My patient was an elderly farmer with severe vascular disease. He had advanced leg artery narrowing, had survived multiple heart attacks, and was admitted to the hospital after a large stroke. He was incredibly cheerful, vibrant, and optimistic. He had a very large, loving family who took turns attending to him, and encouraging him with each small improvement in his leg and arm strength. They knew his neurological exam better than his doctors.
I was amazed at his recovery, given the size and location of his stroke (and his advanced age), I had suspected that he would end up wheelchair bound. But he was determined to walk again and get back to his gardening as soon as possible. His children told me that he was very stubborn and was a true “fighter.” As their patriarch, he carefully questioned each of them about their goings on, making sure that they were each on track with grain harvesting plans, animal feedings, and various farm-related projects. His life had meaning and purpose, and the hospitalization was merely a change of venue for his daily instructions.
Because my patient was so motivated, I offered to bring him to his physical therapy session early one day. To my surprise, he firmly, but politely declined.
“I have an appointment with my family in my room.” he said.
I wondered if they were going to discuss advanced directives with an attorney, or something of similar seriousness.
“Oh, I see. Well we will come get you at the regular time then.” I smiled and left the room.
As I walked down the hall back towards the nurses station I recognized various members of his family proceeding towards his room, dressed in what appeared to be their “Sunday best.” There must have been at least 15 people in the group, ranging from tweens to adults. They were smiling and upbeat.
Minutes later I heard wondrous a capella choral sounds wafting from the patient’s room and filling an entire wing of the hospital. All motion ceased. Therapists stopped pushing wheelchairs, exercises paused, patients with walkers stood silent in the middle of sterile, tiled floors.
My patient had delayed his therapy session for something far more important – a live chorus of loving family, singing for him in a private exhibition that managed to touch us all.
The music I heard that day taught me a very important lesson. Some people know how to live their very best, wherever they are. Even a life-threatening condition in a hospital setting cannot dampen the human spirit.
May we all aspire to have such a spirit.
Hospital culture is largely influenced by the relationship between administrative and clinical staff leaders. In the “old days” the clinical staff (and physicians in particular) held most of the sway over patient care. Nowadays, the approach to patient care is significantly constricted by administrative rules, largely created by non-clinicians. An excellent description of what can result (i.e. disenfranchisement of medical staff, burn out, and joyless medical care) is presented by Dr. Robert Khoo at KevinMD.
Interestingly, a few hospitals still maintain a power shift in the other direction – where physicians have a strangle hold on operations, and determine the facility’s ability to make changes. This can lead to its own problems, including unchecked verbal abuse of staff, inability to terminate bad actors, and diverting patients to certain facilities where they receive volume incentive remuneration. Physician greed, as Michael Millenson points out, was a common feature of medical practice pre-1965. And so, when physicians are empowered, they can be as corrupt as the administrations they so commonly despise.
As I travel from hospital to hospital across the United States (see more about my “living la vida locum” here), I often wonder what makes the pleasant places great. I have found that prestige, location, and generous endowments do not correlate with excellent work culture. It is critically important, it seems, to titrate the balance of power between administration and clinical staff carefully – this is a necessary part of hospital excellence, but still not sufficient to insure optimal contentment.
In addition to the right power balance, it has been my experience that hospital culture flows from the personalities of its leaders. Leaders must be carefully curated and maintain their own balance of business savvy and emotional I.Q. Too often I find that leaders lack the finesse required for a caring profession, which then inspires others to follow suit with bad behavior. Unfortunately, the tender hearts required to lead with grace are often put off by the harsh realities of business, and so those who rise to lead may be the ones least capable of creating the kind of work environment that fosters collaboration and kindness. I concur with the recent article in Forbes magazine that argues that poor leaders are often selected based on confidence, not competence.
The very best healthcare facilities have somehow managed to seek out, support and respect leaders with virtuous characters. These people go on to attract others like them. And so a ripple effect begins, eventually culminating in a culture of carefulness and compassion. When you find one of these gems, devote yourself to its success because it may soon be lost in the churn of modern work schedules.
Perhaps your hospital work environment is toxic because people like you are not taking on management responsibilities that can change the culture. Do not shrink from leadership because you’re a kind-hearted individual. You are desperately needed. We require emotionally competent leaders to balance out the financially driven ones. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of a money-driven, heavily regulated system, but now is not the time to shrink from responsibility.
Be the change you want to see in healthcare.
My newly admitted patient was at the end of a very long struggle with a devastating genetic disorder. He had been treated by some of the finest experts in America for his rare disease, and had come to my rehab unit for aggressive physical and occupational therapy. He was exhausted, but mustered the energy to tell me (probably the 100th physician to treat him) his complicated story.
Listening to this man, and examining his frail body, I realized that he had already explored every treatment option and avenue available. He had extensive conversations about his genetic variant, and which drugs could possibly modify his course. He had tried pretty much everything once, with little improvement. He told me that the team of experts at my hospital were rallying to repeat some of the costly treatments that had failed previously, to see if maybe this time they could make a difference.
As our eyes met, I realized that we both knew that these treatments were not worthwhile. I could see that he didn’t want to be “non-compliant” with his physicians’ recommendations, and was reluctantly willing to give their plans a shot. I knew that he needed to hear that it was okay to say “no.”
I took in a deep breath and voiced what we both knew to be true – there was no further need for IV medication. Now was the time to make the most of the function he had, to get him home with family support, and to focus on enjoying life rather than fighting a disease.
The relief brought him to tears. I began to put his socks back on his cold feet. He asked if I could leave them off.
I joked with him softly, “I guess your feet just want to be free.”
He smiled and nodded.
I didn’t order any tests or treatments, I just stood next to him in the moment.
And sometimes, that’s what a doctor is supposed to do.
Photo Cred: Max S. Gerber
I learned a valuable lesson recently about how difficult it can be to make the correct diagnosis when you see a patient for a very short period of time. In the acute rehab setting I admit patients who are recovering from severe, life-altering brain events such as strokes, head injuries, and complex medical illnesses. It is challenging to know what these patients’ usual mental function was prior to their injuries, and so I rely on my knowledge of neuroanatomy, infectious disease, and pharmacology to guide my work up. However, I have learned that asking the patient’s family members about what they were like (in their healthier state) is extremely important as well. Personality quirks, likes and dislikes, and psychiatric history all offer clues to ongoing behavioral challenges and mental status changes.
This fact was never clearer than when I met an elderly gentleman with a new stroke. He was extremely drowsy, non-participatory, and was not oriented to anything but his name. The stroke had occurred in a part of the brain that does not affect cognition, so I began to wonder if he had an infection or was having a reaction to a medication. I carefully ruled out all possible sources of infection, and I combed through his medication list and removed any potentially sedating drugs. His mental status remained unchanged for several days. I then began to wonder if perhaps he was suffering from significant dementia at baseline, and that he was living at home with more help from his family than they had initially reported. The therapy team and I began to consider a transfer to a nursing home. The family was horrified by the idea.
As it turned out, his grandson shared with me that he believed that the patient was autistic. Because his grandpa was elderly, he grew up in a time where not much was known about autism, and diagnoses of the condition was rarely made. He was therefore never formally diagnosed, but had many of the textbook characteristics. His stroke, combined with a sudden transfer to an inpatient hospital setting, was very distressing for the patient, and he had shut down to protect himself from the mental anguish. The “dementia-like” behavior that we were witnessing was merely an acute psychological reaction.
Armed with this new information, the therapy team requested family members to be present during all sessions – to encourage participation and to provide comfort and normalization of the transition from home to hospital. The patient responded beautifully, and made remarkable gains in his ability to walk and participate in self care activities.
I apologized profusely to the family for our period of confusion about his diagnosis and care needs, and offered reassurance that we would do our very best to help him recover from his stroke so that he could go home directly from the hospital. He did in fact return home, and with a little extra help from his daughters, he is enjoying his usual projects and activities.
As for me, I will never presume dementia without careful family confirmation again.
I’m often asked to do book reviews on my blog, and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book – and then if I don’t enjoy it, I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my true thoughts. Most of the reviews that I end up writing are unsolicited, but today is an unusual exception. A colleague asked me to read her book, “How To Be A Rock Star Doctor.” I got half way through when she checked in to see how things were going. I had to tell her that I didn’t agree with some of her advice to young doctors, and I worried that she would be discouraged by my honesty.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that she welcomed the criticism and actually asked me to write my review – favorable or unfavorable as I saw fit. She is the very first author to take that position (others have thanked me for not writing a review) and I am proud of her for it.
In essence, How To Be A Rock Star Doctor, is an easy-to-read primer for young primary care physicians looking to setup their first outpatient practice. The troubling part of the book (for me) was Dr. Bernard’s approach to the empathy fatigue that can set in for overworked physicians. In her view, we must “fake it” if we’ve lost it or don’t have it.
The book contains specific advice for how to appear empathic. Smiling broadly (no matter how one is feeling internally), dressing in a white coat, and exuding confidence, are recommended because we should see our patient interactions as an acting role – we are on stage, and they are depending on us to look/act the part.
Although Dr. Bernard rightly points out that there is research to support smiling as a means to achieving a happier mood, I was left with a certain uneasiness about the idea of putting on an act for patients. Something about the potential for dishonesty didn’t feel right to me. But then again, maybe the alternative – just being oneself – can create a poor therapeutic relationship if we’re in a bad mood for some reason.
I have heard many times that doctors can be uncaring to patients. Heck, I’ve even blogged about terrible interactions that I’ve had with my peers when I was in the patient role. But what is the solution? Should doctors learn how to imitate the qualities of a compassionate physician to achieve career success, or should we go a little deeper and actually try to be caring and let the behavior flow from a place of sincerity?
On the one hand, any tips to make the doctor-patient relationship go more smoothly should be welcomed… but on the other, if patient care is just an act, then what kind of meaning do our relationships have? If we act empathic do we eventually become empathic? Maybe yes, maybe no.
One thing I’m sure of, Dr. Bernard has opened an interesting discussion about how to handle stress, burnout, and create an excellent therapeutic experience in the midst of a broken healthcare system. She is willing to take criticism, and has endeared herself to me through our email exchanges. While I may not agree with all of her strategies to optimize patient satisfaction, one thing seems clear: she is as advertised — a rock star doctor.
Check out her book and find your own path forward.