November 6:  Caring For the Team Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

“How does he treat you?”

I don’t only ask this question of women whom I suspect of being abused at home.  I also ask my medical assistants.  Not about their domestic partners, but about our patients.

In my first practice, I sat/stood to the left of my medical assistant every day for six years.  It was a cozy (cramped) little counter space stacked with charts from end to end, with a couple of high-wheeley chairs.  Each chart stack had a laminated cover on top:  “For Cheng to Review/Sign,” “For Rose,” “Labs,” and “Messages.”  Charts journeyed from my left to my right/Rose’s left, to the bin under the counter to be filed.  It was incredibly efficient, actually.  I had a handwritten emoji system for indicating (dis)satisfaction with cholesterol and diabetes results.  Rose knew all of my patients and how to communicate sentiments and instructions clearly and lovingly.  She had been an MA since I was a kid; she knew what she was doing.  If a patient had a question on the phone, she could put them on hold and clarify with me, or I could just get on the phone and speak to the patient myself.  We were busy and happy, a well-oiled team-machine.

One day as I came up to my spot at the counter, I noticed an unusual sound next to me, like a distant, scratchy loudspeaker.  I turned and saw Rose holding the phone receiver about an inch from her ear.  The sound was my patient, yelling profanities at her so loudly I could hear his words from two feet away.  I can’t remember what the issue was, but he was obviously upset, and taking it out on her.  It surprised me because I had only known him to be sweet, respectful, and grateful.  Maybe he was just having a bad day?  I looked at Rose, who rolled her eyes and exhaled heavily.  I asked her to put him on hold so she could catch me up.  Apparently this had been going on longer than I knew, and she had not told me.  Had I not come upon it in real time, she may never have told me.  She would have simply tolerated it.

I picked up the call and declared myself.  He was the usual, respectful and calm patient I had always known.  I answered his medical questions.  Then I told him firmly that he did not have the right to treat anyone in my office the way he had just treated Rose.  I think there may have been some excuses and then an apology.  I made it clear that if he abused my team again, he would be discharged from the practice.  He agreed and apologized again.

That was my first opportunity to stand up for my team as an attending.  I will forever remember it.  I was a petite, young, Chinese woman doctor, speaking to a white man decades older than myself.  I stood up for my medical assistant, a woman of color and a couple decades older than me.  She had felt powerless to stand up for herself to his verbally vomitous abuse.  All I had to do was pick up the phone and say, “Mr. Soandso, this is Dr. Cheng.”  He never yelled at Rose or anyone in the office again, to my knowledge.  How could I have this much power, and why had nobody asked me to wield it in their defense before?  It was just accepted that patients could yell and scream at our staff, with no consequences?

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We recently discussed abusive patients during our regular doctors’ meeting at my current practice.  Immediately I thought, HELL NO.  The good news was that our team members feel safe reporting incidents to our managers and physicians.  My partners and I have all had to call patients to clarify our expectations of respect.  We understand that illness is stressful.  We understand that our healthcare system, especially at a large, bureaucratic institution, causes frustration, even rage.  However, none of that ever justifies or entitles a patient, or anyone, to belittle, dehumanize, or otherwise degrade another person, and especially not a team member who is doing their best to help–ever.  At this meeting, gratifyingly, we all voiced definitive confirmation that we fully support our team, and we will, without hesitation, educate and/or discharge any patient who violates our team’s right to a collegial and non-threatening work environment.

Even as I write this, I shake a little with rage and outrage at these patients’ behavior.  I can feel tightness and tension in my chest and abdomen, my breath quicker and shallower than its usual resting state.  I wonder if this triggers me because my mom is a nurse and I have seen how patients in the hospital abuse nurses.  I also know how women physicians are mistaken for nurses and thus ignored or dismissed, even by female patients.  I have known racism and sexism first hand.  But as a physician, I’m in a position to not have to tolerate it.  By virtue of two letters after my name, I have the power to protect my team, with authority.  And I work with other physicians who also recognize both this power and its attendant responsibility.

I hope our team feels protected, defended, and loved by us docs.  We may be the default work unit leaders, but they do the lion’s share of work that allows our practice to run as smoothly and successfully as it does.  They are who let me do my work as well as I do.  I depend on them every day.  So caring for them absolutely makes me better, makes us all better.

 

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?