Relationship Revolution

 

“In my lifetime I want to see the culture of medicine driven more by relationship than by revenue.”

–me

 

Nice to be back, friends!

This post is a bit different from my usual format and style.  It’s maybe more raw and blunt.

Please bear with me and keep an open mind?

I know posting this may be risky.  It started out as just jotting down ideas for a longer, more detailed future post.  I had to get the ideas and thoughts out so I could focus on work.  And then the ‘jotting’ somehow evolved into what I imagine a poetry slam might look like.  So I decided to post as is.

My long term objective is to stimulate generous thought and respectful discussion between patients and physicians.  I wish to prod us out of our default complaint modes and reorient all of us to the idea that we are all on the same team, but our connections are under siege by outside forces.  The system harms and oppresses us, physicians and patients, the end users, and the ones with the real power.  Together, we are the sleeping (sedated?) giant that must rise up and reclaim the system for ourselves.  This post is an attempt to spark the flame that draws us together, by pointing directly to the spikes that drive us apart.

Disclaimer: What follows is my own expression and does not represent or reflect the opinion or position of any colleague, institution, or professional society with whom I associate or to which I belong.

ice castle spider legs

I hear my colleagues say: Get rid of the patient portal!

It’s too much!

Limiting characters does not work, they just send multiple messages

Charging for messages just makes more work

“They abuse the system”

“We give an inch, they take a mile”

Keep them away!

Us vs. Them mentality.

Antithetical to mission of medicine: To meet patients where they need us, and help them.

WHY?

Because we are too busy.

DOING WHAT?

Every. F*ing. Thing.

Rx prior authorizations

Endless documentation, infinite clicks

Rx refills with no information on follow up or patient status

Filling slots to meet RVU goals

Prescribing more meds to meet “quality” goals

Keeping up with the latest evidence for every disease, test, treatment, guideline, diet fad

Rushing to the next patient so that the patient we’re with does not have time to even think of their questions, must less ask them

Patients walk away from visits with their true needs unmet.

So they use the resources available to them to ask for what they need.

And this ‘adds’ to our work

And we feel busier and more frustrated, exhausted, frayed, irritable

We feel Overwhelmed.

 

Patients also feel it

They feel unseen, unheard, dismissed, discarded

And they don’t understand or relate to where it comes from

They get angry

So they send more messages: to us, about us; criticizing us, lashing out

Making us feel bad about ourselves

Which manifests as defensiveness first, then even more frustration, exhaustion, irritability

But we don’t disengage.

We remember our calling.

We forge on in smoldering resentment, pride, bitterness, duty, guilt, shame, and occasional fulfillment

 

And then abstractions to reconcile the cognitive dissonance

 

Patients suck

All they do is take take take

They don’t understand that I’m Doing My Best to help them

Why don’t they appreciate me

They are so entitled these days

They want everything now now now

They think I’m at their beck and call

Like I’m not working every minute of every day

Like I don’t have a family and a life also

Like I live only to serve them

Patients are the enemy

Really?

 

Oh and it happens on both sides

 

Doctors suck

All they do is type away at that blasted computer

They don’t even look up, see me, or hear me

They don’t understand what I need

They just want to see more patients

Make more money

I’m just a number to them

A cog on a conveyor belt

They’re all in the pockets of Big Pharma and Insurance

They withhold the help I need

They hoard it

They don’t care about me

They Don’t Care About Patients

All they care about is making the next buck

Doctors are the enemy

Really?

ice castle doorway

There is no substitute for the Time and Energy

Required to cultivate Healthy, mutually Respectful, mutually Fulfilling, mutually Beneficial relationships

It is always a two-way street

Our relationships kill us or save us.  Always.

snake river keystone

Doctors and patients must find ways to reconnect

Find one another through the thick morass

And Hold Tight

In Solidarity

Learn, Train and Practice Together

Our Communication, Empathy, Compassion, and Collaboration skills

Defend against the forces that drive us apart

Advocate for one another and for our Sacred Contract

So we may once again

Heal Through Connection

 

200th Post: The Best of Healing Through Connection

Harper Columbine 5-31-14

Happy New Year, my friends!  May 2018 bring us all health, joy, connection, and learning!  And may we all look back one year from now feeling more empathy and compassion, and enjoying better relationships than ever before.

If you are new to this blog, welcome!  I hope you find something that resonates.  If you are an old friend, thank you for your support, feedback, and encouragement the last 32 months.  As I reread the last 199 posts this past week, my favorite parts were the thoughtful and enlightening comments.  I never imagined I could make friends writing a blog and yet here we are, connected, engaged, and holding one another up.

What have you discovered about your own writing when you go back and read?  Turns out I have a pretty consistent theme—it’s all about relationships.  Relationships require awareness, insight, active engagement, negotiation, and adaptation.  This is no less true in our relationships with ourselves than with others.  I have divided my favorite posts below into three categories: Health & Self-Care, Physician-Patient Relationship, and Relationships and Communication in general.  Though I have written pieces on politics and healthcare, I realize that these are critical arenas in which to explore relationships, and not my primary areas of focus in and of themselves.

2018 brings big new projects and responsibilities, yay!  So of course there will be big new challenges, also yay!  Looking ahead, I commit to my self-care practices with renewed motivation:

  1. Get to bed by 11:30 every night—Coach Christine has permission to call me out if I’m caught Facebooking past this time.
  2. Maintain 4+ workouts per week. An aging body needs regular vigorous movement!
  3. Keep up with therapy and resume regular coaching calls—reflect internally and project my best self outwardly.
  4. Maximize intake of stems, stalks, leaves, and fruit; minimize refined sugars.
  5. Nurture my ties to my tribes. They hold me up so I can do my best for those whom I lead.

The coming year will also require pulling back on certain things in order to maintain sanity.  While I refuse to renounce my Facebook use altogether, I have already decreased daily hours spent.  And though I still strive to maintain social/political awareness and activism, I will engage less with opposing voices on social media.  The costs, I have learned, far outweigh the benefits.  I would much rather take a politically oppositional friend out to lunch, or even fly to meet them, and have far more meaningful conversations in person.

For now, I plan also to scale back on the blog.  I’ll continue to write, of course, but likely more in the form of stream-of-consciousness journaling, brain-dumping, and snail mail letters to friends.  I expect that once in a while one of these activities will yield a post or two, and I hope to catch them by the tail and publish them before they escape the moment.  I leave here the list of my favorite posts to date.  Please feel free to dip in and out, leave new comments, and share links.  I suspect I will be drawn back to the page before long, as I already have a list of ideas for future posts.  But in case it’s longer than I anticipate, please know that I appreciate every view, every like, every comment, and every connection.

Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read.  And may you take something away that makes you glad you came.

Sincerely,

Cathy Cheng


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Health and Self-Care

The Sh*tpile  /May 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/05/01/the-shtpile/

Everybody has one.  We inherit large parts of it from our parents, whose parents passed theirs down, etc.  Life experiences add mass and odor as we grow up.  It sits squarely in the middle of the house of our existence.  For the most part, we simply live our lives around it, walking past every day, careful not to knock any pieces off.  The surface gets dry and crusty; we grow accustomed to the smell.

 

How Health Begets Health  /November 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/07/how-health-begets-health/

As the kids and I sat waiting to get their flu vaccines this morning, I heard someone blow their nose. It was that thick mucus blowing that feels, at the same time, both gross and gratifying. I took a deep breath through my unobstructed nostrils and looked happily at my uninfected children.

 

Setting Intensions for 2016  /January 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/01/01/setting-intentions-for-2016/

This year I realized my body’s inevitable march toward menopause, a stark and sudden awareness. It came to me sometime in the spring, and I felt a keen jolt of motivation to prepare.   After 13 years of practice, I recognize two characteristics of women who suffer the least through this dramatic hormonal transition.

 

So You Want to Lose Weight  /March 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/03/12/so-you-want-to-lose-weight-the-four-as-of-goal-setting/

We set weight loss goals all the time, all of us—physicians included. We choose a number on the scale—an outcome—that represents our better selves, however we see it.  I suggest today that behavior-oriented goals, rather than outcomes-oriented ones, lead to far greater and more meaningful success.  How much are we really in control of what we weigh, day to day?

 

Never and Now  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/17/atozchallenge-never-and-now/

And, there is another important practice to overcoming the Nevers: Mindfulness, the practice of the Now.  Never is about the future or the past.  Often it’s a shadowy, catastrophizing perspective of things.  But we cannot predict the future, despite our arrogant human certainty.  And we cannot live every day to come based solely on what has already happened or not happened.  Circumstances and attitudes change.  Landscapes change—at times literally, and in an instant.  We evolve, we learn, we grow.  How can we be so sure that Never is real?

 

Yes, And!  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/30/atozchallenge-yes-and/

The goal is to open our minds, allow possibilities, expand our boundaries, and encourage creativity. I can still see her smile, the gleaming light of engagement and anticipation in her eyes.  I also remember my own hesitation and self-consciousness.  What do you mean, pimple on my forehead?  Is it really about to burst?

 

On the Critical Importance of Self-Care  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/06/1638/

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… 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.

 

On the Second Arrow  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/11/on-the-second-arrow/

Eventually, breathing, we can let go the negativity, pull the arrow out.  Breathe.  When assailed by another first arrow, see the second arrow coming and sidestep.  Breathe.  Keep breathing.  Practice self-compassion and forgiveness.

 

On Readiness  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/16/on-readiness/

I confess I am guilty of impatience and judgment.  When I see your uncontrolled, lifestyle-related medical problems, and you resist behavior change, I feel frustrated.  I know you feel it, too.  But know that I don’t blame you. The point is: we don’t make changes until we are ready.

 

Walking the Talk  /July 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/07/09/walking-the-talk/

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.

 

Just Do It My Butt  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/06/just-do-it-my-butt/

Medical systems which include dieticians, exercise physiologists, and health psychologists can deploy these team members to support patients in their health journeys.  But does your doctor’s office have this kind of set up?  Does your insurance pay for these services?

 

Citius, Altius, Fortius!  /November 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/11/09/citius-altius-fortius/

Every day I live in awe of the astounding miracle that is the human body. It is the quintessential integrated machine.   Almost every part serves a unique and essential purpose in normal daily function, and the parameters for such function are incredibly narrow.  But take something out, wound something else, or trash multiple systems at once, and the whole assembly adapts around the insults, automatically, without any action or awareness on our part.  The body’s compensatory mechanisms exemplify the resilience and tenacity of nature, no doubt about it.

 

Dance For Your Health  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/16/dance-for-your-health/

So basically, dancing activates key areas of the brain and body in an orchestrated fashion, igniting motion, joy, connection, exhilaration, sensory integration, creativity, passion, cardiovascular elasticity, and fun.  How could this not make us all younger?


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Physician-Patient Relationship

The Premise  /April 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/04/14/hello-world/

Patients and physicians have control over one thing above all else: our relationship with each other.  Relationships live and die by communication.  Barriers on the obstacle course of patient-physician communication loom large and formidable. Our system fails us over and again. And it falls to each of us, not the system, to find our way to connection and healing relationships.

 

What Are You Looking For?  /April 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/04/22/what-are-you-looking-for/

My mind’s eye saw hers widen with disappointment, then anger, her posture turn aggressive.  My inner conflict escalated quickly:  Sacrifice the rapport I had just established in the name of antibiotic stewardship, or give in to the misguided pleas of a wrung out fellow working mom, and contribute personally to the scourge of antibiotic overuse and resistance?

 

More Than Enough Love  /June 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/06/20/more-than-enough-love/

Like parenting, the path of medical practice is not paved with lollipops and ice cream.  It’s more like an uphill dirt road with pits and grooves, erratic weather, and hairpin turns that make you dizzy and nauseated.  It can also offer astoundingly beautiful scenery along the way—like parenting.

 

Help Me Help You  /July 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/07/10/help-me-help-you/

When you feel that disconnect, like I have left Best Me somewhere else and you’re not getting what you need, what will you do?  Will you yell and storm away? Smile to my face and then write a scathing, anonymous Yelp review? What would you do if I were your spouse, colleague, friend, or child? You and I are in a relationship, not unlike these.

 

Closing the Satisfaction Gap  /July 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/07/20/the-thorn-in-our-collective-side/

This patient gave Dr. K the best possible feedback: An objective observation about a behavior, her subjective interpretation of it, and its consequence for their relationship.  This is how we communicate evaluations to medical students on their performance in clinical rotations.  There is no reason why it should stop at the end of training; it’s just that the evaluators have changed.

 

The Burnout Crucible  /September 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/09/20/the-burnout-crucible/

Maybe it’s a moot point, whether it’s better to never burn out or to burn out and relight. We’re all here doing our best every day. Maybe it’s more important to just cut ourselves and one another a little slack sometimes, have compassion for aggressors while calling out their unjust behaviors, and offer everybody the benefit of the doubt, especially when we’re all stressed out.

 

What Makes You Think You Can Trust Me?  /February 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/02/01/what-makes-you-think-you-can-trust-me/

Trust is the cornerstone of any meaningful relationship. The patient-physician relationship is no exception. It takes time and presence to cultivate. These are big investments, and if we are willing to make them, the returns can literally save us.

 

 

I am Edna Mode  /February 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/02/20/i-am-edna-mode/

Clearly, Edna trained in the School of Tough Love.  Fortunately for you, I have also studied empathy, compassion, and motivational interviewing.  I can help you persist.  I have patience for your journey.  I can be your pillar of consistency.  Edna is nothing if not consistent!

 

Humbling and Honoring  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/09/humbling-and-honoring/

I get to choose when I am willing to donate my time and energy to the free clinic—everything I do there is on my own terms.  The patients there have no such choices.  If they want care, they have to show up—early—on the day the clinic is open, regardless of what else is going on in their lives.  There are no appointments, and almost no continuity with providers.  It’s a completely different world from where I make my living, on the Gold Coast of Chicago.

 

On Mutual Respect  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/05/on-mutual-respect/

To Patients Who Abuse Medical Staff: Let me be clear: That is not okay.

 

No Substitute for Time  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/03/no-substitute-for-time/

“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.”

 

Dr. Jerkface In Context: Healing the physician-patient relationship  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/25/dr-jerkface-in-context-healing-the-patient-physician-relationship/

Do patients care about doctors’ suffering?  If they knew how the system harms physicians, would they have compassion for us?  What about if they knew how physician burnout and dissatisfaction directly affects their quality of care, all of it negatively?  What would move patients to stand up with and for doctors?  This is my goal for the indefinite future: to help us, patients and physicians, the end users of our medical system, stand up with and for one another, for positive systems change.


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Relationships and Communication

Gratitude, Generosity, and Peace  /July 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/07/30/gratitude-and-generosity/

When I feel grateful, there is enough. I am enough. Even just saying the word, seeing it on the screen, brings me to a more peaceful state of mind and body.

 

Warrior Pride and a Plea for Kindness  /December 2015

https://catherinechengmd.com/2015/12/13/warrior-pride-and-a-plea-for-kindness/

There is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation, and the time and energy it takes to have one. It requires a certain degree of tolerance, and an unspoken contract of civility and courtesy.  We must choose carefully with whom we are willing to undertake such a venture.  And perhaps most importantly, we must be clear about our objective(s).  Do we really expect to change someone’s fundamentally held political or religious beliefs?  How realistic is that?  What other purpose, what other good, could possibly come from such conversations?

 

On Belay  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/02/on-belay/

The interview starts with the two men talking about Hank Williams’ troubled life, his ‘formidable demons,’ as Hiddleston puts it. He expresses compassion for this, as I have seen him do in previous interviews about other characters he has portrayed.  He describes how Williams rose to stardom quickly, but ‘with no real support, no one to anchor him.’  Funny how he uses that word, anchor—like belayer.

 

Opposition and Openness  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/20/atozchallenge-opposition-and-openness/

When I look at the list of definitions of oppose, I feel tired.  When I think of the energy it takes to constantly stand against something, I feel listless and drained.  Fighting, resisting, combatting, Obstructing, standing in the way, hindering, disputing, dissenting, contradicting—it’s exhausting.  I think of times when I meet someone new and all they talk about are the things they hate, that they can’t stand, that they want changed.  I cannot wait to get away and find levity.

 

Every Day a Revolution  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/22/atozchallenge-every-day-a-revolution/

Like the turning of an incandescent light bulb, gently, patiently, and consistently in one direction, the steady work of activists eventually leads to sudden and intense illumination.  Darkness becomes light, cold spaces are warmed.

 

Withhold Judgment  /April 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/04/29/atozchallenge-withhold-judgment/

After all of this exploration, conversation, debate, research, and observation, once again I conclude that one of the most important practices for inner peace is to Withhold Judgment. Not all judgment, and not indefinitely, but much and for a while.

 

Playing My Part  /May 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/05/22/playing-my-part/

Given the awesome support network with which I am blessed, I feel an impulse to do something more with my writing—to amplify and project all this love and connection back out onto the world for some positive purpose.  But how can my words possibly make a difference?

 

Holding the Space for Personal Acts of Peace—On Listening  /July 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/07/11/holding-the-space-for-personal-acts-of-peace-listening/

I know I will not do justice to all the complexities of our issues in one blog post, but I ask your forbearance for my interpretation, as it has led me to greater conviction for what I can do, I, one person.

 

Holding the Space for Our Suffering to Heal Us  /September 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/09/22/holding-the-space-for-our-suffering-to-heal-us/

For a moment we felt stuck, we connection seekers.  I looked at our leader.  His expression conveyed nothing but humility and empathy.  His posture conveyed resolution.  Despite our deep longing, he refused to lead us into treacherously thorny fields, because he knew he did not have the time to bring us safely through to the other side.  But he also allowed us to process, invited us to consider how else we could collectively resolve our unease.

 

On the Golden Positivity Ratio  /November 2016

https://catherinechengmd.com/2016/11/25/on-the-golden-positivity-ratio/

I remembered something about healthy relationships maintaining a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.  Turns out it’s actually 5:1, widely attributed to observations by Dr. John Gottman, renowned marriage and relationship psychologist.  I think the same thing applies in other realms, too, such as self-talk—a reflection of our relationships with ourselves.  It’s not a far leap to see how this idea pertains to news, social media, and any other human interactions.

 

Train to Withstand the Discomfort  /February 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/02/20/train-to-withstand-the-discomfort/

We all know the satisfaction and comfort of echo chambers.  Seeing, hearing, and reading that which validates our existing positions feels so good.  But the farther we regress here, the harder it becomes to tolerate a dissenting view.  We must resist this temptation; we are called to be more disciplined than this.

 

To Train or Not to Train  /May 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/05/08/to-train-or-not-to-train/

…even if we don’t all talk politics, we all need effective communication skills, especially in the arenas of conflict resolution, negotiation, parenting (which encompasses them all), and the like.  We are social beings—we only survive by cooperating and living well within our tribes, and by tribes living well among one another.  That can only happen if we practice getting along.

 

Tribal Pride and Tribalism  /November 2017

https://catherinechengmd.com/2017/11/29/tribal-pride-and-tribalism/

We all need our tribes.  Belonging is an essential human need. To fit in, feel understood and accepted, secure—these are necessary for whole person health.  And when our tribes have purpose beyond survival, provide meaning greater than simple self-preservation, our membership feels that much more valuable to us.  But what happens when tribes pit themselves against one another?  How are we all harmed when we veer from “We’re great!” toward “They suck”?

 

 

 

Dr. Jerkface In Context—Healing the Patient-Physician Relationship

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Excuse me, I took an unintended break for Thanksgiving!  Hope you all had a wonderful holiday!

NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

For the past year or so, maybe more, I have increasingly tried to engage my friends in discussion around allied advocacy for physician health and well-being.  Inevitably, however, I’m met with anecdotes from my friends about asshole doctors.  It is a strikingly common experience, I’m sad to report.  And it makes sense:  If a patient has a bad experience with a doctor, ie the doctor behaves badly or the patient feels dismissed, ignored, disrespected, or mistreated, the normal response is to blame the doctor and assume that s/he is an asshole.  In each of these interviews with friends, it took a while for them to come around to the idea that the doctor him/herself may be suffering and therefore not behaving/performing their best.

But the next question is this: Do patients care about doctors’ suffering?  If they knew how the system harms physicians, would they have compassion for us?  What about if they knew how physician burnout and dissatisfaction directly affects their quality of care, all of it negatively?  What would move patients to stand up with and for doctors?  This is my goal for the indefinite future: to help us, patients and physicians, the end users of our medical system, stand up with and for one another, for positive systems change.

Right now I see it as a very personal, grassroots endeavor.  Outside of a one-on-one patient-physician relationship, ‘patients’ and ‘physicians’ in general are abstract groups to us all, and it’s hard to feel compassion for and connection with an abstraction.  “Patients are too demanding, entitled, and ignorant.”  “Doctors are arrogant, dismissive, and profit-driven.”  We carry these overgeneralized internal narratives and others into our encounters, often unknowingly and unintentionally.  Even when we think we see and know the person right in front of us, these underlying assumptions still color our experiences with them.  So whatever conversations we may undertake will take many repetitions to finally reach true mutual understanding.

I have been a member of my church since 1991.  Many others in the community have been there much longer than that.  There are other physicians, and we are all patients, ranging in age from infants to octogenarians.  I have proposed to host a focus group to discuss patient-physician relationship, especially as it relates to the effects of physician burnout on patient care.  The plan is to do it once, with whomever is interested, and see what happens after that.  I picture 10-20 people, patients and physicians alike, seated in a circle.

The objectives will be stated:

  1. Hold an open discussion about people’s experiences in the patient-physician encounter, and explore the context of forces that influence those experiences. Such forces include visit duration, documentation requirements, workflow inefficiencies, patient expectations, insurance status, and clinical setting (hospital, outpatient clinic, etc.).
  2. Participants leave with improved mutual understanding of one another’s experiences in the medical system and more likely to feel empathy and compassion toward their counterparts in the next encounter.

In the long term, I wish for patients and physicians to form a unified platform from which to advocate for policy change.  We, patients and physicians, are the end-users of the healthcare system, the largest combined demographic in the system, and I believe we are the ones who benefit the least from the system.  Health outcomes for American patients are dismal compared other developed countries, despite our exorbitant expernditures.  Physicians kill ourselves at more than twice the rate of the general population.

It’s not enough for medical professional societies to write co-authored, open letters to Congress.  It’s not enough for individual patient constituents to stand up at town halls and berate their representatives.  We must orient ourselves as resistors in series, rather than in parallel.  I think the movement will grow most effectively out of existing connections and relationships, through which we can find shared interests, common goals, and a strong, unified voice for change.

I seek your feedback:

  1. How do you picture this meeting going?
  2. How interested are you in learning about physician burnout and how it affects patients?
  3. If you were invited to such a meeting, what would you think and feel about it?
  4. What would make you more likely to participate?
  5. Would you want to host such a meeting in your community? How would you do it?

Thank you for considering, and see you tomorrow!

I’m the Doctor, You’re the Doctor

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

“I’m the doctor, just do what I say.”  I don’t think doctors actually say this anymore, but I wonder how many of us think it?  It’s probably not even a conscious thought, but rather an attitude—paternalistic and directive, a relic from the old days when patients had no power or voice in the relationship because the doctor held all the information and all the expertise.  Today patients are empowered by culture and the internet to participate in shared decision making , and it’s a good thing.

The problem with the “I’m the doctor” attitude is that it inhibits the patient from owning their own healthcare choices.  Then if and when the care plan goes badly, they feel rightly justified blaming the doctor, because they were just following orders.  Sometimes it’s necessary, like in the case of trauma or serious surgery, where the doctor is truly in charge and must make life or death decisions according to their expertise and judgment.  Thankfully this is not my work.

In primary care, if I take this attitude, I miss an opportunity to forge a collaborative and rewarding relationship with my patients.  If I simply issue orders, people don’t feel seen or heard, and they may withhold important information that would help me make a better, more relevant diagnostic and treatment plan.  And if they defy my advice (edict), as they are more likely to do when our relationship is transactional and cookbook, and things go well, then I lose credibility and they are even less likely to follow my advice in the future.

“You’re the doctor,” on the other hand, is something I hear often.  It usually comes up when patients (and I) are faced with decisions involving competing interests or vague risks and benefits.  An example is prostate cancer screening.  Guidelines over the years have ranged from screening every man, every year, starting at age 50, for life, to don’t screen anyone ever.  Most physicians and professional societies agree currently that the best approach is to discuss risks of screening (over-diagnosis, harm from testing in patients without disease) and not screening (missing early cancer, delayed diagnosis, possibly leading to preventable negative outcome), and make decisions based on patients’ individual values and goals.

When a patient in this or a similar situation says to me, “You’re the doctor, just tell me what to do” alarms ring my mind.  What I intend to be a shared decision suddenly falls to me to make unilaterally.  In this scenario, the patient essentially cedes responsibility for the treatment plan, and if it goes badly then it’s my fault “because you told me to.”  Or the patient may choose to ignore my directive and also blame me because “you told me to but I disagreed.”  Either way a patient may then feel justified to blame me for any negative outcome, even though I gave them what they said they wanted.  I understand that this is not how the scenario necessarily plays out, but somehow I’m wary of it.

I had my teeth cleaned today.  The dentist recommends x-rays every year; I politely decline most of the time.  I just don’t understand (or accept?) the rationale and benefits of annual radiation to my face, and I’m cynical about the fee-for-service structure in which providers make more money for ordering more tests (which is a legitimate concern in medicine, also).  Without explaining why it’s recommended for me particularly (it was explained later), I heard, “Well, it’s okay if you don’t do it today, but you have to do it next time.”  [Expletive, not stated out loud.] I am emotionally triggered when people try to tell me what to do without asking me what I think about it first (see my post from 2 days ago).  So I bristle when I witness colleagues doing it, or when my patients demand it from me.

I don’t see my job as telling people what to do—I am not a surrogate.  Rather, I think of myself as consultant and guide, expert, counsel.  It’s my job to discuss, explore, explain, review, consider, negotiate, compare, assess, debate, explain and discuss again, and then make a shared decision.  This includes follow-up and contingency planning, setting expectations, and reassurance about my commitment to the person, regardless of the problem.  I’m the doctor, you’re the patient, we are a team.  We are in this together.

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

Exploring the Rules of Engagement: A New Blog Series

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The Descent and the Rising

The past two weeks have assailed, masticated, consumed, digested, and expelled important parts of my psyche.  A week after basking in peaceful solidarity at the Women’s March, I found myself losing sleep and breaking out—both signs of acute distress.  My mind swam with questions of identity, purpose, and action.  I wrestled with fears around policy, violence, and integrity.  All of a sudden I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t doing enough.  Resist!  Call your representatives now!  Support this march and that protest!  And on the internet, rage escalated everywhere.

I read this article, which I highly recommend, on how to stay engaged and not lose your mind.  The author recommends that we focus our actions on one or two issues, and gives useful self-care tips.  After a few days, I was surprised to find that no particular issue moved me enough to passionate advocacy.  I began questioning my dedication.  But thank God for therapy (which the author also recommends), hallelujah!  I had a breakthrough in session last week, wherein I realized that I am, actually, enough.  And I do actually affirm one key interest: Relationship.

Duh.

For me, it’s less about specific issues than it is about how they’re addressed.  While generally I favor a progressive social agenda, I abhor the entrenched, partisan, winner-takes-all attitude that infects our government operations and civic discourse.  I also deplore the rhetorical, broad brush generalizations that people make about one another, based only on how we voted or an oversimplified position on one issue.  I wrote about this recently, though I buried the thesis in what should have been a separate discussion of healthcare reform.

Looking back, of course, relationship and communication have always been my core concerns—I launched this blog specifically to discuss them, for crying out loud!  Over and again I find myself in the role of mediator—between family members, Chinese and American culture, conventional versus alternative medicine, and between patients, physicians, and the healthcare system.  My whole life I have practiced, sometimes under duress, the art of mutual understanding and negotiation.  Maybe I’ve just been training for this moment in history.

How Talking Politics Is Like Eating Healthy

We could all learn and apply better practices.  We know the theories—more vegetables, less judgment, whole grains instead of processed, less name-calling and more calm, reasoned debate.  But so often the opposite happens:  junk food, sugary sodas,  pointless shouting and blaming—especially on social media.  We feel ashamed and frustrated at the futility of it all.  We figure screw it, I’ll never change (and neither will they), so why bother, it’s too much work, and anyway, it’s not the end of the world.

Never mind that your rising blood pressure and glucose accelerate the formation of atherosclerotic plaque each passing year, and that your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke escalates exponentially as a result.  Never mind that the less we engage one another in meaningful ways, the farther apart we drift and the more we allow the most extreme factions of our parties to run the show.

The Challenge

In the coming weeks, I will share my own key learnings on healthier engagement practices.  I make no claims to have all the solutions, and I do not mean to be preachy.  These posts will serve mainly as reminders to myself, aspirational pieces to hold my own feet to the fire, marshaling my highest ideals of thought and behavior.  I will try to minimize promoting my own political views, though I suspect they will surface one way or another.  I hope you will follow with an open mind, and a heart that yearns to connect with the best of humanity, especially in those with whom you may disagree.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  It’s our relationships that save us.  Right now they desperately need repairs.  So let’s get to work.

Inaugural Intentions

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Things are feeling a bit dark again…  Reminds me of October, when I got emotionally hijacked by current events and found myself anxious and angry, but wouldn’t admit it for a while.  On the eve of a new presidential administration taking office, tensions run high once again and I’m challenged to avoid a similar decent into despair.

It really helped to take the Holiday Break and write to my friends.  I did it by hand, with colorful pens, stickers, and rubber stamps (I love rubber stamping).  I intended to connect more personally, and that’s exactly what it felt like.  As I see and hear expressions of fright, dread, sadness, anger, and pessimism among them, I intend to continue corresponding by pen and paper.  There’s just something more tangible about it, more intimate and permanent than email, text, or Facebook.  I have included excerpts below—the ones that felt particularly inspired.  They represent my intentions for managing myself in the coming years, of reinforcing my core values and focusing on my highest aspirations.  As Simon Sinek posted once:  “Fight against something, we focus on what we hate.  Fight for something, we focus on what we love.”

To my friends who have expressed, “get over it,” and “stop whining,” I respectfully request that you try to empathize with those of us who feel despondent.  Nothing will improve if we keep ridiculing and belittling one another.  If you experienced this from ‘us’ before the election, remember how it felt.  Rise above our worst collective behavior and help us overcome our fears and disappointment by showing us that we really do share more love and connection than we might think.

Unity and true indivisibility require all of us to pitch in and reach out.  I hope that by one year from now, we can all look back and feel proud of the connections and relationships we strengthened, from left to right and otherwise.

***

What a crazy year…  All bets are off, no one can possibly predict what will happen now—so much anxious uncertainty surrounds us all over the place!  …And yet I feel hopeful and optimistic.  This is the time for our best selves to truly shine—the perfect opportunity to call on everything we have trained for—all of the grit, the kindness, the curiosity, the openness, the brave vulnerability~~~all of it, in service of connection, mutual understanding, and forging a way forward to a BRIGHTER future!  Because we now know, again, in humanity’s history, what darkness looks and feels like.  We can’t stay here, and we won’t—we can each shine a light.  And if we stand close, the light amplifies exponentially.

So thanks for being a fellow light shiner, (my friend)!  May we keep our connections with each other and our other fellows ever close—we need us—the world needs us—now more than ever!!  Keep it lit, my friend.

***

…Hope this card finds you well and HOPEFUL.

Because I have decided that that is what we all need to practice more now than ever—HOPE.  Those of us who strive for conscious living and more connection than the superficial have TRAINED for this moment in history—to PRACTICE OUT LOUD and IN FRONT of everybody—to lead by example and make the difference we were born to make!  We don’t need to do big things—we just need to keep the faith and stay the course!

’Small things with great love,’ I think Mother Theresa said?

Please know I am here to support your efforts, as I know you are for mine!  Let’s get together and hold each other up again soon!

***

…Because I know so many people whose core values represent the BEST of our shared humanity—equality, compassion, community, connection, love, and forgiveness.  The world needs these qualities and practices by us more now than ever—so if we hold each other up, we’ll all be able to do the work better—TOGETHER!!  So here’s to long friendships and deep love!

***

I received this handwritten response from an old friend today.  It warms my heart and holds up my hope:

“While we may snarl a bit at anticipated political shenanigans, let us remember we have strength in numbers and determination to keep life in this country respectful and fair—simply by the ways we live and interact.”

***

And finally, I’m also encouraged that our international leaders express a similar optimism:

Angela Merkel: “I am very much convinced that we as partners benefit more if we act together than if everyone solves problems for themselves, and that is a constant fundamental attitude on my part.”

Peace to all of you, dear friends.  Let us manifest our best every day.