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.

Love You Into Being

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A couple of weeks ago I met my new medical students.  These 10-12 trainees will be my small group for the next two years.  We will meet monthly to discuss the soft stuff of medical training—hierarchy, tribalism, death and dying, medical errors, difficult patients, etc.  Some call it “third year medical student support group.”  This is my 6th year of the pleasure and privilege (I inherited my first group halfway through, when their previous preceptor moved out of state).

With each successive group I am ever more amazed at the students’ level of insight.  They articulate compassion, humility, and maturity that I don’t think I had at their level of training. Or maybe it’s because we did not have classes like this to explore such things when I came up (or maybe I don’t remember?).  More and I more I see my role as facilitator more than teacher.  I am not here to impart medical knowledge.  Rather, it is my job to stimulate exploration, conversation, and meaning.  It’s so freeing, really—there is no standardized test to teach to.  And yet I see it as my responsibility to help prepare these gifted young people to face the greatest challenge and reward of the profession: human relationships.

I feel no fear or trepidation.  We cannot ‘fail’ at this class, any of us.  Because the point of it is simply for everybody to participate, contribute, consider, and learn—myself included.  Each month the students are given questions to answer in the form of a blog post.  For example, “Recall an example of inspiring or regrettable behavior that you witnessed by a physician.  Describe the situation, and its impact on you, the team, and/or the patient.”  I read them all and facilitate discussion, tying together common themes and asking probing questions.  My primary objective is to help them maintain the thoughtfulness and humanity that led them to medicine in the first place.  Medical training has evolved in the past 20 years, for the better in some ways, not so much in others.  One way we do much better nowadays is recognizing the hidden curriculum, and shining light on its effects, both positive and negative, through classes like this.

We all have those teachers who made a difference in our lives—or at least I hope we all do.  I have multiple: Mrs. Cobb, 4th grade; Mr. Alt, 7th grade math; Ms. Townsend (now Ms. Anna), 7th grade English; Ms. Sanborn, 7th grade social studies; Mrs. Stahlhut, 9th grade geometry; Mrs. Summers, 10th grade English; Coach Knafelc, varsity volleyball; Dr. Woodruff, primary care preceptor; Dr. Roach, intern clinic preceptor; Dr. Tynus, chief resident program director.  My mom is one of these teachers, also.  She leads nursing students in their clinical rotations.  I have seen her student feedback forms—they love her.  And it wasn’t until I heard her talk about her students that I realized why they love her and what makes her so effective—she loves them first.  Teaching is often compared to parenting.  Our parents, at their best, see our potential and love us into our best selves.  They cheer us, support us, redirect us, and admonish us.  They show us the potential rewards of our highest aspirations.  If we’re lucky, they role model their best selves for us to emulate.

All of my best teachers did (do) this for me.  I’m friends with many of them to this day, and I still learn from them in almost every encounter.  I love them because I feel loved by them.  They held space for my ignorance and imperfections.  I always knew that they knew that my best self was more than the last paper I wrote, the last test I aced, or the last patient encounter I botched.  To them, my peers and I were not simply students.  We were fellow humans on a journey of mutual discovery, and they were simply a little farther along on the path.

This is my aspiration as a teacher, to live up to the example of all those who loved me into the best version of myself today.  This kind of love allows for growth and evolution, from student to colleague, to friend, and fellow educator.  This is not something attending physicians typically express to medical students, positive evolution of medical education notwithstanding.  But when I met this new group, I was overcome by love for them.  So I told them.  “If you take away nothing else from our two years together, I want you to have felt loved by me.  I wish to love you into the best doctors you can be.  That is my only job here.”  Or something like that.  It was impulsive and possibly high risk.  But it was the most honest thing I could say in that moment, my most authentic expression of my highest goal for my time with them.  I only get to see them once a month, and I want them to be crystal clear about what I am here to do.  We have lots to cover these two years, so much to learn and apply.  And love is the best thing I can offer to hold us all up through it.

On Plumbing and Other Disciplines

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Cartoon courtesy of Pixabay

NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 3

To My Patients With Diverse Occupations:

What a pleasure and an education to know you!

I think none of you are plumbers, though.  But I remember the first time I met a plumber—it was in college, a friend of a friend.  To this day I wonder if he thought I was a little crazy—I grilled him mercilessly about his work.  Was it like “Moonstruck,” is copper really always better?  What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?  What do you need to know, is there plumbing school?  How do you know when you can’t do a job?  What equipment do you carry around?

I have only ever known medicine, you see.  I resisted at first—so typical, the Chinese kid who wants to be a doctor.  But then I volunteered to be a health aide in college—I got to move into the dorm a week early that way.  And it was inevitable, I was hooked!  So I went ‘straight through,’ as they say—biology/pre-med, no gap years, no real life working experience before medical school.

Traders, dog trainers, book editors, retail managers, accountants, nurses, call center agents, firefighters, small business owners, truck drivers, professors, musicians, actuaries—you all have such interesting lives!  One of my favorite parts of the history is when I get to hear what you do for a living, because it’s so different from my own.  So please be patient when I interrogate you about your work, I’m just so curious!  How do you spend your days?  What makes a great day for you?  What makes it hard?  What are the greatest sources of stress and meaning in your work/career/vocation?  What do you love about it?  Would you choose it again?

This curiosity stems from my deep desire to relate.  In your work, people probably present you with problems.  You apply specific expertise to diagnose the underlying condition.  You determine the most appropriate or attainable solution, and map out a path to achieve it.  You take some responsibility for the result, while recognizing that your coworkers must also participate fully for the team to succeed.  On your best days, the collaborative effort yields not only the desired outcome, but also a deepened connection between people.  It’s not so different for me.

It’s easy to perceive a distance between you and me, between patients and physicians.  Medicine can seem elitist sometimes, what with the onerous entrance exams, the stiff competition for school admission, and the prolonged and grueling training.  But in the end I bet we share more experiences than we realize.  I’m just here to use my little heap of knowledge and skills to help others, and I know that’s what you do, too.