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Customizable Curriculum to Enhance Resident Communication Skills

Mitchell, John D. MD*; Ku, Cindy MD*; Lutz, Brendan BS; Shahul, Sajid MD, MPH; Wong, Vanessa BS*; Jones, Stephanie B. MD*

doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000004084
Medical Education
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Communication remains challenging to teach and evaluate. We designed an online patient survey to assess anesthesia residents’ communication skills from August 2014 to July 2015. In December 2014, we implemented a customized, simulation-based curriculum. We calculated an overall rating for each survey by averaging the ratings for the individual questions. Based on the Hodges–Lehmann 2-sample aligned rank-sum test, overall ratings, reported as the median (interquartile range) of residents’ average overall ratings, differed significantly between the preintervention (3.86 [3.76–3.94]) and postintervention (3.91 [3.84–3.95]) periods (P = .025). Future studies should assess the intervention’s effectiveness and generalizability.

From the *Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, Blacksburg, Virginia

Department of Anesthesia & Critical Care, University of Chicago Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Published ahead of print 16 January 2019.

Accepted for publication January 16, 2019.

Funding: This study was funded by the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, MA.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal’s website.

Reprints will not be available from the authors.

Address correspondence to John D. Mitchell, MD, Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, 1 Deaconess Rd, RB-470, Boston, MA 02215. Address e-mail to jdmitche@bidmc.harvard.edu.

See Editorial, p 1194

Communication is important for relationships with patients.1 In 2018, the American Board of Anesthesiology started requiring physicians to pass an Objective Structured Clinical Examination to become board certified.2 As part of the examination, physicians must demonstrate proficiency in communication. Unfortunately, communication remains challenging to teach and evaluate.3

While assessments of care should include patient input, existing curricula and evaluation tools for nontechnical skills in anesthesiology do not include direct patient feedback.4,5 To address this issue, we previously designed a mailed ambulatory surgical patient survey to measure changes in residents’ communication skills after a simulation-based curriculum.6 Although we detected an overall improvement, the curriculum did not consider residents’ individual areas for improvement.

We therefore developed a simulation-based curriculum customized for each resident based on patient feedback. To collect feedback, we developed an online survey administered in the postanesthesia care unit. We hypothesized that residents’ communication skills, as measured by our survey, would improve after our curricular intervention.

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METHODS

This study received institutional review board approval for exempt status with a waiver of written informed consent by the Committee on Clinical Investigations at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. This article adheres to the applicable Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology guidelines.

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Study Design

In this prospective cohort study on Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center anesthesia residents’ communication skills from August 2014 to July 2015, we designed a patient survey to assess residents’ communication skills before and after a customized simulation-based curriculum.

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Participants

Participants included ambulatory surgical patients and anesthesia residents (postgraduate years 2–4; N = 54) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center during the study. We excluded patients who met ≥1 of the following:

  1. Did not recall interacting with his/her resident before surgery;
  2. Was unavailable due to privacy curtains, being occupied with health professionals, contact precautions, and/or continuing fatigue, nausea, or inability to sufficiently attend to the survey;
  3. Did not speak English or was deaf with no interpreter present; and/or
  4. Had undergone a dilation and curettage, dilation and evacuation, or cataract surgery.
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Survey Design

Based on the Four Habit Coding Scheme and our previous study, we developed a new patient survey to assess residents’ communication skills.6,7 This 10-question survey asked the patient to rate different aspects of his/her resident’s communication skills on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being low and 4 high. The new survey (Supplemental Digital Content, Appendix 1, http://links.lww.com/AA/C748) differed from the previous survey as follows:

  1. Online design: The new survey, optimized for use on an Apple iPad (Apple Inc, Cupertino, CA), was online and housed on a Bluehost server (Bluehost Inc, Orem, UT).
  2. Resident pictures: To help patient recall, the survey included headshots of the residents in operating room attire they wear when interacting with patients.
  3. Sliding rating scale: Instead of discrete answer choices, the new survey had a sliding scale to allow for continuous ratings rounded to the nearest hundredth. The numerical value of the rating was visible under the scale.
  4. Option for “Not applicable”: The new survey included a checkbox for “Not applicable” if a patient believed a question was not applicable.
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Survey Administration

A research assistant (B.L.) introduced the study and administered the survey to patients on an iPad in the postanesthesia care unit. Patients were invited to voluntarily complete the survey. To ensure the patient evaluated the correct resident, the research assistant identified the resident involved in the patient’s care based on the operating room schedule and showed the patient the resident’s picture on the iPad for confirmation before offering the survey for completion.

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Curricular Intervention

We designed a curriculum to improve ratings on the survey. In December 2014, 1 investigator (J.D.M.) met with each resident who had survey data from August 2014 to December 2014 to share his/her survey results. Using the data, we identified up to 3 lowest scoring questions for each resident. For each question identified, 1 investigator (J.D.M.) wrote a corresponding 2-part reflective question (Table). We assigned each resident up to 3 reflective questions corresponding to his/her lowest scoring questions. Residents with fewer than 3 lowest scoring questions were also assigned the reflective question(s) corresponding to the group’s lowest scoring question(s) for a total of 3 reflective questions to ensure curricular consistency. Based on the areas assessed on the survey, 2 investigators (J.D.M. and C.K.) designed 2 simulation scenarios depicting positive preoperative and postoperative interviews between a resident and a patient.

Table.

Table.

We implemented the simulation sessions on 2 days (1 per day) during regularly scheduled didactic sessions. For each session, after viewing the simulation, each resident completed his/her assigned reflective questions, which were intended to encourage residents to think more about the areas in which they could improve. Residents unable to attend the live sessions were allowed to complete an online module in which they viewed each recorded simulation and responded to their assigned reflective questions. All residents (N = 54) viewed and completed the reflective questions for at least 1 simulation in person or online by mid-April 2015. Forty-three residents viewed and completed the questions for both simulations.

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Statistical Analysis

Data analysis was performed with Stata Special Edition 13.1 (StataCorp LP, College Station, TX); P < .05 was considered significant. Excluding blank surveys, we did the following for each survey:

  1. We coded the time period as “preintervention” (before the resident completed his/her first simulation) or “postintervention” (if the resident completed both simulations, after he/she completed them; if the resident completed only one, after he/she completed it).
  2. We calculated an “overall rating” by averaging the individual questions’ ratings.

We used the Hodges–Lehmann 2-sample aligned rank-sum test with period as the grouping variable, resident as the stratifying variable, and median as the measure of location with which alignment is performed to compare pre- and postintervention overall ratings.8 Because each resident had multiple surveys, we calculated each resident’s average overall rating in each period and reported overall ratings as the median (interquartile range) of residents’ average overall ratings in each period.

To support our primary results and to investigate whether postgraduate year level was related to overall ratings, we performed a secondary generalized estimating equations analysis. For this analysis, we calculated the first quartile of the overall ratings of all surveys. We coded each survey as “1” or “0” where 1 = the overall rating was above the first quartile and 0 = the overall rating was equal to or below the first quartile. We then used generalized estimating equations to fit a model for the proportion of surveys with overall ratings above the first quartile, taking into account resident variability, with time period and postgraduate year level as the independent variables. We used a binomial distribution, identity link function, and exchangeable correlation structure.

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RESULTS

Of the 2911 patients cared for by anesthesia residents during the study, 52% were excluded. One thousand one hundred sixty-two of the remaining patients (83%) responded to the survey. The average number of surveys per resident was 10.7 ± 11.06 in the preintervention period and 9.4 ± 6.31 in the postintervention period. We collected data on all 54 residents; 41 had surveys in both periods. Overall ratings differed significantly between periods (preintervention: 3.86 [3.76–3.94], postintervention: 3.91 [3.84–3.95]; P = .025). The biweekly averages of residents’ overall ratings are depicted in the Figure.

Figure.

Figure.

The first quartile of all the overall ratings was 3.812. Based on our generalized estimating equations analysis, there was a significant difference in the proportion of surveys with overall ratings above the first quartile across time period (preintervention: 419/579 [72.37%], postintervention: 397/509 [78%]; P = .03) but not across postgraduate year level (postgraduate year 2: 516/686 [75.22%], postgraduate year 3: 135/184 [73.37%], postgraduate year 4: 165/218 [75.69%]; P = .739).

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DISCUSSION

Residents received higher ratings from patients after the curriculum. While the changes are numerically small, any detectable positive change in patient satisfaction has value. Although experience may improve communication skills, results from our secondary analysis suggest that more experienced senior residents were not performing better than less experienced novice residents. Studies show that experience alone does not improve communication skills.9–11 Consistent with our results, attending physicians who attended a course on patient-centered communication achieved higher scores than a control group on an outpatient survey on communication skills.12 Another study on barriers to teaching communication skills suggested using educational interventions tailored to learners’ needs.13 With a customized curriculum, our study is a step in that direction. However, with a small sample size, our study design was limited. We had no control group and could not conduct a segmented regression analysis. Our study was a before-and-after design in which the pre- and postintervention periods were completely separated in time. Because the observed association may have been explained by trends over time, a better analysis would have been a segmented regression in which the periods are compared on the slope (ie, the change over time).14 Further research should consider randomized, multi-institutional studies to increase the sample size and assess the intervention’s effectiveness and generalizability of the results. Future studies should also standardize the intervention (eg, have all residents attend the live sessions), investigate which parts of the intervention were most effective, explore other factors contributing to the detected changes, determine and adjust for confounding variables, and further validate the survey.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors would like to thank Ariel Mueller, MA, Ziyad Knio, BS, and Xinling (Claire) Xu, PhD, for their assistance in the data analysis; Amy Sullivan, EdD, Richard Schwartzstein, MD, and the Center for Education at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for their support and guidance; the Carl J. Shapiro Institute for Education and Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for their support of the pilot study; David Fobert, MLA, Michael McBride, RN, and Darren Tavernelli, RN, RRT, for their assistance in producing the simulation sessions; the Center for Anesthesia Research Excellence at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for their support; and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine residents and leadership for their participation in and support of the study.

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DISCLOSURES

Name: John D. Mitchell, MD.

Contribution: This author helped conceptualize, design, and implement the study and prepare the manuscript.

Name: Cindy Ku, MD.

Contribution: This author helped conceptualize and design the study and review the manuscript.

Name: Brendan Lutz, BS.

Contribution: This author helped implement the study and prepare the manuscript.

Name: Sajid Shahul, MD, MPH.

Contribution: This author helped conceptualize and design the study, analyze the data, and review the manuscript.

Name: Vanessa Wong, BS.

Contribution: This author helped design and implement the study, analyze the data, and prepare the manuscript.

Name: Stephanie B. Jones, MD.

Contribution: This author helped design and implement the study and prepare the manuscript.

This manuscript was handled by: Edward C. Nemergut, MD.

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REFERENCES

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Supplemental Digital Content

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