to be investigated, as sometimes those hoof beats are actually zebras.
Katherine Goodall is a general surgical registrar from Queensland Australia