I am sure that even though Theodor Billroth and Johannes Brahms were close friends, Billroth never listened to music in his operating room. I’m pretty sure because the Victrola was invented around 1906 and the first commercial radio broadcast was in 1920. So unless Billroth hired a Viennese string quartet to play in his amphitheater, it is likely the operating room was a pretty quiet place.
Radios were the size of a small refrigerator into the 1940s when Bell Laboratories’ invention of the transistor technology permitted small units to play tinny music through speakers about 2 inches across. So, I would guess that Alfred Blalock didn’t listen to Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly during his pioneering days at Hopkins.
By the late 1960s high-quality, recorded music was available on 8-track tapes invented by the Lear Jet Corporation. Music at that point was literally available everywhere and the OR became a theater once more for some surgeons. Cassette tapes followed, and Johnny Paycheck echoed in the heart room where I trained in Dallas – usually at high volume. When Apple changed the world with the iPod in 2001 and then the Internet streaming services emerged, it became possible to take out a gall bladder accompanied by Vladimir Horowitz or Madonna. And it happens routinely.
As I write this, I am listening to a jazz streaming station. Music is one of the most important elements of my life. Yet, my operating room has had music on only one occasion since I became an attending surgeon. I love music too much for it to be in my OR. It not only relaxes me, which may not be entirely a good thing in surgery, but it engages my intellect, taking up needed CPU time which might be useful in avoiding catastrophe for the patient before me.
Not long ago this subject was the focus of a discussion thread on the ACS Communities. Many reported that they never listen to music in the OR, others said it was essential to their performance, and still others took a middle ground. Everyone said the music shouldn’t be loud; however, I can recall visiting a number of operating rooms in which loud was the standard volume setting. Most respondents spoke in terms of what they needed and like. Several felt that as captain of the SS Operating Room they had the final say of whether, what, and when music would be played.
I noted in the conversation justification, defensiveness, authoritarianism mixed with personal insight that is so characteristic of many surgeons. Of course, there isn’t a “right” answer here any more than there is in a number of OR traditions. The evidence is all over the place except when it comes to volume. There, it is clear that loud music causes or exacerbates communications errors due to inability of the OR team to hear one another or distraction of the team from their primary task.
Music affects everyone in the OR. It represents one of many operating room components that hold the potential of both betterment of care or endangerment of the patient. To say that music in the OR is wrong is like saying propellers on aircraft are somehow wrong. Among the most serious injuries at general aviation airports is individuals walking into a spinning propeller; however, without the propeller the plane can’t fly and deliver its benefits enjoyed at large. The problem isn’t that propellers are evil. It is that they are invisible to the victim who ignores their dangers.
My point is that music is an example of the need for us to be aware of the primary and secondary effects of even the small things we do in the OR because innocuous as they seem, they have potential dangers. The Council on Surgical and Perioperative Care of which the ACS is a member, has more data and resources on their homepage (cspsteam.org) for those interested in the subject on distractions in the OR.
So, what I’ve learned through listening to the music of my colleagues opinions is that when it comes to music, we need to be aware of the spinning propeller of noise pollution in the OR. Many invisible dangers inhabit the OR. Take a moment and listen for them.
Dr. Hughes is clinical professor in the department of surgery and director of medical education at the Kansas University School of Medicine, Salina Campus, and Co-Editor of ACS Surgery News.