Reconnecting to Mission, Patients, and Colleagues

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What’s the most personally fulfilling aspect of your work?  In times of uncertainty, threat, and transition, what holds you up?

This past week, I had the privilege of standing alongside giants in the fight against physician burnout.  In a series of presentations at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians (ACP), we did our best to acknowledge and validate the current state of physician burnout (about half of all physicians in all specialties report at least one symptom), and then present as many strategies to reduce it as time would allow.  We showed how changes in workflow, task distribution, and technology, such as pre-visit labs and scribes, have been shown to improve physician satisfaction, team morale, and patient experience.  My role was to attempt to inspire my fellow internists to claim their individual agency, model a culture of wellness, and advocate for systems change in their home institutions.

The content felt dense but manageable, and the audience appeared engaged.  Our colleagues from all around the country approached us afterward to clarify studies of efficacy and ask about local representatives for advocacy in the ACP.  In the end, I think we achieved our primary objective of having most attendees leave with just a little more hope for our profession than they came in with.

Over the four day conference, however, what consistently grounded me in professional mission and meaning, not only in our own presentation but in others, were the personal stories.  That is how we humans relate to one another, after all—through narratives.  And connecting to mission and colleagues is key to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce, physician or otherwise.

Our attendees participated in two practices that I’ll share here.  Both were “Pair and Share” activities, meant to stimulate reflection both internally and externally.

Who In Your Life Really Changed You?

First we asked our colleagues to think of a patient who changed them, how, and to what end.  I know there have been many patients who changed me, but I always think of one particular woman.  She was middle aged, obese, diabetic, depressed, and severely disabled from osteoarthritis.  She lived alone and had a sparse social network, and her life partner had died unexpectedly a few years before I met her.  At every visit we struggled through the same fundamental challenges of weight loss, glucose control, and pain management.  How could she take her diabetes medications more regularly?  How could we control her pain without having to take opioids every day?  How else could we manage her depression, as some of the medications were raising her blood sugar?  She may have cried at almost every visit; wailing was not uncommon, and once she even vomited from cumulative distress.  Our relationship was good overall.  I overcame my impatience with her non-adherence to the treatment plan as I understood her life situation better.  But for four of the five years we knew each other, I saw few if any indicators that her thought, emotional, and behavior patterns would change.

Then things started to turn around.  She started coming consistently to appointments, no more no-shows.  She got online and found a community center that was accessible by bus.  She connected with a knitting group and started going to art fairs to sell her creations.  She started taking her medications more regularly, and lost enough weight to have her knee replaced.  By the time we parted ways, she had transformed from a weeping victim of circumstance to a woman with agency, self-efficacy, and goals, dammit!  And most of this had nothing to do with me.  I simply had the privilege to witness and support her intrinsic revolution.  From her I learned what perseverance looks like; I learned about hope and self-redemption; I learned that I should never make assumptions about anybody’s future.

Who Supported You in a Time of Vulnerability?

They said do the hardest thing that you know you don’t want to do for a living as your first rotation.  So I chose surgery.  In July of my third year of medical school, my days started around 5:30am and could end the next night at 10pm if my team was busy post call.  Most faculty physicians were kind and wise, or at least non-abusive.  Some, however, not so much.  What buoyed me most through that rotation was always the support and protection of the residents on my team.  I would watch them get abused by our attendings, but that sh*t never rolled downhill when the boss left the room.  I did not fully realize until years later what a gift that was and how much it spoke to the character of these men (they were all men).  This was in the 1990s; verbal abuse of medical students and snide comments about one’s appearance, gender, and just about everything else were simply to be expected.  But my favorite residents always pulled me aside and asked how I was.  They always made sure I felt confident about my role on the team, and they taught me basic skills with conviction and encouragement.  As I was about to insert a patient’s bladder catheter in the operating room, my elder brother in training told me firmly, like he really believed I could do it, “Don’t be afraid, hold it (the penis) like a hose.”

As we did this reflection exercise at the meeting last Wednesday along with our audience, I was so moved by these memories that I looked up one of my old residents that night and sent him a thank you card.  I bet he won’t remember at all who I am, but he will hopefully feel validated that he is in exactly the right position now as program director of a surgery residency.

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Recalling stories like these, and then sharing them with a person who truly listens, receives them generously, and simply helps you hold them (that was the instruction to the group—when it’s your turn to listen just do that, no interruptions, no jumping in), reconnects us to our calling in medicine.  It’s not just about the patients or the science.  It’s about all of the relationships and how we tend them.

We will not solve the immensely complex problem of physician burnout overnight.  It will take a concerted effort at all levels of healthcare, and physicians cannot and will not do it alone.  And it’s not that we are stoic, arrogant, and somehow intrinsically flawed, and thus dissatisfied with our work and leaving the profession in record numbers.  It is a systems problem, no question.  And, while we call our congressional leaders and professional advocacy groups to change policy, while we lobby our hospital administration to hire more support staff and move the printers closer to where we do our work, we can all take a few minutes each day and reconnect to the core meaning and purpose in that work.  Let us all remember a cool story and share it today.

Self-Care:  Act Local, Think Global

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Gotta be quick tonight, friends, as I have sat in front of this screen too long already today!

Creating and putting together slides for three upcoming distinct and related presentations, I am happy to report continued synthesis in my position on the relationships between personal resilience, culture of wellness, and efficiency of practice in medicine.

Drivers of burnout are systemic, no question, and not related to individual physicians’ lack of resilience and strength.  And yet, it will be up to us physicians, more than any other group, to lead change and make the system better for all of us, physicians and patients alike.  But we will not do it ourselves.  We must engage so many other stakeholders—hospital administrators, nurses and other care providers, insurance and pharmaceutical companies (by way of their leaders), and, of course, patients.

How can we engage any of these groups of people effectively?  Do we expect productive conversations and collaborative decision making when we stomp on the offensive with righteous indignation and passive-aggressive name calling?  Even if our language is polished, people can feel our underlying attitude and can tell when we’re not fully authentic.

I still think it starts with self-care.  Because if I’m not well, I cannot show up my best for anyone else.

Be The Change You Seek:

Curious–Kind–Forgiving–Accountable–Humble–Empathic.

How can I be all of these things, which I referenced last week, if I am sleep-deprived, wired on caffeine, skipping meals, and not connected to my emotional support network?  I finally made my own visual for the reciprocal nature of our habits:

Reciprocal Domains of Health Star

If I am attuned and attentive, then the bottom four serve to hold up my relationships, which is how I interface and interact with the universe.  I am one node in multiple subsystems, all connected, overlapping and integrated in larger and layered super-systems.  So the best thing I can do for the universe—to keep the systems intact and optimal—is make myself the strongest, most stable, most reliable node I can be.  I recently attended a strategy meeting where I learned the SWOT framework: for any given project and the people trying to implement it, what are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats?  It occurred to me to apply this framework to my habits:

Health Habits SWOT grid

It really does show how each domain relates to and influences each other one, and makes it all pretty concrete, especially how stress threatens almost everything.

So in the interests of self-care, and in order to care my best for everyone and everything around me, I will now do today’s free 7 minute workout and get to bed.

Onward!

From Meaning to Mission:  Finding Your Voice and Speaking Up for Change

Fairmont workshop room

Have you ever felt like you have no voice in your workplace, your community, or the world at large?  When have you felt you do have a voice?  What made the difference?

Two esteemed colleagues, Liz Lawrence and Eileen Barrett at the University of New Mexico, and I presented the above titled workshop at the International Conference on Physician Health on Friday.  The objective was to give participants an opportunity to recognize and rally their strengths, claim their value and agency, and practice the words to advance an idea or project for improving physician health and well-being.

The idea for the workshop came from a conversation Eileen had with a young physician who felt he had no agency to improve his work situation, due to his junior status.  This prompted her to ask, who has agency, and how do they get it?  She concluded that agency is an active skill, not a passive state of being.  Thus it can be learned/acquired, and everybody has/can have it.  Furthermore, we apply it most effectively when we combine it with our strengths, in service of projects that are personally meaningful.

We presented the reciprocal triad of finding meaning in work, feeling empowered, and inspiration and motivation, as the foundation of agency and action.

EB triad

Identifying Strengths

The first exercise had participants pair up and describe their strengths to each other.

What are your strengths?  Imagine describing them to someone, out loud, in person.  How does this feel?  Our attendees reported feeling uncomfortable, not used to it.  They also felt confident, connected, and encouraged speaking to someone they knew was listening supportively.

Defining the Project

Second, we asked participants to think for a few minutes about their own projects.  It could be something they had been working on for a while, a new idea they recently came across, or something from a sample list we provided, related to Culture of Wellness or Efficiency of Practice.  We asked:

  • Is your idea “Big Enough to Matter, Small Enough to Win?” quoting Jonathan Kozol.
  • Is it Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART)?
  • How will your strengths apply?
  • What else do you need? Who can help?

Partners met again to share and discuss each other’s ideas.

Afterward they reported elevated inspiration, excitement, and mutual support.  Positive energy in the room rose palpably at this point, with lots of gesturing, smiling, and engagement.

ICPH 2018 workshop

Communication and Relationship

We didn’t call it an elevator pitch, but that’s basically what we asked attendees to attempt.  In 90 seconds, each participant was to distill and express their idea into words that would convey its essence and enroll their partner in its goal.  Having advanced to this segment of the workshop in less than twenty minutes, and now asking them to perform a pitch on the fly, I gave a pep talk (modified here to include some words I wish I had said):

“Now it’s time to PRACTICE.  If we are to make progress in our projects, we must enroll other people.  It’s all about relationships.  Relationships kill us or save us, and they live and die by communication.  A previous presenter said, ‘Language is the vehicle through which all interactions take place—both verbal and nonverbal.’

“You never know when or where you will meet your champion, or who it will be.  The easier and better you can pull your idea out of your back pocket and present it cogently and impromptu, the higher your chances of success.  Know your ask—be as clear as possible.  Know your audience—what about your project is meaningful to them, what will they relate to?  Make them the hero:  Don’t come at them with demands.  Come alongside them with open-ended questions; help them appreciate the power they have to help.

“You will have to be persistent.  Practice will be key.  Our keynote speaker, applying complexity theory to the work of physician well-being, invoked the image of a grain of sand dropping onto a pile.  One grain may stick on impact and nothing happens to the pile.  Another may cause a small section of sand to tumble just a little.  Yet another grain can trigger the avalanche that alters the sand pile landscape entirely—and no one can predict which grain will be which.  I posit that you are not a grain of sand.  You hold an idea—a whole bag of sand—and each time you pitch it, you drop a grain (or a handful) on the pile.  If one grain makes no immediate change, drop another one, and another, and another.  This is the essence of the Growth Mindset—practice.  Practice is Creation.  Practice is Evolution.  Practice is Progress.  Your job now as speaker is to try with abandon.  There is no such thing as a bad try.  Pay attention to how it feels, where you get stuck, and where you shine.  As the listener, your job is to make it safe for your partner to let go of fear and judgment, to lay it all out.  Support, encourage, and critique with love.  What moved you, what did you observe in words and body language that drew you in or put you off?  What did you want more of?

“Make the most of this time.  Dig in the bag and pull out a few grains to drop.  Take advantage of your partner for feedback and support.”

The room was positively buzzing.  And participants’ comments made our day (paraphrased here):

“Sticking with the same partner throughout was helpful; we could really connect each other’s strengths to our respective ideas and help each other develop them.”

“It was fascinating to see the energy change between talking informally about the idea and then having to present it as a pitch.  She was so much smaller and hesitant the second time around.”  (Partner):  “The first time I was just talking to a colleague.  The second time I pictured presenting to my board.”  The experience was enlightening and curiosity-provoking.

“It’s different and easier talking to a supportive stranger, someone with whom you don’t already have relationship baggage.”  How else, then, might we approach our stakeholders—how could we practice awareness of our assumptions and relationship dynamics, and perhaps modify them positively?

“Hearing someone else’s ideas informs my own.  I like how he conveyed something, I saw how I could do the same; it gave me more insight.”  Taking turns both presenting and listening engaged both people in mutual support and encouragement—both roles were helpful.

The Takeaways

Liz, Eileen and I have collaborated on physician wellness since 2015.  We share meaning and mission around inspiring our colleagues to claim their value, recognize and stand both confidently and humbly in their power, and participate in a global movement of positive change.  Our strengths and styles complement one another and the work flows naturally, synergistically.  What a privilege and an honor it was to have this opportunity to present to and commune with our tribe members in physician health.  May the processing and integration of all of our new learnings continue to sustain and connect us for the long road of work ahead.  As Barack Obama says, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”

Onward, my friends.

EB LL CC ICPH 2018