We Are Really Bad At This

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Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado, March 2019

How many truly meaningful and fulfilling conversations do you have in a day?

How many such relationships do you have?

Though I wrote my Pit Crew post almost a year ago, its ideas recur regularly.  I have linked to it on multiple subsequent posts.  I share it with patients and reference it in conversations often.  My patients are leaders of large corporations and organizations.  My colleagues and I lead teams in the hospital, the medical group, and the medical school.  My friends lead their families and communities.  When I think about our health and its consequences, it’s about taking care of those for whom we are responsible, ourselves included.

Are you generally the one who always takes care of others?  How does this affect your style and effectiveness as a leader?

Who Takes Care of You?

I estimate that about 20% of the time when I ask this question, my patients say that nobody takes care of them; they do it themselves.  They don’t mean that nobody cares about them.  It’s that they don’t really depend on anyone for counsel and/or support.  They hold everything together themselves.  I always have mixed feelings when the conversation takes this turn.  On one hand I feel admiration and respect, especially when they seem generally healthy—apparently unaffected by physical, mental, and emotional dysfunction.  On the other, I get curious.  How do they sustain this Lone Ranger method?  And what does it cost them?  I believe we all need tight, vulnerable, and safe connections through which we can get raw and real, and work through life’s ultimately messy sh*t.  We need others, even if it’s only one or two, to help us truly hold it all together.  My default assumption is that if we don’t have such connections, we are not living into our full potential.

And today I feel cynical.  I think we are getting really, really bad at taking care of each other.

Driving to work this week I wondered to myself, why do we feel the dearth of mental health services so acutely these days?  Is it that more of us are living on the psychological razor’s edge of mental health and illness?  Are we not diagnosably mentally ill but simply, profoundly, stressed to our limits of sanity and function?  Is that why none of my patients can get in to see a psychiatrist or therapist for weeks to months?  Is that why physicians are increasingly leaving the profession and killing ourselves?  Why do we feel so hopeless?

It’s easy to blame social media.  And I do, partially.  The cruelest irony lives here.  My non-evidence based impression is that cyberbullying bears equally life-threatening consequences as face to face bullying.  If you know of evidence to support or refute this premise, please share.  Negative interactions on social media, which rage so easily like wildfires, are now understood to contribute significantly to the rise in loneliness across the country.  Worse, cultivating truly positive relationships via social media is much harder and more complex, even deceptive.   So on balance the risks and harms of social media may far outweigh the benefits.  There simply is no substitute for personal, physical contact, for sharing the same space, breathing the same air, experiencing another’s full presence.

Worse yet, too often we can’t even get that right!  Ozan Varol wrote about this in his last post, “3 Ways to Be Insufferable In Coversation.”  They are:  1. Always turn the conversation back to yourself; 2. Pretend to listen; and 3. Ask no questions.  How many people have you already met today who do this on the regular?  If you’re honest, how many times today have you committed these relational sins?  It’s okay, we all do it sometimes.  As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  The other half is doing something about it!

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Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, July 2019

So what do we do?

First, Attend.  Pay attention.  How much time do I spend on social media?  What do I get out of it?  When does Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drive my scrolling?  Am I really connecting?  Or am I stalking, comparing, judging, flaming, agitating the echo chamber, and otherwise wasting time and energy?  How can I set alerts and redirect my routine?

Second, Intend.  What is the best use of my time?  If I want to see how my friends are doing, rather than check my Facebook feed, why not call them up?  Send a text, photo, or—gasp—a handwritten note just to say hi, I’m thinking of you?  It may cost you time, energy, and $0.55 in postage.  But aren’t your real friends worth the investment?  You can do it on social media too—if you slow down and think about it first.  Consider the return—brightening someone’s day, feeling that personal connection.  Dopamine drives FOMO, and is also associated with addictive behaviors.  Bonding behaviors elevate oxytocin, the hormone that mediates empathy, safety, and connection.  There is even evidence that higher levels of oxytocin correlate with increased longevity of romantic relationships, or even a person’s own life span (could not find a reliable, peer-reviewed source for this claim—I just believe it intuitively).

Third, Get Curious.  This was the first skill I (re)learned in life coaching, ‘way back in 2005, and it serves me well every single day.  If we let go of the competitive, scarcity-based thinking that surrounds us, what more could we learn?  What novel and inspiring stories could we hear from anyone we meet, or even our closest friends?  If we listen to understand rather than to reload and refute or one-up, what vexing problems could we solve, together?  Just wondering about it makes me feel lighter and more optimistic, what about you?

Subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter, the Weekly Contrarian, to get his list of solutions to conversation insufferability this Thursday, 9am Central Time (I have no financial interests in Ozan’s site; I just really admire his work and the community of critical thinkers he has convened).  And today, I challenge us all:  Monitor our attitudes and facial expressions.  Manage our self-absorption for a few minutes at a time.  Look strangers in the eye and smile as if they’re already our friends.  Ask a Facebook friend what they did this weekend that really made them feel alive and well.  Let’s all get our caring on, shall we?

 

Aunt Rachel’s Blessings

My friends, it’s been an intense couple of weeks!  So much so that I have fully neglected the news headlines—this must be why I’m still in a reasonably good mood.  Another is that I have rediscovered Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, the wise and benevolent matron of medicine whose gentle and gracious example I aspire to follow.

I first read her books, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings, at least ten years ago by now.  They felt like my favorite plush blanket, draped over my shoulders with that welcome, comforting weight, and tucked under my feet, warming me with stories of love and belonging.  Life was just as hectic then as today, but in a different way.  The kids were little, and I had few if any responsibilities at work outside of patient care.  Aunt Rachel’s stories calmed me and gave me peace in that young chaos.  I had meant to reread them, but, well, life.

I perused the shelves and stacks of my personal library recently, searching for a book that my friend might like.  Both avid readers, we share and discuss titles on leadership, philosophy, and personal development.  The search this day felt different from browsing Amazon or my local book store.  A deeper part of me knew exactly what I sought for my friend, even as my conscious mind had only a vague idea.  I wanted to share something different with him, something less cerebral.  As soon as I saw it, I settled on My Grandfather’s Blessings, no question.  But after a day or two, as often happens with instantaneous intuitive decisions, I did question.  So I sat down with Aunt Rachel and her grandfather one evening, as if meeting old friends in the squishy armchairs of a cozy, familiar café.  After some years of listening to books rather than reading them, I find quiet sitting with a paper book so comforting now.  I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time.

By page two of the introduction, my doubts vaporized.  This is it, I thought.  Stories of humanity, history, culture, medicine, healing, perspective, and how we humans are intertwined with one another and nature in the most beautiful and cosmic, inescapable and daunting ways.  As I reread her grandfather’s wise sayings, his subtle yet unmistakable messages of reassurance and unconditional love, that familiar warmth enveloped me again.  I could almost feel my blood pressure drop and my oxytocin level rise.

So much love and connection—the book is really all about relationships, which my friend and I both hold as the key to a meaningful life.  As I continue to read this week, it occurs to me that perhaps I was not actually looking for a book for my friend, but rather for myself.  For many years I have hunted ravenously for books to teach me, to elevate my performance in parenting, doctoring, leading.  But Aunt Rachel’s books simply soothe me.  They acknowledge and give credence to that still small voice that advocates and validates the need for deep personal connection, in a world that values it less and less.

I wonder if reading Aunt Rachel’s books so early in my career helped me more than I knew.  Looking back on the past decade, I feel proud to have resisted the pressure of 15 minute clinic visits, to have made the effort to relate as personally as I could with every patient, even if my bids were rejected.  Aunt Rachel’s books honor that heart center in me that holds true to what I value the most, which is connection with people.  Perhaps I have her to thank for watering the strongest, deepest roots of my doctor soul before they could dry up and later require excavation to revive?

I still think my friend will enjoy Aunt Rachel’s book.  Her stories resonate with the humanity in all of us, not just doctors and patients.  I look forward to hearing his feedback, and finding more books to share.  And I must remember to bless our friendship.

May we all acknowledge and share the blessings in our lives, every chance we get.

Elephant to Elephant:  How to Change People’s Minds

 

Friends!!  If you read only one thing today, stop here and click on this link to James Clear’s essay on why facts do not change minds.  It’s very similar to Ozan Varol’s post of a similar title from last year.  That piece prompted a prolonged conversation on my Facebook page two months ago, which I described and shared here.

The Trigger

I’m thinking hard again about facts and changing minds now, as the number of new measles cases skyrockets not just in the US but around the world.  I’m so angry that we have to fight his war again—a war we had won as of 2000.  I’m so frustrated that because of the actions of a relative few, the health and safety of the very many and vulnerable are once again at risk.  I know my colleagues and many in the general public share my sentiments, and we often end up shaming and deriding our ‘anti-vaxxer’ peers.  We hurl facts and statistics at them, incredulous at their intransigence to the truth of science.

In the end everybody digs in, feelings get hurt, relationships suffer, and the outbreaks progress.

There is a better way.

James and Ozan (I imagine them as friends and so refer to them by first name) explain it eloquently in the posts I share here, and I really encourage you to click on those links.

The Metaphor

Personally, I return often to Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of our mind as an elephant (the emotional, limbic brain) and its rider (cognitive, rational brain).  We think, as rational beings, that our riders steer our elephants.  But psychology research and evidence tells us that the elephant goes where it wants; the rider rationalizes the path.  That is why facts do not change people’s minds—they are the rider’s domain.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, take Haidt’s idea further in their formula for behavior change:

  1. Direct the rider (provide the facts, rationale, and method),
  2. Motivate the elephant (make the message meaningful on a personal, emotional level), and
  3. Shape the path (shorten the distance, remove obstacles).

It occurred to me recently that when I flood you with facts about measles and vaccines, I speak only through my rider.  You listen (or not) as both rider and elephant.  But as Simon Sinek describes eloquently in Start With Why, the elephant limbic brain has no capacity for language.  And facts, conveyed in words, have no emotional meaning or context.  So unless your rider is somehow really driving in this moment, my rider’s appeal will not move you.  Your elephant does not understand my rider, thus I cannot steer you where I want you to go.

The Approach

So how can I motivate your elephant?  If I’m using words, I can tell a story.  But the words of any story matter far less than the emotions the story evokes.  If I can relate with your own past experience, point you to a loss, a gratitude, or some shared connecting experience between us, then your elephant may hear me.  If I tell my story with honesty, authenticity, and humility, then my rider serves as translator for my elephant, communicating directly with your elephant.

But the most important connection between our elephants, if I really want to change your mind, is my presence.  Researchers agree that a vast majority of communication, up to 90%, occurs non-verbally.  Even if my rider interpreter tells a great story, my attitude carries the real message.  This manifests in my tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, stance, and all kinds of other subtle, nonverbal, subconscious cues—all seen and understood by your elephant, because they emanate from mine.  Even if my story tugs at your heart strings, you will defend your position if you feel me to be righteous, shaming, condescending, etc.  Elephants are smart; they know not to come out if it’s not safe.  And if my elephant is at all on the attack (see anger and frustration above), your elephant knows full well not to show itself.

It’s not the words we say or the things we do—it’s not the method that counts.  It’s how we are, how we make people feel—the approach—that gains us access to people’s consciousness and allows us to influence their thinking (which is really their feeling).

So I calm my rider and elephant first.  Deep breaths.  Then instead of my rider jumping off my elephant and charging at you with a wad of sharp verbal sticks, she sits back in her seat.  My elephant humbly ambles alongside yours on the savannah of community and (humanity), shares some sweet grass, points to the water hole where we both want to go.  I invite your inner pachyderm lovingly on a shared adventure toward optimal health for us all.  Rather than rush, berate, or agitate you, I wait.  I encourage.  I welcome.

James Clear writes, “Facts don’t change minds.  Friendship does,” and “Be kind first, be right later.”

My elephant fully concurs.

 

Some Facts, because I’m a doctor after all:

  • As of last Friday, May 3, 2019, there were 764 known cases of measles in the United States. According to the CDC, “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.”
  • About 2/3 of patients are unvaccinated; 1/10 have been vaccinated, and the vaccination status of the rest is unknown.
  • 44% of patients are children under 4 years of age.

See this article in the Washington Post from today for more statistics.

For answers to frequently asked questions about Measles, please refer to the CDC measles FAQ webpage.

Please talk to your doctor if you are unsure about your risk.

 

Reconnecting to Mission, Patients, and Colleagues

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What’s the most personally fulfilling aspect of your work?  In times of uncertainty, threat, and transition, what holds you up?

This past week, I had the privilege of standing alongside giants in the fight against physician burnout.  In a series of presentations at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians (ACP), we did our best to acknowledge and validate the current state of physician burnout (about half of all physicians in all specialties report at least one symptom), and then present as many strategies to reduce it as time would allow.  We showed how changes in workflow, task distribution, and technology, such as pre-visit labs and scribes, have been shown to improve physician satisfaction, team morale, and patient experience.  My role was to attempt to inspire my fellow internists to claim their individual agency, model a culture of wellness, and advocate for systems change in their home institutions.

The content felt dense but manageable, and the audience appeared engaged.  Our colleagues from all around the country approached us afterward to clarify studies of efficacy and ask about local representatives for advocacy in the ACP.  In the end, I think we achieved our primary objective of having most attendees leave with just a little more hope for our profession than they came in with.

Over the four day conference, however, what consistently grounded me in professional mission and meaning, not only in our own presentation but in others, were the personal stories.  That is how we humans relate to one another, after all—through narratives.  And connecting to mission and colleagues is key to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce, physician or otherwise.

Our attendees participated in two practices that I’ll share here.  Both were “Pair and Share” activities, meant to stimulate reflection both internally and externally.

Who In Your Life Really Changed You?

First we asked our colleagues to think of a patient who changed them, how, and to what end.  I know there have been many patients who changed me, but I always think of one particular woman.  She was middle aged, obese, diabetic, depressed, and severely disabled from osteoarthritis.  She lived alone and had a sparse social network, and her life partner had died unexpectedly a few years before I met her.  At every visit we struggled through the same fundamental challenges of weight loss, glucose control, and pain management.  How could she take her diabetes medications more regularly?  How could we control her pain without having to take opioids every day?  How else could we manage her depression, as some of the medications were raising her blood sugar?  She may have cried at almost every visit; wailing was not uncommon, and once she even vomited from cumulative distress.  Our relationship was good overall.  I overcame my impatience with her non-adherence to the treatment plan as I understood her life situation better.  But for four of the five years we knew each other, I saw few if any indicators that her thought, emotional, and behavior patterns would change.

Then things started to turn around.  She started coming consistently to appointments, no more no-shows.  She got online and found a community center that was accessible by bus.  She connected with a knitting group and started going to art fairs to sell her creations.  She started taking her medications more regularly, and lost enough weight to have her knee replaced.  By the time we parted ways, she had transformed from a weeping victim of circumstance to a woman with agency, self-efficacy, and goals, dammit!  And most of this had nothing to do with me.  I simply had the privilege to witness and support her intrinsic revolution.  From her I learned what perseverance looks like; I learned about hope and self-redemption; I learned that I should never make assumptions about anybody’s future.

Who Supported You in a Time of Vulnerability?

They said do the hardest thing that you know you don’t want to do for a living as your first rotation.  So I chose surgery.  In July of my third year of medical school, my days started around 5:30am and could end the next night at 10pm if my team was busy post call.  Most faculty physicians were kind and wise, or at least non-abusive.  Some, however, not so much.  What buoyed me most through that rotation was always the support and protection of the residents on my team.  I would watch them get abused by our attendings, but that sh*t never rolled downhill when the boss left the room.  I did not fully realize until years later what a gift that was and how much it spoke to the character of these men (they were all men).  This was in the 1990s; verbal abuse of medical students and snide comments about one’s appearance, gender, and just about everything else were simply to be expected.  But my favorite residents always pulled me aside and asked how I was.  They always made sure I felt confident about my role on the team, and they taught me basic skills with conviction and encouragement.  As I was about to insert a patient’s bladder catheter in the operating room, my elder brother in training told me firmly, like he really believed I could do it, “Don’t be afraid, hold it (the penis) like a hose.”

As we did this reflection exercise at the meeting last Wednesday along with our audience, I was so moved by these memories that I looked up one of my old residents that night and sent him a thank you card.  I bet he won’t remember at all who I am, but he will hopefully feel validated that he is in exactly the right position now as program director of a surgery residency.

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Recalling stories like these, and then sharing them with a person who truly listens, receives them generously, and simply helps you hold them (that was the instruction to the group—when it’s your turn to listen just do that, no interruptions, no jumping in), reconnects us to our calling in medicine.  It’s not just about the patients or the science.  It’s about all of the relationships and how we tend them.

We will not solve the immensely complex problem of physician burnout overnight.  It will take a concerted effort at all levels of healthcare, and physicians cannot and will not do it alone.  And it’s not that we are stoic, arrogant, and somehow intrinsically flawed, and thus dissatisfied with our work and leaving the profession in record numbers.  It is a systems problem, no question.  And, while we call our congressional leaders and professional advocacy groups to change policy, while we lobby our hospital administration to hire more support staff and move the printers closer to where we do our work, we can all take a few minutes each day and reconnect to the core meaning and purpose in that work.  Let us all remember a cool story and share it today.

Pain and Desperation

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When was the last time you used any narcotics?  I think I took some of my mom’s cough syrup with codeine over a decade ago, when I felt like I might actually cough up a lung.  Before that it was one dose of Darvocet after having four impacted wisdom teeth extracted at age 18.  I don’t really remember much after swallowing the pill and lying down on the sofa.  I was given multiple opioids during knee surgery last year, but needed only Tylenol and Advil afterward.  Looking back on the post I wrote about that experience, I realize even more how I was influenced by this piece in the New York Times just a month before my surgery.  In it the author is reminded that pain serves an essential purpose, and it’s better that we not necessarily seek to obliterate it at every turn.

* * * * *

Four or five times in the last two weeks, I have received calls from local pharmacies to confirm opioid prescriptions that I did not write.  They were all paper prescriptions for patients I have never met, caught by astute pharmacists who suspected fraudulent activity.  This is the first time it has happened to me, and I know many of my colleagues have experienced the same.  Pharmacies in the area have now flagged my name and license number, and they know not to fill any controlled substances without direct confirmation from me.

What a morass.  How did we get here?  It’s a rhetorical question, really, but not a simple one by a light year.  When I started my training, we were taught to consider pain the ‘5th vital sign.’  Every patient assessment included the cartoon face pain scale.  Anesthesiologists’ prioritized rubrick for pain control started with long acting opioids around the clock, then regular anti-inflammatories if no contraindications, then short acting opioids as needed for breakthrough pain.  In the hospital I never questioned this method, especially since I almost never interacted with these patients after discharge and was oblivious to follow up issues.

It was not until I started in practice that I experienced the multidimensional challenge that is pain control and opioid prescribing.  After 15 years I am still learning the layers of complexity, unique for every patient, and I see that even if we understand it (which I think we do not), most of us feel helpless to address it.

The pharmacist I spoke to today told me that his store’s standard procedure is to inform the patient that the prescription was proven to be fake, advise the patient not to attempt such an act again, and let them know that the prescriber is aware and the police will be contacted.  It was that last part that made me pause.  Because even as I intend to file a police report (as advised by my institution), the answer to the problem is not, in my opinion, rounding up patients with chronic pain and throwing them in jail.  In order of importance, I think the opioid crisis is first a social, then a medical, and only then, a criminal problem.

* * * * *

Increasingly, we have become a society of immediate gratification and entitlement.  We want and expect a magic pill for and complete relief from whatever ails us—because it’s the twenty-first century for crying out loud, how could we not have that already?  Also, medicine has become increasingly transactional.  We, patients and physicians alike, experience ‘care’ in predetermined packets of protocol and procedure, and spend considerably less time in conversation, education, expectation setting, and actual caring.  The advent of the internet has accelerated this immediate gratification expectation.  It also gives many of us an illusion of connection through social media, when in reality, we are actually less and less connected to one another.

Pain results from myriad causes.  We all have varying thresholds for feeling and tolerating pain, which vary themselves depending on circumstances, mindset, expectation, and meaning making (think childbirth versus bike accident).  There are so many factors that impact our pain experience, including dehydration, sleep deprivation, low mood, and emotional and/or mental stress.  Loneliness, depression, anxiety, sleep disruption, suicidality, and substance abuse are all on the rise.  And all of these conditions lower our thresholds for pain and the harm it does to us.

For many, opioids are indeed the immediately gratifying magic pills.  But the magic wears off faster and faster, and both pain and the desperation for relief accelerate in the wake of short and long term withdrawl.  As physicians, we feel an intense desire to alleviate suffering.  Once a patient has experienced the profound relief (both physical and psychological) from opioids, it feels cruel for us to withhold them, even when we understand fully their risks and the long term harm they cause.  And we have less and less time to explore with and educate patients about adjunct pain management practices, such as mindfulness, biofeedback, and movement.  Everybody feels despairing and impotent, and this drives people to do things they might not otherwise do, like make a fake prescription for hydrocodone and try to get it filled.

I know there are real criminals out there, people not really in pain, who do this to make money—to take advantage of people in real pain.  I don’t know who’s who.  But the story I tell myself is that this is not most people.  What we need is a stronger infrastructure to address chronic pain at multiple levels—individually, in community, with policy, and culturally.  As I write this, even as a physician with a leadership title, I feel powerless and a little hopeless.

But maybe a good start, at the individual level, that we can each do the next time we look ourselves in the mirror or meet another human being on the street, is to just exercise a little compassion and generosity.  I assume that those patients presenting the fake prescriptions, if they are real patients, are not criminals at their core.  Pain makes us do unthinkable and unbelievable things.  I hope we can all help one another find better sources of relief and support.

Self-Care:  Act Local, Think Global

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Gotta be quick tonight, friends, as I have sat in front of this screen too long already today!

Creating and putting together slides for three upcoming distinct and related presentations, I am happy to report continued synthesis in my position on the relationships between personal resilience, culture of wellness, and efficiency of practice in medicine.

Drivers of burnout are systemic, no question, and not related to individual physicians’ lack of resilience and strength.  And yet, it will be up to us physicians, more than any other group, to lead change and make the system better for all of us, physicians and patients alike.  But we will not do it ourselves.  We must engage so many other stakeholders—hospital administrators, nurses and other care providers, insurance and pharmaceutical companies (by way of their leaders), and, of course, patients.

How can we engage any of these groups of people effectively?  Do we expect productive conversations and collaborative decision making when we stomp on the offensive with righteous indignation and passive-aggressive name calling?  Even if our language is polished, people can feel our underlying attitude and can tell when we’re not fully authentic.

I still think it starts with self-care.  Because if I’m not well, I cannot show up my best for anyone else.

Be The Change You Seek:

Curious–Kind–Forgiving–Accountable–Humble–Empathic.

How can I be all of these things, which I referenced last week, if I am sleep-deprived, wired on caffeine, skipping meals, and not connected to my emotional support network?  I finally made my own visual for the reciprocal nature of our habits:

Reciprocal Domains of Health Star

If I am attuned and attentive, then the bottom four serve to hold up my relationships, which is how I interface and interact with the universe.  I am one node in multiple subsystems, all connected, overlapping and integrated in larger and layered super-systems.  So the best thing I can do for the universe—to keep the systems intact and optimal—is make myself the strongest, most stable, most reliable node I can be.  I recently attended a strategy meeting where I learned the SWOT framework: for any given project and the people trying to implement it, what are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats?  It occurred to me to apply this framework to my habits:

Health Habits SWOT grid

It really does show how each domain relates to and influences each other one, and makes it all pretty concrete, especially how stress threatens almost everything.

So in the interests of self-care, and in order to care my best for everyone and everything around me, I will now do today’s free 7 minute workout and get to bed.

Onward!

Attune and Attend, Continued

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Last week I started and ended my post incensed on behalf of my friend, who felt coldly and arrogantly dismissed by her new doctor.  While I considered that his behavior may be influenced by his circumstances and did not attack his character or make generalizations based on gender, age, etc., I did blame him individually for how my friend felt in his presence.

Another friend read the post and said the doctor was not to blame, rather it’s the system.  We exchanged thoughts and agreed that it was not all the doctor’s fault, and the whole healthcare system in our country is just a big mess in general.  I continue to have daily conversations around physician well-being and systems transformation in medicine, and every single encounter advances my understanding of and awe at the whole situation.  Here are my most current thoughts—bear with me, please.

3 Reciprocal Domains of Professional Fulfillment

Most of us working in the physician well-being space have adopted a model for professional fulfillment developed by our colleagues at Stanford.  If you care at all about your doctors’ professional health and how that impacts the care they deliver, I encourage you to read this article that describes their approach.  In it, they define efficiency of practice (eg team workflow, electronic health record use and misuse, systems bureaucracy), culture of wellness (institutional attitudes that advocate for self-care, peer support, and mutual compassion between team members and patients), and personal resilience (individual skills and behaviors that promote personal well-being) as the three mutually influencing factors that determine, for individuals as well as organizations, our overall professional health and well-being:

The many drivers of both burnout and high professional fulfillment fall into three major domains: efficiency of practice, a culture of wellness, and personal resilience… Each domain reciprocally influences the others; thus, a balanced approach is necessary to build a stable platform that will drive sustained improvements in physician well-being and the performance of our health care systems.

For the record, I fully concur with this approach, and with one of the authors whom I met at the international conference in Toronto, that the most important parts of the framework are the arrows reminding us always to look for how the domains intersect and influence one another.

We Are the System

In the article, the authors write, “Efficiency of practice and a culture of wellness are primarily organizational responsibilities, whereas maintaining personal resilience is primarily the obligation of the individual physician.”  This is where I differ somewhat.  I fully agree that an organization’s culture is set at the top.  Designated leaders lead by example, admit it or not, like it or not.  They (and we—all doctors bear this responsibility on any given care team) provide cues for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, positive and negative.

That said, a team or an organization’s culture is executed and manifested day to day, moment to moment, in every interaction, by each individual within the system.  This is the essence of complex systems—they are self-organizing at a global level (hence soon after joining a group we find ourselves adapting to fit in), and also emergent and evolutionary at the granular level (one person can turn a place around over time—have you seen it?).  So in my opinion, both leaders and individuals are responsible for creating and maintaining the Culture of Wellness in medicine.  We are the system.  If you’re interested in more of what I think about this, check out this podcast from September 2018 when I presented to the surgeons and anesthesiologists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

In a Complex System, It’s All About Relationships

A person is a complex system.  In my practice (and in my own life) I try always to attend to the relationships between 5 reciprocal domains (labelled intentionally after the Stanford model) of health: Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management, and Relationships.  How do they relate?  When I don’t get enough sleep I tend to overeat; when I eat too much I feel sluggish and unmotivated to exercise.  When I exercise less I am more susceptible to stress, which puts my relationships at risk, which then disrupts my sleep, and the downward spiral persists.

A patient care team, a medical practice, a hospital—these are all complex systems.  Besides the three domains in the Stanford model, what other factors contribute to the self-organizing nature of such systems?  Perhaps individual autonomy, collective loyalty, shared mission, attention to training, and communication?  What inter-relational factors dictate an individual’s or a subgroup’s behavior, and how does that influence the whole organization?

I am reminded of starlings in a murmuration, or sardines in a school.  Seen from afar, the mass of animals appears to move as one agile and sentient organism.  In reality, each animal’s movement is at once independent of and intimately tied to those in its immediate vicinity.  Each animal’s awareness of and response to its neighbors are acute and instantaneous, respectively, and thus the collective is able to evade predators and give humans insight into what true multi-mutual cooperation looks like.  They are attuned.  This is possible because, according to science:

The change in the behavioral state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is. Scale-free correlations provide each animal with an effective perception range much larger than the direct interindividual interaction range, thus enhancing global response to perturbations.

Would your organization, seen from afar, appear as organized and fluid as a flock of murmuring starlings?  What would it require in order to do so?

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So what does this mean for my friend and how she (and we all) should think about doctors and our healthcare system in general?  How does this actually relate to solutions to the problems I presented last week?  Clearly, as I beat the long dead horse again and again, it’s about relationships, of course.  But we have to think more deeply than just about our behaviors and actions—we’ gotta buckle up and dive into their origins—spelunk our default orientations toward self and others, our automatic settings, and how they manifest in our relationships and create, intentionally and not, our collective systems.

Once again, I have hit 1000 words on this post and it’s late.  I’m getting there, I promise—not that I have the solution!  I’m simply learning and synthesizing more every week about how we can more consciously and mindfully approach the problem.  It has everything to do with the books I started reading recently about complexity, leadership, and mindset, and how they help me see my conversations and relationships in a new, exciting light.

More next week, friends!