On Grief, Choices and Being Mortal

The stories shared during this year’s Patient Safety Awareness Week (#PSAW2015) were inspiring! In ETY’s Why Patient Safety Week Matters, Carole Hemmelgarn, Patient Advocate, shared for one of the first times her feelings of grief related to a series of medical harm events that took her only daughter, Alyssa. She wrote that “grief is her twin”, a twin that at times brings comfort and sorrow. Thanks to the power of social media, her message was carried like a gift to many around the world. The following comment confirms yet again that our stories matter to others–and our willingness to share them when ready can ease not only our own, but another’s suffering:

Your story is so important. I never thought of my grief also bringing solace. I lost my father and thought that was bad but 10 years later I would lose my sister and mother in the same year. I have cried (for a few minutes) every weekend since August 2013 when my sister died and I thought somehow I needed to stop because this is not normal. After reading what you wrote maybe I should stop trying and just rejoice in the memory of my loved ones a few tears is a small price to pay to remember them.

And from @MichaelDFranklin:

Do we realize that such a quote, “grief is my twin” is not specific to loss from medical errors, but to life itself?

Dave Mayer’s ETY post, Caring for Caregivers…, later in the week, served as insight into the grief felt by those administering care–even when that care goes as planned. He referred to an opinion piece in JAMA entitled, “What I Learned About Adverse Events From Captain Sully – It’s Not What You Think,” that discussed the stress involved in caring for others requires many to side-step a recovery process for the self that could revive and encourage positive coping skills for future stressful events. Caregivers are often expected to jump back into the next case without taking time to recover. This equaling of the patient-caregiver grief playing field reflects the silent suffering that can be occurring on both sides of the healthcare encounter when a simple conversation could be the bridge to healing. Grief multiplies in isolation–it can be lessened in the right company when ready. And as Carole did last week, the sharing of our own grief can also be a gift to a complete stranger. How beautiful is that?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 12.33.23 PMHow can we help multiply these gifts; stories of our selves by both patient and healthcare professional? Especially when medical training has only begun to consider the healing power of listening with the heart, as well as the head. This winter, I had the pleasure of hearing Atul Gawande speak at the IHI Forum where he shared insights gained while working on his latest tome of wisdom, Being Mortal. Of all the thoughts he shared that day, the one that has stuck with me four months later is the differing views he and his wife hold for end of life comfort. Atul said he is “down with Stephen Hawking”, and if he is simply “a brain in a jar and we can still extract his thoughts” let him live on! His wife on the other hand (and I summarize) has shared that if she even looks as though she can no longer enjoy life or share in the moment, pull the plug. This take home message is a reminder that individual choices related to how we live and die can be very different, even from those we love most. Unless we choose to talk about those choices–with one another, and with our healthcare teams–we remain a mystery to one another.

In the introduction to Being Mortal, Gawande reflects on how far our current approach to care as we age is from where we once were, or even where so many will find real comfort, including those delivering care. He writes:

I learned a lot of things in medical school but mortality wasn’t one of them…our textbooks had almost nothing on aging, or frailty, or dying…when I came to experience surgical training and practice, I encountered patients forced to confront the realities of decline and mortality, and it did not take long to realize how unready I was to help them.

There are many in healthcare–patients and caregivers–who also understand there is a better way. I recently found out that a good friend’s Mom was given 6-12 months to live at the younger-every-day age of 71. The choices she made throughout her life most likely have influenced the way it will end, but they are hers. She has found a doctor she likes to see her through treatment, and he is encouraging her to continue to make the choices that bring her comfort and as much joy in the remaining time she has with friends and family. She has found a healer, as well as a physician–someone who can sit with her and listen, hear with the heart and share experiences that might prove healing even though he cannot treat the disease itself.

Atul Gawande is on to something in Being Mortal. In fact, it could be one of his most important works to date. The suggestion that instead of being taught to diagnose, to treat, and to protect the hospital assets, a greater amount of time could be spent teaching healthcare professionals how to share in grief, to share stories of the self and to explore more deeply what is truly meant by the art of healing is an idea that each of us–patient or caregiver–can carry with us into care environments if we choose.


Residents as Sentinels and Change Agents for Safer Care

This coming Saturday, April 26th, the Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR) will be hosting its next QIIQ Conference titled, “How to be a Lead Agent of Change: From Bedside to Transformative Care“, in NYC. Rosemary Gibson, Carole Hemmelgarn, Shelly Dierking and I have the honor of joining leaders from CIR to help facilitate the all-day interactive session. While many faculty will be attending, the major focus of this educational meeting will be on the residents, both from CIR Hospitals as well as other GME programs, and aligns with the “Educating the Young” mission.

Residents can be change agents for safer, higher quality care. There are now numerous examples across the country of this fact–residents leading important quality and safety initiatives that have reduced risk and raised the quality of care provided–and they have done this work despite internal challenges and long work weeks. Those that have followed our ETY blog for the past two years will remember my post on the work of David Leach, the former CEO for the ACGME (see The Canary in the Coal Mine…).  In one of his publications, Dr. Leach shared the most important role of graduate resident physicians was to act as the “moral agent” for their patients. Residents must be the gatekeepers for safe, high quality care–a sentinel on watch for the many unsafe conditions they might encounter while trying to provide optimal patient care, prepared to alert faculty and leadership to these unsafe conditions, and then work with their institutions to find solutions to remove risk from the patient experience. The analogy Dr. Leach used was the canary in the coal mine, taking on the role of guardian and protecting others from harm before it was too late. I loved this “moral agent” concept. It is so simple, yet so important in the quest for safer, higher quality, patient care. In academic medical centers, resident physicians spend more time in the hospital, have more direct contact with patients, and see many more unsafe conditions during days, evenings and weekends than most other caregivers, except possibly nurses. And they do it many times with little, if any, direct supervision. Resident physicians can be those sentinels and serve as excellent change agents for safer care.

We need more conferences like CIR’s QIIQ focused on our next generation of caregivers.  Please help spread the word about the conference. Below is some additional background information with the links to register. The third link is the conference brochure which has additional details.  We appreciate the support and as always, thank you!!

Background Info:
The one-day conference on How to be a Lead Agent of Change will be held Saturday, April 26th in New York City. Given the importance of the patient experience and the desire for more patient-centered care, the Committee of Interns and Residents conference is meant to empower medical residents to develop and execute high-value care projects in their hospitals and health systems, and better equip them with the competencies they need to work in a rapidly changing delivery system.

To register for this conference, please click here. There will also be a webcast, and people can sign up for that here. The agenda and conference brochure can be found here (this includes logistics on location and timing, as well as goals for the day and additional contact information). Please feel free to share this information, as well as the links to register, with your organization and networks.

*CIR has also been tweeting about the conference with the #QIIQ hashtag. Here is a sample tweet you are more than welcome to share with your followers: What’s your #QIIQ? Join @cirseiu & @EinsteinMed in NYC on 4/26 for the next #QIIQ conference. Register now! bit.ly/qiiq426


What Doctors Feel

Screen Shot 2013-06-07 at 9.49.58 AMI came across a post last week on Slate, The Darkest Year of Medical School, revisiting the idea that medical students lose not only empathy during their medical education, but according to author and NYU physician, Danielle Ofri, “altruism…generosity of spirit, love of learning, high ethical standards—are eroded by the end of medical training.” On June 4th, Ofri also published What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, having performed numerous interviews to draw her conclusions. I read some of the comments on her blog post above–many sharing “medical school was great”. Yet research–past and present– shows many students are not having that experience.

Ofri’s post and newest publication caught my eye as we embark upon the 9th year of the Telluride Patient Safety Educational Roundtable and Resident/Student Summer Camps. This will be my third year in Telluride. The first year I attended, I had the privilege to share a breakout discussion with Lucian Leape and a group of students in the shadows of the San Juan mountains. Throughout that week, Lucian emphasized the need to get a handle on the bullying that occurs in medicine, and instead, instill a greater respect for all in the medical workplace. He shared that unless we are able to do this — treat one another with respect — patients would pay the price, as well as healthcare providers and students.

Having not yet read Ofri’s book, I wonder if medical students who report enjoying medical school overall, were safely ensconced within a workplace with the culture of respect that Dr. Leape refers to as being so very important to patient well-being. It is safe to assume just how empowering a culture of respect would be for students, making them feel competent, part of a team and confident in their newly acquired skills. It’s also safe to assume how students who were bullied might feel (see Bullying in Medicine: Just Say No).

For more information on a culture of respect, and how to create one, see Lucian’s papers:

Perspective: A Culture of Respect, Part 1: The Nature and Causes of Disrespectful Behavior by Physicians
Perspective: A Culture of Respect, Part 2: Creating a Culture of Respect