Please wait...

When Patients Choose The Playlist

By O. Alton Barron, MD

My operating room may be unique in that we always play music and the patient gets to choose the playlist if they want. There is something positive about the patient’s individual imprint on the process. But for me, that process begins with the initial office conversation.  I learn as much as I can about who someone is and what matters to them as well as their medical concerns. Despite being in practice for over 20 years, I am continually captivated and inspired by people’s stories; what they do, how they live, who and what they love. In addition to diagnosing their medical concern, it is so fascinating to learn what makes someone tick – the Talking Heads, fly-fishing, angel hair pasta with homemade pesto, the banjo, rock climbing. Often their raison d’etre is relationships with loved ones. Patients smile when they talk about treasured others or things that excite them. If I can establish an early rapport, moods lift and concerns can suddenly feel more manageable.  It builds trust.

My wife, Carrie, a psychiatrist at UT Dell Med School likes to quote Osler quoting Hippocrates who said, “It is much more important to know what sort of person has a disease than what sort of disease a person has,” and I agree.

After I arrive at the diagnosis, I may recommend surgery if I feel it is truly the best option. But I am always moved and a bit surprised by patients’ sudden and extreme faith.  It is as if they are saying, “I just met you like 15 minutes ago, but cut open my body. Take blades, drills, screwdrivers, and chisels to me as needed. Whatever you think.”  I am humbled by their trust. At the same time, I see “healing with steel” as actionable empathy.  As surgeons, we listen, hear, see, understand, enter and attend. With this primal connection, this precise and sensitive action, we can profoundly alter the quality of a life.

Music also has a primal power to impact quality of life whether it creates healing, happiness, self-expression, human connection or calm. Music plays a monumental role in many people’s lives whether they are listeners or performers.

The choice of the playlist has a unique and vital role in my OR.  Often, the last question I ask the patient before their procedure is, “What kind of music would you like to listen to during surgery?”  Honoring their preference give patients a sense of autonomy, agency, choice and control when they are about to be vulnerable and “go under.”  Just asking the question seems to create positive emotion and a bit of calm.  Their answer is often:

  1. “Anything except country”
  2. “Classical”
  3. “The Beatles”
  4. “Let’s listen to what YOU want to hear.”
  5. “What do you have? I reply, “Something for everyone. 10,000-songs on my iPod.”

Whatever they want works best.


** Below are links to a couple of articles recently about my new non-profit 501(3)(c) Musician Treatment Foundation that continues to grow and at its core provides free or subsidized hand, elbow and shoulder care for needful professional musicians.


Comments (3)
Stuart Kirkham
August 9, 2018 10:34 pm

Wow . I truly relate to this story . I feel v similar . 20 years as a ban suregon . I let my patients choose the song too as we often use ga here not la . I also talk a lot about the person not just the diagnosis as very often he diagnosis is way as we all know . It puts them at ease and it builds trust – exactly as you have written . I can tell from your writing that you are a good doctor and you care . That is what matters .
Well done mate !
Dr Stuart Kirkham
International ASSH member


Kendrick Lee
August 10, 2018 2:53 am

I enjoy WALANT surgery for this reason: A chance to meet the patient, up close and personal, in as intimate an environment as can be admitted publicly without rebuke.

I won’t forget the time I guessed “how about My Fair Lady”, and the patient recognized my the original Broadway cast recording , Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and sang his way through surgery (though he only got to “Wouldn’t it be loverly”. It made him a happy camper….


Alexander Zolotov
August 12, 2018 10:57 am

Dear colleague,

Thank you very much for the nice topic. My patients prefer “Jazz” and “The Beatles” …


Leave comments

Your email is safe with us.