During the Resident Patient Safety Summer Camp in Telluride two weeks ago, the group joined in an emotional discussion led by one of our patient advocates, Carole Hemmelgarn, also a graduate and educator for the University of Illinois Medical Center’s MS in Patient Safety Leadership. Carole’s talk centered around communication, and the power words hold within the healthcare environment–a lesson gleaned from her own family’s story that began with their young daughter, newly diagnosed with cancer, and almost in the same instant, also misdiagnosed and labeled as anxious.
I’ve heard Carole fight through tears of grief more than once as she has shared her family’s story, imploring the medical profession be careful in the words they choose to describe and label patients – both formally in a chart, and informally among colleagues. This time, however, I had a flashback to my own graduate training in sport psychology, where we studied in detail the differences between state and trait anxiety, two very different states of arousal, and different still from a full-blown DSM-V diagnosis of a generalized anxiety disorder. I asked the group if they understood the difference between state and trait anxiety, would they treat each of the two the same, and what assumption would they make if they came across the word “anxious” in a patient’s chart. The answers I received from a few in the group were confident, but unconvincing, and I wondered silently at the depth and type of training medical students receive around the nuances of mental health.
Reflecting on what I had learned years ago, it dawned on me that Carole’s little girl most likely had not been properly assessed to have had this label attributed to her upon a first meeting–something the family knew but no one was listening. To my knowledge, she was not seen by a mental health professional, or given a formal assessment for anxiety. However she was a child newly diagnosed with a disease other people in her life had left her world as a result of, and she was an intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful young person who put two and two together–easily becoming state anxious, if she was truly anxious, or just attributed so by someone lacking the knowledge, empathy or time to understand the power one word can carry when recklessly placed into a medical chart in judgment.
Carole’s story always leaves a lasting impression with her audience, and one of our Telluride Scholars, resident physician Lakshman Swamy MD, shared the following reflection on our Telluride blog in, Thinking About the Medical Language:
…We heard a powerful story about the impact of a casual word thrown into a patient’s chart and how that created an anchoring bias that ultimately cost a child’s life — unnecessarily…
…I’ve been thinking in particular about how many normal colloquial words — like anxious, delusional, confused — have a distinct meaning in medicine. When my patient’s nurse tells me that he is confused, it doesn’t mean he isn’t understanding something and needs clarity. It doesn’t mean that there is a misunderstanding. It means he is not thinking straight because of underlying illness. This gets interesting and tricky when we translate medical English to colloquial English. What is worrisome, however, is when we are flippant with these words. I hadn’t realized the impact that the language I use can have on patients, families, and ultimately the course of a patient’s care.
For example, during transitions of care — handoffs between inpatient providers in particular — the new team has a strong inclination to believe what the old team says in their signout. A casual word in that signout — such as “anxious” when you mean that the patient is fearful, or “confused” when you mean that the patient is unaware of the treatment plan, or “delusional” when the patient might just be hopeful — can have an intense impact on the new team’s perception of that patient. We should be aware of the impact of our language but also more clearly train our students about the potency of what we write in a chart.
At the end of that paradigm-shifting session for many, Kim Oates, MD (@KimRKO), a tenured pediatrician and regular Telluride faculty coming all the way from Australia, brilliantly summarized the challenging conversations. I had sat behind him most of the meeting that week and watched on more than one occasion the emotion stories like that of Carole and her daughter triggered for him. In his soft, Aussie accent, his summary gently but firmly suggested to all young healthcare providers in the audience to be certain to understand and recognize when making a judgment versus conveying facts, and to be very careful not to confuse the two. And to make sure that what actually lands in a patient’s chart is fact.
Kim Oates MD has been a regular faculty member at the Telluride Patient Safety Educational Roundtable and Summer Camps, which is no easy accomplishment given he travels to this remote Rocky Mountain town all the way from Australia. Kim, who is a pediatrician by training, is a medical educator to the core, and is now Emeritus Professor, Director Undergraduate Quality & Safety Education, Clinical Excellence Commission in New South Wales. The following is an excerpt from a piece he wrote on kindness in healthcare for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, recently reprinted in the Medical Journal of Australia. Please feel free to share with colleagues. The entire abridged piece in MJA can found by clicking here.
Way back in my intern days, it was unusual for consultants to talk with their “public” patients…The hard stuff was often left to us — the interns, young people with minimal life experience, an overwhelming workload and no training in the gentle art of communication.
At my teaching hospital a time was set aside once each week when family members could come to the hospital foyer, page the intern and ask questions about their loved one’s condition. In my third month after graduation I assisted at a laparotomy on a fit, active 54-year-old man who presented with a hard lump at his umbilicus. The laparotomy showed widespread cancer with multiple metastases. The surgeon closed the wound. There was nothing to be done…It was my job to tell his unsuspecting wife when she came to the foyer to ask about her husband’s operation. I told her the truth as kindly as I could. Her eyes welled up with tears. So did mine.
Afterwards, I felt embarrassed about my show of emotion. Why couldn’t I be “more professional” like my consultants? I wondered if I was really suited to do medicine. Later, I realised that it may have helped her. She may have seen that even though the news was bad, I cared…In subsequent years, as a consultant, my eyes would sometimes moisten when I had to tell a parent that their child would not survive. And sometimes it happened when I had the pleasure of giving unexpected, but joyful news.
Was this behaviour “unprofessional”? Or is there is room for families, junior doctors and medical students to realise that we, the more senior doctors, do care? To realise that there is more to it than striding the narrow catwalk between aloofness and over-familiarity, that there is a place to show humanity and that it is not unprofessional to let people know we care…
…Of course, there are some professional boundaries which we must always respect…these well accepted boundaries are different from really caring about our patients and doing something about it…We don’t have to take off our compassion, or our ability to show it, when we drape a stethoscope around our neck. The need for doctors to be professional is not synonymous with being emotionless. There is more to this than just being nice to people. It is about being kind. It also has implications for the quality of patient care…
Powerful recommendations — listen to patients; model transparency; model trust; keep on learning.