NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning
Recently I met with a group of medical trainees from different institutions, ranging from pre-med to senior resident. The topic was leadership in medicine and culture. My objective was to lead a discussion on how we see leadership, and to encourage physicians at all levels of training to see themselves as leaders, regardless of designated status. I often invoke Benjamin Zander’s invitation to ‘lead from any chair.’
We started out discussing the current state of medical culture. My summary of the labels, in the order we discussed them, follows here. I strive to hold these observations with minimal judgment, and to practice radical acceptance. This is simply the way things are, not good or bad, it just is. That includes how we feel about it all, and that we want to change the parts we don’t like. Tomorrow I will continue with Part II, characteristics of Culture of Wellness leaders. For now I invite you, especially my friends in medicine and healthcare, to review the list dispassionately, objectively, from a distance. See how it lands. How do you feel reading this list?
- High stakes—we hold people’s lives in our hands.
- Imbalanced. When asked to say more, this trainees explained, “It encourages a lack of balance—we are not supposed to mind the long hours. Our priorities are skewed—we say patients first (but it feels like patients above all else, at any cost?). There’s the paperwork, the burnout. You can’t go home if the patient needs you (internal medicine), and in some fields there is no such thing as a shift. It never ends. (surgery)” These trainees felt no work-life balance.
- Resistant to change. It’s an attitude—“When I was your age…” Anything different and new in terms of work hours, work load, etc. is deemed bad or inferior before it’s even considered.
- Hostile. Between staff members, between doctors and nurses, between doctors themselves, nurses themselves. The trainees saw this as a key contributor to everybody’s burnout.
- Hierarchical—especially surgery (they pointed this out explicitly). For example, walking in the halls, there is an order in which people enter patient or operating rooms. One student reported entering before her team, because she knew the patient, and making small talk. Later, she reported, “the senior resident yelled at me, said to go in order, and do not talk to the patient. In 2017.” In the OR, when students cut sutures, they must always cut the attending’s suture first. One medical student was admonished loudly in the OR for this.
- “You’re expected to know everything already, even though you’re supposed to be learning on the job.” Trainees agreed that they expect to have to prepare for each day at work. But as trainees, they cannot always know how to prioritize information as they study in advance for what feels like daily examination. And they are belittled and shamed for not reading their instructors’ minds and knowing exactly what the teacher is asking for (‘pimping’ the students, as it’s known). “I never feel like enough.”
At this point you may suspect that I somehow planted the seeds of negativity in these trainees’ minds, goaded them on to blast our profession and everybody who had ever said something mean to them in the hospital. I assure you I did not, and I marveled myself at how easily these labels flew onto the table. I hurried to take notes.
Thankfully the vibe circled, as it often does. One woman commented:
- “Family medicine seems actually anti-hierarchy.” Attendings, she observed, often defer to students, who usually know the patients the best, when discussing patient history and data. Team members may all address one another by first names. Another student piped in:
- Pediatrics is similar. Attendings cover for the team during signout, answering pages and signing orders—everybody pitches in. On rounds students are allowed to be students—to make mistakes, to show gaps in knowledge. And a resident pointed out:
- In anesthesia, team members take breaks, and she felt a sense of autonomy and support of residents—no shaming. “Maybe it’s the nature of the work,” she said, “it’s easier to tag team.”
Fascinating. I was practically trembling with excitement—here were ten strangers, from different specialties and at various levels of training, men, women, people of diverse colors and cultures. And we all had the same experience of our chosen profession, much of it negative. Yet here we all were, committed and still excited to be doing this work—we all still hear the call. Whatever keeps us going? How do we get up every morning and come to work in this ‘toxic’ environment?
I’ll tell you tomorrow.
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