November 19:  Board Review Makes Me Better, For Sure

MKSAP flyer

NaBloPoMo 2019

Are you required to do continuing education for your work?

Since 2013, the Illinois Chapter of the American College of Physicians has run a weekly internal medicine board review webinar, MKSAP Live Online Study Hall.  We use questions that ACP publishes through the Medical Knowledge Self-Assessment Program, covering topics in general medicine and its subspecialties, including cardiology, pulmonary, infectious diseases, and rheumatology.  Every Tuesday night at 8pm Central time, two of us moderators and one webinar organizer get online and review about 14 questions, SAT-style.  We interact with audience members through a chat function on GoToWebinar, and we poll some of the questions each session.

I love this program for multiple reasons.

First, I was there when it started.  Gathered around then Governor Dr. Marie Brown’s dining room table, a handful of local ACP members brainstormed and created what is now an international, comprehensive internal medicine board review webinar series.  After some playful, off-topic, post-prandial banter between Dr. Sean Greenhalgh and me, our colleague across the table said wryly, “I’d watch that for an hour.”  Hence the dual-moderator, morning radio DJ style webinar was born.  That was in the fall of 2012, and the Study Hall is now halfway through its third two-year cycle.

Second, I get to hang out with my doctor friends online.  Besides Marie and a couple others, I did not know any of the dozen folks involved in the project before that night at her house.  We did improv workshops at the beginning to form our team and ease our communication skills.  Since then we have all become friends—a clique, even.  We have followed kids’ graduations, births of babies and grandbabies, and some personal challenges as well, all while getting together every few weeks to talk shop for an hour online.  We have even become celebrities of sorts—first at Illinois Chapter meetings and now sometimes at ACP National, people come up to us to say how much they like the program.  We’ve become a fixture in some colleagues’ lives.  We feel pretty proud and special about that.

The best thing about the Study Hall, though, is that just in the space of one hour on a Tuesday night, I am consistently humbled by the sheer volume of knowledge there is to absorb, just in internal medicine.  This is only one specialty of the whole medical profession!  And it’s not just the volume—it’s the complexity, the context, and the ever-evolving research, diagnostic and treatment development, and guidelines.  MKSAP publishes a new set of comprehensive questions every two years, and I do not envy the writers their colossal task of keeping us all up to date.  Without fail, every session I learn something that I will use the following week in clinic.

As this month of daily posts progresses, I feel increasing awe and gratitude for all of the people and opportunities in my life.  Thanks to all my colleagues, leaders, family and friends who make this life so full and loving.

November 18:  Relentless Curiosity Makes Me Better

IMG_4440

NaBloPoMo 2019

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Tonight, in the month of gratitude, I feel deeply thankful for Coach Christine.  I might have been a curious person all along, but it was not until I got a life coach that I learned the vast and profound value of curiosity in every realm.  As I wrote earlier this month, standing always in curiosity liberates my mind.  It relieves me of unnecessary urgency for an answer.  I can exercise professional creativity in forming better and better questions, and the answers (often multiple, intertwined, and intriguing) emerge more easily and artfully than if I chase them demandingly.

The business of medicine is to solve problems, to heal, to cure.  So we assume that the faster we get to answers, the better.  And they had better be the right ones, because lives are at stake here!  It’s always interesting to me when patients talk about my work as ‘saving lives.’  I can’t remember a time when I could actually make that claim, at least at all directly.  But to my colleagues—emergency medicine and critical care docs, trauma surgeons, suicide hotline counselors—thank you, you really do save lives every day!

I love primary care because I usually have the luxury of ‘(living) the question.’  When patients present with new problems, as soon as I know they are stable, I get really excited.  I’m liberated to get deeply curious, ask as many questions as they will tolerate, paint the big picture together.  I follow the standard physiologic and diagnostic process initially, which often yields a straight forward answer and plan of care.  But life and work would be pretty boring if that were always the case.  When the usual suspects are all acquitted and the mystery persists, that’s when things get fascinating.  This is when I really get to know a person.  When I ask truly open, honest questions—the questions I don’t know the answers to and that are not meant to lead anywhere—I never know where the conversation will go.  And I always learn something new and relevant, something that helps me connect.  This is the information that makes a person memorable, because it is truly unique to them.

One of my favorite moments in a patient encounter is when I have to pause a few seconds to form a really good question.  What do I really want to know, what am I after, what will really break open this conversation?  It happens regularly, and wow, what a rush.  OH, I just never know what I will learn!  You’d think people would get impatient and grumpy with such prolonged, sometimes meandering interrogation.  But I find that they often lean in, look me in the eye.  They get on the train with me and look as eagerly as I around the next bend.  What will we find?  Let’s explore together!

Relentless Curiosity.  It’s the funnest part of my work.  I love it.  And as we all know, loving our work makes us better.

November 17:  Elasticity Makes Me Better

IMG_2649

NaBloPoMo 2019

What was school like for you growing up?  Were you bored?  Confused?  Frustrated?  I had a pretty easy time, but many of my classmates did not, even the ‘smart’ ones.

In high school I was on the speech team.  One of my events was persuasive speaking.  I chose one year to advocate for teachers to broaden their teaching styles to match a wider variety of learning styles.  I used the Gregorc Mindstyle Delineator as an example of how styles can vary (mine is Abstract Random, go figure).  It was an interesting thesis and I sincerely believed what I wrote and presented in those 8 minutes each weekend.

Thirty years later, I wonder how much I walk this talk of meeting people where they need me.  Simply asking the question, raising my awareness, makes me better.

Parenting.  It doesn’t matter how many parenting books you read or how well you think your parents raised you.  General principles apply, of course.  But every kid is unique, and we parents do better when we realize that the methods we use for anything on kid #1 won’t necessarily work with kid #2, #3, an onward.  Flexibility is key to a happy and functional household, for getting out the door every morning without yelling.

Marriage:  According to the Dr. John Gottman, about two-thirds of marital problems are perpetual, meaning they will never actually resolve.  So how do couples stay together successfully?  Among other things, they learn to accept one another and work around the hard stuff.  At least partially, we have to soften our rigidities, learn to bend and sway, embrace the supple, intimate dance of commitment.

Teaching:  Not all students learn best by watching.  Not all learn best by doing.  Or by hearing, mimicking, or competing.  Luckily, medical education gives trainees multiple platforms on which to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to care for patients.  For all its flaws, our profession actually does well here.  I’m happy that I realized this in my own experience.  When I precept students in clinic, they shadow, scribe, see patients alone or lead a joint encounter, so they can experience the work from different perspectives.  I think this mutual versatility and adaptability makes us all better.

Patient Care:  Over the years I have accumulated myriad articles and books to share with patients.  But not everybody’s a reader like me.  Not everybody wants to meditate or journal.  Some people do better with a personal trainer, others in spin class.  It’s my job to assess how each patient is most likely to succeed in health habit optimization, and present the most appropriate resources for consideration.  Primary care definitely does not work with a one size fits all approach.  So now I include audiobooks, podcasts, phone apps, and YouTube videos in my repertoire of medical information sharing.  I am blunt when it’s needed, and also gentle and diplomatic.  I can speak from the head and the heart, often both at the same time.

Speaking Engagements:  Here is where my elasticity has grown the most in recent years.  For the first decade of my career, I still used the expository presentation style I learned in high school.  Thankfully in 2014, I watched Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on transformative oral presentations, and then read her book, Resonate, in 2015.  Make the audience the hero, she says.  Tell a story, contrast what is with what could be, paint the vision of the blissful future clearly.  Engage people’s emotions and aspirations.

This is not easily done with Power Point decks full of words.  But words are my medium!  I had to add color, diagrams, cartoons, photographs.  I started making my presentations more interactive, between myself and the audience, and between audience members themselves.  Now I have people stand up and move their bodies.  I may bring raisins to my next talk and do a mindful eating exercise.  I need to learn how to embed music and videos into my slides.

What is the objective in all of these relationships?  It’s connection.  How do we best connect?  We reach out.  We extend ourselves to others—make ourselves relaxed, flexible, spring-like.  That is how we gather people closer.  It’s not formless or weak.  A strong elastic maintains its integrity even under high tension.  But it must be stretched often, or it becomes stiff, brittle, and ultimately ineffectual.

 

November 10:  Experimental Questions Make Me Better

IMG_2654

NaBloPoMo 2019

What’s the most interesting question your doctor asks?  What effect does it have on you?

I get to ask some really fun and interesting questions of my patients.  They often come about spontaneously, then I realize how helpful they are, and I integrate them into my routine interview.

It was almost ten years ago now that I was seeing a pleasant young woman for the third time.  She had recurrent, nonspecific physical symptoms, and felt down.  She was having a really hard time at work, and it was having a significant impact on her overall health and well-being.  Around the same time I saw another patient, a young man.  He felt well overall, but was also not happy in his job.  I remember casting around in my mind, looking for a quick and easy way to quantify the negative effect of these patients’ negative work experiences on their health.  I can’t remember which visit sparked the 0-10 stress and meaning scale questions, but it was one of them, and then I repeated the questions on the other soon after.  These were my first two, unsuspecting, experimental question subjects.  On a scale of 0 to 10, how high do you rate the overall stress of your work?  That was easy, but I also had to figure out whether there was some benefit that was worth the cost of the stress.  So: On the same scale, how high do you rate the overall meaning of your work to you?  The bottom line is that we can tolerate very high levels of stress if the work is meaningful—for sustainable work, the meaning-to-stress ratio needs to be 1 or greater, and overall meaning is best at 7 or higher.  That year I realized I could create deeper, more helpful, more insight-revealing questions in my patient encounters.

My own work meaning rating rose by at least a couple integers almost immediately.

IMG_2628

Since then I have consistently asked about body signs of stress, resilience practices, the proportions of threat vs. challenge stress at work or home.  Since I last wrote about these questions in 2016, I have continued the experiments.

By 2016 I was also using the elite athlete analogy with my patients, asking every year about habits in the 5 reciprocal domains of health (after talking about stress and meaning at work): Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management, and Relationships.  But after asking the same questions for a couple years in a row, both my patients and I get a little bored.  So in 2017 I went a little deeper in the relationships category.  After confirming marital status, ages and health of children, I started asking, “Tell me about your emotional support network,” because the more I am reminded of the critical importance of emotional support in our health, the less it makes sense to not ask about it directly.

With each additional set of questions, I learn more about my patients. I learn how people understand the questions—sometimes it’s totally different from my own understanding, and the conversation about the meaning and objective of my asking gives me wonderful insights into people.  Patients are remarkably open and honest in their answers, which always reminds me of the honor and privilege of my role as physician.  The answers to these questions are what allow me to imagine my patients in their natural habitats, engaging with their work and the people in their lives.  The answers provide context and texture to the other patterns we uncover in health habits, and we often come together to a better understanding of both the origins and consequences thereof.  I can’t speak for my patients, but I always come away feeling just a little more connected.  I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

This year I’m excited to introduce 4 new questions.  It started out as three.  The third one wasn’t landing quite right initially.  I wasn’t asking what I meant, and I couldn’t quite articulate what I was after.  So I experimented with the wording until I got to the current state:

  1. In the coming year, what do you see as the biggest threat to your health?
  2. What is the biggest asset?
  3. Having answered these, how does this affect your decision making going forward? …And other iterations I can’t remember anymore
  4. One year from now, when we meet again, what do you want to look back and see/say about your health, relationships, and whatever else is important to you?
  5. (then the corollary question that occurred organically once and I then incorporated–) In order to make this vision a reality, what support do you already have or need to recruit?

I have asked these questions since July.  I always think to myself how I would answer for my patients, based on what I know about their circumstances, habits, and biometrics.  About two thirds of the time, our answers are the same.  Patients seem to receive them well, too.  One asked me to email them to him, so now I offer to email them to everybody.

IMG_2664

You might imagine that I think these questions make me a better physician.  That may or may not be true.  All of these questions make me better—a better, more self-aware person—because I also ask them of myself.  What is my meaning:stress ratio today?  This week?  This year?  I assess the threat/challenge ratio of my own life stressors, especially the acute ones.  I have had the same body signs of stress for many years, but in 2019 I may have developed a couple new ones, darn.  What’s the biggest threat to my health?  My hedonist impulses, no question.  The biggest asset?  My Counsel—those best friends and confidants.  What is my vision for my health a year from now?  I only answered that for myself a week ago (and I’ll keep it to myself, thank you).  And what support do I have/need?  I’m still working on that one!  That I don’t already know the answer to this one surprises me—I assumed I knew, but when I sat down to think about it formally, I realize that this may be the missing piece that holds me back from achieving some of my personal health goals.  HUH, how fascinating!  Did I not just write about how I question some of my patients’ ‘Lone Ranger’ method of self-care?  Well hello kettle, I’m pot!

Now, off to ponder some more, yay!

 

November 8:  My Students Make Me Better

IMG_1928

NaBloPoMo 2019

Oh how I love my medical students!

Every other year I meet a new group of about 10 third year students, at the dawn of their clinical careers.  What a privilege!  I lead a monthly small group for a class called Personal Transition to the Profession.  I have written about this honor before, describing how

  1. My only job in this class is to love these students into the amazing doctors they are meant to be
  2. They help me see physician burnout from different perspectives
  3. Their experience of medical culture resonates with my own

Monthly group meetings are just enough to start to know any one person after two years, and then they disperse and I grieve the loss, just until my new group starts.  After ten years of stimulating conversations on professionalism and the humanity of medicine, I still feel anxious about my impact on these bright, insightful learners.  Did I do a good job?  Did I make a difference?  Did their time with me matter at all, or was it a monthly waste of time?

This June, I finally faced these questions head-on during a coaching call with Christine.  What are my strengths, what value do I bring?  How can I distill the central learning objective each month?  How can I connect more effectively?  We settled on some ideas for setting expectations and being more direct about goals and touchstones.  I instituted check-ins at the beginning of each meeting, something I should have started years ago.

This month’s topic was open; students were invited to write and discuss whatever was on their minds.  Blog posts and check-in comments resonated around words like exhaustion, sleep, and longing for connection.  So rather than delve into the content of their writing, I simply asked how I could help.  One student, ever honest and forthright, said, “let us go home and get to bed.”  The air felt heavy, almost forlorn… but not hopeless.  I found myself monologuing a few minutes about appreciative inquiry, and finally asked them, a little desperately, “What is the most loving thing someone has said to you this week?” and then, “or how have you felt loved this week?”

Slowly, small vignettes of connection, meaning, and hope emerged.  The student who wanted to get home to bed had received an email from a former preceptor, whose patient finally started and stayed on much needed antidepressant medication, which the doctor attributed to our student’s contact with the patient during his primary care rotation.  Another’s parents had driven into the city early in the morning to lend her their laptop after she had spilled water on hers.  Other students had connected with family members and friends, who expressed pride and encouragement.  Once again I was overcome with love for these young colleagues, and I could not help but tell them:  I have one job here, and that is to make sure you know you’re loved in your training.  I am not here to evaluate you.  You will all finish, you will all succeed.  In the time I have with you, my only objective is to hold you up in the process.  I made sure they all have my cell phone number.  I encouraged them to call me if they ever need anything.

Two students (and one’s wife) came to my house for dinner tonight.  It was supposed to be everybody, but I neglected to send a confirmation email so people weren’t quite sure if I meant my invitation last month (probably because I had planned for them to come over last month and then cancelled on them that week).  We ordered pizza and salad, I fried some potstickers, and we sat around the kitchen island with my kids, just talking.  We are all nerds.  We love to read, to learn.  S’s wife is a resident at my former hospital, and knows my friends there.  They have a book club there now, and this year’s theme is wellness.  She asked for suggestions, so I lent her my copy of My Grandfather’s Blessings.  She and S also borrowed our season one DVDs of The Big Bang Theory.

Our group will meet at a local restaurant after next month’s class.  We will plan (better) another evening meal at my house in the spring.  In the meantime, I will extend an invitation to each of them to come down if they ever need a break from school, a change of scenery, or just to feel a little extra love.  I have been where they are, and I remember how much I appreciated the empathy and compassion of my elders in the profession.  I still do.

How does this all make me better?  In medicine we talk all the time about the calling to care for patients.  But caring for one another, our colleagues and trainees, is equally important.  It keeps us and our souls whole, feeds us so we can keep doing the work.  My students recharge me, inspire me, and keep me young.  What an absolute honor to know them.

November 7:  Feedback Makes Me Better

IMG_0150

NaBloPoMo 2019

This post is about power.

Two friends provided important feedback on last night’s post, and I am, gratefully, much better for it.

* * * * *

“You are a woman of color?”

My college friend commented on Facebook.  “Are you being serious?”  I asked him.  Yes, he replied.  He went on to point out that he sees the term being used more broadly, and that he thinks it’s been co-opted.  He made me think, which always makes me better.

In the original post, I described myself as a “petite, young, woman of color doctor,” standing up to an older white man. My friend wrote, “I think disadvantage is baked into the term, why else use it?”  Looking back, I admit I was exaggerating.  I had power on my mind, and I was trying to think of all the ways I should not have power in the situation, and yet I absolutely did, and I recognized it.  But labeling myself a person of color, I realize now, was at least somewhat inappropriate.  I have changed the text to “petite, young, Chinese woman doctor.”  I sincerely apologize if I insulted or offended anyone.

In medicine, East Asians are not considered a disadvantaged minority in the conventional sense (although while we are over-represented compared to the general population, we hold proportionally few leadership roles).  In general, however, I would argue that any non-white person in the US may still experience myriad disadvantages, in any field or situation, even if subtle.  At any point in an encounter, even with ‘MD’ and years of training and expertise behind my name, a white man can always hurl some racist, sexist remark to make me feel small.  He could just as easily attack a fellow white man on the basis of weight, sexual orientation, stature, or some other peculiar distinction, but somehow it feels like my white male colleagues just don’t have to think about this possibility as much as I do.  I feel self-conscious about my gender and race every day at work.  That is why this past spring, when I attended a negotiation skills presentation at the American College of Physicians (ACP) national meeting, I felt particularly gratified that the presenters were two East Asian women and one white man.

* * * * *

“You may want to include physicians as victims in your blog.”

A colleague responded to my post by sharing her story of being verbally attacked by a patient.  She was alone, no witnesses, and he treated staff politely, unlike in my story.  She was ‘dumbstruck and said nothing.’  She wrote, “I think as physicians, we are targets for verbal abuse because we have a privileged profession and would look foolish or weak in defending ourselves.”  In other words, since doctors hold such high societal status (power), people think we should just accept being taken down a notch or two?  That if we express an expectation of respect we are lording our status over others and thus even more justifiably open to insult and ridicule?  I see now how this can make a physician feel like a victim of societal stereotypes and expectations.

That said, I think it doesn’t matter what we do for a living; every person has an absolute right to expect respect from anyone else.  Years ago, another older white male patient made a series of passive aggressive remarks in the space of several minutes at the end of a visit.  I felt they were unfair and uncalled for, as I had spent the entire visit doing my best to connect with and care for him.  After a moment of consideration, knowing it was a risk, I was respectfully direct with him.  I repeated his words and told him that they felt like digs.  He admitted that they were and apologized, and congratulated my courage to call him out.  He never came back to see me.  I feel good about how I handled it; was it a power struggle?  I would have been open to cultivating a mutually respectful and honest relationship, had he returned.

Feedback definitely makes me better.  I will never grow if I only attend to my own point of view.  I don’t have to abandon my own perspective when facing an opposing one, and I am not obligated to incorporate anyone else’s point of view.  But if I expect anyone to take my writing and message seriously, I am required to listen to and try to understand any feedback that is offered in good faith.

Thank you, my friends, for keeping me honest and grounded.

November 6:  Caring For the Team Makes Me Better

IMG_2624

NaBloPoMo 2019

“How does he treat you?”

I don’t only ask this question of women whom I suspect of being abused at home.  I also ask my medical assistants.  Not about their domestic partners, but about our patients.

In my first practice, I sat/stood to the left of my medical assistant every day for six years.  It was a cozy (cramped) little counter space stacked with charts from end to end, with a couple of high-wheeley chairs.  Each chart stack had a laminated cover on top:  “For Cheng to Review/Sign,” “For Rose,” “Labs,” and “Messages.”  Charts journeyed from my left to my right/Rose’s left, to the bin under the counter to be filed.  It was incredibly efficient, actually.  I had a handwritten emoji system for indicating (dis)satisfaction with cholesterol and diabetes results.  Rose knew all of my patients and how to communicate sentiments and instructions clearly and lovingly.  She had been an MA since I was a kid; she knew what she was doing.  If a patient had a question on the phone, she could put them on hold and clarify with me, or I could just get on the phone and speak to the patient myself.  We were busy and happy, a well-oiled team-machine.

One day as I came up to my spot at the counter, I noticed an unusual sound next to me, like a distant, scratchy loudspeaker.  I turned and saw Rose holding the phone receiver about an inch from her ear.  The sound was my patient, yelling profanities at her so loudly I could hear his words from two feet away.  I can’t remember what the issue was, but he was obviously upset, and taking it out on her.  It surprised me because I had only known him to be sweet, respectful, and grateful.  Maybe he was just having a bad day?  I looked at Rose, who rolled her eyes and exhaled heavily.  I asked her to put him on hold so she could catch me up.  Apparently this had been going on longer than I knew, and she had not told me.  Had I not come upon it in real time, she may never have told me.  She would have simply tolerated it.

I picked up the call and declared myself.  He was the usual, respectful and calm patient I had always known.  I answered his medical questions.  Then I told him firmly that he did not have the right to treat anyone in my office the way he had just treated Rose.  I think there may have been some excuses and then an apology.  I made it clear that if he abused my team again, he would be discharged from the practice.  He agreed and apologized again.

That was my first opportunity to stand up for my team as an attending.  I will forever remember it.  I was a petite, young, Chinese woman doctor, speaking to a white man decades older than myself.  I stood up for my medical assistant, a woman of color and a couple decades older than me.  She had felt powerless to stand up for herself to his verbally vomitous abuse.  All I had to do was pick up the phone and say, “Mr. Soandso, this is Dr. Cheng.”  He never yelled at Rose or anyone in the office again, to my knowledge.  How could I have this much power, and why had nobody asked me to wield it in their defense before?  It was just accepted that patients could yell and scream at our staff, with no consequences?

IMG_2066

We recently discussed abusive patients during our regular doctors’ meeting at my current practice.  Immediately I thought, HELL NO.  The good news was that our team members feel safe reporting incidents to our managers and physicians.  My partners and I have all had to call patients to clarify our expectations of respect.  We understand that illness is stressful.  We understand that our healthcare system, especially at a large, bureaucratic institution, causes frustration, even rage.  However, none of that ever justifies or entitles a patient, or anyone, to belittle, dehumanize, or otherwise degrade another person, and especially not a team member who is doing their best to help–ever.  At this meeting, gratifyingly, we all voiced definitive confirmation that we fully support our team, and we will, without hesitation, educate and/or discharge any patient who violates our team’s right to a collegial and non-threatening work environment.

Even as I write this, I shake a little with rage and outrage at these patients’ behavior.  I can feel tightness and tension in my chest and abdomen, my breath quicker and shallower than its usual resting state.  I wonder if this triggers me because my mom is a nurse and I have seen how patients in the hospital abuse nurses.  I also know how women physicians are mistaken for nurses and thus ignored or dismissed, even by female patients.  I have known racism and sexism first hand.  But as a physician, I’m in a position to not have to tolerate it.  By virtue of two letters after my name, I have the power to protect my team, with authority.  And I work with other physicians who also recognize both this power and its attendant responsibility.

I hope our team feels protected, defended, and loved by us docs.  We may be the default work unit leaders, but they do the lion’s share of work that allows our practice to run as smoothly and successfully as it does.  They are who let me do my work as well as I do.  I depend on them every day.  So caring for them absolutely makes me better, makes us all better.