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.

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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.

Thank you, Mr. Zander

Zander Cheng

Dear Mr. Zander, I met you almost 10 years ago and you transformed my life.

You and Ms. Zander gave the keynote address at the second ever Harvard conference on coaching in healthcare.  I was one of only a handful of physicians in attendance.  You discussed the central tenets of your book, The Art of Possibility.  I could not wait to get my copy signed, and you also graciously agreed to a photo.  I have since read and listened to your book at least a dozen times, and every time I gain something new and relevant.  The names of the practices ring in my consciousness on a regular basis:  Give the A, Rule #6, Be a Contribution, Lead From Any Chair, and Be the Board.  I describe the practices and their benefits, still, to anyone who will listen.

Zander book sig

Back in 2015 I boldly contacted the Boston Philharmonic to see if you could speak at the American College of Physicians Illinois Chapter Meeting.  You actually spoke to me on the phone and considered coming!  I was honored.  Though it did not work out (I knew it was the longest of long shots), it amazed me that someone as sought after as you would personally take a phone call from a random, unknown doctor in Chicago.  Later that year, when I attended the Harvard Writers conference (the birthplace of this blog), I had the honor of observing a master class where I witnessed you love some young musicians into their best selves.  They believed in themselves because you saw them, loved them, and believed in them.  That is the best thing any teacher can do for a student.

Throughout these last ten years, I have continued to seek, study, and attempt to apply learnings from authors, teachers, and mentors like you, people who see the world as broken as it is, and also the hope of humanity’s strengths and connections.  There is no shortage of people trying to help us all be better, for ourselves and one another, and no more urgent time or need for this teaching than now.  I count myself beyond fortunate to have benefited from your influence and inspiration so early in my life and career, to have you as my model.  No doubt I am only one of thousands, if not tens (hundreds?) of thousands, whose lives you have transformed for the better.  I wish you an ever broader and higher platform from which to reach countless more people and organizations.  I wish you peace, health, and joy in all your endeavors and relationships.

Please know how much you have meant to so many.

Sincerely,

Catherine Cheng, MD

 

Synthesis and Integration: Self and Other Focus

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Hey friends, how was your week?  Learn anything new and interesting?  Anneal any new ideas to existing frameworks in your already complex world view?  I did!  And it came in another big wave after my presentation on Friday.

I wrote last week about how I put together a new presentation.  For the first time, I added the idea of medicine as a complex adaptive system to a talk I gave to physicians at various levels of training and practice.  The objective of the presentation was for people to understand the scope of physician burnout, and leave with some ideas of how they could not only cope better themselves today, but also influence the system and move it toward a healthier, more compassionate state in the future.

As usual for my talks, I focused first on personal resilience.  Many physicians push back at this idea, and rightly so, as many medical organizations have instituted physician wellness programs aimed mainly at ‘fixing’ the doctors with yoga and meditation classes, while allowing the system that burns them out to continue its toxic trends toward over-regulation, loss of physician autonomy, and driving metrics that lie outside of, or even counter to, our core values.  I worried that my talk would be taken as just another attempt to tell physicians we aren’t good enough at self-care.

Thankfully, the feedback so far has been positive and I have not heard anyone say they felt berated or shamed.  I hope it’s because in addition to tips for self-care (eg 7 minute workout, picnic plate method of eating), I talked about how each of us can actually help change the system.  In a complex system, each individual (a ‘node’) is connected to each other individual, directly or indirectly.  So, difficult as it may be to see in medicine, everything I do affects all others, and everything each other does affects me.  This means I can be a victim and an agent at the same time, and the more I choose one or the other (when I am able to choose), I actively, if unintentionally, contribute to the self-organizing system moving in one direction or another [URL credit for image below pending].

Nodes in Complex System

My primary objective in every presentation is to inspire each member of my audience to claim their agency.  Before that can happen we must recognize that we have any agency to begin with, then shore up our resources to exercise it (self-care and relationships), and then decide where, when, and how that agency is best directed.

 

In 5 years of PowerPoint iterations, including and excluding certain concepts, I have always incorporated David Logan’s framework of stages of tribal culture.  Basically there are 5 stages, 1-3 being low functioning, and 4-5 high functioning.  The tribal mantras for the first three stages are, respectively, “Live sucks,” “My life sucks,” and “I’m great”.  Stage four tribes say, “We’re great” and in stage 5 we say, “Life’s great.”  The gap between stages 3 and 4 is wide, as evidenced by the traffic jam of people and tribes at the third stage.  In my view, the difference is mindset.  In the first three stages, most individuals’ implicit focus is on self, and subconscious mindset centers around scarcity and competition.  Victims abound in these cultures, as we focus on recognition, advancement, and getting ours.  We cross the chasm when we are able to step back and recognize how our mutual connections and how we cultivate them make us better—together—we see the network surrounding and tied to our lone-node-selves.

This week I realized that crossing the stage 3-to-4 chasm relates to two frameworks I learned recently:

The way I see it, in Logan’s tribal culture structure, one initially works toward self-actualization, essentially achieving it when fully inhabiting stage 3, “I’m great.”  But crossing to stage 4 requires self-transcendence, as described by Abraham Maslow, by recognizing a greater purpose for one’s existence than simply advancing self-interest.  In the same way, through stage 3 we live in what the Arbinger Institute describes as an ‘inward mindset,’ and we cross to stage 4 when we acquire an ‘outward mindset’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.  Essentially in stage 3 we mostly say, “I’m great, and I’m surrounded by idiots,” and in stages 4 and 5 the prevailing sentiment resembles, “We’re great, life’s great, and I’m so happy to be here, grateful for the opportunity to contribute.”

An astute colleague pointed out during my talk on Friday that we do not live strictly in one stage or mindset in serial fashion.  Depending on circumstances, context, and yes, state of mind and body (hence the importance of self-care!), we move freely and maybe often between stages, sometimes in the very same conversation!  The goals are to 1) look for role models to lead us to higher functioning stages more of the time, and 2) model for others around us to climb the tribal culture mountain with us, spending more and more mindset and energy at higher and higher stages.

The problem is the system, and we are the system.  So, onward.  Progress moves slowly and inevitably.  It will take time, energy, and collective effort.

We’ got this.

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, Conclusion

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Two posts ago, I related my friend’s experience of feeling unseen and dismissed during a visit to establish care with her new primary care doctor.  I blamed the doctor for not listening, for not exercising his relationship power with enough responsibility.  Last week I described how I see medicine as a complex system, in which each of us is both a contributory and affected member.  I alluded in both posts to forthcoming ‘solutions. ‘

If you have read the last two posts, what were you expecting here, in the last installment?  Quite honestly, the closer I came to writing, the more nervous I got, as if I had promised to deliver some groundbreaking algorithm for instantly fixing physician-patient relationships and our healthcare system at large.  Um, no, sorry.  Hopefully what I write will still be useful.

Events these past weeks have really highlighted for me the profound importance and vulnerability of relationships in a system.  At my kids’ school, a veteran and beloved teacher was terminated suddenly.  No students, staff, faculty or parents were given any warning.  Communication was sparse and poor, and few if any in the community saw evidence of a plan for instruction and emotional support of students in the aftermath.  Students, faculty, and parents alike have raised questions and concerns, all, in my opinion, met with evasion and deflection.  Worst of all, the administration repeatedly refused to acknowledge or own the profoundly negative impact of their actions on their relationships with the school community—a community which they proudly claim to steward.

Once trust has been violated and relationships damaged, the road to recovery looms long and ardent.  Apologies—sincere and heartfelt—serve a necessary and vital role in repair, but they are only the beginning.  We all make mistakes.  But too few of us own up to them and take full responsibility, especially when we have hurt others.  In a medical or educational community, I think we focus too much on scientific and objective decision making, and too little on relationships.  That is to say, we manage the former very intentionally and critically, and the latter only in passing.  This is how, for instance, a surgeon ends up saying to patients, “I can’t help you,” when surgery is not a viable treatment option.  We can always help.

In recent months I have listened to and read myriad resources that point me to some simple (and not easy) guideposts for relationship cultivation and repair.  I have listed the guideposts and their references below.  None of them will surprise you.  You may even roll your eyes and think them cliché.  And yet, all of us in all of our overlapping systems and tribes could do a little better at these practices—physicians and patients, teachers and students, leaders and those they lead.  Which one will you attune and attend to now?  What else should be on the list?

 

Curiosity

By its nature, curiosity makes us open and willing to see more, learn more, and understand more.  What if we got more curious about other people’s feelings and their origins?  What if we did that for ourselves?  Why, for instance, do I get angry when I perceive someone trying to tell me what to do without asking first what I’m thinking?  Could they be motivated by something other than a desire to control and oppress me?  How else could I respond if I thought they were trying to help me solve a problem, if I interpreted their actions as caring rather than interfering?  Check out the distinctions between diversive, epistemic, and empathic curiosity described by Ian Leslie below.  Then the next time you feel conflict coming on, consider these questions (asked in a truly curious tone):

What is this about?

Huh, what else?

Curious, by Ian Leslie

The Art of Possibility by RS and B Zander

Rising Strong and Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.

Kindness

Smiling at a stranger, extending a hand to shake, holding a door, saying hello—small acts of kindness go such a long way.  They benefit not only the recipient and the actor, but also bystanders and witnesses.  Kindness is a primary currency of connection, and reserves can be infinite.  We should never underestimate the potential tidal waves of global benefit from our dropping a pebble of kindness in the waters of humanity.  When a stranger holds the door or my patient asks about my kids, in that moment I feel seen.  I connect with you, my kind counterpart.  My heart lifts ever so slightly, and I am grateful.

A Year of Living Kindly, blog and book by Donna Cameron

Forgiveness

Forgiveness can feel infinitely harder than small acts of kindness.  Will my friend forgive her doctor?  Will I forgive my kids’ school administrators?  What good does it do to carry around grudges, does that get us what we want?  Where else can we direct the energy we expend holding so tightly to resentment?  Could we use it instead to ask, honestly, “What is this about?” or to utter a kind, compassionate word?  Can we see people as people, flawed and trying their best, rather than objects, obstructions, annoyances, and unworthy?

TED Radio Hour, Forgiveness

Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace by The Arbinger Institute

Accountability

When I hit and dent a parked car, I should leave a note owning my mistake and offering to make up for it—even if I slid on ice, or my child was crying in the back seat, or the other person’s car was parked poorly.  If someone damages my car, I expect the same.  The more we can all/each take responsibility for our own part in any conflict or situation, no more and no less, the better off we will all be.  The key here, when we show up to others, is to do it without qualification.  It’s not, “Yes, I hit your car, but…”  It’s, “I hit your car.  I’m sorry.  How can I make it right?”  I may think you were also in the wrong, but pointing that out in the middle of an argument will not help you own your part, which I need you to do for us to connect and heal.  You may never own your part, and I have no control over that.   But perhaps my example will influence you or others over time.  Humans tend to reciprocate, and mutual exchange of accountability can heal many relationship wounds.

7 Truths About Accountability That You Need to Know”, Inc.com

Humility

Nobody knows everything, even experts.  And certainly when meeting another human, we cannot possibly know all that has shaped their beliefs, values, and emotions, both in the past and in the moment.  In medicine we have never known more than we do today, and it seems to me that for every new piece of knowledge we acquire, we also discover a hundred new things we didn’t know we didn’t know.  So what gives me the right to assume I have all the answers—that I have nothing to gain or learn by asking curiosity questions?  Why should I feel the need to appear all-knowing?  The opposite of humility is arrogance, and we all know how hard it is to be around people like this.  Turns out students and leaders alike, who practice humility, succeed more than their less humble peers.  Makes sense—humility connects us to others, while arrogance separates.  It’s vulnerable, though, and that can be uncomfortable.  But if we have already cultivated our relationships with curiosity, kindness, forgiveness and accountability, perhaps humility can come a bit more easily.

“The Benefits of Admitting When You Don’t Know” by Tenelle Porter

Empathy

In the end, I believe empathy will save us.  It is the bedrock on which the other skills are built.  Google dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  It will save us because this is how we truly connect to one another.  But it’s not enough to just have the ability to understand and share others’ feelings.  In order for empathy to connect us, we also need to effectively express that understanding and share the emotions actively.  Active empathy allows us to take another person’s perspective.  It keeps us out of judgment and blame.  It helps us recognize others’ emotions by recognizing our own familiar experiences—empathy is how we relate.  It is the medium of relationship.  Some people possess the gift intuitively.  And it can be learned!  Medical training programs across the country have taught doctors how to be more empathic.  Patients of more empathic physicians do better.  And, physicians themselves do better, too–we feel less burned out and more fulfilled in our work.  We all do better when we connect.

Watch a cartoon and hear Brené Brown explain the importance and benefits of empathy.

“How to Teach Doctors Empathy” by Sandra Boodman

The Empathy Effect by Helen Reiss, MD

 

Please forgive the length this time, friends.

What did you think?  In your next encounter with your doctor or your boss, what do you anticipate?  What do you fear?  How does it feel?  What is that about?  Which of these skills could help?  How will you acquire/hone it?  What help do you need?  What will be better if you achieve it?

What else should be on the list?

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!