Finding our way back to human connection in medicine

Photo courtesy of The Buffalo Chronicle.

Being a physician is hard. I often choose to focus on the more rewarding aspects of my job. I find it satisfying to provide diverse and skillful care. There is privilege in experiencing glimpses of the most vulnerable parts of my patients’ lives. Their stories of joy, pain and suffering are a humbling reminder of the beauty and fragility of human life. I’d like to explore storytelling as an element of humanism in medicine. I believe when physicians can fully exist as themselves and their own stories, it invites a shared vulnerability that has seemingly nothing and yet everything to do with how we show up every day to practice medicine.

I’ve learned that simplicity brings clarity. Bringing yourself back to the fundamental reasons why you’ve chosen medicine as your career can serve as an honest guide when you lose your way. What aspect of becoming a doctor was mesmerizing to think about as a curious child? Or, as a naïve medical student? So much changes throughout your career. The checklists are extensive as are the requirements for credentialing, promotion and tenure. Despite the technological advances in medicine, many of us have been unable to evolve beyond “surviving” a typical workday as the tasks of charting and filling our schedules to meet patient quotas weigh us down. We are living for the next day off unsure of our motivations but committed nonetheless. Most of us simply want to be doctors doing what we’ve trained to do but it can feel impossible to keep our values, families and well-being a priority while balancing all of the constantly influx responsibilities of our role. We are either ignorant or helplessly aware of how this growing trend in medicine undermines patient-centered care.

Growing up the middle child of seven taught me the value of imagination. My creativity was cultivated both out of desire and necessity. I can recall building and decorating elaborate doll houses using leftover cardboard, old linens and water paint. I was also the neighborhood’s party planner often hosting tea parties with cakes made with my Easy-Bake-Oven and birthday gatherings with a piñata as the main event. Most of my summer days as a child were spent on roller skates, observing anthills, and stargazing. Life was full of possibilities and I didn’t accept things for what they seemed. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I allowed some of that child-like imagination and creativity to permeate my practice as a physician? Would my decision-making cease to be evidenced-based? Would I risk appearing impulsive or less skilled? What fears of perceived incompetence do we allow to quietly eradicate our desires to be uniquely innovative? Or, do we cease to be individuals once we become physicians? We have created a monolith for behavior and characteristics that have become the standard for practicing medicine. This has less to do with the standardization of patient care and professionalism but more to do with our collective perceptions of who is considered “worthy” of being a physician. We, as a profession, must continue to foster a culture that values diversity and inclusion not only in gender and race but also mannerisms and uniqueness reflective of our respective cultures, perspectives and backgrounds. I believe the apex of our capacity to revolutionize our field lies at the intersection of where we are perfectly individual and a part of a collective mission. Where we choose not to accept things for what they seem and to get back to what really matters in medicine. Where we recognize, nurture and invest in the creative and unique qualities each of us have. A little imagination could create a system where patients have value beyond the ICD-10 code they generate and capitalism doesn’t police our care. Technology could facilitate better access to healthcare services and simplify our practice so that we can spend more time with patients instead of resulting in extra billing paperwork. We get to be both active parent and physician without fear of “sacrificing” our careers. We thrive while using our individual talents to shape our field for the next generation.

I am a physician who doesn’t know all the answers. In fact, I find it’s often useful to simply say “ I don’t know” when faced with a new dilemma, clinical or otherwise. This often dismantles any pretense and allows for curiosity in problem-solving. We aren’t meant to have all of the answers. A humanistic physician accepts this fact without feeling less than. Humanism is bravely stating that while I don’t have the answer to this problem plaguing medicine, I don’t like the healthcare machine we’ve created that takes away from connection with each other and our patients. Isn’t this really why most of us became physicians in the first place? Many will argue its inevitability but I continue to believe that there is inspiration in our individual stories, both as patients and physicians, that connect us all. Our stories have the power to lead us back to the foundational reasons why we’ve chosen careers as physicians, why we choose to continue to invest in better healthcare solutions for our patients and how we can do so while preserving our humanity.

Age of Awareness

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Thelben Mullett, M.D.

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Dr. Mullett is a wife, storyteller and champion for social justice. She lives in Seattle, WA.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors