Tribal Pride and Tribalism

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

What tribes do you belong to?  How do they serve you, and you them?  How not?

I think of this today as I have traveled out of state to speak to a Department of Surgery on physician well-being.  I wonder how often they have internists present at their Grand Rounds?  What a tremendous honor, I’m so excited to be here!  I hope my talk will be useful and memorable, as I represent my field and my institution, in addition to myself.  In the talk I describe the central tenets of Tribal Leadership and culture, and how to elevate ours in medicine.

So I’m thinking tonight about tribal pride and tribalism—the benefits and risks of belonging.

We all need our tribes.  Belonging is an essential human need. To fit in, feel understood and accepted, secure—these are necessary for whole person health.  And when our tribes have purpose beyond survival, provide meaning greater than simple self-preservation, our membership feels that much more valuable to us.  But what happens when tribes pit themselves against one another?  How are we all harmed when we veer from “We’re great!” toward “They suck”?

Of course I’m thinking now of intra-professional tribalism:  Surgery vs. Medicine vs. Anesthesia vs. OB/gyne vs. Psychiatry.  Each specialty has its culture and priorities, strengths and focus.  Ask any of us in public and we will extol each other’s virtues and profess how we are all needed and equally valuable.  Behind closed doors, though, internists will call orthopods dumb carpenters; surgeons describe internists’ stethoscopes as flea collars, and the list of pejoratives goes on.  Maybe I’m too cynical?  My interactions with colleagues in other fields are usually very professional and friendly—until they are not.  I have experienced condescension and outright hostility before.  But can I attribute it to tribalism—that general, abstracted “I’m better than you because of what I do” attitude—or to individual assholery?  Or maybe those docs are just burned out?  As with most things, it’s probably a combination.  Based on what my medical students tell me, negative energy between specialties definitely thrives in some corners of our profession.  Third year medical students are like foster children rotating between dysfunctional homes of the same extended family—hearing from each why all the others suck.

So what can we do about this?  Should we actively police people’s thoughts and words in their private moments?  I mean part of feeling “We’re Great!” kind of involves comparing ourselves with others and feeling better than, right?  Isn’t some level of competition good for driving innovation and excellence?  Should we even embrace this aspect of tribal pride?  It certainly does not appear to be diminishing, and I have a feeling it’s just human nature, so probably futile to fight it.

I wonder why we have this need to feel better than.  Is it fear?  A sense of scarcity?  As if there is not enough recognition to go around?  Like the pie of appreciation is finite, and if you get more I necessarily get less?  Intellectually we recognize that we are all needed, we all contribute.  But emotionally somehow we still feel this need to put down, have power over, stand in front.  And it’s not just in medicine.  I see it in men vs. women, doctors vs. nurses, liberals vs. conservatives, and between racial and ethnic groups.  It makes me tired.

But maybe we can manage it better.  Maybe we can be more open and honest about our tribal tensions, bring them into the light.  Yes, I think surgeons can be arrogant.  And that’s okay to a certain extent—it takes a certain level of egotism to cut into people, and when things start going wrong in the OR, I think that trait can help make surgeons decisive and appropriately commanding when necessary.  I imagine surgeons get impatient with all the talking we internists engage in.  So many words, so little action, they might think.  And yet they understand that words are how we communicate with patients, how we foster understanding and trust.  Maybe we can all do a better job of acknowledging one another’s strengths and contributions out loud and in front of our peers (and learners).  The more we say and hear such things, the more we internalize the ideals.

Tomorrow I get to spend a morning with surgical attendings and residents.  I hope to contribute to their learning during my hour long presentation, but I really look forward to my own learning, to expanding my understanding and exposure to parts of my profession that I don’t normally see.  I’m humbled at the opportunity, and I will look for more chances to bring together colleagues from divergent fields.  If we commit, we can connect our tribes and form a more cohesive profession.  That is my dream for future generations of doctors—to be freed from infighting and empowered to collaborate at the highest levels, for the benefit of us all.

 

Ode to My Dawn Simulator

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

Did you notice the photo on my post Gratitude Again?  That was the view out my office window around 5:30pm last week.  These days I appreciate the winter dusk a lot more than years past, mostly because the physically hardest years of training and my kids’ lives (for me) are over.  My intern year I rotated in the medical intensive care unit (MICU, or MICK-you, or just ‘the unit’ for short) in November.  Usual days started by 6am, and finished whenever my patients were stable enough for me to leave, usually past 7pm.  I really never saw the sun that whole month—not from outside, anyway.  Every third night on call, my resident and I covered the whole place.  The longest I ever spent in the hospital was 5am until 10pm the following night—41 hours straight, only to be back again the next morning at 6.  And that was nothing compared to the generation of doctors who trained before me.  Thinking back on it now, I can still feel the saturating fatigue, the utter hopelessness of ever seeing the call room, let alone lying down on a bed.  Thank GOD those days are over.  They weren’t all bad, though.  Residency was one of the hardest things I’ve done, and it was also intensely rewarding.  The friendships I made those years, the unique shared experiences—I carry these with me also.  They made me strong and gave me confidence.

But if I thought getting up in the dark during intern year was hard, somehow doing it as an attending with two little kids was even harder—go figure.  The sleep deprivation of working motherhood is a completely different animal from that of residency, its toll multiplied on family.  The blaring alarm clock, the utter blackness of the bedroom, the contrast of cozy warmth under the blankets with the cold still air above.  They all conspired to make me peevish, sullen, and supremely unpleasant to be around every morning—an additional cost to my soul every time I lashed out at the kiddos out of my own exhaustion.  To borrow a phrase from Vee over at Cute Kids, I might well have died of a bad mood or something worse if that situation continued.

So Husband staged an intervention: He bought me a dawn simulator for Christmas.  It’s an ingeniously simple device: An alarm clock with a built-in light dimmer that comes with its own full-spectrum light bulb.  All you have to do is connect it to a bedside lamp.  Then you set sunrise time, as well as duration of rise (I set mine to 6:45, 15 minutes).  Every morning for the past 7 years I wake up naturally from a steadily brightening, gentle and warm glow from one corner of the room.  It’s infinitely more pleasing; no blaring involved.  Of course now I have my iPhone ‘by the seaside’ alarm as back up, especially for this month as I stay up too late writing blog posts.  And I’m not a morning person in general, so no Mary Poppins songs bursting forth with domesticated mechanical birds on my windowsill.  But life is infinitely more tolerable between Halloween and Easter each year now—for all of us.

Thanks, Husband.  Ya done good.

Dr. Jerkface In Context—Healing the Patient-Physician Relationship

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Excuse me, I took an unintended break for Thanksgiving!  Hope you all had a wonderful holiday!

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

For the past year or so, maybe more, I have increasingly tried to engage my friends in discussion around allied advocacy for physician health and well-being.  Inevitably, however, I’m met with anecdotes from my friends about asshole doctors.  It is a strikingly common experience, I’m sad to report.  And it makes sense:  If a patient has a bad experience with a doctor, ie the doctor behaves badly or the patient feels dismissed, ignored, disrespected, or mistreated, the normal response is to blame the doctor and assume that s/he is an asshole.  In each of these interviews with friends, it took a while for them to come around to the idea that the doctor him/herself may be suffering and therefore not behaving/performing their best.

But the next question is this: Do patients care about doctors’ suffering?  If they knew how the system harms physicians, would they have compassion for us?  What about if they knew how physician burnout and dissatisfaction directly affects their quality of care, all of it negatively?  What would move patients to stand up with and for doctors?  This is my goal for the indefinite future: to help us, patients and physicians, the end users of our medical system, stand up with and for one another, for positive systems change.

Right now I see it as a very personal, grassroots endeavor.  Outside of a one-on-one patient-physician relationship, ‘patients’ and ‘physicians’ in general are abstract groups to us all, and it’s hard to feel compassion for and connection with an abstraction.  “Patients are too demanding, entitled, and ignorant.”  “Doctors are arrogant, dismissive, and profit-driven.”  We carry these overgeneralized internal narratives and others into our encounters, often unknowingly and unintentionally.  Even when we think we see and know the person right in front of us, these underlying assumptions still color our experiences with them.  So whatever conversations we may undertake will take many repetitions to finally reach true mutual understanding.

I have been a member of my church since 1991.  Many others in the community have been there much longer than that.  There are other physicians, and we are all patients, ranging in age from infants to octogenarians.  I have proposed to host a focus group to discuss patient-physician relationship, especially as it relates to the effects of physician burnout on patient care.  The plan is to do it once, with whomever is interested, and see what happens after that.  I picture 10-20 people, patients and physicians alike, seated in a circle.

The objectives will be stated:

  1. Hold an open discussion about people’s experiences in the patient-physician encounter, and explore the context of forces that influence those experiences. Such forces include visit duration, documentation requirements, workflow inefficiencies, patient expectations, insurance status, and clinical setting (hospital, outpatient clinic, etc.).
  2. Participants leave with improved mutual understanding of one another’s experiences in the medical system and more likely to feel empathy and compassion toward their counterparts in the next encounter.

In the long term, I wish for patients and physicians to form a unified platform from which to advocate for policy change.  We, patients and physicians, are the end-users of the healthcare system, the largest combined demographic in the system, and I believe we are the ones who benefit the least from the system.  Health outcomes for American patients are dismal compared other developed countries, despite our exorbitant expernditures.  Physicians kill ourselves at more than twice the rate of the general population.

It’s not enough for medical professional societies to write co-authored, open letters to Congress.  It’s not enough for individual patient constituents to stand up at town halls and berate their representatives.  We must orient ourselves as resistors in series, rather than in parallel.  I think the movement will grow most effectively out of existing connections and relationships, through which we can find shared interests, common goals, and a strong, unified voice for change.

I seek your feedback:

  1. How do you picture this meeting going?
  2. How interested are you in learning about physician burnout and how it affects patients?
  3. If you were invited to such a meeting, what would you think and feel about it?
  4. What would make you more likely to participate?
  5. Would you want to host such a meeting in your community? How would you do it?

Thank you for considering, and see you tomorrow!

Incomplete Thoughts on Suicide

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Not selfish

Not thoughtless

Simply belief beyond shadow that no one will mourn you, people will be better off without you

Unimaginable for those who have not lived it

Most who try once don’t try again

So better to keep guns away

——————–

One of my high school classmates killed himself when we were seniors.  He shot himself in the head at home.  He was the vice president of our Students Against Driving Drunk chapter (I was president).  He was a member of the National Honor Society.  He was well-liked, always friendly, generous, smiling, encouraging.  He was a nerd, and so was I, so I thought nothing of it.  I did not know him well, and I never asked him about his life, that I recall.  I have no idea whether he was bullied or what drove him to take his own life.

The morning we found out, our calculus teacher had to sit down in the middle of the lesson. She was overcome.  One of my other classmates got up and hugged her.  She had more presence of mind than I.  I can’t remember if it was that moment or later, or if it was our teacher or someone else altogether, who said something like suicide is ultimately a selfish act.  That it was inconsistent with our classmate’s character to cause so many people so much pain.  That if he had known how much he would hurt people by this act, he never would have done it.  I can’t say I had thought anything about suicide before then, and I have probably not thought enough about it since, but her words stuck with me.  I’m not sure I would have ever come to this conclusion.

The way I understand (think I understand) it today, suicidality is such dark state, a place so far removed from where we connect with our true selves and others, including (especially?) loved ones, that people really do believe that everybody else will be better off without them, that there is nothing worth living for.  I cannot fathom that kind of disconnection and loneliness.  It feels almost too scary to even contemplate.  I feel totally incompetent to address this kind of pain and suffering.

I saw this video recently and it moved me.  A young man jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived; he tells his story of instant regret for the attempt, and gratitude to be alive.

I pray tonight that if anyone in my circle is feeling suicidal, I may say or do something to help them know they are loved, wanted, and connected, and to keep them with us long enough to get help.

 

I’m the Doctor, You’re the Doctor

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

“I’m the doctor, just do what I say.”  I don’t think doctors actually say this anymore, but I wonder how many of us think it?  It’s probably not even a conscious thought, but rather an attitude—paternalistic and directive, a relic from the old days when patients had no power or voice in the relationship because the doctor held all the information and all the expertise.  Today patients are empowered by culture and the internet to participate in shared decision making , and it’s a good thing.

The problem with the “I’m the doctor” attitude is that it inhibits the patient from owning their own healthcare choices.  Then if and when the care plan goes badly, they feel rightly justified blaming the doctor, because they were just following orders.  Sometimes it’s necessary, like in the case of trauma or serious surgery, where the doctor is truly in charge and must make life or death decisions according to their expertise and judgment.  Thankfully this is not my work.

In primary care, if I take this attitude, I miss an opportunity to forge a collaborative and rewarding relationship with my patients.  If I simply issue orders, people don’t feel seen or heard, and they may withhold important information that would help me make a better, more relevant diagnostic and treatment plan.  And if they defy my advice (edict), as they are more likely to do when our relationship is transactional and cookbook, and things go well, then I lose credibility and they are even less likely to follow my advice in the future.

“You’re the doctor,” on the other hand, is something I hear often.  It usually comes up when patients (and I) are faced with decisions involving competing interests or vague risks and benefits.  An example is prostate cancer screening.  Guidelines over the years have ranged from screening every man, every year, starting at age 50, for life, to don’t screen anyone ever.  Most physicians and professional societies agree currently that the best approach is to discuss risks of screening (over-diagnosis, harm from testing in patients without disease) and not screening (missing early cancer, delayed diagnosis, possibly leading to preventable negative outcome), and make decisions based on patients’ individual values and goals.

When a patient in this or a similar situation says to me, “You’re the doctor, just tell me what to do” alarms ring my mind.  What I intend to be a shared decision suddenly falls to me to make unilaterally.  In this scenario, the patient essentially cedes responsibility for the treatment plan, and if it goes badly then it’s my fault “because you told me to.”  Or the patient may choose to ignore my directive and also blame me because “you told me to but I disagreed.”  Either way a patient may then feel justified to blame me for any negative outcome, even though I gave them what they said they wanted.  I understand that this is not how the scenario necessarily plays out, but somehow I’m wary of it.

I had my teeth cleaned today.  The dentist recommends x-rays every year; I politely decline most of the time.  I just don’t understand (or accept?) the rationale and benefits of annual radiation to my face, and I’m cynical about the fee-for-service structure in which providers make more money for ordering more tests (which is a legitimate concern in medicine, also).  Without explaining why it’s recommended for me particularly (it was explained later), I heard, “Well, it’s okay if you don’t do it today, but you have to do it next time.”  [Expletive, not stated out loud.] I am emotionally triggered when people try to tell me what to do without asking me what I think about it first (see my post from 2 days ago).  So I bristle when I witness colleagues doing it, or when my patients demand it from me.

I don’t see my job as telling people what to do—I am not a surrogate.  Rather, I think of myself as consultant and guide, expert, counsel.  It’s my job to discuss, explore, explain, review, consider, negotiate, compare, assess, debate, explain and discuss again, and then make a shared decision.  This includes follow-up and contingency planning, setting expectations, and reassurance about my commitment to the person, regardless of the problem.  I’m the doctor, you’re the patient, we are a team.  We are in this together.

Bring It

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

Had my knee MRI yesterday.  I had been looking forward to it for over a week, trying to predict what it would show.  I was thinking a serious meniscal tear, since I have had crackling in my knee for so long and I surely must have arthritis by now, from all the falling on it I did in my youth.  I lay perfectly still and started to get sore where I expected to feel medial meniscus pain.  I could not wait to know the results.  I just wanted to know what I’m dealing with, so I can figure out next steps, get moving.

Since it’s a weekend, I won’t know the radiologist’s report until tomorrow.  Suddenly part of me doesn’t really want to know.  What if it’s really bad and the only option to regain function is surgery?  What if it looks like I’ll be permanently disabled in some way, never able to get back to my previous level of activity?  What if that prognosis totally throws me off and I let myself go, become a sedentary lump, weigh over 300 pounds, and die in five years from heart disease and depression?  Truly, this could end my life, some poisonous voice hisses in the recesses of my mind.

But hubs is the ordering physician and he looked at the images with me tonight.  Lots of fluid/swelling.  Bruises on both bone ends of the joint.  Good news, the menisci are intact and look normal!  Woo hooooo!!  Posterior cruciate ligament also looks normal—thick, uniformly black (swelling and inflammation are light on this image), well-positioned.  Can’t find the ACL.  Huh.  He says 10% of people don’t have one.  That’d be cool, because if I never had one then it couldn’t be torn.  But the bone bruises alone are not enough to explain the swelling and pain.  So either it’s so inflamed that the fluid obliterates it on the MRI, or I have completely ruptured it and the little stumps have retracted out of view.

I had wondered which I would rather have, a serious meniscal or ACL injury.  I had leaned toward the latter, because the ACL can be fixed.  Meniscal tears really don’t heal; the body smooths them over somewhat with time, but the end result is just less cartilage, faster wear, and more tear.  The problem with an ACL injury, however, is that it increases the risk of future meniscal tears.  So either way, the knee will never be the same and now I have to deal with it.

We will wait for the official report, and I may see the sports orthopod.  Here’s what I don’t want from that appointment: For him to tell me, “Cathy, you should stop playing volleyball or anything that requires jumping, sudden movements, or the like.  You’re too old and your knee will just be hurt again.”  I will be polite, but in my mind I will think, “You can’t tell me what to do, I’ll play f*ing volleyball if I want to, and I will do it with or without your help.”  What I would love for him to say is this:

“Cathy, here is what’s going on in your knee.  It’s likely that these factors contributed to the injury (lists possible risk factors that he knows from my history), and also it was a freak accident that can happen to anyone, especially jumping female athletes (which is true).  It’s a good thing you’re pretty healthy to start with, and that you had gotten fit these last few years.  What do you want to do now?”

I’ll tell him that I really want to get back on the court and play.  I’ll tell him I want to keep doing all the training I’ve been doing: elliptical, Kangoo running, TRX, pistols, golf, and Betty Rocker workouts.  I want to take up new things like Orange Theory, kickboxing, martial arts maybe, and who knows what else?  I want to be the most active person I can be, and I want to JUMP.  I’ll tell him that I want to be responsible about it; I’m not going to ignore the risks and be stupid.  I want to know the risks, the evidence as it applies to me as specifically as possible, the 44 year-old mom with lax ligaments and super-flat feet.

Then I hope he tells me, “Okay then here’s the plan.  We gotta rehab the knee really well.  Ya gotta be patient.  Keep up with your trainer, strengthen all the muscles around your knees, continue working on core, posture, and form.  When you start jumping again make sure you know better how to land, train that muscle memory and get it down, own it.  Take your time, and take it easy when you start again.  There are braces you can use when you play that will help keep the knee stable.  And you still might hurt yourself again, there’s no way to predict what will happen. But if that’s what you want to do, I’ll do my best to help you get there.”

Because here’s the deal, my friends:  I own my decisions, but I need help to make them in the most responsible and informed way possible.  I don’t need someone paternalistically telling me what to do, how to live my life.  I need the doctor to explain to me the risks, benefits, and costs of what I may want to try.  Then I need to him to trust that I will make the best decision for myself, based on my own core values and goals.  I understand that nobody can predict the future.  But I also have a clear vision of the future I want.  I want to live a very active life, able to try new things and connect mind with body with spirit, and with other people.  I want to look back in 10, 20, and 30 years and say, “I did what I wanted to do, I made my decisions with the best information I had at the time.”  I may hurt myself again.  I may end up with a knee replacement before age 60, and never run or play volleyball again after that.  But if I get there having thoroughly assessed the risks of my actions, having taken all reasonable steps to proceed safely, and having continued to have fun and enjoy my mobility as long as I could, then hopefully I will regret very little.  I would much rather live this scenario, than get to that age wondering, “What more could I have done?  Did I sell myself short?”

This is how I discuss decision making with my patients, particularly when it comes to screening.  Their decisions must originate from their personal values and health goals, not mine or anyone else’s.  How do they understand the risks, and which worst case scenario of screening or not screening, treating or not treating, will they regret less?  A very athletic yet osteoporotic 65 year-old woman really does not want to take medication.  So we review her daily dietary calcium, vitamin D, protein, and vitamin K intake.  We make sure she continues weight bearing exercise every day.  We pay attention to balance, flexibility, strength, vision, and fall risks.  We reassess her risks and goals every year to make sure that we are still on the path she chooses for herself.  I present her with as much evidence as I can, for efficacy of medication, her personal fracture risk, and potential consequences of fracture.  In the end the decision is hers and hers alone; I serve as consultant and guide.

Meanwhile, knowing what’s likely happening in my knee gives me peace and confidence.  Now I can make a plan.  I’m convinced this is why my knee feels better tonight than it has in days, although the ibuprofen I took this afternoon probably also helps.  I have a new compression sleeve that fits under my dress pants.  I can get back to my workouts, and maybe add on a little every week.  My motivation to eat healthy just got a fierce boost (Betty Rocker really helps with this—I have no financial interests in her business, I just really like what she does and how she does it).  I’ll start physical therapy soon.  No volleyball for likely 6 months.  But I got this.  Bring it.

Thanks

…to the six people who came to my talk today. It was a pleasure to present to you. You were engaged and attentive, which I very much appreciated.  I’m disappointed that more of our colleagues did not join us, as this was the best iteration of this talk yet!

The best part was when we exchanged questions and ideas at the end.

I hope you got something out of the presentation that will help you and your patients.  If that’s true for any of you anytime after today, then it was totally worth it. “”