Friday, April 21, 2017

Observations from the Gurney:

Whether it is in a hospital or in a doctor’s office, there is a profound shift in the nature of an adult - adult relationship when one of the adults is a patient and the other adult is a physician!  Who waits for whom - always?  Who is lying down or sitting on an examination table (like a specimen) - always?  For the patient, it’s all about being wounded and feeling vulnerable.  It includes a feeling of less power, less control, emotional (as well as physical) vulnerability, uneven footing, and, at times, depersonalization.  While physicians may feel confident in their mastery of medical knowledge, they may encounter similar emotions in their challenges or worries about how to transfer that knowledge.  What is the best way to communicate or have a discussion with the patient and the patient’s family about what they know and what they don’t know?  Their own emotional roller coaster may include fear, uncertainty, discomfort and even anxiety, sadness and yes, at times, powerlessness.

The one part of this scenario that should not have to occur is depersonalization.  

I was recently hospitalized the night before my birthday, and discharged the day after my birthday.  On my first full day in the hospital, April 11, I can't count the number of times nurses, techs and other staff asked me my date of birth (while checking my wrist band) and before administering one service or another.  When I said April 11, there was no sign of recognition that today’s date is April 11 - today is this patient’s birthday!  They could have commented (if they noticed): “What a bummer!  You’re in the hospital on your birthday!”  To one of them, asking: "Date of birth?" I said: “Today,” and she looked at me strangely (it was not the automatic response she expected!), and it took a few moments to catch on.  It is evidence of how much of what goes on in the hospital is truly mindless.  Any type of mindlessness cannot be good for patient safety or for professional satisfaction.  What a lost opportunity to have the human connection every patient craves and each health care professional needs!  

Too often, patients become a number, a date of birth, a condition, a diagnosis or just the occupant in bed 74b.  I had more “human” conversations with the people transporting me throughout the hospital for one test after another than I did with most other hospital personnel.  

Gawande writes about becoming a Positive Deviant, and the first of his five suggestions is “Ask an unscripted question.”  A script helps to insure we are getting all the information we need; however, if it’s only the script we use, we are on automatic pilot and that’s not good for patient OR physician!  My take on this is that if the only things we know about a patient is their medical history and medical condition, we are not treating a person - we are treating a diagnosis, or a wound or an organ.  We might as well be back in medical school with our cadaver.  

Do you want your doctor to give you your test results 

standing or sitting?

  Did you ever have the experience of a physician in the hospital coming in to your (or a relative’s) room to give you results of a test?  I don't know if physicians realize it, but when the results are good, they come into our room, remain standing, tell us the result and leave right away.  When the results suggest a larger problem, they pull up a chair, sit down and say "The results from your (fill in the name of the test) are back and ..."

My physician sat down!  I knew immediately that the MRI showed it was more than a TIA.  I’m not sure where my mind went or my blood pressure or my emotions.  I’m not even sure if I heard everything she said next.  Of course, she stayed a while to talk about the new next tests that were ordered, etc.  Whose needs are being met when doctors decide to sit down vs. remaining standing?  How nice it would be if physicians sat down no matter what the results are.  Even with good results, they could talk with us and help us realize the extent and source of our relief and our fears.  Those are part of the patient’s reality as well.

One other thought / realization I have had while recuperating: diagnoses protect physicians from the emotion of the patient’s experience.  It is part of the labeling subculture - necessary for the treatment and billing part of our medical culture, but not sufficient for the caring and healing parts of the subculture we profess to be.  

Communication focussed on the diagnosis allows professionals, who are acting professionally, to stay in their head and to protect their heart and gut.  Even during the H & P, the questions are all about what happened and has it happened before, and there is less room for “That must have been scary!” or “You must have been wondering what was happening to you…”  

This lesson was highlighted for me recently when a 3rd year medical student - who is in one of my Balint groups - told and eventually wrote beautifully about a series of encounters with a patient on one of his first rotations to observe real patient care.  He commented that he really did not know how to do anything medical, so he just talked with this patient and listened.  The result in the course of just several days of sitting down and listening to his patient’s story was the development of a profound connection between a patient and a health care professional - a medical student who was not yet a doctor.  It seems we have it so backwards or upside down when the person with the fewest ‘medical’ tools in a medical system has the most time to sit and listen, while those with the most ‘medical’ tools have the least time to sit and listen!  

When was listening (not just hearing) considered outside the realm of medical tools?

  A crucial part of the patient’s healing comes with telling the story - sometimes more than once.  We do not have to be psychologists to ask what an experience was like or what remaining fears and worries patients have.  We can engage our humanity, validate their emotions, reassure them of our continued participation in their health and recuperation or readjustment journey and then take a deep breath knowing that we have met them where they are.  We don’t have to be brilliant - just human - and that in itself is healing (sometimes for us as well).

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What is your doctor's Relationship Quotient?

Relationship Intelligence is NOT the same as 
Emotional Intelligence

What do I say to a patient who tells me about childhood memories of assault, or sexual abuse, or a traumatic experience?  

What do I say to (or do for) a patient who tells me about their (shameful) addiction to drugs, or alcohol, or pornography, or eating, etc.?

What do I say to a patient who reveals being in a cycle of abusive relationships?

To have or to be open to having an emotionally authentic conversation yet alone a relationship with any of these people is to open one’s heart to the human condition in ways that are out of the ordinary.  With any new person, we begin at a comfortable distance, and then when we hear their story, we have some automatic, reflexive reaction which may include adjusting that figurative or emotional distance (increasing or decreasing).  We may unconsciously erect some protective barrier, or we may possibly embrace the pain and woundedness in our presence.  We would like to think we can remain objective, non-judgmental, non-blaming and very self aware, but no matter how often we have heard these stories, it's difficult not to have some reaction.  What about our (unknown or unnamed) biases?  What attracts us to one individual?  What repels us from others?  Do we even know what’s happening inside ourselves when it is happening?

 What is it about some people that make them interesting to us?  What is it about some others that make it more difficult for us to connect with and be more understanding?

How do I ask questions that are on topics that may be very sensitive to ask and complex to delve into - like sexuality, drug and/or alcohol use, abuse experience?

How do I establish an agreement / contract with my patient about trust, safety, privacy, availability, shared responsibility?

    There is a significant body of literature supporting the primacy of the relationship between therapist and patient or physician and patient over the particular treatment method or approach of the professional.  Simply stated, the most important factor in patient care is the nature of the relationship between the doctor and the patient!  Technique is secondary.   Physician time spent establishing a relationship is never wasted time!  And yet, professionals will argue back and forth about the merits of different techniques or approaches, and they pay less attention to relationship building processes.  Research has measured the time it takes some physicians to interrupt a patient’s story in seconds!  Interruptions may get us to the core of the symptoms more quickly, but we bypass the patient in the process.

     As early as 1957, Michael Balint wrote about “… the doctor as drug,” suggesting that the physician’s impact on the patient can be akin to the impact (or side effect) of a pharmaceutical agent.   With pharmaceutical agents, the side effect is almost always negative.  Once in a while, a medicine is chosen because a known side effect is a desirable one for a particular patient.  If we think about “the doctor as drug,” it is an opportunity to have NO negative side effects.  In fact, the relationship that is developed can be a multiplier of the purely medical treatment regimin.  But this is dependent on the physician’s Relationship Intelligence or their Relationship Quotient!

So, a natural question to ask is what are the components of Relationship Intelligence and how does one develop such a skill?   It is clear that emotional intelligence is a necessary component - necessary, but not sufficient - especially in the form of listening to self and to others.  

Why is listening such a challenge?

     Emotion trumps Logic: I often think about a Maya Angelou quote: "I may not remember what you did for me, but I will always remember how you made me feel."  It is so ironic because so many physicians will first remember what they did for the patient and only when probed might recall the emotion in the encounter.  This is an example of how there can be such a dichotomy between the patient experience and the physician experience.   The patient may be sitting with emotionally and physically painful secrets they have never shared - until today.  The physician is prepared to ask a few diagnostic questions, chose among several medications they will prescribe and smoothly leave with encouragement and a plan for the next appointment.  Doctors are prepared to open the door to the examining room, but maybe not prepared to open the door to the patient's life.

 Listening as a billable code: Part of physician's training is to think about how to code this visit to justify billing the insurance company. It's not the first thing on the doctor's mind, 
but they are quick to know that this is a Level 2 or Level 3 visit, for example. They also need 
to be clear about documenting all of their findings in order to justify the medical diagnosis 
and the codes for treatments - especially procedures. Doing a procedure or sending a 
prescription to the patient's pharmacy feels like I'm doing something. "Just" listening does 
not feel like I'm doing something - no matter what the patient says.  

I wonder if we are teaching the subtleties of listening well enough!

     Emotional Arithmetic:  When we share good or exciting events in our lives with people who care, the joy gets multiplied.  When we share sad or bad events that we experience in our lives, the pain is divided.  Sharing our experiences is always a positive - primarily for the sharer.  Good things get better; sad or painful things get lessened by virtue of their being shared.  However, the experience is different depending on whether we are sharing or we are listening.  To fully listen and only listen is a gift!  It is like saying (silently): "Let me help carry that load."  And to fully listen is to acknowledge the story and to validate the emotions.
One challenge is to avoid several traps.  One is the trap of trying to fix it - it's in our DNA!  We are helpers, fixers.  We get some of our goodies by relieving pain and suffering.  It is easy to forget that really listening, uninterrupted, helps!  Another trap is to try to reframe it or put it in a more palatable context - another form of fixing it.  Another trap is sharing our marginally similar experience as a way of saying "I know how that feels." which we probably could never know.  It is a helpless feeling to "just" listen, yet it is such a gift!

     The Patient vs. The Schedule (all the other patients):  When the visit I thought would be routine becomes a drama, my schedule flashes before me and I think about all the other patients I will be seeing and to whom I will have to apologize for being so late.  It is so unfortunate that physician's schedules have to be so tightly booked that there is little time for even one drama to pop out and require adequate time.  it is unfair to patients as well as to doctors.  And the only remedy the way schedules are set up is to make everyone who follows a bit later than they planned or expected.  No wonder listening is so challenging.

     Balance Content with Process - Paying attention to what is said in addition to how it is said is crucial in understanding the complexities in what is being communicated.  Recognizing a patient’s reluctance or their anxiety or the tension with which they share information adds to the meaning that sharing may have; it may help to recognize or uncover additional layers of information crucial to understanding that patient 's story.  Sometimes, patients do not have the emotional vocabulary to fully express how they are feeling.  Sometimes, the best they can do is to demonstrate the anxiety by being anxious or the tension by showing us their tension.  It is our task to identify those emotions, to provide the emotional vocabulary.  It is another subtlety of listening.

The Role of the Physician in the Community?

This emphasis on relationship seems in marked contrast to current trends in health care which emphasize efficiency, cost containment and the bottom line, patient improvement as measured by laboratory test results, and patient satisfaction measured by a brief questionnaire.  In contrast to more highly valuing healing relationships, this emphasis on efficiency and patient (customer?) satisfaction is more of a focus on the business of medicine.   I have wondered how good the Press-Ganey scores would be for Shamanic healers.

Balint groups are such a reminder of what components are essential for developing relationships that can be healing.  Maybe Balint's impact is to help physicians develop better Relationship Intelligence which leads to better connections with patients and ultimately better care!  Part of the process may be revealing or uncovering blind spots.  Another way to think about this is that Balint group participation helps physicians to integrate their  professional role with their human role.  It helps us to listen to ourselves as well as to listen to our patients.  We both need to be acknowledged and to be validated!