How to Succeed in Clinical Rotations (and residency, too)

Today I have the incredible joy of talking to the medical students on our rotation.  No agenda, just a conversation that they requested for some “advice”. They just started their surgery rotation last week and it’s their first rotation.  First rotation, beginner’s mind, unbridled enthusiasm… it is so wonderful!. I decided I would come up with what I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my rotations…

Photo credit

 

Be mindful, deliberate and excited about learning.

This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give.  Clinical rotations are often a whirlwind of work and you can be swept away without realizing it. Residents can ignore you, people can be cranky, patients can be difficult… and in the midst of all this, you are expected to learn to be a doctor.  You have to stay in charge of that mission, no matter what is happening around you.

Take a little time to reflect on why you are doing this and what kind of person/doctor you want to become.  When times get tough (and they will) hold on to it.  If it helps you, come up with a slogan to repeat, keep on a piece of paper in your wallet or on your wrist

Photo credit

 

Learn about the practice of mindfulness.  Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in decreasing stress and may help to prevent burnout.  It’s not hard to learn, but it’s hard to master … which is the point of a “practice”. (e.g. the practice of medicine)

Learn to keep a “beginner’s mind”.  When I was a student on core medicine I had a senior resident that showed me what beginner’s mind looks like.  It was 2am and I was tired.  We were seeing a gentleman at the VA hospital for his diabetes, hypertension and some electrolyte abnormalities.  I presented the patient to the resident and then we went to see him together.  He had a rash, which I thought was so insignificant that I didn’t even include it in my presentation.  But, instead of scolding me, this resident got excited.  Yes, you read that correctly, 2am and excited about a rash – because he didn’t know what it was. (This next part will date me, but it’s a great example to make us grateful for the access we have to information now).  He called security and had them open the library.  We spent a wonderful hour looking through books – like a treasure hunt when we were little kids – until we found the rash in one of the books.  We were laughing, excited and couldn’t wait to get back to start the appropriate therapy.

 

Understand what you are going to learn (the big picture)

On every rotation, you will be given a list of learning objectives.  By all means, know them, study the things listed and make sure you know them (they will be on the test).  BUT… please realize that diseases don’t stay conveniently siloed in a single specialty so this is not learning “surgery”, it’s learning about how surgeons approach a specific disease you will see elsewhere, too.   You also need to know that what is listed as learning objectives today may well be obsolete tomorrow  (if they aren’t already).

You have chosen a career that ethically demands life-long learning.  That means that one of the most important skills to learn is how to develop a system of learning that you can use in medical school, residency and later in practice.

Photo credit

 

Develop a system for lifelong learning now

Learning is iterative.  You will learn broad concepts on each rotation along with a “fly over” of the entire terrain of the specialty  You will need the information you learn on your surgery rotation on your medicine rotation when you are consulted on a patient with an ischemic leg who needs surgical treatment, or on your pediatrics rotation when your patient with a pneumonia develops an empyema.  If you choose surgery at your career, you will read and learn the same topics throughout your residency (and after) but with increasing depth.

The practical points on how to develop a system to learn during your rotation are here: How to Ace the NBME Shelf Exams: How to Ace the NBME Shelf Exams, In-Training Exams and Your Boards, but the key points are summarized below:

  • Remember it’s school.
  • Make a list of all the topics in the textbook.
  • Breathe deeply. You are not going to read every page in the textbook in addition to your assigned reading.
  • Create a schedule to SKIM every chapter
  • TAKE NOTES. All the time.
  • Figure out how to store your notes so you can find them in the future
  • Go through your daily notes in the evening and then store them in your system
  • Review, review, review

Photo credit

 

Take care of yourself.

Pay attention to ergonomics, diet, exercise and sleep.  Most importantly, take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually.  You can’t learn or serve others if your tank is empty.  Come up with what is important for you and make a list.  Seriously.  Make a list of what you find helps you stay on track and then check it off every day.  Look at it before you go to bed.  Celebrate the things you did and don’t be hard on yourself for the ones you didn’t get to.

Don’t forget to take a “Sabbath” every week.  True time off is critical for recovery from this stressful work.

If it gets too hard, seek help.  It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, and most (if not all) of the people around you have been there.

We have the most amazing job on earth.  When the administrative issues or political conflicts get to you (and they will), just remember – you get to take care of another human life with the goal of relieving their suffering.  What could be more important than that?

Photo credit

 

 

 

 

I have never seen a patient who did not deserve healthcare

The other day, while I was looking at my Twitter feed, I came across this amazing thread by Dr. Jennifer Cowart. I was so moved by this heartfelt plea to our elected officials that I asked her permission to post it here.

Female doctor with the stethoscope holding heart

I have never seen a patient who did not deserve healthcare.

I have seen people, rich and poor, who do not take care of themselves. Who drink too much, eat bad food, smoke, use drugs, drive recklessly, etc. If you smoke and get lung cancer, or if you didn’t smoke and get lung cancer, you deserve healthcare.

I have seen people, rich and poor, who believed themselves entitled to whatever care they wanted, at whatever cost, whether it was evidence-based or not. It didn’t change the fact that they deserved appropriate healthcare.

In fact, it is interesting that “entitled” is an epithet more often thrown at an “undeserving” poor person than a rich person with the same behavior and attitude.

I treat “good” and “bad” people. People I wouldn’t let in my house. It doesn’t matter. I’ve treated registered sex offenders. I don’t ask what they did. I take care of their pneumonias, their heart failure, their cirrhosis. They deserve healthcare. My care.

I took my (healthy, neurotypical) baby to a specialist the other day. We passed many children with (visible) special needs. A girl with a trach in a push chair. A teenager escorted by her father with CP. Children with various genetic syndromes. They deserve healthcare.

That could have been us. If not for the luck of genetics, my children could be those children. Blessings, but also requiring significant care, time, money, and resources. Those children are worth as much as mine and deserve their healthcare.

To me, the fact that it will cost a lot of money to ensure everyone has healthcare coverage is secondary to the fact that everyone deserves it. If we decide everyone deserves it, we will finance it. Expensive things can be worthwhile. Healthcare is one of those things.

I have seen cancer patients lose their insurance and not know where their care will come from. Chemo regimens interrupted. Radiation not given. “Lost to follow up.” I have been in those rooms, held those hands, wiped those bitter tears.

When you’ve worked your whole life, had private insurance, got cancer before you are old enough for Medicare, get too sick to work, lose job, lose insurance, have to wait for disability/Medicaid to kick in… this is pain like you haven’t seen. Those people deserve healthcare.

I know there’s the flipside. People who never worked. Maybe they really were truly lazy, or maybe they were caretakers and never worked outside the home (doing invisible work). Some of these folks are rich, some poor. I treat them all.

Illness doesn’t respect your work history. “Bad behavior” may increase risk of bad outcomes, but we transplant a lot of livers into cirrhotics who drank. Cancer strikes a lot of folks who never smoked, who got HPV from their spouse, who did nothing “wrong.”

The only category I see that we consistently say as a country who doesn’t “deserve” their care are the poor. Sure, people judge alcoholics or people dependent on opioids, but we haven’t made huge moves to dump all of those folks off their healthcare programs.

Yet Congress tried to cut millions of people out of Medicaid. Give them the “freedom” to “choose” their care—which they can’t afford. They didn’t cut smokers off, or alcoholics, or diabetics who eat sugar, or heroin users. Just poor people, those “undeserving.”

We are still waiting for CHIP to be funded. Guess who’s children are covered under CHIP? Not the kids of smokers. Kids of working people who don’t make much, but earn too much for Medicaid. In other words, people who don’t have enough $ to “deserve.”

I reject the premise that money is what makes you worthy of my time and care. I understand that healthcare must be financed. My time is not free. I am not a volunteer. But if you have pneumonia, my worry is not how will you pay, but how to treat you.

So figure out how to pay for it, because everyone deserves to get treatment for their special needs child, their cancer, their pneumonia. To get that treatment, and not be bankrupted by it. Everyone deserves basic healthcare.

 

Jennifer B. Cowart, MD works as a hospitalist in Jacksonville, Florida.  She is a graduate of the The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and trained in Internal Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine followed by a fellowship in Clinical Pharmacology and Hypertension.  She then served as the Chief Resident in the Quality and Patient Safety (CRQS) program at the Michael E. Debakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

 


 

 

Top 10 Holiday Gifts for Busy People (including medical students and residents)

What’s the best gift for a medical student or resident (or any really busy person)?

Photo credit

Seriously, anything that frees up time for them is the best present you can give them.  If it supports their health or decreases stress, it’s even better!

Here are my top ten choices for best presents for medical students and residents – or any really busy person:

  1. A service or person to help clean their home.  Once a month?  Once a week? Any time they don’t have to vacuum or clean the bathrooms is a true gift.

Portrait of man with cleaning equipment

Photo credit

 

  1. An Instapot. I’ve long been a fan of pressure cookers, but the Instapot takes it to the next level.  This is my new favorite kitchen tool and it’s high on my list because it both saves time and increases healthy food consumption!

Photo credit

 

  1. A subscription to Headspace. This might seem counter-intuitive since it adds a 10 minute task to their day… but there are data (and lots of testimony) that a daily mediation practice “expands time” by decreasing stress.

Link to Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk (the founder of Headspace)

 

  1. If they live close enough to walk or bike to school/work, think about something that might help them combine that commute with getting some exercise. How old is their bicycle?  How about panniers to store gear on a bike? Would a great backpack help if they are likely to walk?  How about a gift certificate to a bicycle shop?

Photo credit

 

  1. A gift certificate for Whole Foods or any place near them that has good, healthy prepared food.

Photo credit

 

  1. Cookbooks with quick but healthy recipes like Thug Kitchen or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast.

 

  1. A Roomba vacuum cleaner. Plus, they may go viral with a cat on a Roomba video if they have a feline roommate.

Photo credit

 

  1. A gift certificate to have their car washed and vacuumed every few months.

Photo credit

 

  1. If they are a coffee drinker who spends time stopping at Starbucks, think about a really good coffee maker. I prefer Nespresso because the pods are recyclable (and the coffee is delicious).

Photo credit

 

  1. Your time. Can you cook some meals once a month and put them in their freezer?. Do laundry? Bake cookies and mail them? Get their car washed? Make an elaborate certificate with something you could do for them and wrap it as a present.

Photo credit

 

Photo credit

 

“I don’t have time to cook”… Oh, yes, you do!!!

I just got back from vacation and had the pleasure of attending a session where Shawn Brisby, the demo chef for Canyon Ranch in Tucson, gave us a great piece of advice …

Photo credit

“Have you ever gotten raspberries home and within a day they are mush with white stuff on them?”

He had my attention.

“The problem is that home chefs don’t keep their refrigerator cold enough.  They should be set at 40 degrees.”

Hmmm…

 

So I’ve been experimenting and … it works!  (not that I doubted you, Shawn :-).

 

Step 1.  Decide what you are going to eat for the week.

This planning is essential.  It takes me 20-30 (very enjoyable) minutes to find recipes in a magazine (Clean Eating and Cooking Light are my favorites), one of my cookbooks or on line.  Here’s what we’re cooking this week:

Pasta with sardines and fennel

Kale salad with apple and cheddar

Moroccan butternut squash chickpea stew

Pumpkin soup with almonds and sage

Fall salad with apples, walnuts and stilton

And, for breakfast for the week…

Sweet potato casserole with crunchy oat topping

 

Step 2. Make a shopping list and go shopping.

 

Step 3:. Prep all the food for the week

This is what makes it work in terms of efficiency. For the rest of the week, when you get home, everything will be washed, cut up and ready to throw in the pan.  I timed myself and it took 1 hr 22 minutes to turn the pile of veggies you see above into this:

An hour and a half is nothing compared to the time it takes when you get home late and really don’t want to do it.  Turn on some music, chop while you are watching some football.. it is a great return on investment to insure you eat well!

Other helpful hints

  1. Get some fun containers. These are the ones I bought, but any food quality containers will work.
  2. Wash the other produce, cut everything up for all the recipes, spin dry them and put them in your 40 degree refrigerator. (If you don’t own one, get a lettuce spinner.)
  3. Wash the fruit and dry it before you put it in the refrigerator.

One other tip…. Make stock! I throw all the vegetable bits (peels, seeds, etc) into a pot with water and make vegetable stock while I’m working. In addition to using this stock for any soup we decide to make, we use it instead of water for rice or pasta to increase the flavor.

#HoustonStrong

For the last few days I’ve been part of the amazing “ride out” crew of doctors, nurses, and support staff covering Texas Children’s Hospital during Hurricane Harvey and the overwhelming aftermath of flooding in Houston.  Since I live in Houston, I have been asked by many, in person and on Twitter, what they can do to help.

Please let me know via Twitter (@drmlb) or in the comment section below if you have recommendations to add to the list below.

 

Houston has an amazing mayor, who has established a fund which will be distributed to groups by the Greater Houston Community Foundation.  To donate to this fund:  https://ghcfdisaster.kimbia.com/hurricaneharveyrelieffund

Houston Food Bank   A marvelous charity that provides food to anyone who needs it.

Plant It Forward  This wonderful organization provides urban farmland for refugees to grow food for themselves and to sell.  

 

Texas Diaper Bank . It’s amazing how this is always a big need in crisis situations. This group does a great job keeping baby bottoms covered!

 

 

Houston Coalition for the Homeless A group dedicated to caring for the homeless in Houston.  Unfortunately, there is little doubt that we will be seeing an increase in homelessness after this disaster, so their work will be even more important. 

 

Houston Humane Society . There are always lost and frightened pets after a flood.  This group takes care of them.

 

Hospital chaplaincy programs are always in need of resources and provide important spiritual support during times of crisis.  You can donate to spiritual care or other programs for the hospitals in the Texas Medical Center here:  

Texas Children’s Hospital

Ben Taub General Hospital

Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center

Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center

Houston Methodist Hospital

Memorial Hermann Hospital

 

 

If you live in Houston, you might think about volunteering by registering with Volunteer Houston or  giving blood.

Top Ten Tips on Starting Medical School

Starting medical school is one of the most exciting moments in a physicians career… but it can be a little daunting!  This talk is one I gave recently to the college students in the Baylor College of Medicine Summer Surgery Program.  In addition to talking about how medical school is different from college, I also included my top 10 tips for successfully making this important transition.

Photo Credit

[embeddoc url=”https://wellnessrounds.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Transition-to-medical-school-compressed.ppt” download=”all” viewer=”microsoft”]

Rethinking Institutional Metrics of Success

Recently, I was talking to a superstar surgeon who had travelled to Africa for two weeks to operate and teach. Lives were saved, a gift was given, but when he returned he was told that the two weeks he had spent in Africa resulted in not meeting his RVU target for the month…which he now had to “make up.”

Are you kidding? I can’t think of any physician that would think this is ok….

Photo credit

I have held leadership roles and I am not naïve. “No margin, no mission” is a universal truth. Financial accountability and stability are necessary for us to heal patients, teach and change the future through research.   But, if we only measure and report productivity it will be the only metric that is perceived to matter…. and that’s not ok.

Financial and productivity metrics are critically important in any business. Healthcare is a very complicated business. But for physicians, medicine is a profession, not a business. This distinction explains why the standard business metrics of productivity don’t sit well with most physicians.

A stethoscope is on a balance sheet. Health care costs

Photo credit

I’m becoming more and more convinced that we need to rethink how we define “success” for the physicians (professionals) who work in a business (healthcare). If we don’t, I’m afraid we will lose our way…. and potentially a generation of physicians.   So, as a starting point…. what if we thought about the following as potential new metrics of institutional “success”?

RVUs of the group, not the individual

It is human nature that what is counted is assumed to “count” the most. In addition to my friend who was almost despondent over having to “pay back” a mission trip that was part of his original contract, I have watched bright and hard-working physicians choose to stay to do one more little case or see two more consults instead of going home to their children because of this RVU pressure. By the way, these events were when a partner was on call and in the hospital, available and willing to take on this work.

Physicians are a competitive lot. If you give them a target to meet, they will do everything necessary to meet it. But the RVUs for an individual physician vary over time and with circumstances. Because medicine is a profession and not a “job”, there are very few physicians who are “slackers”.   Reporting the RVUs for individual physicians has the risk of hurting the morale of the physicians that are working hard, and rarely motivates people that don’t want to work hard. Besides, do we really want to send a report that monthly RVUs didn’t meet target to a physician who took time off to care for their own hospitalized child? (Yes, it happens.)

Let’s commit to a new institutional paradigm. Set RVU goals for the group. Trust the chiefs and chairs to be responsible for monitoring productivity. Let them take into account the normal ebbs and flows of work as a physican. Trust them to call in the few physicians who are consistently below expectations.

Turnover of physicians in the group

In an academic practice, it’s a good sign if strong, mid-level faculty members are recruited away to other institutions. In all groups there will be physicians who leave for family reasons or because a spouse has been recruited. But keeping track of physicians who leave for other reasons may be a metric that can reveal a bigger problem. Given the extraordinary cost of replacing physicians, isn’t this a metric that should be followed?

Burnout

Burnout is reported in 50% of physicians and costs institutions money. I strongly believe that every physician should have an assessment for burnout as part of their annual evaluation. Physicians that score high on the burnout scale need help – for their sake and the sake of the institution. The cost to the institution in decreased patient satisfaction and increased liability should be enough, but burnout is a life limiting or even life threatening condition. Let’s protect our most precious resource in medicine by paying attention to this epidemic. Why not reward divisions and/or groups that consistently demonstrate low levels of burnout? Why not use what they have learned to coach other groups who need help?

Support staff to physician ratio

I am quite certain that most people have no idea the amount of clerical work that physicians do today. For institutions, it’s a waste of extraordinarily profitable physician time and a major contributor to physician distress. No one knows what the ideal ratio of support staff to physicians should be, which support staff are more important, or what the differences should be between specialties.   So lets measure it, report this metric and compare between groups in our own hospitals and between institutions.  Let’s also make sure we understand how the ratio of support staff to physicians impacts burnout and physician turnover.

Teaching, research and innovation

Professionals work to make a difference but sometimes are not recognized for their successes. Even grown ups love a gold star.  Let’s make a big deal about teaching local physicians, publishing new research, receiving “Doc of the month” awards and building new programs. Celebrate successes – of all kinds – publically and sincerely.

Gifts of time

Likewise, let’s call out and celebrate the physicians who serve on boards of charitable organizations, who travel to treat patients and teach in underdeveloped areas, who sponsor student groups or who otherwise donate their time and expertise to make the world a better place.

Pay equity

I understand that salaries are “complex” in medicine, but it’s time to realize that they can be extremely unfair. When new physicians are hired at a higher salary than extremely successful physicians who have been there for 20 years, something is very wrong. When women and minorities consistently make less, something is very wrong.

There is no way that budgets can suddenly be changed to make pay equity a reality, but its time for all of us to make a commitment that pay equity will happen. Decide how long it will take … 5 years? 10 years? Once you have decided, let your physicians know you will commit to this change. To be transparent, report an annual metric of the percentage of physicians that meet the goal of pay equity. Make these changes. It’s the right thing to do.

Photo credit