The Value of Comradery

I’m having a party!

Well, not really.  I’m inviting colleagues to convene on video in the name of professional community and connection, so it’s almost a party.  It’s also my homework!

These six weeks I get to take Stanford’s inaugural online Physician Well-Being Director Course, along with over a hundred other physician leaders.  What a privilege and pleasure!  I’ve already learned so much, and we’re only one third of the way through.  I may have made a new friend—we bonded over our shared tendency to stress eat, and that we are both using the Noom app to overcome it.  It happened during a breakout session to sample a Comradery Group.

Turns out there is clear evidence that community building, done intentionally and purposefully, promotes clinicians’ overall well-being.  “Well, duh,” you might say (I have).  Why did this have to be studied formally?  But I get it now.  When there is objective evidence for direct benefit and a positive cascade (well physicians tend to have higher engagement, higher patient satisfaction, happier teams, and systems that thrive—relationally as well as financially), healthcare organizations are more likely to invest resources to execute the well-being programs shown to work. 

In a Comradery Group, the objective is more than just venting.  It’s about finding meaning, fostering growth, and supporting one another through empathy, querying, and sometimes even challenging—all in a psychologically safe environment.  Groups meet to discuss particular topics and are admonished to stay on task.  There is usually a facilitator.

I have always found communing with colleagues nourishing—particularly across specialties.  More and more, we toil in silos.  Advancing technology accelerates complexity of both diagnostics and therapeutics at breakneck speed in almost every field.  Everybody can barely keep up with their own work, let alone understand what’s happening in anyone else’s.  And with in-person conferences and other professional gatherings banned for the past year, our sense of community wanes further and faster.  Our disconnection propagates insidiously, and we will all pay in the end, physicians and patients alike.

So what better moment to tend and strengthen our connections?

I have a few colleagues from internal medicine, OB/gyne, ophthalmology, and orthopaedics ready to gather in meaning on Microsoft Teams.  Can’t wait can’t wait!  The first rule of Comradery Group is that what’s said here stays here; holding confidence is key to connection and trust.  We can set other rules at our (first) session.  The homework assignment is only to experience a group once, but my secret hope is that my colleagues will get enough from this meeting to consider doing it again (and again!). 

I’ve proposed some sample topics below.  I’d love to discuss any of them, and I’m sure my friends will suggest others.  Take a look—how could you adapt these questions to your own profession?  How are you and your colleagues at risk for burnout, and how do you imagine Comradery Groups could help?

Here’s something new for the blog:  If you answer one of the questions in the comments, I’ll share my own answer to the same in reply (or a separate post!).  Please also feel free to offer a different question, one that holds meaning and importance to you.

Times are hard and complicated.  We humans are social creatures.  The better we can maintain and strengthen our ties to one another, the less we will suffer—no—the more we will flourish

Onward, friends.  We are all we have.

  1. How has doctoring the past year through a global pandemic impacted your professional and personal outlooks?
  2. What lasting lessons from the past year do you want to keep front and center?
  3. What do you want most from your colleagues in other specialties?
  4. How would you change medical education?  Why?
  5. How have you seen medical culture evolve over your career, for better and/or worse?  How has this impacted your personal experience of your work?
  6. What concrete changes have you made to the way you do things, over the years and the past year?  What do you miss and not, about the way things used to be?
  7. What makes a hard day at work?  An easy day?  A good day?  A bad day?
  8. What is your preferred leadership style, as both a leader and one who is led?
  9. What is the value of DEI initiatives at work?  What are the barriers?  Pitfalls?
  10. What’s foremost on your mind right now for your own well-being?  How are you upholding it?

No Wonder I’m Burned Out!

Once again, I ask my friends:  How are you? 

I am not great!!  Neck, back and head pain, insomnia, low mood, and the worst case of stress eating in a couple years—GRRRRRRRR!  *deep breath*  …So, like a good primary care doctor (she says with tongue in cheek), I evaluate and treat myself.

I ask patients to rate the stress and meaning of their work and then compare:  Is work overall more stressful than meaningful, or the other way around?  It helps me assess the sustainability of their work life, and gives me insight into their values and priorities.  In recent years when I’ve asked myself, the answer is consistent: moderate stress, HIGH meaning.  Today it’s high stress, less high meaning.  For the first time in a long while, work is not necessarily more meaningful than stressful.  Yikes.

Stress:  It’s COVID. 

Meaning:  I ask patients how they derive personal fulfillment and meaning from work.   I recently asked myself again.  It’s twofold:   Relationships and Efficacy.

Relationships: I am your primary care doctor. Sometimes I’m your therapist, your cheerleader, your drill sergeant, and your accountability buddy. I have always loved this, even on the hardest days. But this year, I am also a resolute public health advocate. Sometimes that rubs you the wrong way, because I tell you things you don’t like. I recommend against flying. Don’t eat at restaurants. Don’t gather with your family for the holidays. Don’t go to church. Stay home for 14 days after an exposure. I interrogate your COVID precaution practices. Then I dissect and judge them (not you), thank you on behalf of humanity, and admonish you to persist, longer and longer, for all our sakes. It kinda puts a damper on our relationship.

Efficacy:  I. Help. People.  It’s my calling!  Hemorrhoids?  No problem.  Back pain?  I’ got this (yer back, that is).  Viral gastro?  Migraine? Core instability, palpitations, paresthesia, GERD, thyroid nodule—even  depression and anxiety—I can make a good plan for all of these things.  I can walk you through it, reassure you, and help you feel better, even when I can’t fix the problem. 

Not so with COVID.  How did you get it, when you were so careful?  If the test is negative there’s still a 20-30% chance you’re infected if the scenario is high risk, but I can’t say for sure.  If you’re sick, how long will it last?  Will it get worse before it gets better?  How much worse?  Will you have lasting symptoms or long term health problems?  How long does immunity from illness or vaccine last?  I cannot lie:  I. Don’t. Know.  I will stay with you through it, but I can’t even satisfy your most basic questions, while you sit alone at home coughing, short of breath, unable to see or touch your loved ones, sipping ginger ale because you throw up anything else.  I can’t help.  And it kills me.

On top of that, I’m not doing any good as a public health champion, either!  Have I changed any of your behaviors?  Have I made even an iota of difference in my community to stop the spread?  All signs say NO.  I’m failing left and right.  No wonder I’m eating so much.

Burnout

Burnout is widely understood to have three key components: 1. Emotional Exhaustion, 2. Cynicism/Depersonalization, and 3. Reduced Personal Efficacy. Studies of physicians generally show that while we often score high on the first two, we do better with the third. I think not anymore. Burnout affected about half of all physicians in all specialties a few years ago, but had improved due to widespread research, awareness, and advocacy for systemic change led by professional societies such as the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Practice. But think about 2020: Whatever emotional exhaustion my emergency medicine and critical care colleagues felt before, caring for the sickest of the sick, likely pales in comparison to the horrors of this pandemic. When their health systems ignored their pleas for PPE and then laid them off, making remaining docs work that much harder, and when they saw people partying and spreading virus all over the place, could you blame them for getting cynical? And though we’ve learned so much and fatality rates are lower now than in March, imagine going to work every day to watch patient after patient suffer and die alone, despite your and your team’s best efforts. We can no longer count on efficacy to save our morale.

Re-ignition

So how do we hold it together? Well DUH, it’s about connection! I had not felt this bad in a long time, but I’m better now, thanks to my peeps. They’re everywhere, and we hold each other up. Texting a meme here, venting (a lot) over there, and generally being present for one another, sharing, even embracing, the deep suck of the morass. Because this too shall pass… Like a kidney stone, as they say.

The only way out is through.  The best way through is together. 

I haven’t thought, said, or written that in a while.  It’s not that I forgot.  I got overwhelmed.  Happens to the best of us. 

What a Privilege

NaBloPoMo 2020 – Today’s Lesson

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it:  People are suffering.  Not everybody, but many, and many pretty badly.  A prolonged global pandemic, unprecedented political polarization, escalating agitation for social justice—any one of these would be enough to push us over the edges of our sanity, and yet here we are, surviving all three and more.

I know it’s a challenging day when I’ve handled three phone calls before getting out of the car at work in the morning, and in the afternoon I think Hallelujah and give joyful thanks for one patient’s globally negative Review of Systems and another’s 95% oxygen saturation.  But this is also the most fulfilling day.  I did good work today.

Like most primary care doctors, my message volume has increased by about 30-50% in recent months. Complex questions and issues require time and patience to think and talk through. Many cannot be readily answered or solved, and the uncertainty calls out all of our anxieties and defenses, insecurities and grievances. Every patient experiences this historic moment in a unique and acute way. As the storm rolls over the neighborhood, I see it land on each doorstep, knowing what’s already in the house—how the furniture is arranged, what’s in the closets, maybe even the state of the foundation. I am allowed inside, invited to inspect and advise.

What an amazing privilege to be a physician in this moment, to witness, and to help.  This is absolutely what I signed up for, what I’m called to, and what I trained for.  I promise to do my best, and we will get through it together.