“If we don’t stop to reflect, and to share our reflections with one another, it can blunt our empathy for our patients.”
The more people I talk to, the more obvious it is to me that the pace of change in health care today is so rapid, and the initiatives so multiple, that they preclude the opportunity for deep thinking about what we are doing. Our energy is taken up with trying to learn new things, trying to keep up with the changes, trying to keep up with the demands of our organizations and health care in general.
It’s very easy to lose yourself, and so a process of examining who you are, where you come from, and what your journey is, and then being able to find a place and people with whom you can discuss this, is absolutely vital to maintaining one’s balance and integrity.
This process is critical, not only to maintain the individual, but because team care is such a big part of health care transformation today. Working in teams requires we know the people with whom we’re working well, and that’s just not the case in most circumstances. I am firmly convinced that there is a limit to our capacities and to what we can do well without an opportunity to stop and reflect, to communicate with peers, to be listened to, and to listen to them.
I came out of last year’s Health Care Institute resolute about bringing Courage & Renewal back to my organization. I felt more equipped to do it, and I felt empowered to do it because I met other physicians and people working in health care from around the country who are doing the same thing in a variety of ways. After the Institute, it wasn’t so much about me. It was about knowing the importance of this work and bringing it to the organization.
I started with my own pediatric care team—three physicians, a nurse, medical assistants and receptionists. The question I started with was, “What has brought you to this place?” The big eye-opener was that almost everyone had emigrated and had come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Of the group around the table, only two of us were born in the United States. And even though people came from different countries and from very different cultures, telling our stories uncovered this common thread: we were all there to help our patients lead healthier lives. I consciously didn’t have another agenda for this meeting. I thought it was important for us just to know each other better. I think we really jelled as a team, and this can’t help but build empathy for our patients.
People who work in this organization already have a very strong sense of social justice. We take care of some very disadvantaged folks with a lot of complex problems. IIf we don’t stop to reflect, and to share our reflections with one another, it can blunt our empathy for our patients. We need an ongoing way to revive that empathy, and our mission, in ourselves and with each other.
Because of my work with Courage & Renewal, I think I’m much more attuned to sensing when someone is talking from his or her heart. Then it’s time to turn away from the computer screen and just listen. That’s happening more and more. As health care changes, and we’re no longer working based on productivity, we’ll have more time to listen deeply and considerately. I’m looking forward to bringing Courage work directly into the provider-patient encounter.
Courage & Renewal also got me thinking about my leadership abilities and challenges, and what was clear to me was that I needed a very different head space and heart space to do this reflective work with my colleagues. I couldn’t just go straight from seeing patients or from doing my administrative work as the medical director without doing the “work before the work” myself.
I decided I would carve out three hours a week just to reflect. For this time, I go to another small office here that no one else knows about. I have my computer in case I need to use it, but I usually don’t turn it on. I sit and think and write a blog that I’m sharing with my project group, and I prepared for two Courage workshops we did here at Cambridge Health Alliance. The difference between how I feel internally during those three hours as opposed to the rest of the week is striking.
It’s made me realize that what I really want to do for the rest of my professional career is return to my first love, seeing patients. It’s time to let go of my role as medical director, which I’ve done for 12 years, and which needs new energy and new ideas. I will be leading in a different way, and that feels right to me at this time of my life. I’m 64. It’s time to bring wisdom to my work.
I’m going to go back to the next Courage & Renewal Health Care Institute this April. I need to have a regular transfusion. Being with like-minded and like-hearted individuals, spending rich time in conversation, listening to similar problems that you’re experiencing, being encouraged and inspired and instructed by a whole new peer group at these gatherings, are really wonderful.
Dr. Meyer is a pediatric primary care physician and Medical Director at the Cambridge (MA) Health Alliance’s Windsor Street Health Center. He has participated in several Courage & Renewal experiences in health care, including seasonal retreat series, the Leadership Academy, and the Center for Courage & Renewal’s Annual Health Care Institute: Integrity in Health Care: The Courage to Lead in a Changing Landscape, which is coming up again in April 2013 in Minneapolis. See couragerenewal.org/institute