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Prepping Patients’ Minds and Bodies for Surgery Pays Off

An inexpensive program to help surgery patients get physically and mentally ready for their upcoming operation may help reduce overall costs and get them home faster, according to new research involving hundreds of patients in 21 hospitals across Michigan.

“Prehabilitation” uses the weeks before surgery to encourage patients to move more, eat healthier, cut back on tobacco, breathe deeper, reduce their stress, and focus on their goals for after their operation, researchers explain.

In 2017, after its first test in surgery patients at the University of Michigan, the approach showed signs of reducing total medical costs related to the patient’s care, and cut their length of stay in the hospital, compared with similar Michigan Medicine patients who had surgery before the program began, the researchers add.

The new study confirms those results on a statewide and more rigorous scale, they say.

Published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, it’s based on data from 523 patients with traditional Medicare coverage who went through “prehab” and more than 1,000 similar patients who did not.

The study’s findings show that prehab patients across the state left the hospital one day earlier, and were more likely to go straight home rather than to a skilled nursing facility. Total costs for all care up to three months after surgery were nearly $3,200 less on average for those who went through prehab, according to the study.

In a second new paper published in Annals of Surgery, the researchers propose that surgical teams adopt the same “positive psychology” approach to engaging with surgery candidates.

“Every time the prehab study has been studied, it’s found to increase the value of surgical care by improving care while reducing cost. This study cements the business case for hospitals to support it,” said Michael Englesbe, M.D., who leads the university’s Department of Surgery team that published both studies.

“We also now recognize that prehab’s physical training may work partly because it empowers the patient to engage in their own recovery,” he said. “Patient empowerment is the ‘secret sauce’ and we hope to harness it even more.”

The new study focused on the patients with the highest risk of complications after surgery because they had a combination of underlying health conditions beyond the problem that required surgery, the researchers reported. Their median age was 70, and one in six qualified for federal disability benefits. All of them, and the patients they were compared with, had one of 26 common operations.

The prehab patients’ surgeons referred them to the program, called the Michigan Surgical and Health Optimization Program (MSHOP). The program was supported by a grant from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Once enrolled, patients received a call or electronic message from a member of the MSHOP team, and materials about the importance of better nutrition, tobacco cessation, engaging in positive thinking and goal-setting, and reducing stress as part of  their pre-surgery preparation.

They also received a pedometer to track their steps and an incentive spirometer to encourage them to practice taking deep breaths to improve their lung function before and after surgery.

According to the study’s findings, 62 percent of them tracked their walking three or more times a week, entering them into their medical record or calling them in to a secure voicemail box. The program staff contacted patients who hadn’t logged steps to encourage them to do so.

For those who tracked regularly, they took an average of 2,909 steps per day and about 30 deep breaths on the spirometer.

Though the prehab patients were only in the program for an average of two and a half weeks before surgery, the program was associated with statistically significant changes in several measures, the researchers reported.

In addition to the total cost and hospital length of stay differences, the patients in the program were less likely to need home health care after they went home, with 24 percent of the prehab patients receiving it compared with 29 percent of non-prehab patients.

However, the prehab patients had about the same rates of nursing home stays, visits to emergency departments, and additional hospital stays after they left the hospital, the study found.

Although prehab programs at many of the participating hospitals ended or scaled back when the study ended, the University of Michigan team has made MSHOP part of the standard of care for Michigan Medicine surgical candidates who have a higher than usual risk of complications, the researchers said. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan supports the effort through a pilot payment project. A full kit of patient materials is available online.

In addition to incorporating more positive psychology aspects, such as having patients express their post-surgical goals and the steps they will take to try to reach them, the MSHOP program has evolved to allow patients to track steps using their smartphones and wearable activity trackers instead of providing pedometers. The program has also been integrated into the electronic portal that patients use so that they can sync their step counts automatically from their device.

Englesbe encourages anyone who is getting ready to have surgery to try to increase their physical activity, improve their nutrition, reduce or eliminate tobacco use, and focus on their mental state.

Doctors should remember that they’re not just doing surgery to solve the patient’s physical problem, but to help the person who has the problem, the researchers conclude.

Source: Michigan Medicine — University of Michigan

Photo: A visual abstract of the findings of the new study. Credit: University of Michigan and Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

Prepping Patients’ Minds and Bodies for Surgery Pays Off

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Prepping Patients’ Minds and Bodies for Surgery Pays Off. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 4 Feb 2020 (Originally: 17 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 4 Feb 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.