You Can’t Pee!

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

When my son was little we lived in an apartment where the kitchen was a separate room, with only a small window through which I could see what he was doing in the living room while I cooked.  Once when he was about five months old, I looked out and he was lying on the mat in the middle of the floor, playing happily with the toys dangling from arches overhead.  I swear I only turned around for a minute, and when I looked back he was gone.  Empty mat, toys still dangling, no kid, no sounds.  I can’t remember what I was doing, but it felt like a slow motion eternity getting out of that damn kitchen to find him.  Something heavy must have fallen on him or he was otherwise suffocating or dying, for sure.  …He had just learned to roll over, and he had rolled and rolled and rolled himself into the space under the air conditioning unit near the window.  He was turning over a dried jasmine leaf he’d found on the floor.  Not long after that I decided I had to buy food preparation gloves.  Just in case my kid needed me anytime I was handling raw meat, this would save me the infinitude of time it would take to wash my hands—I could just pull the gloves off and bolt!  Because you know, 30 seconds could mean life or death for a toddler in his own living room.

Please laugh—I did today when I told the story to a friend.  It came up as we explored the phenomenon of moms putting everything for their kids before themselves.  We compared notes on how long we had ever held our urine.  What mom has not done this?  You can’t pee!  Because you never know which minute you’re not with your children will be the one during which your neglect will kill them.  Thankfully children grow and become more independent, and we can free our bladders again eventually.

It’s not just moms, though.  One of my teachers in the hospital gave herself a urinary tract infection as a resident.  She had so much to do every day, so many patients who needed her that she felt guilty taking time to pee.  I did the same thing in clinic for many years.  I could not justify making patients wait another minute when I was already 15 (usually more) minutes late seeing them. I don’t do this anymore.  In a fit of efficiency last week, I stepped into the restroom after I set my lunch to microwave for 2:00.  It literally takes only a minute to pee.  I don’t usually run late these days, but even if do, now take care of my needs first.  It’s better for me, and better for my patients, whose doctor is not distracted by preventable physical discomfort and dying to end the interview or exam to get some relief.

Our culture still expects moms, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many others to sacrifice selflessly in service of our charges.  UTIs are the least important consequence.  Over 50% of physicians in the US report at least one symptom of burnout, and 400 doctors kill themselves annually.  That is the equivalent of my entire medical school, dead, every year.  It’s not all because of the job, but the obligatory selfless-giver mentality in medicine definitely contributes.

So whatever helping profession you are in, please take time to take care of yourself.  We need you whole and healthy to take care of the rest of us and our children.

Go pee.  I will wait.

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.

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.

Walking the Talk

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The Journey and the Struggle

18 months ago I wrote about my plan for maximizing menopause preparedness.  As with so many missions, this one has experienced both successes and failures.  Since January 2016, I have grooved my exercise routine in the most awesome way.  I am all over the TRX, doing Spiderman push-ups, incline presses, pistols and more.  I get my cardio intervals and I’m foam rolling.  I feel stronger now than at any time since high school, and I’m proud of this accomplishment.

*sigh*

The eating, on the other hand, continues to be a challenge.  Earlier this year a patient looked at me without expression, and stated bluntly that I had gained 8.7 pounds since the last time he saw me.  Right after that’s kind of inappropriate, I thought, well, he’s right, I have been gaining weight.  Last March I wrote about weight loss strategy, thinking mainly about my exercise habit formation.  Sadly, my own weight has gone opposite to the desired direction, despite an honest attempt at adherence to my own advice.  Evidence suggests that weight loss really is about 80% diet and 20% exercise.  But sometimes you can only focus on one thing at a time.

Back in 2008, when I finished nursing, I thought, I can get my body back!  I knew I was not going to exercise, and I had no energy to police my food choices.  But I also knew I was eating too much, so I decided to just cut my portions in half.  It felt easy, decisive, and empowering.  I lost 25 pounds in 9 months, and got down to my wedding weight.  But eventually I acknowledged that though I was thin, I was squishy.  So I connected with my trainer in 2014, the primary goal being to get moving without injuring myself.  Right now I’m up 17# since my nadir in 2009, though I’m much more fit than the last time I lived at this weight.

Talking the Walk

I’ve always had a love-love relationship with food, and it shows in my weight/habitus.  I notice also that my own state of mind and body has influenced the advice I offer to patients.  Before I exercised regularly I spoke to patients a lot more about diet; now it’s more balanced.  One patient brought it up recently.  He asked, “What about the doctors who smoke, or the obese ones, how can they advise anybody about healthy habits?”  I’ve thought a lot about it, so I was ready to answer.  To me, there are three main options, all of which I have tried.

Disclaim.  We doctors can rely on our authority to tell people what to do to get healthier.  They notice our fat rolls, or smell cigarette smoke on us.  They see the dark circles under our eyes and surmise that we don’t sleep enough.  Maybe they can tell we don’t exercise.  But we admonish them to eat less and move more.  We say (subconsciously) to ourselves, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

Avoid.  Rather than give lifestyle advice at all, we can focus on prescriptions and referrals.  We feel we have no place instructing patients to eat more leaves, go to the gym, or quit smoking, when we don’t even do so ourselves.  So we don’t even bother, feeling like hypocrites.

I think both of these responses are rooted in shame and perfectionism.  And I think we should not fault physicians for choosing them—that would be meta-shaming–never helpful.  These are normal, human responses to our professional training and expectations.  Physicians have long held positions of authority and expertise.  Until very recently, our relationships with patients were mostly paternalistic.  But with burgeoning access to information, a culture evolving (rightly) toward patient autonomy, and physicians experiencing historically high levels of burnout and suicide, we cannot afford to burden ourselves with the illusion that we must be perfect in order to be credible.

Connect.  I think the healthiest response, for both patients and physicians, is for us doctors to acknowledge our own struggles; to empathize with the difficulty, the conflict, and the utter disappointment of not being able to control our actions and choices as we would like.  I think patients don’t expect us to be perfect.  But they do want us to be human and relatable.  I often find myself saying, “I know that feeling,” or, “Yep, that’s my weakness, too,” or, “Oh, and what about x-y-z?  That’s my problem!”  Only once has a patient said to me, “Shame on you!”  He was a perfectionist himself; I didn’t take it personally.

I stress eat. I eat when I’m bored.  I eat late at night, and I love sugar, starch, salt, and fat.  The struggle is real, and I know it all too well.  So when I ask you, “What small changes can you commit to in the next month?” believe me, I’m asking myself also.  And if you tell me something that has worked for you, I’ll probably try it.  I still think my ‘4 A’s of goal setting’ apply: Assessable, Actionable, Attainable, and Accountable.  I just haven’t found my 4A formula for eating yet.  But lately I have taken a more lighthearted approach to healthy eating trials.  Nothing is life or death, and I know iterative changes are best.  If one thing doesn’t work, hopefully I can learn something and move on to the next.  No dessert on weekdays.  Vegetarian on days I work.  No eating after 8pm.  No starch at dinner…  Meh, none of it seems to stick yet.  Even my cut-it-in-half strategy doesn’t appeal to me these days.  It’s so frustrating!  And it’s also okay, because I know I’m doing my best, just like my patients are.  We can all just take it a little more lightly, one step at a time.

So by the time menopause actually hits, I’m confident that I will be prepared to meet it, with grace and maybe a little irreverence.  I’m learning to judge myself (and thus others) a little more gently.  I’m learning to love my body, whatever shape it’s in.  After all, it’s the only one I’ll have this time around, and I need to maintain it for the long haul.  Turns out, my patients have been my best companions and consultants on the journey.

 

 

 

 

Everyday Power and Influence

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If you wonder how physicians think and feel, about anything and everything related to medicine, healthcare, economics, parenting, relationships, and life in general, check out KevinMD, an expertly curated blog by physicians all around the world.  I recently read a heartening and important piece on gender equality in medicine.  A pediatrician husband wrote about the stark differences in assumptions about work-life balance for men and women, in “What Does Your Husband Think of You Being a Surgeon?”  Then I came across another article by a male cardiologist, whose wife is also a physician, entitled, “The Gender Gap in Cardiology Is Embarrassing.”  Both men’s wives delayed their medical training, and these husbands bore witness to our culture’s implicit gender bias against their life partners.  I strongly encourage you to read both pieces; they are short and poignant.

—- Please click on the links and at least skim the articles, before continuing here. —-

Now, consider how much more weight and influence these pieces carry, simply because they are written by men.  If you find this difficult, imagine your internal response if they had been written from the women’s perspectives.  Which position is more likely to evoke, “Hmm, interesting,” as opposed to, “What are these women whining about?”

When we consider advocacy, it’s fair think of it as those with more power and influence using these advantages to champion those who have less.  Sure, the less powerful and influential can and do advocate for themselves, but without allies among the advantaged, the message and movement stall and stutter.  Consider slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  If it were only ever black people advocating for themselves, what would the American racial landscape would look like today?  Think about women’s rights.  There is a reason the United Nations launched the HeforShe campaign.  Self-advocacy is required, but sorely inadequate, to lift people out of oppression.  And let’s be clear: oppression takes many forms, which we often fail recognize or acknowledge.

I have a fantasy about patients advocating for physicians.

I imagine Sally and John*, two friends communing at their favorite coffee shop, one of their regular meetings of mind and soul.  The conversation veers toward healthcare, and Sally starts ranting about how physicians don’t care about patients anymore.  They’re only in it for the money, having sold out to pharma and industry, and they think of themselves as second only to God him(her)self, exercising control over patients’ lives with little regard or actual caring.  In this coffee shop scenario, I as physician have no power or influence.  If I sat there with them, trying to explain how ‘the system’ drives wedges between us doctors and our patients, about how on average doctors spend twice as much time on administrative activities as patient care activities, how 50% of us report burnout, and how our suicide rate is up to 4 times that of the general public, I estimate that I’d likely be seen as whining and making excuses.  In this scenario, facing a (rightfully) prejudiced audience, my voice counts for very little.

Although physicians still enjoy a fair amount of respect and deference in society, our struggles, personal and professional, are still poorly understood by the general public.  I think people are even less cognizant of the insidious and profound detriment that physician burnout and depression have on patient care and the economy at large.  But when doctors describe our adversities to patients, I think we still come across as whining.  Knowing that I write this as a physician, what is your reaction?  Is it closer to, “You live at the top of the food chain, what are you complaining about?” Or rather, “Wow, what’s going on that so many doctors feel so badly, and how could we all help one another?”

Lucky for doctors everywhere, John is my patient and we have a longstanding, collaborative relationship.  He empathizes with Sally’s perspective, as he knows what she has been through medically.  He has also inquired about my work, and understands the systemic frustrations that physicians face in all fields.  Because they are such good friends, John feels comfortable challenging Sally’s skewed assertions.  He describes what he has learned from me, and explains earnestly that all doctors are not, in fact, swine.  Because he is her trusted confidant, she believes him.  Her attitude opens ever so slightly, and she is more likely to acknowledge how physicians and patients alike suffer from our overall healthcare structure.  John is, in this case, the strongest advocate for me and my ilk.

Whenever one of us stands up as a member of a group, and speaks up to our peers on behalf of another group—white people for black people, men for women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, liberals for conservatives, physicians for patients, and vice versa in each case—we are all elevated.  Our mutual compassion and humanity are called forth to heal our divisions.  This is how personal advocacy, how everyday power and influence, works.

As a patient, you have more power than you may realize.  I bet most people don’t necessarily feel adversarial toward doctors.  But they probably don’t necessarily feel allied, either.  What can you, as a patient, do to bridge this gap?  How else could we all, physicians and patients alike, create that essentially healing inter-tribal connection?

*Hypothetical friends

On Journeying Together

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 30

To Patients Who Journey With Me:

It is my privilege and my honor.

Well here we are, my friends, we made it!  30 posts in 30 days, woooo hoooooooooo!!

I had 30 topics all lined up on Halloween, and I think I used 6 of them.  How fascinating!  Looking back, I’m pretty proud of the content this month.  It all came from places of true feeling and contemplation, and I tried my best to make it relevant to the physician-patient relationship.  I meant to write more cogently about policy and operations, maybe illuminate more of the physician’s experience, to help patients understand our perspectives.  I wonder if that is more appropriate for long form writing, or even not writing at all, more like panel discussion or podcast?

Some of you have followed, liked, and commented all the way through—thank you so much.  After all, what is a blog if nobody reads it?  The feedback has held me up and kept me going.  It’s not so different from my relationships with actual patients.  Some are superficial and short-lived.  But most have a true human connection, and potential for integrative growth over time.  My heart is warmed whenever you inquire about my children with genuine caring.  When you remember my extracurricular projects and congratulate my successes, I feel respected.  Heck when you just notice that my hair is longer, I know you see me!

Believe me, I’m not in this just for the science, or the money, or the prestige, or the teaching.  I’m in this to know you, my patient—and for you to know me.  I know there are some who see me as expendable, exchangeable.  Their interactions with me feel purely transactional.  And that’s okay; everybody needs something different.  But I could not long survive a practice of only such relationships.  No, that would kill my soul for sure.  I live for the connections, I say.  I learn from every one of you, and you make me better.

So thank you for journeying with me.  It’s a long, strange trip, eh?  The path winds, the weather shifts, and times change.  But as long as we go together, I’m all in.

 

On You, Team Captain and Tribal Leader

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NaBloPoMo 2016, Letters to Patients, Day 29

To Patients Who Think What You Do Doesn’t Matter:

Think again.

Yesterday I described You, the Elite Athlete.  All great athletes know they do not succeed alone.  They also appreciate the unique contribution they make to their teams.  What teams do you serve?  How do you lead?  It doesn’t matter whether you have a title or designation.  One of my favorite ideas is that no matter our instrument in the orchestra, according to Ben Zander, we can lead from any chair.

For now, think of yourself as Team Captain, or Tribal Leader.  You have invested in yourself by fueling and training, resting and recovering, managing your stress, and cultivating excellent relationships.  Now you can take the returns and reinvest in those around you:

Appraise:  Prioritize self-care

  • Like on an airplane: “Put your own mask on first.” Tribal leaders know that to effectively care for others long term, they first need to be healthy themselves.
  • Practice awareness and management of your emotions, and prevent emotional hijacking, so as to be emotionally available to our teammates and tribe members.

Empathize:  Speak the team’s language(s)

  • Think of your favorite teachers and coaches—they were able to relate to learners at all stages of development and team morale—and lovingly lift us all up.
  • “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” –T. Roosevelt

Inspire:  Lead by example

  • Effective leaders reject victim mentality, take responsibility for our actions, and model accountability for fellow tribe members.
  • When we captains can take our own mistakes in stride, as learning opportunities rather than shameful horrors, we make it safe for our teammates to do the same.
  • Everybody is then free to take more risks, voice more ideas, offer more of their authentic selves as a contribution to the whole,
  • Because they see us, their leaders, the ones who set the tone for the group, doing it, too.
  • Key here also is leading out loud—excellent captains articulate and coach the methods of self-awareness and self-management that help us all succeed.
  • By inspiring individuals to pursue personal excellence, leaders create a supportive milieu for collaboration and collective achievement.

Motivate:  Empower team members

  • Effective captains (coaches, leaders) recognize team members’ strengths and potential, as well as areas for improvement.
  • Rather than shaming teammates for mistakes or deficiencies, good tribal leaders provide feedback and encouragement, and more opportunities for practice and development.
  • They take into account each team member’s personal goals, and help to align them with those of the collective—excellent captains connect individuals to the whole.

If your actions cause others to

Dream more, learn more,

Do more and become more,

You are a leader.

–John Quincy Adams

What would happen if you treated yourself like a true leader?