October 20, 2017
2 min read

Free texting service keeps patients’ families updated during cancer surgeries

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A simple, no-cost text message service at a cancer center in Detroit has helped keep families of surgical patients informed and reduce their anxiety, according to a presenter at the Association of Community Cancer Centers National Oncology Conference.

Van Elslander Cancer Center is on the campus of Ascension St. John Hospital, a 772-licensed bed facility with a 1,300-member medical staff that represents 50 medical and surgical specialties.

Richard Berri, MD, chief of surgical oncology, performs eight to 12 surgeries per month for gastrointestinal cancers and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIC).

The hospital previously offered a basic surgical board that indicated when a surgery started and when it stopped, but it offered no updates in between.

“When we asked families for their feedback about their experience when they were at the hospital for a surgery, they said, ‘Nobody tells us anything,’” Anthony Pappas, MHA, gastrointestinal oncology coordinator, said during his presentation. “These surgeries last anywhere from 6 to 14 hours. We wanted to develop something that would allow patients’ family members to get updates every couple hours during surgery.”

The center’s administration and information technology department indicated there was no such initiative planned.

“We thought about ways to implement a texting service, and we wound up doing something very simple,” Pappas said.

A member of the care team donated a tablet, on which a free app called TEXT NOW was downloaded. The user creates an account and links it to a local-exchange telephone number.

Each patient’s family selects a contact person who provides a cell phone number to the operating room staff. During the surgery, the circulating nurse uses the app to text a brief update from the surgeon every 2 to 3 hours.

“It may say, ‘Just started’ or ‘The tumor is out,’” Pappas said. “The patient’s family stays up to date, and this also encourages them to move around the hospital, get something to eat or go outside. We have even had some patients’ family members who had to go back to work, so this allows them to stay updated throughout.”

The family contact person has the ability to forward the text to other loved ones who want to be informed about how the surgery is going.

The tablet is encrypted, and no personal information is included in the texts, Pappas said. Patients’ family members do have the ability to respond and ask questions.

The pilot program started a little more than a year ago. In that time, the texting service has been used for all 80 surgical cases.


All patients’ families receive surveys to take home. Of the 30 surveys returned, patient satisfaction scores have averaged 9 out of 10.

“This has been one of the biggest initiatives for us with regard to improving the patient experience,” Pappas said. “Their families are very grateful and they have less anxiety. It also has helped the operating room staff with regard to the volume of calls that used to come in.

“Patients and their families know they are in good hands when they come to us, but they really don’t want to just be left alone, waiting and wondering,” Pappas added. “We’re hoping this will catch on across the surgery department and hospital. Patients don’t want it to stop, and we’re very proud of this service.” – by Mark Leiser

For more information:

Pappas A. Leveraging a texting service to keep surgical patients and families informed. Presented at: Association of Community Cancer Centers National Oncology Conference; Oct. 18-20, 2017; Nashville, Tenn.

Disclosure: Pappas reports no relevant financial disclosures.