Tag Archives: compassion

What Would YOU Do With An Extra Second….Better Decide Soon, Its the Day of the Leap Second!

In medicine, I have learned that time is a precious commodity. Too often, when life slips away and patients and families wish they had just a little more time. For physicians, a little more time may make the difference in a patient’s ultimate outcome and sometimes makes the difference between making it home in time for a family dinner. Today, we add ONE second to the international world clock at midnight. Over fifty years ago, world clocks began keeping time with atomic clocks that are governed by oscillations of an atom–which are determined in part by the rotation of the earth. The earth’s rotation is slowing over time, and in order to keep these clocks coordinated with the earth’s rotation, we must add an extra second from time to time.

What Can You Do With An Extra Second?

While a second may seem like an insignificant amount of time, when you are a careful steward of time much can be accomplished quickly. An extra second can have a substantial impact—Here is my list of possible plans for my extra second:

1.  One more chance to say “I love you”

Too often, the pace of the world gets in the way. We forget those most dear to us and allow our daily challenges—both at work and at home- to take center stage. I may use this extra moment in time to make sure that my wife and daughter know exactly how I feel. Time is unwavering and unyielding. Time rarely stops—actually almost never stops—but today we have a brief pause. We must use it wisely and take advantage of the extra “time” with loved ones and remind ourselves that time spent with those we love is precious

2. An opportunity to pause before pressing send on an angry email

In the heat of the moment, many of us have sent a note that we wish we could have back. Email and electronic communication can be unforgiving. Just think if we were able to use the extra second we are given to pause before sending an angry reply. That one second to ponder the implications of an email response may actually save even more time by preventing hurt feelings, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations.

3. A chance to pause and take a breath

Lets’ face it, today’s world moves at a very quick pace. Electronic communication, social media and instant messaging leave each of us with very little down time. Just recently I flew to Italy from New York and was amazed to have active internet service for the entire flight. Rather than unplug and enjoy the beginning of my vacation, I remained connected and engaged through the flight. Much can be gained from taking a few minutes to meditate, unplug and recharge. All of us can benefit from stepping away from the business of a hectic day—just one second may help relieve stress and recharge the mind–Maybe I should use the extra second to take a deep breath, reflect and relax. If a 5minute meditation works, why wouldn’t a 1 second mini meditation work as well?

4. Send a tweet

Social Media is an excellent example of how we can reach out to others—all over the world—in a matter of seconds. We are now more connected than ever. Twitter brings doctors and patients together and makes the world a smaller place. Twitter provides for the brief communication of ideas, exchange of information and socialization all in a moment. One second is all that is needed to send a tweet. At midnight tonight, I may decide to use my extra second to push send and publish a tweet.  Maybe I will connect with a new friend or colleague.  Maybe my tweet will reach a patient suffering with chronic disease and provide them with new hope.  Maybe my tweet will make someone laugh, or (if I am really lucky) make a lonely person smile.

Tonight, we have a rare opportunity to stop time. At midnight we are able to take back time—if only for a second. I have shared a few of my ideas. What will YOU choose to do with it? Time is ticking away–we have to decide soon how to use that extra time.  Midnight will be upon us soon.  How we use it could change a life….or result in time for one more Zzzz…

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Sharing Bad News or Keeping Secrets—How Physician Communication Impacts Patients and Families

Doctors and Patients bond over time. Information exchange, education and sharing of expertise are critical activities that add to the effective practice of medicine. Delivering bad news is unfortunately an unpleasant part of a physician’s job. Honesty, empathy and clear communication are essential to delivering news to patients and their families—even when the news is unpleasant or unexpected. While communication is an integral part of the practice of medicine, not all healthcare providers are able to relay information or test results in a way that is easily digested and processed by patients. Some physicians may avoid delivering bad news altogether—often keeping patients in the dark. While a paternalistic approach to medicine was accepted as the status quo for physician behavior in the 1950s, patients now expect to play a more active role in their own care. Patients have a right to demand data and understand why their healthcare providers make particular diagnostic and treatment decisions.

Recently, a disturbing report indicated that in a database of Medicare patients who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, only 45% were informed of their diagnosis by their physician. While shocking, these statistics mirror the way in which cancer diagnoses were handled in the 1950s with many doctors choosing not to tell patients about a devastating health problem. With the advent of better cancer therapies and improved outcomes, now we see than nearly 95% of all patients are informed of their cancer diagnosis by their physician.

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How can this be? Why would a physician NOT tell a patient about a potentially life changing diagnosis?

I think that there are many reasons for this finding in Alzheimer’s disease and that we must address these issues in order to provide ethical and timely care to our patients.

  1. Time constraints: Electronic documentation requirements and non-clinical duties allow for less time spent with each patient. In order to deliver bad news such as a terminal diagnosis, a responsible physician must not only spend time carefully delivering a clear message but must also be available to handle the reaction and questions that will inevitably follow. Many physicians may avoid discussing difficult issues due to the lack of time available to help the patient and family process a diagnosis. We must create ways to diminish the administrative burden on physicians and free them up to do more of what they do best—care for patients. More reasonable and meaningful documentation requirements must be brought forward. Currently, many physicians spend far more time typing on a computer rather than interacting in a meaningful way with patients during their office visits. Eye contact, human interaction and empathy are becoming more of a rarity in the exam room. This certainly limits the effective delivery of bad (or good) news to patients. Priority MUST be placed on actual care rather than the computer mandated documentation of said “care”.
  2. Dwindling Long-Term Doctor Patient Relationships: Networks of hospitals, providers and healthcare systems have significantly disrupted traditional referral patterns and long-term care plans. Many patients who have been enrolled in the ACA exchanges are now being told that they cannot see their previous providers. Many physicians (even in states such as California) are opting out of the Obamacare insurances due to extremely low reimbursement rates. Patients may be diagnosed with a significant life changing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease early in their relationship with a brand new healthcare provider. When a new physician provides a patient with bad news—of a life-changing diagnosis that will severely limit their life expectancy as well as quality of life—patients often have difficulty interpreting these results. Healthcare providers that have no relationship with a patient or family are at an extreme disadvantage when delivering negative healthcare news. Long-term doctor patient relationships allow physicians to have a better understanding of the patient, their values and their family dynamics. This “insider knowledge” can help facilitate difficult discussions in the exam room.
  3. Lack of effective therapies to treat the disease: No physician likes to deliver bad news. No doctor wants to admit “defeat” at the hands of disease. It is often the case where some healthcare providers will not disclose some aspects of a diagnosis if there are no effective treatments. I firmly disagree with this practice of withholding relevant information as I believe that every patient has the right to know what they may be facing—many will make significant life choices if they know they have a progressively debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. In the 1950s, many patients were not told about terminal cancer diagnoses due to the lack of effective treatments. However, medicine is no longer paternalistic—we must engage and involve our patients in every decision.
  4. Lack of Physician communication education: As Medical Students we are often overwhelmed with facts to memorize and little attention is given to teaching students how to effectively interact with patients as well as colleagues. Mock interviews with post interview feedback should be a part of pre clinical training for physicians. We must incorporate lectures on grief and the grieving process into the first year of medical school. Making connections with patients must be a priority for physicians in the future—we must equip trainees with the tools they need for success.  Leaders distinguish themselves by the way in which they share bad news.  According to Forbes magazine the critical components of sharing bad news include–accuracy of communication, taking responsibility for the situation, listening, and telling people what you will do next.

What’s next?

As with most things in medicine, change often occurs “around” healthcare providers without direct physician input. Physicians are appropriately focused on providing excellent care and connecting with patients while politicians and economists craft the future of medicine. The issues with lack of communication of negative findings with patients MUST be addressed. Patients have a right to their own data and have a right to know both significant and insignificant findings. In order to avoid situations where patients are not fully informed about their medical condition, we must continue to remain focused on the patient—even if it means that other clerical obligations are left unattended.

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Promoting the Team Approach in Medical Education: Dealing with the “The Gunners”

In the satirical novel The House of God, author Samuel Shem writes about experiences as a medical student at Harvard.  In the novel, many famous quotations are used that have been passed on from generation after generation of medical students and residents.  Some slang terminology is also referenced and characters are created to illustrate the qualities of certain types of students.  One particular student that is found in every medical school class is the “Gunner”.  The Gunner is a term used to describe a hyper competitive medical student who is motivated by performance and grades and will stop at nothing to succeed. Almost every medical school class in the US has a couple of students with this character trait.  All of us who have trained in the past can still remember who these students were in our own classes.  Sadly,  a Gunner feels no remorse about climbing over others to achieve success on the medical wards when being evaluated by attending physicians.  A Gunner never learns how to work well with others and, although performs remarkably well on exams and evaluations, is often left without essential skills for success in medical practice.

Last week in the New York Times, Author Pauline Chen writes about the inability of the current medical education system to “fail” students with poor interpersonal skills and the inability to work with a team.  Now, more than ever, teamwork in medicine is essential to success.  In the article the story of a bright, young medical student is detailed.  This young student is able to ace all of the written exams but isolates herself from classmates, treats nurses and colleagues with disrespect and is unable to accept constructive criticism.  The attending physician supervising the student laments that he is unable to “fail” her due to the fact that there are no objective evaluations in the medical school grading system to deal with important attributes such as bedside manner, communication skills and interaction with nurses and colleagues.

In my opinion, this story illustrates a major flaw in our medical education system.  We have a responsibility to students as well as future patients to help create doctors who are not only brilliant diagnosticians and clinicians but are also compassionate, caring and able to easily work with others.  No longer is medicine practiced by the Physician in isolation.  Today, medicine is centered around a team approach.  Nurses, physician extenders, social workers and physicians all work in concert to produce excellent patient outcomes.  Healthcare reform has now mandated certain (sometimes arbitrary) quality measures and it is only through a comprehensive team approach that these can be achieved and (more importantly for the government) documented.  Nothing productive has ever emerged from a negative confrontation with nurses or colleagues in a hospital.  We must reward students who display the ability to work well with others and effectively communicate with staff.  More importantly, we must teach students how to readily accept and respond to constructive criticism and continually self evaluate.

Certainly, proficiency with test taking and knowledge acquisition is essential to creating a successful, effective physician.  However, a physician who is able to work well with teams and communicate effectively with non physician support personnel is just as essential. We must develop a system put that actively strives to teach and evaluate these important interpersonal skills in medical school.  Once students are advanced to internship and residency, these bad habits are much more difficult (if not impossible) to break.  Competitiveness and striving for excellence are still important qualities in medical students.  However, compassion and concern for others may be even more rewarding in the long run.

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