The Rural Surgeon: Critical staff ‘wearing many hats’



In my recent travels to ACS state chapter gatherings and in my meeting with rural surgeons in a variety of settings, I have heard on many occasions a particular theme of concern: the lack of resources, in particular, personnel resources available in rural hospitals. A shortage of nurses, assistants, and support staff of all kinds has emerged as a serious, continuing challenge for surgeons who work in small communities.

Rural surgery still “gets it done” in spite of resource challenges. Actually, rural surgeons perform more procedures per year with more variety in procedure types than did their urban peers, in spite of limited resources (J. Am. Coll. Surg. 2005;201:732-6).

Dr. Philip R. Caropreso Courtesy of Dr. Caropreso
Dr. Philip R. Caropreso

Resource shortage for rural practices is a common subject on the rural surgery Listserv. Rural surgeons might exclaim, “We have done so much with so little for so long that we are now expected to do everything with nothing forever!” Nursing and support personnel are key resources that can be in short supply.

The rural surgery Listserv has hosted a contest inviting rural surgeons to complete the following statement: “You know you are a rural surgeon if … (YKYAARSI).” At a recent rural surgery dinner at a scientific meeting, we had a little fun amidst all of the serious topics. The winner surgeon read his winning entry: “You know you are a rural surgeon if your first OR assistant is also the OR director, the director of nursing, the DRG coordinator, the director of QA for the ER, the coordinator of emergency preparedness, the committee coordinator for the annual hospital Christmas party, the chairwoman of the committee for quality measures, the best enema nurse, and the best interpreter of the local jargon, such as ‘casophagus’ (esophagus), ‘whistle’ (penis), ‘physic’ (enema), ‘hepmotoma’ (hematoma ), and ‘toodinitis’ (vaginal infection).” Laughter and cheers followed.

Is this hyperbole? The winning YKYAARSI entry is likely closer to reality for many rural surgeons than might be supposed by those who practice in institutions with abundant personnel resources. In small community hospitals, one dedicated staff nurse can have many roles and many jobs.

Early in my career, I practiced with a true team. Individuals had specific roles. My physician assistants assisted me during operations and on rounds. The OR head nurse “ran the board.” The director of surgical services coordinated all functions of the OR from an office. The emergency room was under the management of a veteran emergency nurse. Patients received outstanding bedside nursing care on the surgical floors and in the ICU. IV teams developed and provided valuable services. Skilled lab techs drew blood. An administrative assistant coordinated social events and fund raising. Clearly, trained individuals focused on their areas of expertise.

Gradually, this structure changed. Individuals had to assume many different roles and fill positions that were otherwise unfamiliar to them. The nursing and support personnel resources available for surgery started to diminish significantly.

Today, the concept of team is reduced to single individuals “wearing many hats.” They have all accepted the additional roles to support their hospitals and then made sincere efforts to perform well. The added responsibilities have stressed these well-intentioned nurses, technicians, and assistants both physically and emotionally. Frequently circumstances prevented them from being resources for surgery, straining surgical performance and patient care. I have experienced such situations firsthand, and I have no doubt many readers have as well.

The YKYAARSI winning entry came to life at my critical access hospital. The OR charge nurse became the director for surgical services, ob.gyn., and the emergency department. Previously, this capable nurse would either circulate my cases or be the first assistant. She also took call. She had the greatest skill starting IVs. With the additional duties outside of the OR, this “resource” nearly disappeared, depriving the practice of her abilities and experience. Providing overall quality care became even more challenging. The new “director of almost everything” also led efforts to raise funds for the hospital building campaign. In addition, she developed and coordinated a half-marathon to lift spirits and get pledges for the hospital. In spite of being encouraged to the contrary by hospital administration, even this smart, determined nurse fell behind, and was no longer a resource for surgery.

Like other rural surgeons in similar circumstances, I persisted and adapted to working with less, but I recognize that this situation is not ideal, and perhaps in the long run, not sustainable.

The root of the problem of limited personnel resources for rural surgery is multifactorial and the topic for another column. If you have experienced a personnel shortage or a situation of critical staff “wearing many hats” and would like to contribute to this discussion, please feel free to e-mail me.

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