How Enhanced Recovery Program is changing cancer patients’ surgery recovery

Since becoming a doctor, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the more we can lower patients’ anxiety levels, the better off they are. Educating patients about what to expect improves both how they do during cancer treatment and how they feel about it. It’s like giving people a passport to their own healing.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be involved in MD Anderson initiatives that ensure our patients receive the best possible care. My role lets me keep enjoying the remarkable relationships I’ve developed by treating individuals, while also putting entire systems in place that help all of our patients.

Enhanced Recovery Program gets cancer patients feeling better faster

As a physician, my goal is to do the right thing for the right patient at the right time, every time. And every other doctor at MD Anderson shares this goal.

It starts with putting extremely talented people together with really good safety and quality practices. Many of these practices are included in our Enhanced Recovery Program (ERP), a set of 21 guidelines initially used before, during and after surgical procedures. Now these same practices have crossed over to medicine and are being used to aid in the recovery of non-surgical patients, as well.

But Enhanced Recovery is more of a philosophy of care than a narrow program. It includes strategies such as minimizing the use of narcotics, aggressive physical therapy, and allowing patients to drink clear fluids up to two hours before a procedure. The idea is to get people feeling better faster, so they can get back to their lives that much sooner. Our motto is: “Back to home, back to family, back to work, back to life and back to self.”

Enhanced Recovery is one of the most valuable advances in 30 years

Enhanced Recovery is arguably one of the most valuable advances that medicine has seen in 30 years. And patients who’ve had surgery using both kinds of recovery plans universally report having a better experience with Enhanced Recovery. Some recover so quickly, they literally spring out of bed after surgery. Many express surprise afterwards at how functional they were, how little pain they had and how quickly they got back to their lives.

We used to tell patients to expect about six weeks of disability after surgery. Now, we’re measuring recovery in days instead of weeks. Some patients ask to go back to work, start driving again or even resume chemotherapy less than two weeks after a procedure. And about 40% of my patients don’t need any narcotics to control their pain: a combination of other agents — including over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen — work just fine.

The future of Enhanced Recovery

At its core, Enhanced Recovery is about examining every step in the cancer care journey, taking out the waste and leaving in the essentials. The data offer compelling evidence that the way we treat patients now is more effective. Notably, Enhanced Recovery has been shown to improve patient results, reduce harm, lower costs for everyone and even to lengthen survival.

The more data we have, the better we’ll be at identifying what’s still not quite right or could be just a little better. Big data and analytics are what will help us make the next big strides in recovery from cancer treatment.

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy have all seen advances in the areas of technology and research. Future success lies in the better sequencing and coordination of those treatments. But regardless of what type of treatment is involved, when we educate patients about what’s going to happen, when and why, we make them partners in their own healing. The impact is substantial.

We can’t ever promise patients a cure, but we can always promise them a plan. Taking away uncertainty — and by extension, anxiety — is perhaps the greatest gift we can give.

Thomas Aloia, M.D., is a liver surgeon and the chief value and quality officer at MD Anderson.

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