Clinical Topics & News

In VA Oncology, Discussion Groups Are Transforming the Workplace

Data suggests ‘Schwartz Rounds,’ designed to boost compassion, have a powerful impact


SAN DIEGO—From coast to coast, 10 US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers are holding meetings designed to help clinicians and colleagues talk openly about touchy workplace topics, such as compassion, burnout, and medical errors. New data suggests that “Schwartz Rounds” have tremendous power to change how medical professionals cope, communicate, and commiserate.

At the VA Connecticut Healthcare System (VACHS), nearly all (98%) respondents who took part in Schwartz Round sessions rated them as either good or excellent, 89% reported feeling less isolated in their work with patients, 98% had new insights into the perspectives and experiences of colleagues, and 93% felt more open to communicating with colleagues, reported oncologist Edward Perry, MD, of VA Connecticut and Yale University School of Medicine, in a presentation here at the annual meeting of the Association of VA Hematology/Oncology (AVAHO) held September 16 to 18, 2022.

Schwartz Rounds have been around for 25 years and are named after the late Ken Schwartz, a 40-year-old Boston health care attorney who wrote movingly in 1995 about the “exquisite compassion” he experienced while being treated for advanced lung cancer—and the risk that the rapidly evolving health care system would lose its sense of empathy.

The Boston-based nonprofit Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare facilitates Schwartz Rounds, which are now held at about 600 health care organizations around the world. That number includes the 10 VA medical centers, mostly in the Northeast (Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire) but also in California, Illinois, and Minnesota.

Site teams work with the Schwartz Center to plan the rounds and gather data about their effectiveness. “Unlike traditional clinical or ethics rounds, this is not a didactic or problem-solving session. The focus is not on what happened, but how those who were involved felt. In other words, the human dimension of medicine,” Dr. Perry said. “There are no right or wrong answers. Everything that is said during short rounds is confidential. We do encourage people to continue discussion of the general themes afterward but not to share any specifics of what was discussed.”

At VACHS, Schwartz rounds began shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Perry said, and they’ve been held virtually since the first meeting. “Schwartz Rounds are open to all employees, trainees, and students at the institution. Anyone with a VA badge is welcome to attend,” he said. “We're averaging about 150 attendees per session.”

Speakers have addressed social/emotional topics, including delivering bad news to patients, maintaining compassion during adversity, and providing compassionate care to patients with substance use disorders.

The VACHS survey of Schwartz Rounds participants had a 50% response rate, with about 400 people responding to each question. Nearly all (98%) said they planned to attend the rounds again, and 55% agreed that a specific discussion “suggests that changes may be needed in departmental or institutional policies or practices.”

The administration has agreed to continue the Schwartz Rounds in light of the positive results, Perry said. As he noted, the Schwartz Center charges dues and initiation fees. The Marjorie Stanzler Financial Aid Fund underwrites the initiation fees for qualifying organizations, including VA facilities.

As for lessons, he said the topics of Schwartz Rounds “should be emotionally resonant. They should involve multiple disciplines and perspectives. They should illuminate an issue or experience that is not often discussed. And should inspire participants to share their own experiences and highlight instances of compassionate care—or barriers to providing compassionate care.”

Dr. Perry has no disclosures.

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