Attune and Attend

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My friends, I am offended.  I’m insulted and frustrated.  Part of me screams, stomps, and rages inside.

I am embarrassed.

My friend went to establish care with a new primary care physician last week.  Before the appointment she was told to bring all of her medical records.  No instructions, no specification of which parts or in what form.  So, being the tech-savvy and eco-friendly woman she is, she downloaded all that was available to her onto a thumb drive, as it was rather copious now in her 7th decade of life.

Upon arrival, she presented the drive to the woman who initiated the evaluation.  She thinks this was a nurse; but she’s not sure.  The woman said she could not ‘handle’ the thumb drive, but said, “I can just pull it up here online.”  What?  Ok whatever, clearly the medical record request was simply a routine request made of all new patients.  Thereafter the woman proceeded through routine medical questioning.  But as my friend answered the interrogation, she felt distinctly ignored.  Her concerns were not addressed and she did not feel any rapport.  The woman did an EKG and left the exam room.

Later, while my friend was still sitting on the exam table, the woman returned with an old man in a white coat.  He stood there, hands behind his back, and informed my friend they had called for an ambulance to take her to the emergency department.   The EKG showed an abnormal heart rhythm.  They said she would likely be in the hospital for two days for observation and tests.  The nurse and doctor spoke to each other but not to my friend.  They did not ask her how she was feeling, or what she knew about the/her condition, and they did not check the online record for evidence of past evaluations or recommendations.

My friend refused, for various reasons, not the least of which was that this condition had already been thoroughly evaluated, multiple times, and was actually well controlled.  But the doctor and nurse showed no interest in knowing my friend, nor did they seem to care to include her in any medical decision they made about (for) her.

Granted, this is my friend’s side of the story.  But for right now this is where I focus, because her experience is all too common, and I hate it.  She experienced everything that makes physicians and our healthcare system look and feel so broken, and that contributes to the widening relationship gap between patients and physicians/providers.

She was asked to bring her records, she put forth the effort to do so, and they were not reviewed.

She felt ignored and dismissed, even though the objective of the visit was to establish care and initiate a long term, collaborative relationship with a new primary care doctor.

She was ordered to submit to an ambulance transfer to a hospital emergency department, with neither discussion nor negotiation of other care options, and without regard to the financial and other costs to her.

She felt harassed by the office in the following days, receiving calls admonishing her for not presenting herself to the emergency department.

The bottom line is that my friend felt completely unseen in this encounter.  She felt treated like an object—a set of data, a statistic, a box on a flowchart.  Context, history, and individuality be damned.  When you’re in a relationship with someone who is supposed to help you, on whom you rely to help you understand the best plan of care for you personally, feeling unseen, dismissed, and belittled is exactly the opposite of helpful.

Maybe we should not judge the nurse and doctor too harshly.  We all know the time and volume pressures primary care providers live under these days.  Maybe they were distracted by other, sicker patients they had seen that day.  Maybe that made them more vigilant and aggressive with care recommendations for her, and put them behind schedule so they felt they could not take the time to explain things in more detail.  Maybe the doctor had seen this arrhythmia once before, treated it more casually, and the patient died.  We have no idea.  And it matters, insofar as it impacted how he presented to my friend.  Because his presence was dominating, authoritarian, rigid, and cold.

The patient-physician relationship serves as the foundation for medical care and healing.  No matter how much we talk about and try to honor patient autonomy, the power differential in this relationship remains fixed and real.  The doctor has the power and the responsibility to make the patient feel safe, to earn the patient’s trust.  On this day, in this visit, this doctor blew it, in my opinion.  It was their first encounter.  He should have taken the time and interest to get to know her, even a little, to agree on how they would work together.  If he were truly concerned about her health, knowing she had an arrhythmia (which are often made worse with stress), might he not have noticed the distress he was causing her?  Couldn’t he have given her additional care options, like referring her to a specialist within the week?  Or perhaps he could have opened the electronic health record and looked at her previous cardiologist’s last note?

He did none of these things—or at least not in any way that my friend perceived.

Further, he not only failed to establish a good relationship with her; he undermined her trust in our whole medical system.  How many experiences like this does a person have before she starts to reject the medical community altogether, ignoring symptoms of disease because she would rather deal with pain and disability than try to navigate a hostile system?  Fewer than you might think.  This is how patients end up in emergency rooms with truly life-threatening illness, where, guess what?  They get shamed again for not seeking help sooner.

It’s rather tragic when you think about it.

There is hope, though.  But as this post has already a thousand words, my thoughts on solutions will have to wait.

I hope you all had a restful and joyous holiday season.  My unplanned holiday writing hiatus lasted longer than I intended, and it’s nice to be back.  May we all reconnect with one another in more meaningful, productive, and uplifting ways in 2019.

 

 

Talking to the Opposed About Vaccines

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Go figure, I’m having conversations about flu and vaccines every day right now.  Today I described my post from yesterday to a new friend.  He stands firmly in the ‘vaccines are good’ camp.  His sister, however, does not.  Her son has autism.  After hearing about my post, he asked me what I would say to her, if she told me she would not vaccinate her child ever again.  It was a great opportunity to think and practice, and I’m grateful that he asked.  I had already thought earlier today about writing a separate post on communication around vaccines.  So here goes!

First I would tell her that I understand why she would not want to vaccinate, if she blames vaccines for her son’s autism.  I don’t know any kids with autism, but I have friends whose kids are autistic, and I see how stressful and exhausting it can be.  As a mom of kids with anaphylactic food allergies, I also know the feeling of absolute guilt for being the one who gave my kids the things that made them sick.  If I were a mom whose kid was diagnosed with autism after receiving vaccines that I consented to, and I were convinced that the latter caused the former, I would definitely want to protect my kid from anything else that might hurt him, especially anything that I have control over.

Some additional background:  We are a lot better at recognizing and diagnosing autism spectrum conditions now than a few decades ago.  That diagnosis is commonly made in the toddler years, also around the time kids have received a boatload of vaccines.  So it’s easy to see a correlation, but causation cannot be proven.  One could argue that it also cannot be totally disproven, but given the number of children who receive all of their vaccines and the very small proportion of them all who go on to be diagnosed, the evidence definitely leans away from vaccines causing autism.  That is little comfort for a family and a child affected with the disorder, who may always wonder.  As humans, we naturally look to assign blame; vaccines are an easy target.  And why on earth would we repeat actions that have previously caused us trauma, real or perceived?

This year I read an article about a mom of three.   She had vaccinated her two elder children as per guidelines.  After her third was born, however, she started to read lay literature online stoking fear of vaccines.  She had no negative experiences herself, but started to wonder, what was really the best thing to do for her family?  She decided to stop vaccinating when her son was 6 months old.  At 18 months, he got pertussis, or whooping cough.  He almost died.  She posted videos of him coughing and turning blue, captioned with a heartfelt mea culpa, urging other parents to vaccinate:

“This is whooping cough,” she wrote. “This is Brody. An 18-month-old boy. Our third child. Our first son.

“This is a mother that sees ‘anti-vaxx’ all over social media and becomes terrified. Unsure whether or not to give vaccines (even though she did for both of her girls). Terrified to ‘pump her baby with poison’ … so she stops vaccinating after six months.”

“This is pure hell. This is guilt. Guilt of putting not only my son at risk, but my community too …This is embarrassment.”

She wanted to impress the fact that she’s not “bashing” the anti-vaxx community – or blaming or judging anyone.

“The decisions I made were MY decisions. Based purely on my lack of knowledge and fear,” she said.

“This is to show the consequences of not vaccinating my child correctly.”

I wonder about her conversations with her son’s doctors.  Did they try to shame her into vaccinating when she initially expressed a desire to stop?  If so, could this have just made her more resistant?  It could easily look something like a conversation that I would bet happened all over our country today:

Doctor:  Have you gotten your flu vaccine yet?

Patient: I don’t do flu vaccine.

Doctor: Seriously?  Why not?  It’s perfectly safe, you know, and tens of thousands of people die every year from flu.  If you don’t get vaccinated, you could pass it on to everybody you know.  Aren’t your parents elderly?  Don’t your kids have asthma?  You’re putting them at risk for serious illness or death, you know that, right?  And you don’t get flu from the vaccine, that is a total myth.  (Insert list of facts and evidence for benefits of flu vaccine here.)  Really, you should get it (suppressing eye roll).

Patient:  No, no thanks.  Can I go now?

I see and hear my colleagues complain all the time about vaccine-resistant patients.  When they are particularly tired or moody, they can get judgmental and even a little mean.  I understand.  It’s frustrating to watch people we care about making choices we think are against their best interests, especially when it also puts the community at risk.  I fear for my kids if their classmates are not vaccinated—both of my kids have asthma that’s triggered by respiratory infections.  Even if our whole family is vaccinated, they are still exposed to hundreds of snotty, sneezy, coughing faces every day at school.  Flu season is essentially six months long, most of it when we are all stuck inside basically slobbering all over one another.  High. Risk.

But does it really help for me to come at my patients with my ‘advice’ before I understand the origins of their decisions?  What are my assumptions about them when I do that?  Some patients claim science as the basis of their refusal; others admit that it’s totally irrational.  Regardless, how can I best conduct myself?  Here is my current approach:

Cheng: Do you do flu vaccine?

Patient: No, not really.

Cheng: Can we talk about that?

Patient: Do we have to?

Cheng: I would really appreciate it.  I won’t try to pressure you, I just want to understand your rationale.

Patient:  Gives their reasoning.  If it’s like my friend’s sister above, or I otherwise understand that they are resolute in opposition, I thank them for sharing, shift to strategies for illness and transmission prevention (see yesterday’s post), and ask permission to talk again next season.  This happens in a minority of cases, actually.  Most often they say something like, “Well, I just don’t really think about it, I feel like I don’t need it, I think it’s strange that it’s recommended every year, it doesn’t really seem to work from what I hear, and what’s the big deal about flu, anyway? …Do you really think I should get it?”

Cheng: Yes, I really recommend it.  Can I tell you why?

Patient: Okay, sure.

This is when I go through all the evidence that I reviewed yesterday and the rationale above.  If I know something meaningful to them that relates, I make sure to highlight the connection.  At the end I make sure to reiterate that they are free to vaccinate or not; I am honestly unwedded to a particular decision. I invite them to consider and let me know, or just show up to a pharmacy clinic if they decide to get it.  Most people are appreciative of the time spent; many say they learn something they did not previously know.  We end the conversation at least with no hard feelings, and often with positive ones (at least on my end).

It occurred to me this morning, what is my primary objective when I conduct these conversations this way, coming alongside my patients rather than coming at them?  Initially I thought it was to keep people healthy, to prevent death, serious illness, and suffering.  But now I think my primary objective is actually to cultivate our relationship.  I usually have this conversation with new patients, because if I know them already then I know their vaccine patterns and I don’t have to ask, “Do you do flu vaccine?”  If they refused last year I can simply start with, “Can we please talk about flu again?”  When we are new to each other, the way I present sets the tone for our relationship and has an outsize impact on patients’ receptivity to my advice.  The flu vaccine conversation is a prime opportunity to prove that I can listen to, empathize with, respect, and honor their values and autonomy.

On the contrary, when I come at them, bent on convincing them to vaccinate now, what is my primary objective?  Thinking of other times I present this way, if I’m being honest, I’m just trying to prove I’m right and win an argument.  I don’t think that approach has ever really helped anybody.

 

 

Fear, Ego, and Control

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

In this post I will attempt to describe some exciting connections between readings from the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Anthony Suchman and colleagues, and Carol Dweck.

An HBR article landed in my inbox this week, catching my inner Imposter’s attention.  The title, “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership,” triggered my ‘Is that me?’ reflex.  Because much of the time, I think I’m a pretty good leader (“I’m awesome”).  But I’m forever fearful that my ego will get the best of me and make me exactly the kind of leader I loathe (“I suck”).  I saved the article to read later.

Meanwhile, I continued to Chapter 3 of Leading Change in Healthcare: Authentic, Affirmative, and Courageous Presence.  Basically this chapter deals with earning and building trust.  Chapter subsections include self-awareness, reflection, emotional self-management, clarifying one’s core beliefs, and accepting oneself and others.  In the part on core beliefs, the authors reference Dr. Suchman’s 2006 paper, “Control and relation: two foundational values and their consequences.”  In it, he differentiates between these two ‘foundational world views’:

Control

The beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of the control paradigm are organized around a single core value: that the ultimate state to which one can aspire is one of perfect willfulness and predictability. What one desires happens, with no surprises; all outcomes are intended. For the clinician, the control paradigm is expressed in the questions, ‘‘What do I want to happen here?’’ and ‘‘What’s wrong and how do I fix it?’’  Personal success or failure is judged by the clinical outcome, the extent to which one’s intended outcome was realized.

Relation

In the relation paradigm, the most valued state to which one aspires is one of connection and belonging. In this state, one has a feeling of being part of a larger whole – a team, a learning group, a dance troupe, a community, even the world itself. One’s individual actions seem spontaneously integrated with those of others to a remarkable degree, contributing to the evolution of a higher order process, i.e. one at a higher system level than that of the individuals of which it is comprised…  One asks the question, ‘‘What’s trying to happen here?’’ and, according to one’s best approximation of an answer, seeks to shape others and the world while also remaining open to being shaped oneself. This balance between control and receptivity puts one in the best possible position to recognize and make use of serendipitous events.

In Leading Change the authors write about control, “…This is a fear-based paradigm in which one trusts oneself more than others and holds tightly to power…  It predisposes leaders toward dominance, distracts them from cultivating relationships and leads them to set unrealistic expectations of control.”  And about relation, “This is a trust-based paradigm, anchored in the belief that the sources of order, goodness and meaning lie beyond one’s own creation…  It predisposes leaders to do their best in partnership with others, to attend to the process of relating and to personal experience (their own and others’) and to remain open to possibility.”

When I finally read the HBR article, the message about ego reflected the control paradigm:

Because our ego craves positive attention… when we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our people, and our organization.

When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure.

The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe [confirmation bias].  Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.

Going to bed last night, I wondered, “Is Fear actually driving when we see Ego in charge?”  I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, but it’s more complex than that.  It’s not a fear that we feel consciously, or that we are even aware of.  It’s not sweaty palm, palpitative, panic attack fear.  Rather it’s a deep, visceral, existential fear—of being found out, of not being enough—akin to imposter syndrome, if not exactly that.  Control, Fear, Ego—they all seem lump-able with/in the Fixed mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.  The simplest example of this mindset is when we tell kids how smart they are, they then develop a need to appear smart, lest they lose their identifying label.  So they stop taking risks, trying new things, risking failure.  Their experiences narrow as they, often inadvertently, learn that control of outcome and outward appearance of competence is the primary objective of any endeavor.

Back in August I listened to Dweck’s book, having heard about it and already embraced its theory in the last few years.  I had already started making the connection between fear and fixed mindset, but this day I saw a sudden, reciprocal relationship between fixed mindset, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome.  I love when these lightning bolt moments happen—I was in my car on the way to work, and this triad came to me.  As soon as I parked and turned off the engine I tore into my bag for the journal I carry with me everywhere and scrawled the diagram as fast as I could, as if the idea would evaporate if I didn’t get it down in ink.  Later I added the comparison to Growth mindset—holding space for learning, integration, and possibility.  I held it in mind for a while, and then forgot it (which is okay—that’s why I wrote it down!).  Then today, putting together this post in my head, I remembered it with excitement.

8-31 triad update

The point of it all is that we are at our best, both individually and as groups, when we are in right relationship with ourselves and one another.  It all starts with relationship with self.  If I live in fear of being found out as flawed or imperfect, then I project that fear onto others.  I act out in an effort to control how others perceive me—when in reality I have no control over that whatsoever.  The negative perception of my ‘Ego’ by others then provokes myriad responses including fear, insecurity, false deference, resentment, disloyalty, and subversion, and the team falls into disarray.  If, on the other hand, I cultivate self-love and connection with others, I never feel that I am going it alone.  I am an integral member of a high-functioning, mutually respectful team, one in which I can admit my weaknesses and maximize my strengths.  We all feel confident that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way, and we rise to each and every occasion–together.

I’m still putting it all together, working out how it translates into daily behaviors, actions, and decisions.  For now I’m definitely paying closer attention to my feelings, especially in conflict, and taking a lot more deep breaths before speaking or replying to triggering emails.  I ask a lot more clarifying questions.  I try to make the most generous assumptions about people’s intentions, and remember always that we are on the same team—Team Humanity.

More learning happening around the clock, I say!  Hoping to articulate better in the sharing hereafter…

What do you think about all of this, does it make any sense at all??

Hope You’re Safe in Chicago

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

My friend texted me these words at 4:01pm Central Standard Time today.

Tamara O’Neal, an emergency medicine physician just one year out of training, was shot to death by her ex-fiancé.  He then went on to kill two others, and he himself died, though it remains unclear if he shot himself or died from a police officer’s bullet.  She was on her way to work, saving lives for a living, many of them probably victims of gun violence.

Samuel Jimenez, a 28 year-old police officer, also only beginning his career, was killed.  He leaves behind a wife and three young children.  He was doing his job, protecting innocent lives from deadly violence.

Dayna Less, a 25 year-old pharmacy resident, was also killed.  She was still in training, planning to go home to Indiana tomorrow to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family, and planning a wedding next year.

It could have been my hospital, or my husband’s hospital.  Or one of the hospitals where my sister or my friends or my mom work.  It could have been my children’s school.  An elementary school a few blocks away was locked down until 5pm.  What must that have been like for the kids and their parents?

I was safe in Chicago—today.  But none of us are actually safe, as long as we collectively continue to do nothing about the public health crisis of gun violence that grips and gags us.  And make no mistake it is a public health issue before it is a political issue.  That said, we in healthcare must continue rise up and call for action in policy.  We must demand more of our elected officials.  They must represent us and our collective public interest first and foremost.  A majority of the American public supports common sense gun laws like background checks, licenses for gun dealers, and restricting gun ownership by known domestic abusers.  This should be reflected in our laws and law enforcement.

Please read about the victims of today’s shooting.  Remember them before you read about tomorrow’s victims.  Look up the people who died in Parkland and Pittsburgh.  Put yourself in their shoes, as events unfolded on what started as just another day in their lives.  Imagine what must have flown through their minds—thoughts of children, parents, spouses, regrets, things they wish they had done, things they had looked forward to.  Imagine the terror, the disbelief, the pain, the utter loneliness, the longing for the comfort of loved ones, the wish for another day to be with them, to say goodbye.

Imagine being their family members now, trudging on each day without them, senselessly, with no justice, no closure.  Imagine caring for patients and their families in the emergency department, the intensive care unit, the neurological rehab hospital.  Imagine looking into the eyes of these people, the remaining years and decades of their lives irrevocably altered for the worse by events that unfolded over a few minutes.  And then imagine, as you continue to gaze into their eyes, telling them sorry, there’s nothing we can do about it, this is just the way it is.

The only way enough of us will be moved to take action is if enough of us can truly relate to the experiences of the victims and their families.  Nobody needs to actually live through such horror to be able to empathize.  The human brain is wired for empathy and connection.  At the same time that we cannot imagine what it must be like, we can absolutely imagine.  But we choose to separate, to disconnect, when things are too uncomfortable, to protect ourselves.  This is how tragedies like Columbine continue to happen, every week, every year, for decades.  Not. Acceptable.

Read the American College of Physicians position paper on reducing firearm injuries and deaths.  Apply a critical and objective eye and mind.  Try to understand its reasoning and look up the citations.  Read the appendix, the expanded background and rationale.

Do you want fewer people to die from gun violence in the United States?

What will you do to help reduce the harm?  Because we all need to help.

 

 

 

 

 

Culture of Medicine, Part II

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

So, what did you think of how trainees described the Culture of Medicine?  If you’re in medicine, how much did you resonate?  If you’re not in medicine, how much were you surprised, or not?  How do you think this affects our relationships with you, our patients?

Do you wonder how we get through any given day?

I asked the group:  What are characteristics or traits of Culture of Wellness (COW) Leaders?  Once again, I present their responses here, in order of discussion.

  1. “They ask how people are doing.” They are proactive about it, opening the door, making it safe to talk honestly about how we really are doing.  They exhibit the ‘body language of listening.’  It’s still hard to talk about it, one student pointed out.  The best leaders explicitly carve out time to talk, to invite feedback.  It also matters what they do with the information once they get it—empathizing and acting on it if needed, rather than dismissing.
  2. Mentor. This is someone who knows you and whose role it is to help you ‘unconditionally,’ different from any of your evaluators—maybe an advisor.  It can be an informal relationship, maybe just someone you want to emulate.  Trainees agreed that it often happens organically, and they seek it actively.  One resident identified her program director as ‘absolutely a COW leader.’
  3. Walk the Talk. Examples: work/life balance/integration, acceptance of mistakes, admitting when you don’t know something.  NO DEFLECTING; OWN YOUR SHIT.  This one hit home with me—this is Integrity.  As Brené Brown says, integrity is “choosing what’s right instead of what’s fun, fast, or easy.  It is living your values rather than simply professing them.”

The next several descriptors emerged in a flurry.  The atmosphere in the room swelled with positive energy as one label after another of what we admire about our teachers and colleagues overtook the downtrodden mood just moments before:

  • Consistency
  • Proactivity
  • Openness
  • Empathy
  • Personally engaged
  • Curiosity
  • Caring
  • Kindness
  • Vulnerability—willing to share
  • Positivity—seeing mistakes as learning opportunities. Encouraging—“We’ got this!”
  • (Understand the importance of) Food: attending to physical needs
  • Humor—acknowledging the challenge and weight of the work and also holding it loosely
  • Validating
  • Appreciative
  • Grateful

The last one triggered a story.  One student rotated on an inpatient service.  Critically ill patients poured into the hospital; all work hour restrictions were necessarily violated.  Nerves were more than frayed, and people were at their worst.  He witnessed open hostility by senior residents toward interns, backstabbing, undermining.  The attending, present only minimally, was oblivious.  And, “They never said thank you.”  The student, who had planned to enter this field, considered switching.  It was that bad.  But somehow, he was able to get perspective and remind himself that this one bad experience did not represent the whole of this specialty.  It had been an unusually busy month at the end of a long, hard year.  Maybe the cumulative exposure to some of his COWL role model traits had rubbed off, and buoyed him when he stepped onto a leaky boat.

A senior student admitted that when she started medical school she had heard of burnout.  “I initially didn’t believe it could happen to me…  Then later I realized it can happen to anybody—it could absolutely be me, if I don’t take care of myself.”  I asked what that means, taking care of yourself?  They answered:

  • Sleep
  • Nutrition: “Any food your intern year; choices matter more when you’re PGY (post graduate year) 3!”
  • Outside interests
  • Finding a practice situation that fits: eg caring for the underserved, women’s health, hospital medicine, etc.
  • Find Your Tribe. The trainees did not use these words, but this is what I wrote in my notes—they expressed a need for belonging.
  • People at work: truly collegial relationships, especially across specialties
  • Confidants: safe people to share with, your emotional support network
  • Physician-Patient relationships: mutually vulnerable and open

I asked them what they needed to take care of themselves.

  1. Purpose
  2. Time—to be given by the system, and also to be responsible and efficient with themselves.
  3. Habits—established and also adaptible

Overall the discussion felt productive and successful in the end.  We had just mapped out the way(s) to Be The Change we seek in our profession.  Some of them took pictures of my notes (so Millennial), which made me feel gratifyingly connected.  I had tried to question more than lecture, to explore and facilitate more than ‘teach.’  I wanted each of them to own their own path to leading from any chair, now and forever.  I proposed that they could start the moment they walked out of the conference room door—no elevated status or title necessary.

This is why the calling still resounds compellingly, why our enthusiasm for the work persists resolutely, despite the hardships.  It’s Hope.  And at its foundation lies the bedrock of our best relationships—with ourselves, with one another, and with our patients.  On the march toward a true Culture of Wellness, real leaders go in front and set the example.  The rest of us learn by mimicking.  Thus we all have leadership potential and, dare I say, responsibility.  We are the system; we make the culture—each and every one of us makes a unique contribution.  Nothing we do is too small to matter.

Onward.

Culture of Medicine, Part I

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Recently I met with a group of medical trainees from different institutions, ranging from pre-med to senior resident.  The topic was leadership in medicine and culture.  My objective was to lead a discussion on how we see leadership, and to encourage physicians at all levels of training to see themselves as leaders, regardless of designated status.  I often invoke Benjamin Zander’s invitation to ‘lead from any chair.’

We started out discussing the current state of medical culture.  My summary of the labels, in the order we discussed them, follows here.  I strive to hold these observations with minimal judgment, and to practice radical acceptance.  This is simply the way things are, not good or bad, it just is.  That includes how we feel about it all, and that we want to change the parts we don’t like.  Tomorrow I will continue with Part II, characteristics of Culture of Wellness leaders.  For now I invite you, especially my friends in medicine and healthcare, to review the list dispassionately, objectively, from a distance.  See how it lands.  How do you feel reading this list?

  1. Intense
  2. High stakes—we hold people’s lives in our hands.
  3. Imbalanced. When asked to say more, this trainees explained, “It encourages a lack of balance—we are not supposed to mind the long hours.  Our priorities are skewed—we say patients first (but it feels like patients above all else, at any cost?).  There’s the paperwork, the burnout.  You can’t go home if the patient needs you (internal medicine), and in some fields there is no such thing as a shift.  It never ends. (surgery)”  These trainees felt no work-life balance.
  4. Resistant to change. It’s an attitude—“When I was your age…”  Anything different and new in terms of work hours, work load, etc. is deemed bad or inferior before it’s even considered.
  5. Hostile. Between staff members, between doctors and nurses, between doctors themselves, nurses themselves.  The trainees saw this as a key contributor to everybody’s burnout.
  6. Hierarchical—especially surgery (they pointed this out explicitly). For example, walking in the halls, there is an order in which people enter patient or operating rooms.  One student reported entering before her team, because she knew the patient, and making small talk.  Later, she reported, “the senior resident yelled at me, said to go in order, and do not talk to the patient.  In 2017.”  In the OR, when students cut sutures, they must always cut the attending’s suture first.  One medical student was admonished loudly in the OR for this.
  7. “You’re expected to know everything already, even though you’re supposed to be learning on the job.” Trainees agreed that they expect to have to prepare for each day at work.  But as trainees, they cannot always know how to prioritize information as they study in advance for what feels like daily examination.  And they are belittled and shamed for not reading their instructors’ minds and knowing exactly what the teacher is asking for (‘pimping’ the students, as it’s known).  “I never feel like enough.”

At this point you may suspect that I somehow planted the seeds of negativity in these trainees’ minds, goaded them on to blast our profession and everybody who had ever said something mean to them in the hospital.  I assure you I did not, and I marveled myself at how easily these labels flew onto the table.  I hurried to take notes.

Thankfully the vibe circled, as it often does.  One woman commented:

  1. “Family medicine seems actually anti-hierarchy.” Attendings, she observed, often defer to students, who usually know the patients the best, when discussing patient history and data.  Team members may all address one another by first names.  Another student piped in:
  2. Pediatrics is similar. Attendings cover for the team during signout, answering pages and signing orders—everybody pitches in.    On rounds students are allowed to be students—to make mistakes, to show gaps in knowledge.  And a resident pointed out:
  3. In anesthesia, team members take breaks, and she felt a sense of autonomy and support of residents—no shaming. “Maybe it’s the nature of the work,” she said, “it’s easier to tag team.”

Fascinating.  I was practically trembling with excitement—here were ten strangers, from different specialties and at various levels of training, men, women, people of diverse colors and cultures.  And we all had the same experience of our chosen profession, much of it negative.  Yet here we all were, committed and still excited to be doing this work—we all still hear the call.  Whatever keeps us going?  How do we get up every morning and come to work in this ‘toxic’ environment?

I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Frass, Trauma, and Other Stuff

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Can’t think of anything useful to write today…  Or rather, I’m too tired to make any half useful thoughts into enough coherently connected sentences to be worth publishing.

So I’ll share some small things I have learned recently, which I find interesting.

Frass

Noun.  Fine powdery refuse or fragile perforated wood produced by the activity of boring insects.  The excrement of insect larvae.

I have a wonderfully smart and kind friend who conserves paper for a living.  Do you know any expert paper conservators up close and personal?  If so then you know the exquisite mind and temperament it takes to do this work.  She must possess the exacting scientific leanings that comprehend both biology and advanced chemistry (inorganic and organic).  She holds the vast sweep of art history, especially as it applies to paper and ink as media, at her fingertips.  And her appreciation for the uniqueness and intrinsic value of every piece drives her pursuit of the end product.  She must command all of this knowledge in an integrated fashion, bringing to each new project confidence, curiosity, and love.  And when she works on an old map in the library archives caked with dust and soot, and tells her friend about the project, she teaches her friend the word frass.

Getting out tree sap and other cool tips

You probably already know about using Coca-Cola to clean toilets, and salsa or ketchup to shine pennies and silver.  But did you know that olive oil and butter get out tree sap, and mayonnaise gets off glue residue?  Unbrewed coffee grounds absorb mildew if you leave them in an open container at the bottom of a closet for several days.  Vodka works well for getting smells out of clothes.  And rubbing your hands with salt can get out the smell of onion or garlic.

Toxic gaslighting

I only learned the word ‘gaslighting’ after the 2016 election.  *sigh*

The word was among the final contenders, apparently, for the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year.  But ‘toxic’ won.  Says the head of the company’s US dictionaries, “the word was chosen less for statistical reasons… than for the sheer variety of contexts in which it has proliferated, from conversations about environmental poisons to laments about today’s poisonous political discourse to the #MeToo movement, with its calling out of ‘toxic masculinity.’”  Last year’s WotY was ‘youthquake.’

Trauma

Last weekend I spent time with a wonderful residency classmate and her amazing family.  She is the Chief Medical Officer of a large health system that serves a population with a high prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse.  I got to hear about her passionate and profoundly important work educating and advocating for trauma-informed care, which I am only starting to learn about.  Interestingly, NPR had just posted an article detailing findings of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showing that childhood trauma is strongly associated with poor adult function outcomes, such as mental illness, failure to hold a job, and social isolation.  By age 16, 31% of children in the study had had one traumatic exposure, 22.5% had had two, and 14.8% had had three.  What does that look like at the doctor’s office?  Read the Harvard story of the two kids and their vaccines here.  What can we do about it, as physicians and society?  First, recognize the prevalence.  NPR asked, “Should childhood trauma be treated as a public health crisis?”  The answer, unequivocally, is yes.  Second and always, practice curiosity and empathy. Every day.  All the time.  Again and again.  If someone is acting out, before judging them for being difficult and ruining your day on purpose, ask what could lie behind the behavior.  Everybody deserves and benefits from a little concern and gentleness. And if you’re a healthcare professional, start with the Harvard article, and then read this one from the National Council for Behavioral Health.  We all need to treat each other better.  So much better.  Please.

So, what interesting thing(s) have you learned lately?