Whether You're a Brother or Whether You're a Mother

Jay Moore, for HealthLeaders Media, October 30, 2008

The e-mail subject line reads: "Pop song Stayin' Alive helps people perform chest compressions for CPR."

Skeptical, am I. Quality is a weighty matter, not one to be addressed with gimmick solutions. We have thousands dying from healthcare-associated infections every year. We have wrong-site surgeries, fatal drug errors. We have hospitals struggling with the costs of improving patient safety. In short, we have serious challenges. Someone is actually spending the time to study the effects of disco music?

My cynicism aside, the report is from a credible source—the American College of Emergency Physicians—so I read on. The Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever anthem, I learn, has 103 beats per minute, which is almost exactly the rate at which compressions should be administered. Physicians and medical students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine who were trained to do chest compressions while listening to the song were able to maintain the ideal compression rhythm weeks after their training. Apparently the song creates a sort of mental metronome that sticks in the brain.

I reflect that maybe there's something to this. But then again, the study involves just 15 participants—10 physicians and five medical students. How can anyone expect to draw meaningful conclusions from that? Training caregivers with the Bee Gees? Come on.

A few days later, I read a New York Times piece about how teaching literature to medical residents can make them more empathetic, compassionate physicians who are more adept at evaluating patients. The story describes residents gathering to read short stories and poems together, then reflecting upon how the themes and situations detailed in the readings apply to their clinical experiences.

Again, I am leery. Using literature to supplement medical students' curricula is not a new phenomenon. But residents? They're extraordinarily busy, and the scope of their training is immense. Now we're going to squeeze "narrative medicine training" into their 80-hour weeks?

But then I read this quote from Benjamin Kaplan, MD, a second-year resident at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ, about the issue of committing time for such things amid a sea of priorities: "It does get pretty busy. But if you want to make time for it, you can," Kaplan told the Times. "Spending a half hour a day to remember that we are all human, not just doctors or pharmacists or nurses or patients, is important enough that I think you should do it."

And there it is. Kaplan is right. Time may be at a premium, but it's there. The trick, of course, is deciding which training, which initiative, which solution justifies the time. When it comes to improving the quality of care that healthcare organizations provide to patients, I'm still not convinced that every obscure study or program is time well spent. For the most part, we cannot nickel-and-dime our way through healthcare's minefield of enormous challenges, and the issue of quality is no exception. But we—and that we includes me—also shouldn't automatically dismiss nontraditional ideas as trivial. The industry push for quality demands legitimate solutions—and it also demands fresh thinking.

The Bee Gees and classic literature aren't exactly typical quality solutions. But we need all the solutions we can get.

Jay Moore is managing editor for HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at jmoore@healthleadersmedia.com.
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