Whole Physician Health: Standing at the Precipice

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I published the post below two years ago, and all of it applies even more so today. This week I presented to my department chairs and hospital administration leaders on the importance of addressing physician burnout and well-being. There is a growing sense of urgency around this, some even starting to call it a crisis.

Still, I feel hopeful. Darkest before the dawn, right? Reveal it to heal it, my wise friend says. Physician burnout research has exposed and dissected the problem for 20 years, and now we shift our attention toward solutions.

I will attend the American Conference on Physician Health and the CENTILE Conference next month. I cannot wait to commune with my tribe again, explore and learn, and return to my home institution with tools to build our own program of Whole Physician Health. While we focus on physician health in its own right, we must always remember that it can never be achieved without strong, tight, and fierce connections with all of our fellow caregivers. When we attain this, all of us, especially our patients, are elevated and healed.

Onward, my friends. More to come soon.

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Ever since my presentation to the American College of Surgeons earlier this month on personal resilience in a medical career, I cannot shake the feeling that we need to do more of this work. Physicians from different fields need to talk more to one another, share experiences, and reconnect. We also need to include other members of the care team as equals, and let go the hierarchical thinking that has far outlived its usefulness.

I do not suggest that physicians, nurses, therapists, pharmacists and others should play interchangeable roles in the care of patients. Rather, similar to the central tenet of gender equality, the unique contributions of each team member need to be respected equally for their own merits and importance. As a primary care internist, I must admit that I have seen my professional world through a rather narrow lens until now. I confess that I live at Stage 3, according to David Logan and colleagues’ definition of Tribal Leadership and culture. The mantra for this stage of tribal culture, according to Logan et al, is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Or in my words, “I’m great; you suck.”

“I’m a primary care doctor and I am awesome. I am the true caregiver. I sit with my patients through their hardest life trials, and I know them better than anyone. I am on the front line, I deal with everything! And yet, nobody values me because ‘all’ I do is sit around and think. My work generates only enough money to keep the lights on (what is up with that, anyway?); it’s the surgeons and interventionalists who bring in the big bucks — they are the darlings of the hospital, even though they don’t really know my patients as people…” It’s a bizarre mixture of pride and whining, and any person or group can manifest it.

Earlier this fall, Joy Behar of TV’s “The View” made an offhand comment about Miss Colorado, Kelley Johnson, a nurse, wearing ‘a doctor’s stethoscope,’ during her monologue at the Miss America pageant. We all watched as the media shredded the show and its hosts for apparently degrading nurses. What distressed me most was the nurses vs. doctors war that ensued on social media. Nurses started posting how they, not doctors, are who really care for patients and save lives. Doctors, mostly privately, fumed at the grandiosity and perceived arrogance of these posts. It all boiled down to, “We’re great, they suck. We’re more important, look at us, not them.” The whole situation only served to further fracture an already cracked relationship between doctors and nurses, all because of a few mindless words.

It’s worth considering for a moment, though. Why would nurses get so instantly and violently offended by what was obviously an unscripted, ignorant comment by a daytime talk show host? It cannot be the first time one of them has said something thoughtlessly. What makes any of us react in rage to someone’s unintentional words? It’s usually when the words chafe a raw emotional nerve. “A doctor’s stethoscope.” The implicit accusation here is that nurses are not worthy of using doctors’ instruments. And it triggered such ferocious wrath because so many nurses feel that they are treated this way, that they are seen as inferior, subordinate, unworthy. Internists feel it as compared to surgeons. None would likely ever admit to feeling this way, consciously, at least. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all have that secret gremlin deep inside, who continually questions, no matter how outwardly successful or inwardly confident we may be, whether we are truly worthy to be here. And when someone speaks directly to it, like Joy Behar did, watch out, because that little gremlin will rage, Incredible Hulk-style.

I see so many similarities to the gender debate here. As women, in our conscious minds, we know our worth and our contribution. We know we have an equal right to our roles in civilization. And, at this point in our collective human history, we feel the need to defend those roles, to fight for their visibility and validity. More and more people now recognize that women need men to speak up for gender equality, that it’s not ‘just a women’s issue,’ but rather a human issue, and that all of us will live better, more wholly, when all of us are treated with equal respect and opportunity. The UN’s He for She initiative embodies this ideal.

It’s no different in medicine. At this point in our collective professional history, physician-nurse and other hierarchies still define many of our relationships and operational structures. It’s not all bad, and we have made great progress toward interdisciplinary team care. But the stethoscope firestorm shows that we still have a long way to go. At the CENTILE conference I attended last week, I hate to admit that I was a little surprised and incredulous to see inspiring and groundbreaking research presented by nurses. I have always thought of myself as having the utmost respect for nurses — my mom, my hero, is a nurse. The ICU and inpatient nurses saved me time and again during my intern year, when I had no idea what I was doing. And I depended on them to watch over my patients when I became an attending. But I still harbored an insidious bias that nurses are not scholarly, that they do not (or cannot?) participate in the ‘higher’ academic pursuits of medicine. I stand profoundly humbled, and I am grateful. From now on I will advocate for nurses to participate in academic medicine’s highest activities, seek their contributions in the literature, and voice my support out loud for their important roles in our healthcare system.

We need more conferences like this, more forums in which to share openly all of our strengths and accomplishments. We need to Dream Big Together, to stop comparing and competing, and get in the mud together, to cultivate this vast garden of health and well-being for all. I’ll bring my shovel, you bring your hose, someone else has seeds, another, the soil, and still others, the fertilizer and everything else we will need for the garden to flourish. We all matter, and we all have a unique role to play. Nobody is more important than anyone else, and nobody can do it alone.

We need to take turns leading and following. That is how a cooperative tribe works best. It’s exhausting work, challenging social norms and moving a culture upward. And we simply have to; it’s the right thing to do.

On the Critical Importance of Self-Care

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 6

To Patients Who Feel Overwhelmed:

Put your own mask on first!

In my spare time, I go around talking to other doctors about how to take care of ourselves.  You may or may not be aware of physician burnout.  It’s quite the trendy topic in medical circles these days, and not in a good way.  Over 50% of physicians report at least one symptom of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, or low sense of personal accomplishment), higher than the general population.  Physicians also kill themselves at much higher rates than the general population.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to study and speak on physician health and well-being, because it informs my practice in ways I had not anticipated.

To be clear, physician burnout is not a problem of personal weakness on the part of doctors themselves.  The healthcare system in the United States has evolved to such a dysfunctional state that some of its best and brightest find themselves despondent, depressed, and ready to quit.  And yet, we are called to persevere in the system as it is, even as we strive to improve it.

I see the same pattern in American society generally.  Technology and other advances have created a world of 24/7 hyper-stimulation, global comparisons of productivity and innovation, and immense pressures to be perfect, or at least appear so.  Men and women live under constant scrutiny and competition.  Do I make enough money?  Is my work impressive enough (to others)?  Are my children in the right activities?  Am I doing enough?  I see, hear, and feel it from my patients every day—the anxiety, the uncertainty, the angst.  The suffering is real, if not totally tangible.

For those of you whose exercise routines hold you up, how quickly do you abandon your workouts when things get really busy?  What about quality time with your friends?  What about your painting, knitting, writing, reading, skating, volleyball, music, and sleep?  Everybody recharges a different way, but I see a common pattern of ignoring the low battery alerts and pushing ourselves to empty—physicians and patients alike.

Our systems need to change, no doubt.  Medicine, business, education, politics…  We need to get clear about what and whom we really serve.  In medicine, I believe physicians should lead the movement toward a more humane internal culture.  There is no way we can take excellent care of our patients if we are not well ourselves, and we cannot wait for corporate leaders and policy makers to advocate for us.  The same is true for you, our patients.  What do you need to be healthy?  What can you change in your habits, environment, and relationships to meet these needs?  And in making such changes, what positive ripple effects could you have on those around you?  Can you lead by example?

If we all put our own masks on first, like they say on airplanes, how many other people’s masks could we help with?