No Substitute for Time

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes From a Life in Medicine

Day 3

How much time do you spend with your doctor each time you see them?  Is it enough?  If they had more time to spend with you, how would you use it?  Would it be better?

I’m too tired and it’s too late tonight to discuss the myriad factors that erode the patient-physician relationship, and thus our medical system in general.  But time comes to mind often for me, and I wonder if patients are as frustrated about it as I am.

Where I work now, I pretty much have as much time as I want with people.  It’s a sweet gig.  I can ask them about their work, their families, their interests.  I have time to listen to the answers, and even connect those with my observations about their health.  The most interesting parts of my interviews are the social history.  What do they spend their days doing at work?  What problems do they solve, who do they interact with, and what brings them meaning at the place where they spend the majority of waking weekday hours?  Then what do they do for fun, what’s life like outside of work?  I get to know my patients as individual, whole people, which I love, and that makes me look forward to every day at work with joy.

But time is not just good for me, for my professional fulfillment.   It’s good for patients, too.  When I spend time asking the important questions, putting together pieces of a person’s symptom puzzle, and do a directed exam, I’m more likely to come to a correct diagnosis and make an appropriate and specific care plan.  When I take the time to explain my rationale, decision process, and possible outcomes and follow up, my patients are more likely to feel seen, heard, and reassured.  They are more likely to stick with the plan and contact me if things change.  The next time they need help, they are more likely to call me and we have another chance to know each other better.

When the physician-patient relationship flourishes, we’re all healthier.

I love this article on The Health Care Blog, which essentially validates the time I take to talk to my patients.  My favorite line:  “More information about the value of a physician-patient encounter will always be found in the content of their communication than in what they ultimately do. The difference in… physicians’ behaviors will not be found in any database, electronic medical record, or machine-learning algorithm. I have yet to see data on the contextual information from a history of the present illness in any data set or quality improvement initiative.”

You may also be interested in this article, describing the origin of the 15 minute clinic visit, and why it really doesn’t make sense.

What do you think about physicians and patients advocating together to change this aspect of our flawed medical system? I know it’s complicated, requiring a hard look at our billing and compensation processes, as well as our productivity-driven, fee-for-service medical culture.  I still think it’s worth pursuing.  There is no substitute for time.  We must protect and defend it; our health depends on it.

Applying the Wisdom of Atticus Finch

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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

–Atticus Finch

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

 

How do you practice and achieve empathy?  How do you notice others doing it?

It’s been on my mind a lot these last two weeks.  Current American politics resembles an interminable abscess, oozing ever more copious and putrid gobs of pus, from ever more unforeseen tracts of deep, diseased tissue.  How can we find any Healing Connection in the midst of all this?

Here’s my answer:  Role play and storytelling.

Role Playing Game Males Lego Duplo Play Build

 

Role Play for the Good

I used to hate role play, and now I jump at any chance to try it!  It all changed through a 7 week teaching workshop I did during my chief resident year, and I am forever grateful for the experience.  Now I regularly use role play to teach motivational interviewing, or MI, to medical students and residents.  Put simply, MI is a counseling technique that focuses on patient autonomy, and aims to reinforce intrinsic motivation for change.  My teaching method has evolved over time, due to my own unexpected experience of ‘climbing into the skin’ of others.

In the beginning I used to play the patient, letting students take turns practicing their MI skills on me.  After a couple of sessions I realized that even though I was pretending, I really felt like the students were earnestly trying to help me change my health habits, or making me feel bad about myself, depending on their proficiency.  So to give them the benefit of this perspective, I had them take turns playing both patient and physician.  The feedback revealed a richer, more insightful experience for all.

In 2015 I attended the Active Lives conference, where my technique was further enlightened.  I got to role play four times with a partner: first as patient, then physician, doing it the ‘wrong’ way (directive, authoritative, confrontational), and again in both roles doing it the ‘right’ way (collaborative, empathetic, nonjudgmental).  I felt the immediate contrast of the four roles emotionally and viscerally.  When all I heard from the doctor was, “Yes, I know you’re busy, but you have to find time to exercise,” and “Why don’t you do this…” and, “You should… You need to… If you don’t, then…” I felt absolutely no impetus to take any of this advice.  But questions like, “How important is it to you to…  How confident are you to… What would it take…what would need to happen in order for you to…” and, “What would life be like if…” invited me to explore possibilities, helped me to imagine and create my own future.  As an authoritative physician, I felt frustrated at my patient’s resistance to my evidence-based and well-intentioned advice.  By contrast, as a collaborative doctor, I feel freed to embark on an improvisational Yes, And adventure to reveal each patient’s personal path to healthier habits.  Now I offer my students the opportunity to experience all four roles.

I remembered this insight evolution last week when I came across a 1970 video of Jane Elliott’s classroom racism experiment.  She divides the class by eye color, asserts that blue-eyed children are better than brown-eyed children on one day, then reverses the premise the next.  While she makes privilege assignments that likely would not fly today, she also debriefs with the kids, helping them identify their assumptions, feelings, actions and reactions—much more authentically and directly than I think we are willing to do today.  She does it all without judging or shaming, pointing out biases and encouraging her students to examine them for themselves.  I admire her for pioneering this exercise, and I bet it affected her students in profound and lasting ways.

storytelling

 

The Importance of Story

Clearly, we cannot possibly depend on such academic practices to develop everyday empathy.  Luckily we now have infinitely easier access to one another’s stories than ever before, which is the next best thing.   Lately I feel a keen new appreciation of the importance of storytelling for conveying experience and stimulating mutual understanding.  Obligingly, the universe (read Facebook) has provided me with numerous testimonies of my fellow humans’ experiences and conditions, and this week they touch me even more acutely.  Here are some of them:

  • Former white supremacists talk about the importance of upholding others’ humanity, even as we denounce their beliefs.
  • A black writer recounts multiple instances of racism over her lifetime, inviting her white high school classmate to imagine and consider how they exemplify his white male privilege.
  • The head of neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic in Florida tells his story of illegal, then legal immigration, and a subsequent life dream realized.
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson shares stories of genitals on fire, educators’ responsibility to the electorate, pressure from his black classmate to contribute to ‘the black cause,’ realizing that he is doing just that, and why he wants to be buried instead of cremated (he has changed my mind, by the way).
  • David Duke’s godson credits the college friends who welcomed him despite his pedigree, with helping him defy and shed it.

 

What’s the Point?

The overarching goal here is to intentionally thwart the abstraction and dehumanization of people who are different from ourselves.  Stepping into another person’s shoes, ‘climbing into (their) skin,’ imagining how they feel, and actually feeling it—this is the best protection against bias, prejudice, and discrimination.  Empathy forms the sticky webs of connection that stymie the hymenoptera of hatred mid-flight, or catch us in the face and remind us to look where we’re going.  Where do we want our thoughts, words, actions, and relationships to take us?

I imagine a world of colorfully flawed humans, who acknowledge our biases openly and honestly; who recognize the risks that those biases carry; who accept ourselves, warts on soles and souls and all; who commit to a lifetime of extending that acceptance to one another; and who understand that it is our relationships, all of them, that kill us or save us.

So let’s play and tell—and feel and listen.  Really,  it’ll be good for all of us.

 

Support for the Inner Work

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Things were a little crazy this week.  I have an idea for a post and still have not sat down to write it out.  But I want to share something that came out on my Facebook page (of course) tonight.  One of the reasons I love writing is that insights pop out when you least expect them.  Writing exchanged with others is even better, because those insights are then shared, and their meaning amplifies.

I posted this article from the Washington Post yesterday: “Nearly half of liberals don’t even like to be around Trump supporters.”  It’s a summary of a recent Pew Research Center survey, which finds that 47% of liberal Democrats “say that if a friend supported Trump, it would actually put a strain on their friendship.”  It posits, among other things, that liberals are less tolerant of dissenting ideas because they are clustered in urban areas, lending to louder echo chambers.  By contrast, only 13% of Republicans answered that “a friend’s support of Hillary Clinton would strain their friendship.”

From the survey report:…Nearly nine months after the election, most people (59%) say it is ‘stressful and frustrating’ to talk about politics with people who have a different opinion of Trump than they do; just 35% find such conversations ‘interesting and informative.'”

I consider myself a socially heavily left-leaning, fiscally centrist Independent, but I identify more with liberals than conservatives, by a large margin.  This article made me sad, that my ‘tribe’ shows itself to be much more intolerant and judgmental than I would like.

I posted this comment along with the article:

Ooohh, so much data here, so much potential for blame, and also for self-exploration. Humbling, no question.
“Be extra kind with your comments on this one please, friends. No need to reopen barely scabbed wounds. I mean for my page to be a safe place for all of us to engage. We are all in it together, and the sooner we *all* figure out how to deal with 45 and one another, the better we will all be.
“Also, I’m bummed that Asians are always left out of the data set.”

I got some comments from my liberal friends about how hard it is to talk to Trump supporters, so much so that they avoid talking politics with those friends altogether.  But one friend exemplified my aspiration for all of us.  She wrote:

“… I recently had dinner with a very close friend who voted for Trump. Typically I think I’m a really good listener, listening with curiosity and a desire to raise the conversation and all involved to a higher level. However, when our conversation turned to politics I found myself cutting her off, getting defensive and bordering on being critical of her. I was horrified by my own behavior. I think this article hits on it – the support or opposition of Trump feels like less of a political stance and more of a statement of a person’s values and morals. I don’t think that’s necessarily true- I think a large population of Trump voters (my friend included) were actually voting against Washington more than for Trump. While I can’t get behind Trump I can get behind a vote to change the system. I wonder what might happen if more of us looked for what we can stand behind together?! Thank you for continuing to be a voice for this movement!”

Exactly!  Immediately I felt connected to my friend in a higher calling, and a shared struggle.  I replied:

“(My dear friend), I derive so much of my strength and curiosity from you. How many of us can own up publicly about our own flaws and failures, like you did here? And I know you know I use the word failure in the most empathetic and loving, mutually understanding way. I think that is the first step–complete humility and openness to our own imperfection. It’s so fucking hard. And I’m so lucky to have friends like you, (these four other dear friends), and others… I know now, better late than never, that we cannot do this work without unwaveringly reliable support, no matter how motivated we are.  And for those of us who are already well-supported, I think it’s our responsibility to look outward and support others. You never know when or where someone may be standing on the edge of openness, and when your small gesture of encouragement may nudge them on. Thank you for your loving support, my soul sister!”

It really is true, we cannot dig deep and bring out our best selves by ourselves.  We are meant to hold one another up and accountable, to bring out the best in each other.  It breaks my heart when I interview patients, and learn how sparse and frail their emotional support networks are.  There is no stereotype for this scenario, it can happen to the best of us.  Past experiences, circumstances, timing, life events—they can all combine to undermine our relationships, thereby weakening our capacity for self-awareness and exploration.  So we fall back on default modes of defensiveness, righteousness, denial, and blame.  Whether it’s quitting smoking, sticking to a healthy eating plan, or elevating our political discourse, we are truly stronger together.

I share this tonight because I so admire my friend for owning her whole self.  I am so grateful to her for sharing her imperfections and vulnerability with humility and hopefulness.  She gives me strength to keep going, despite how fucking hard it is.  And I hope I can do the same for many, many others.