#AAMC13 #BeyondFlexner: Tweeting Back to the Future

5 11 2013

I am just returning from AAMC 13 in Philadelphia, which happens to be the site of the very first AAMC conference in 1876.  Perhaps it is this historic backdrop which made it more poignant when AAMC President and CEO Dr. Darrell Kirch charged the audience to rise to the occasion during our most challenging time, or our healthcare system’s “moment of truth.”  Between sessions on how academic health centers needed to evolve to survive healthcare reform and how medical students need to avoid the “jaws of death” from the Match, there was certainly much to fear and much to learn. In spite of this, there are always moments where it was undeniable that the future was bright.  But, the most interesting moments at this meeting where when it felt like we were going back to the future.

One of those moments was sitting in on the CLER (Clinical Learning Environment Review), or the new ACGME institutional site visit process which is not meant to be scary, but helpful!  As a non-punitive visit, its meant to catalyze the necessary changes needed to help improve the learning climate in teaching hospitals. This session was particularly salient for me as I transitioned from being an Associate Program Director into role of Director for GME Clinical Learning Environment Innovation about a month ago.  At one point, Dr. Kevin Weiss described the CLER site visitors observing a handoff- and in that one moment, they saw the resident bashing the ER, failure of supervision, the medical students left out, and an opportunity to report a near miss that was ignored.  Even though CLER is new, he made it sound like the site visitors were going back in time and nothing had changed.  Have we not made a dent in any of these areas?  I guess it’s probably safest to pretend like its 2003 and we need a lot more training in quality, safety, handoffs, supervision, fatigue, and everyone’s favorite…professionalism.

After being the only tweeter at times in the Group of Resident Affairs sessions, I ventured into the tweeting epicenter of the meeting at the digital literacy session.  There, I not only learned about a very cool digital literacy toolkit for educators, but also got to connect with some awesome social media mavens who use technology to advance medical education. While I have access to these technophiles through Twitter (you know who you are), it was NOT the same as talking about the future of social media and medical education face-to-face.  Call me old-fashioned, but connecting with this group over a meal was just what this doctor ordered.  My only wish is that we had more time together…

Lastly, we went back to the future in our session showcasing the winners of the Teaching Value and Choosing Wisely Competition at both the AAMC and ABIM Foundation meeting last week.   One of the recurring themes that keeps emerging in these sessions, in addition to a recent #meded tweet chat, is that the death of clinical skills (history taking and physical exam) promotes overuse and reliance on tests in teaching hospitals.  Could it be that by reinvigorating these bedrock clinical skills and bringing back the “master clinician”, we could liberate our patients from unnecessary and wasteful tests?  I certainly hope so…and it can’t hurt to be a better doctor.  Moreover, one of the most powerful tools that was mentioned was the time-honored case report!  In fact, case reports have been resurrected to highlight avoidable care in a new JAMA Internal Medicine series called “Teachable Moments.”

And lastly, in the spirit of going back to the bedside, our MERITS (medical education fellowship team) submitted a video entry to the Beyond Flexner competition on what medical education would be like in 2033.  While the impressive winners are showcased here,  our nostalgic entry was aptly titled Back to the Future and Back to the Bedside, and envisioned a future where all students, regardless of their year, are doing what they came to medical school to do, see patients.

–Vineet Arora MD





Eating Chocolate and other lessons from the ABIM Forum

19 08 2013

Every year, the ABIM Foundation convenes a set of thought leaders on American health care to answer the tough questions.   At first glance, this year’s meeting  had the same standard agenda –  talks and discussions followed by networking and informal activities. However, for some reason, this Forum was more exhausting. Perhaps trying to solve the nation’s vexing problems facing health care is fatiguing! So, what were some of the themes that we came away with?

  • Intrinsic motivation is powerful, so can we create it? We heard about the potential dangers of extrinsic motivation through financial reward. Pay-for-performance, after all, is a tool that is only as good as the system is designed, and many designs have not been very effective. I was reminded of an unusual medical education experiment when they started paying residents in pediatrics on a fee-for-service model (yes, residents). The residents saw more patients, and their outcomes even improved with fewer ER visits! But, closer inspection yielded that these residents stacked their clinics with well child visits, who were healthier and did not need to visit the ER. So fee-for-service residency was abandoned. While everyone agreed it was time to move away from fee-for-service medicine, do we really think a change in the payment system creates intrinsic motivation? One health system offered their solution: recruit those that are intrinsically motivated. But, that still leaves us with how does one become intrinsically motivated? The answer likely lies in the last session of the meeting –find and cultivate joy in work. After all, if the work of transformation is enjoyable, people will do it for free.  And for physicians, joy does not come from lowering the GDP, but from treating the patient in front of you.
  • A series of small innovations add up to a larger one.  There were a series of innovators highlighted at the meeting who shared their innovation. While many were sharing large-scale innovations and initiatives like ACGME’s CLER Program, I shared a much smaller scale innovation, a redesigned resident clinic handoff using ideas generated from talking with over 100 patients about their experience. I certainly recognized the scale I was operating on was much smaller than some of the other folks in the room who lead large health plans or organizations. Then, one of the speakers who transformed their culture highlighted that it was a series of small innovations adding up to the larger one that made it doable. Featuring innovations at this meeting is not new, but the discussion of scalability was important. As each innovation was discussed, the question became how was this scalable and could be spread to others. This discussion was particularly salient to our Teaching Value Project team as we hosted a breakfast to not only introduce the project, but also discuss the future and how to spread this innovation…so stay tuned.
  • Organizational culture and leadership matters… a lot. While on the subject of necessary ingredients for innovation, the terms organization and leadership would probably be the biggest if we did a word cloud of what people said at this meeting. It can feel trite, but it’s true…leadership and culture are key. The type of leadership that was highlighted focused on nurturing innovators and supporting people in the work that they do. While they are not afraid to take risks, they are also understand their frontline clinicians and patients. Too bad they also sounded like an endangered species. Not surprisingly, many groups had the same action item – train visionary leaders to lead these healthcare systems of the future.  While we can wait for the new visionary leader to be manufactured, culture always halts people in their tracks. How do you create the culture you want? The recurring theme here was to make sure you had good people. In other words, recruit people for the culture you want, not the on you have. And for a real change, a more radical business approach would be to let go of the “protectionist mentality” where everyone is going to keep their job. Moving to a results-oriented work environment would mean not only recruiting the right people but getting rid of the wrong people. I’m not so sure our academic health systems are ready to do this, but it was refreshing to hear from a business leader that term limits and succession planning were the norm. In this way, organizations are automatically refreshed with new ideas from leaders who were prepared to lead.
  • Eating radishes when you want to eat chocolate is work. To summarize, forcing people to exert willpower to resist what they want to do (eat chocolate) by doing something else (eating radishes) translates into hard work to resist, and less patience for something else. A more complete explanation of this study is here. Sure, this sounds simple, but we do keep piling quality measures and requirements on every physician in the context of a 15 minute office visit. Unfortunately, electronic health records are forcing us to eat more radishes, and this comes at the expense of talking to patients. At least two innovators solved this problem by having someone else eat the radishes, such as a scribe in primary care so that physicians could focus on the joy, spending more time with patients.
  • Ask patients to help design the solution.  While this may sound like a no brainer, its not as easy as it sounds!  This is an unusually high level of patient engagement that most of our organizations are not used to. In one stunning example, a hospital in Sweden redesigned its dialysis center so patients can swipe in whenever they want and self-administer their dialysis. In the innovation I presented, we asked 100 patients in our resident clinic what would make their clinic handoff go smoother when they transitioned PCP’s when their residents graduated.  The answers led us to interventions that we never would have thought of, like honoring the patients with a certificate to recognize their teaching efforts of our residents and a cartoon to facilitate patients learning how the process of the handover occurs and what they should do.

So, what does this mean for future doctors? Well, it starts with recruiting intrinsically motivated individuals and training them to be healthcare leaders who can learn to work alongside patients to generate small innovations that can add up to larger organizational transformation.  And let them eat chocolate … so they too can find the joy in their work.

–Vineet Arora MD





Teaching Crucial Conversations: The Curse of Knowledge & the ASK Problem

4 09 2012

One of the most interesting conversations that I had recently was at the ABIM Foundation Summer Forum Open Space Sessions.  The ABIM Foundation Summer Forum is a summit of thought leaders and experts representing healthcare organizations, policymakers, patients, payers, doctors, and trainees who come together to tackle a major problem in healthcare.  The topic of this year’s forum was in keeping with the launch of the new ABIM Choosing Wisely Campaign and aptly named “Choosing Wisely in an Era of Limited Resources.”

The Forum has a unique format, employing a mix of routine panel discussions, but also “Open Space” conversations where participants actually drive the agenda, deciding what they want to work on.  One of the Open Space topics that I ended up joining was on how to train physicians to have crucial conversations with patients.   After forming this group, there were some immediate questions raised– why only physicians?  What about other members of the care team, including the patient?  Moreover, individuals in our group each had a different definition of what  “crucial conversations” were.  One clear theme was around end-of-life conversations with patients, but that was not the only one.  For example, how to talk to a patient who is asking for a medical test that is not indicated?

As I returned home, I reread some of the literature I have become acquainted with on why we (humans) don’t communicate as well as we should.  Using this framework, it’s worth considering why doctors and patients may not communicate as well as they should.  Drawing from the knowledge communication literature when an ‘expert’ is communicating to a ‘decision maker’, two distinct problems can arise:

  • Curse of Knowledge– The curse of knowledge, otherwise known as the paradox of expertise, represents the difficulty of experts to use commonplace jargon to communicate their ideas to those that are not experts.  Because experts tend to surround themselves with other experts, it can be very difficult for an expert not to use technical jargon when communicating with people who not experts.  This is easily evident in a variety of scenarios – most notably in the first few seconds of the trailer for the movie Contagion when doctors try to tell Matt Damon that his wife, played by index case Gwyneth Paltrow, is dead.  The doctor starts by saying “I am sorry…she failed to respond”.  On cue, Matt Damon responds, “OK can I go talk to her?” clearly missing the meaning of what the doctor has just tried to communicate.  Likewise, one of the patient advocates at our table shared the story of how she came to know she had cancer – “It’s malignant” …so she deduced from “Mal” and all the words that start with “mal” are bad (malice, malpractice…to name a few) so she thought “Mal … bad”.
  • ASK Problem – the ASK Problem stands for the Anomalous State of Knowledge.  This is a problem that arises when the decision maker does not have the knowledge that it takes to ask questions, since asking questions often relies on having intimate knowledge of the subject at hand.   This is particularly salient since we have major campaigns that often are directed at patients to “ask more questions” of their doctor.  However, it may be very hard for a nonexpert to ask a question of an expert if they don’t have a set of common knowledge to go on.  Asking questions is so difficult that our work shows its rare for even physicians to ask other physicians questions, and instead they opt for what is known as “back-channeling” or saying “Uh-huh” to indicate their agreement.  The only problem with this is that back-channeling is that it can be exhibited by demented patients so it is not necessarily a confirmation of comprehension or understanding.  To make matters worse, a recent study shows that patients may not ask questions for fear of being labeled “difficult”.

How can we get around these problems? Well, improving a conversation requires training on all sides. Patients can also be coached to take a more active role in their care. However, healthcare personnel also need to be prepared so that their newly empowered patients are not an unwelcome surprise. Physicians and other healthcare personnel need to be trained in how to speak to patients about difficult decisions in a sensitive way.   One model curriculum we can learn from has been developed by oncology fellowship directors and is called OncoTalk.  One of the key tenants is the principle of NURSE, which describes how to respond to patient emotions during complex decision-making.

  • Naming the emotion “It sounds like you are afraid of X”
  • Understanding the emotion  “I can understand the fear that goes along with X.”
  • Respecting  “You are asking the right questions…”
  • Supporting  “I am here to support you through this decision…”
  • Exploring  “What are you thinking about now?”

Of course, the age-old question is can you teach empathy? Well, according to one recent study, empathy wanes throughout medical school.   So we should, at the very least, try to at least preserve it.

Vineet Arora MD








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