Whole Physician Health: Standing at the Precipice

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I published the post below two years ago, and all of it applies even more so today. This week I presented to my department chairs and hospital administration leaders on the importance of addressing physician burnout and well-being. There is a growing sense of urgency around this, some even starting to call it a crisis.

Still, I feel hopeful. Darkest before the dawn, right? Reveal it to heal it, my wise friend says. Physician burnout research has exposed and dissected the problem for 20 years, and now we shift our attention toward solutions.

I will attend the American Conference on Physician Health and the CENTILE Conference next month. I cannot wait to commune with my tribe again, explore and learn, and return to my home institution with tools to build our own program of Whole Physician Health. While we focus on physician health in its own right, we must always remember that it can never be achieved without strong, tight, and fierce connections with all of our fellow caregivers. When we attain this, all of us, especially our patients, are elevated and healed.

Onward, my friends. More to come soon.

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Ever since my presentation to the American College of Surgeons earlier this month on personal resilience in a medical career, I cannot shake the feeling that we need to do more of this work. Physicians from different fields need to talk more to one another, share experiences, and reconnect. We also need to include other members of the care team as equals, and let go the hierarchical thinking that has far outlived its usefulness.

I do not suggest that physicians, nurses, therapists, pharmacists and others should play interchangeable roles in the care of patients. Rather, similar to the central tenet of gender equality, the unique contributions of each team member need to be respected equally for their own merits and importance. As a primary care internist, I must admit that I have seen my professional world through a rather narrow lens until now. I confess that I live at Stage 3, according to David Logan and colleagues’ definition of Tribal Leadership and culture. The mantra for this stage of tribal culture, according to Logan et al, is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Or in my words, “I’m great; you suck.”

“I’m a primary care doctor and I am awesome. I am the true caregiver. I sit with my patients through their hardest life trials, and I know them better than anyone. I am on the front line, I deal with everything! And yet, nobody values me because ‘all’ I do is sit around and think. My work generates only enough money to keep the lights on (what is up with that, anyway?); it’s the surgeons and interventionalists who bring in the big bucks — they are the darlings of the hospital, even though they don’t really know my patients as people…” It’s a bizarre mixture of pride and whining, and any person or group can manifest it.

Earlier this fall, Joy Behar of TV’s “The View” made an offhand comment about Miss Colorado, Kelley Johnson, a nurse, wearing ‘a doctor’s stethoscope,’ during her monologue at the Miss America pageant. We all watched as the media shredded the show and its hosts for apparently degrading nurses. What distressed me most was the nurses vs. doctors war that ensued on social media. Nurses started posting how they, not doctors, are who really care for patients and save lives. Doctors, mostly privately, fumed at the grandiosity and perceived arrogance of these posts. It all boiled down to, “We’re great, they suck. We’re more important, look at us, not them.” The whole situation only served to further fracture an already cracked relationship between doctors and nurses, all because of a few mindless words.

It’s worth considering for a moment, though. Why would nurses get so instantly and violently offended by what was obviously an unscripted, ignorant comment by a daytime talk show host? It cannot be the first time one of them has said something thoughtlessly. What makes any of us react in rage to someone’s unintentional words? It’s usually when the words chafe a raw emotional nerve. “A doctor’s stethoscope.” The implicit accusation here is that nurses are not worthy of using doctors’ instruments. And it triggered such ferocious wrath because so many nurses feel that they are treated this way, that they are seen as inferior, subordinate, unworthy. Internists feel it as compared to surgeons. None would likely ever admit to feeling this way, consciously, at least. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all have that secret gremlin deep inside, who continually questions, no matter how outwardly successful or inwardly confident we may be, whether we are truly worthy to be here. And when someone speaks directly to it, like Joy Behar did, watch out, because that little gremlin will rage, Incredible Hulk-style.

I see so many similarities to the gender debate here. As women, in our conscious minds, we know our worth and our contribution. We know we have an equal right to our roles in civilization. And, at this point in our collective human history, we feel the need to defend those roles, to fight for their visibility and validity. More and more people now recognize that women need men to speak up for gender equality, that it’s not ‘just a women’s issue,’ but rather a human issue, and that all of us will live better, more wholly, when all of us are treated with equal respect and opportunity. The UN’s He for She initiative embodies this ideal.

It’s no different in medicine. At this point in our collective professional history, physician-nurse and other hierarchies still define many of our relationships and operational structures. It’s not all bad, and we have made great progress toward interdisciplinary team care. But the stethoscope firestorm shows that we still have a long way to go. At the CENTILE conference I attended last week, I hate to admit that I was a little surprised and incredulous to see inspiring and groundbreaking research presented by nurses. I have always thought of myself as having the utmost respect for nurses — my mom, my hero, is a nurse. The ICU and inpatient nurses saved me time and again during my intern year, when I had no idea what I was doing. And I depended on them to watch over my patients when I became an attending. But I still harbored an insidious bias that nurses are not scholarly, that they do not (or cannot?) participate in the ‘higher’ academic pursuits of medicine. I stand profoundly humbled, and I am grateful. From now on I will advocate for nurses to participate in academic medicine’s highest activities, seek their contributions in the literature, and voice my support out loud for their important roles in our healthcare system.

We need more conferences like this, more forums in which to share openly all of our strengths and accomplishments. We need to Dream Big Together, to stop comparing and competing, and get in the mud together, to cultivate this vast garden of health and well-being for all. I’ll bring my shovel, you bring your hose, someone else has seeds, another, the soil, and still others, the fertilizer and everything else we will need for the garden to flourish. We all matter, and we all have a unique role to play. Nobody is more important than anyone else, and nobody can do it alone.

We need to take turns leading and following. That is how a cooperative tribe works best. It’s exhausting work, challenging social norms and moving a culture upward. And we simply have to; it’s the right thing to do.

Love You Into Being

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A couple of weeks ago I met my new medical students.  These 10-12 trainees will be my small group for the next two years.  We will meet monthly to discuss the soft stuff of medical training—hierarchy, tribalism, death and dying, medical errors, difficult patients, etc.  Some call it “third year medical student support group.”  This is my 6th year of the pleasure and privilege (I inherited my first group halfway through, when their previous preceptor moved out of state).

With each successive group I am ever more amazed at the students’ level of insight.  They articulate compassion, humility, and maturity that I don’t think I had at their level of training. Or maybe it’s because we did not have classes like this to explore such things when I came up (or maybe I don’t remember?).  More and I more I see my role as facilitator more than teacher.  I am not here to impart medical knowledge.  Rather, it is my job to stimulate exploration, conversation, and meaning.  It’s so freeing, really—there is no standardized test to teach to.  And yet I see it as my responsibility to help prepare these gifted young people to face the greatest challenge and reward of the profession: human relationships.

I feel no fear or trepidation.  We cannot ‘fail’ at this class, any of us.  Because the point of it is simply for everybody to participate, contribute, consider, and learn—myself included.  Each month the students are given questions to answer in the form of a blog post.  For example, “Recall an example of inspiring or regrettable behavior that you witnessed by a physician.  Describe the situation, and its impact on you, the team, and/or the patient.”  I read them all and facilitate discussion, tying together common themes and asking probing questions.  My primary objective is to help them maintain the thoughtfulness and humanity that led them to medicine in the first place.  Medical training has evolved in the past 20 years, for the better in some ways, not so much in others.  One way we do much better nowadays is recognizing the hidden curriculum, and shining light on its effects, both positive and negative, through classes like this.

We all have those teachers who made a difference in our lives—or at least I hope we all do.  I have multiple: Mrs. Cobb, 4th grade; Mr. Alt, 7th grade math; Ms. Townsend (now Ms. Anna), 7th grade English; Ms. Sanborn, 7th grade social studies; Mrs. Stahlhut, 9th grade geometry; Mrs. Summers, 10th grade English; Coach Knafelc, varsity volleyball; Dr. Woodruff, primary care preceptor; Dr. Roach, intern clinic preceptor; Dr. Tynus, chief resident program director.  My mom is one of these teachers, also.  She leads nursing students in their clinical rotations.  I have seen her student feedback forms—they love her.  And it wasn’t until I heard her talk about her students that I realized why they love her and what makes her so effective—she loves them first.  Teaching is often compared to parenting.  Our parents, at their best, see our potential and love us into our best selves.  They cheer us, support us, redirect us, and admonish us.  They show us the potential rewards of our highest aspirations.  If we’re lucky, they role model their best selves for us to emulate.

All of my best teachers did (do) this for me.  I’m friends with many of them to this day, and I still learn from them in almost every encounter.  I love them because I feel loved by them.  They held space for my ignorance and imperfections.  I always knew that they knew that my best self was more than the last paper I wrote, the last test I aced, or the last patient encounter I botched.  To them, my peers and I were not simply students.  We were fellow humans on a journey of mutual discovery, and they were simply a little farther along on the path.

This is my aspiration as a teacher, to live up to the example of all those who loved me into the best version of myself today.  This kind of love allows for growth and evolution, from student to colleague, to friend, and fellow educator.  This is not something attending physicians typically express to medical students, positive evolution of medical education notwithstanding.  But when I met this new group, I was overcome by love for them.  So I told them.  “If you take away nothing else from our two years together, I want you to have felt loved by me.  I wish to love you into the best doctors you can be.  That is my only job here.”  Or something like that.  It was impulsive and possibly high risk.  But it was the most honest thing I could say in that moment, my most authentic expression of my highest goal for my time with them.  I only get to see them once a month, and I want them to be crystal clear about what I am here to do.  We have lots to cover these two years, so much to learn and apply.  And love is the best thing I can offer to hold us all up through it.

Innocence, Indignation, and Idealism:  An Optimist’s Reconciliation

I took my daughter to see “Wonder Woman” last weekend.  I highly recommend it—such a strong, complex, and inspiring portrayal of humanity at its best and worst, with a hopeful ending.

Today I’m (somewhat) inspired in parallel by (some) politicians, three Republican senators in particular, calling for transparency in drafting healthcare reform.  I hereby present my attempt to integrate that exquisite Wonder Woman Experience with my current political outlook.

***WARNING*** THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE.

Innocence

Diana of Themyscira grows up believing in the innate goodness of humans.  The Amazons are educated, independent, strong, and proud, and also collaborative, compassionate, kind, and sensitive.  When Diana learns of the horrific war waged by mankind outside of her paradise home, she relates it to the story of Ares, the God of War, who corrupts the hearts of men to commit acts of hatred upon one another.  So, naturally, she sets out to kill Ares and fix it.

We journey with Diana through challenge and triumph, as she learns that, of course, it’s not that simple.  She kills the man she thought was Ares, and nothing changes, the war rages on.  She must reconcile the possibility that the heart of mankind is not actually pure goodness.  Even without an insidiously corrupting God of War, humans are prone to their own malignant beliefs and actions.  Her innocence is pierced.

In the summer of 2009 or 2010, my best friend from college and his wife came to visit.  He, a molecular biology and political science double major and emergency medicine physician, and she, a worldly intellectual and future legal counsel for a major media outlet, were the first to burst my innocent political bubble.  For some reason, likely due to the tremendous inspiration of Barack Obama, I had gone from thinking all politicians were liars and performance artists, to seeing them as genuine public servants, working to advance their authentic ideas of how society functions better for all citizens.  I know, La-La Land!  My friends described an alternative, more realistic path to politics: Person succeeds at business, rubs elbows with regulators and influences them (with money or otherwise) to facilitate his/her business success.  Said person then realizes s/he could actually become one of those regulators and make a more permanent positive impact on these business interests, and so runs for office.  I still remember how deflated I felt, shoulders slumped, spine rounded, at this sudden and stark realization.

Indignation

As with everything, I’m sure political reality lies somewhere in the messy middle between pure altruism and blatant, self-serving avarice.  But these days, for someone who loved Obama and almost everything he stood for, it’s hard not to see the whole of our current political landscape as the latter.  I think, Really, WTF?  Can those in power really see nothing valid whatsoever in anything accomplished the past 8 years?  Do they really think that see-saw policy-making, each administration reversing everything from the previous one, replacing wise, experienced public servants with ignorant neophytes (my opinion), is the best way to govern?  OMFG, you have got to be kidding me.  I seethe.  But what can I do?

Ares reveals himself, and taunts Diana in her most vulnerable moment with his arrogant disdain for man’s weakness and corruptibility.  He also reveals that she is, in fact, the only one who can vanquish him—only a god can kill another god.  Diana, daughter of Zeus himself, possesses the power to Kick. His. Ass.  Yet he dismisses her out of hand, oblivious to her inner strength of conviction and compassion (I know, so much to expound on here, maybe in another post!).  Nope.  Righteous indignation rises.  She digs deep, finds that core courage, and obliterates him.  Fist pump.  He never saw it coming.

Idealism

In the end, Diana realizes that humans are a paradox: a big jumble of contradictions, perpetrators of horrific rage and destruction, and also fully worthy of love, forgiveness, and compassion.  She somehow finds peace in this enigma, loving the best of humanity and vowing to protect us against our worst selves, helping us to become better.

This resonates with the idealist in me.  This is how she helps us, and how we can help ourselves.

How Can We Help?

We can choose to fight against one another, and thereby focus on what we hate (about ourselves).

Or, we can choose to seek the good in one another, and focus on what we love— even better, focus on love itself.  We all want access to healthcare, and to be free from bankrupting medical expenses.  Everybody wants to be safe from gun violence.  We all want an efficient government that sets reasonable regulations, protects citizens’ constitutional rights, and spends money wisely and with accountability.  We all want to feel protected and free, loved and free to love.

The messy middle is the how.  That is where we negotiate.  That is also where the magic happens, as Brené Brown says, and that is where we must go, where we must persist.  We can bring our best selves to meet others’ best, in mutual respect.  It can be high risk, so we can enter slowly, strategically, with realistic expectations and a few trusted friends.

To this end, I will continue to seek out and hold up elected officials who call for more thoughtful political processes.  My friend Triffany and I have made a habit of writing thank you notes to Members of Congress to validate their cooperative acts.  We harbor no illusions about purity of intent, but we also know that positive reinforcement works.  We can be Diana to anybody’s Ares.

Focus on and fight for what we love: common goals and interests, shared humanity, connection, and one another.  It’s a lifetime’s worth of work, and well worth the fruits, if we can stick with it.

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Everyday Power and Influence

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If you wonder how physicians think and feel, about anything and everything related to medicine, healthcare, economics, parenting, relationships, and life in general, check out KevinMD, an expertly curated blog by physicians all around the world.  I recently read a heartening and important piece on gender equality in medicine.  A pediatrician husband wrote about the stark differences in assumptions about work-life balance for men and women, in “What Does Your Husband Think of You Being a Surgeon?”  Then I came across another article by a male cardiologist, whose wife is also a physician, entitled, “The Gender Gap in Cardiology Is Embarrassing.”  Both men’s wives delayed their medical training, and these husbands bore witness to our culture’s implicit gender bias against their life partners.  I strongly encourage you to read both pieces; they are short and poignant.

—- Please click on the links and at least skim the articles, before continuing here. —-

Now, consider how much more weight and influence these pieces carry, simply because they are written by men.  If you find this difficult, imagine your internal response if they had been written from the women’s perspectives.  Which position is more likely to evoke, “Hmm, interesting,” as opposed to, “What are these women whining about?”

When we consider advocacy, it’s fair think of it as those with more power and influence using these advantages to champion those who have less.  Sure, the less powerful and influential can and do advocate for themselves, but without allies among the advantaged, the message and movement stall and stutter.  Consider slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  If it were only ever black people advocating for themselves, what would the American racial landscape would look like today?  Think about women’s rights.  There is a reason the United Nations launched the HeforShe campaign.  Self-advocacy is required, but sorely inadequate, to lift people out of oppression.  And let’s be clear: oppression takes many forms, which we often fail recognize or acknowledge.

I have a fantasy about patients advocating for physicians.

I imagine Sally and John*, two friends communing at their favorite coffee shop, one of their regular meetings of mind and soul.  The conversation veers toward healthcare, and Sally starts ranting about how physicians don’t care about patients anymore.  They’re only in it for the money, having sold out to pharma and industry, and they think of themselves as second only to God him(her)self, exercising control over patients’ lives with little regard or actual caring.  In this coffee shop scenario, I as physician have no power or influence.  If I sat there with them, trying to explain how ‘the system’ drives wedges between us doctors and our patients, about how on average doctors spend twice as much time on administrative activities as patient care activities, how 50% of us report burnout, and how our suicide rate is up to 4 times that of the general public, I estimate that I’d likely be seen as whining and making excuses.  In this scenario, facing a (rightfully) prejudiced audience, my voice counts for very little.

Although physicians still enjoy a fair amount of respect and deference in society, our struggles, personal and professional, are still poorly understood by the general public.  I think people are even less cognizant of the insidious and profound detriment that physician burnout and depression have on patient care and the economy at large.  But when doctors describe our adversities to patients, I think we still come across as whining.  Knowing that I write this as a physician, what is your reaction?  Is it closer to, “You live at the top of the food chain, what are you complaining about?” Or rather, “Wow, what’s going on that so many doctors feel so badly, and how could we all help one another?”

Lucky for doctors everywhere, John is my patient and we have a longstanding, collaborative relationship.  He empathizes with Sally’s perspective, as he knows what she has been through medically.  He has also inquired about my work, and understands the systemic frustrations that physicians face in all fields.  Because they are such good friends, John feels comfortable challenging Sally’s skewed assertions.  He describes what he has learned from me, and explains earnestly that all doctors are not, in fact, swine.  Because he is her trusted confidant, she believes him.  Her attitude opens ever so slightly, and she is more likely to acknowledge how physicians and patients alike suffer from our overall healthcare structure.  John is, in this case, the strongest advocate for me and my ilk.

Whenever one of us stands up as a member of a group, and speaks up to our peers on behalf of another group—white people for black people, men for women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, liberals for conservatives, physicians for patients, and vice versa in each case—we are all elevated.  Our mutual compassion and humanity are called forth to heal our divisions.  This is how personal advocacy, how everyday power and influence, works.

As a patient, you have more power than you may realize.  I bet most people don’t necessarily feel adversarial toward doctors.  But they probably don’t necessarily feel allied, either.  What can you, as a patient, do to bridge this gap?  How else could we all, physicians and patients alike, create that essentially healing inter-tribal connection?

*Hypothetical friends

Getting Past ‘You Suck’ as Dialogue

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Hello again friends, and Happy New Year!  It feels good to be back.  Diving right in with long form again…

This recent article from Wired got me thinking (again), there are so many layers and moving parts to healthcare reform, that no one player stands to lose all or benefit all from any changes.  And yet so much of what we read and hear has an, ‘it’s so simple, they just don’t care about you, but I do’ tone.  The piece describes why insurance companies, who may have advocated most fervently against implementing ACA regulations, actually have a stake in maintaining its current status.  Nothing in our healthcare system is black or white, all good or all bad.

So when I see politicians (and friends) speaking and writing in oversimplified sound bites, and vilifying a whole group (all liberals, all Republicans) over one aspect of their point of view, it really frustrates me. That is exactly the opposite of productive dialogue.  It just makes people stop listening, because they don’t feel heard or understood.  So they have no incentive to hear or understand you.

Many use the car insurance analogy to explain health insurance.  It’s not exactly parallel, but it makes some sense.  The law requires every car to be insured.  (Drivers of) cars that don’t violate traffic law get lower premiums, the longer they stay ‘safe.’  The more traffic law violations, the higher the risk, the higher the premium.  I have an actuary friend, who works for a health insurance company, who advocates, in part, for higher premiums for those who ‘use’ the healthcare system more—like the higher risk cars (drivers).  I understand this logic.  But this idea of making older and sicker people, and women pay more, just because they ‘use’ the system more (and thus financially speaking cost more), does not sit well with me.  People are not cars.  Not everybody maintains their cars well.  But poorly maintained cars do not necessarily lead to increased accidents and traffic law violations.  Poorly maintained health often leads to a human body’s multi-car highway pile-up equivalents.

My friend advocates for insurance coverage for catastrophic care (also aligned with the car insurance model), but not necessarily for preventive or primary care.  There are different ways of ‘using’ the system. If you get preventive care, like recommended cancer screening and annual exams, it may cost more at the time. If you seek help for your back pain early, from your PCP, chiropractor, and physical therapy, that costs money.  But if these early interventions prevent future, more catastrophic and costly outcomes, should we really penalize those who make them?  Illness and infirmity come with age.  So, often, do fixed incomes.  Is it right to make our elderly pay more for their care?

There are costs and benefits to care other than money, which is where health insurance and car insurance diverge sharply, in my view.  I know they are harder to quantify and assign, but they matter.  That secure feeling that I can get care when/if I need it, that my children and I have access to professionals dedicated to my health and well-being, a sense that in our society, I matter just as much as the next person, regardless of my net worth—these things all matter.  Each individual’s health or illness contributes synergistically to the health or illness of a society.  A mother’s depression, untreated and uncontrolled because her health plan does not cover mental health services, can negatively affect every aspect of her and her children’s lives, emotionally, physically, financially, and socially.  We cannot only look at healthcare on dollar spreadsheets of ‘use.’

Maybe it’s about priorities and philosophy—ideology?  Do we feel all people have an equal right to equal care, or do we differentiate what people deserve based on particular group memberships or other characteristics?  Do we feel we should only be responsible for ourselves, or are we called to look out for one another?  I personally believe in equal access to care and ‘look out for others as yourself.’

I also believe that people need to understand–personally and concretely–that everything does cost money, we all pay for one another’s use (and disuse, and misuse) eventually, and more care is not necessarily better.  So I understand and partially agree with my friend’s argument that people need to have ‘skin in the game’ to control overuse of services for no benefit.  One great example is end of life care.  I like this article from Fobres, which describes the conundrum succinctly:

According to one study (Banarto, McClellan, Kagy and Garber, 2004), 30% of all Medicare expenditures are attributed to the 5% of beneficiaries that die each year, with 1/3 of that cost occurring in the last month of life.  I know there are other studies out there that say slightly different things, but the reality is simple: we spend an incredible amount of money on that last year and month.

Dr. Susan Dale Block, Chair and Director of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Health Care, recently shared some data with her colleagues.  In the Archives of Internal Medicine, a study asked if a better quality of death takes place when per capital cost rise.  In lay terms … the study found that the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.

 
Cost, longevity, quality of life, quality of care, value, perceptions, public health—these and other aspects of health and medicine are all inextricably enmeshed, though definitely not integrated.  Any decisions about one must be made in the context of all the others, carefully, transparently, and honestly.  Whenever we hear, ‘if we just do this, everything will be better,’ red flags should fly.

I wrote the first draft of the paragraphs above on my Facebook page.  I ended the post with, “So let’s each educate ourselves on the facts, as well as we can, and try to look at the big picture. It’s so messy.  And it’s what we’ve got, so let’s deal with it–with maturity, patience, professionalism, and equanimity.”

Another friend, a fellow liberal, commented, “This has nothing to do with healthcare. It’s about reducing taxes on the wealthy, reducing benefits for the poor, and denying the democrats credit for anything good. If they actually cared about healthcare, they would fix the obvious problems with the ACA. And because the ACA was the republican plan, they will continue to tie themselves up into pretzels to disown it and put something else in place. That being said, I hope the American people continue to demand access to affordable healthcare for all. It’s a right, not a privilege.”

I had to reply: “(My friend,) I understand your point of view, and I share your passion for equality.  But your statement exemplifies exactly the broad brush, ‘you suck’ attitude that I see holding us all back.  I refuse to believe that all Republicans are only motivated by making the rich richer, and that none of them care anything about the poor, as so many of us on the left say.  We must extricate ourselves from this destructive narrative and learn to hold space for everybody’s complex views and experiences.”

My point here is that nothing is as simple as we’d like.  It’s so much easier to blame those who disagree with us for being stubborn, selfish, or evil, than to cope with the discomfort that our system is deeply flawed, there are no easy answers, and our fundamental philosophical differences make it that much harder to agree on the best way forward.  And yet, this is what we are called to do.  It’s up to each and every one of us to change our language.  Each of us has, I believe, the opportunity and the responsibility to create an environment in which open, respectful discussion and debate are the norm, rather than echo chambers and verbal warring.

I am only one person.  I have no designated leadership titles or widely visible platform.  But my words have power.  So do yours.  Please use them wisely.

 

On Community

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 10

To Patients Who Feel Alone Sometimes:

Who holds you up?

Day 2 post-election, it is still positively surreal.  Monday night I saw Facebook friends post passionate, emotional, sometimes desperate pleas, urging their friends to vote one way or another.  I also saw friends acknowledging the long, strange trip, looking forward to the next chapter, expressing both relief and trepidation.  A cloud of separation hung over my heart as I read some of my friends’ words then. 

Something inside urged me to contact a high school classmate.  We did not know each other well back then, and we didn’t always like each other.  But I always felt a mutual respect.  She does not post about politics; I do…a lot.  I know we differ in many of our positions and views.  I also know her to be thoughtful, kind, ethical, and just.  I know she has a lot going on in her life right now.  Our Facebook friendship has grown the past few years, and more and more I feel a cosmic connection.  I am meant to know this person again and better, in this later phase of life.  So I messaged her privately, just to tell her I was thinking of her.  I sent hope, and wishes that we could sit down over tea, somewhere cozy, and share our lives—slowly, thoughtfully, kindly, lovingly.  Turns out my little message helped hold her up yesterday.  On this day of anxiety and tension, hope and uncertainty, this long-distance connection gives me strength and peace.  It reminds me of a recent article by the Dalai Lama on our need to be needed.

I’ve said and written so often that I’m so grateful for my tribe(s), the communities that surround and support me in everything I do.  When I see patients, I make it a point to ask about emotional support networks. They don’t have to be vast or deep.  They just need to be strong and reliable.  No matter what our station, our illness, our cultural origin, or our political leaning, we live longer, healthier, happier, and easier when we connect with others.  It can be many, often, and deep.  It can be few and intermittent.  It just has to be meaningful and enough.

Lastly, supportive relationships function best when they are also reciprocal.  I don’t mean quid pro quo.  I mean mutual, shared, communal, uncalculated support.  I ask patients, “Do you have enough people you know you can turn to, people who will be there for you, in times of personal crisis?”  I want so much for you to answer without hesitation, “Yes, definitely, no question.”  Then I can relax about your health.  You (all) got this.

On the Critical Importance of Self-Care

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 6

To Patients Who Feel Overwhelmed:

Put your own mask on first!

In my spare time, I go around talking to other doctors about how to take care of ourselves.  You may or may not be aware of physician burnout.  It’s quite the trendy topic in medical circles these days, and not in a good way.  Over 50% of physicians report at least one symptom of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, or low sense of personal accomplishment), higher than the general population.  Physicians also kill themselves at much higher rates than the general population.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to study and speak on physician health and well-being, because it informs my practice in ways I had not anticipated.

To be clear, physician burnout is not a problem of personal weakness on the part of doctors themselves.  The healthcare system in the United States has evolved to such a dysfunctional state that some of its best and brightest find themselves despondent, depressed, and ready to quit.  And yet, we are called to persevere in the system as it is, even as we strive to improve it.

I see the same pattern in American society generally.  Technology and other advances have created a world of 24/7 hyper-stimulation, global comparisons of productivity and innovation, and immense pressures to be perfect, or at least appear so.  Men and women live under constant scrutiny and competition.  Do I make enough money?  Is my work impressive enough (to others)?  Are my children in the right activities?  Am I doing enough?  I see, hear, and feel it from my patients every day—the anxiety, the uncertainty, the angst.  The suffering is real, if not totally tangible.

For those of you whose exercise routines hold you up, how quickly do you abandon your workouts when things get really busy?  What about quality time with your friends?  What about your painting, knitting, writing, reading, skating, volleyball, music, and sleep?  Everybody recharges a different way, but I see a common pattern of ignoring the low battery alerts and pushing ourselves to empty—physicians and patients alike.

Our systems need to change, no doubt.  Medicine, business, education, politics…  We need to get clear about what and whom we really serve.  In medicine, I believe physicians should lead the movement toward a more humane internal culture.  There is no way we can take excellent care of our patients if we are not well ourselves, and we cannot wait for corporate leaders and policy makers to advocate for us.  The same is true for you, our patients.  What do you need to be healthy?  What can you change in your habits, environment, and relationships to meet these needs?  And in making such changes, what positive ripple effects could you have on those around you?  Can you lead by example?

If we all put our own masks on first, like they say on airplanes, how many other people’s masks could we help with?