University of Iowa Psychiatry Residents Get Shout Outs

Recently, University of Iowa psychiatry residents worked hard enough to get shout outs. One of them was exemplary performance on the consultation and emergency room service. The service was following over two dozen inpatients and received 15 consultation requests in a day. This is a staggering number and the resident on the service did the job without complaints. In addition, the resident was the only trainee on the service at the time. Other residents were working very hard as well.

This high level of performance is outstanding and raises questions about health care system level approaches to supporting it.

I read the abstract of a recently published study about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) compared to medication in treating anxiety in adults (Hoge EA, Bui E, Mete M, Dutton MA, Baker AW, Simon NM. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Escitalopram for the Treatment of Adults With Anxiety Disorders: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online November 09, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.3679).

On the day I read the abstract, I saw comments which were cringeworthy. The commenter is an outpatient psychiatrist in private practice who had some criticisms of the study. He thought the report of results at 8 weeks was inadequate because symptoms can recur soon after resolution.

Another problem he mentioned is worth quoting, “A course of treatment that requires as much time as the MBSR course described in the study would be out of the question for most of my patients, most of whom are overworked health care professionals who don’t have enough time to eat or sleep. Telling people who are that overworked they should spend 45 minutes a day meditating is the “Let them eat cake” of psychotherapy.”

That reminded me of a quote:

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day—unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”

Zen Proverb

I know, I know; I should talk—I’m retired. Actually, I took part in an MBSR course about 8 years ago when I noticed that burnout was probably influencing my job performance on the psychiatry consultation service. I thought it was helpful and I still practice it. I was lucky enough to participate in the course after work hours. The hospital supported the course.

The residents who are being recognized for their hard work on extremely busy clinical services may or may not be at high risk for burnout. They are no doubt extra resilient and dedicated.

And the University of Iowa health care system may also be offering a high level of system support for them. I don’t see that University of Iowa Health Care is on the list of the American Medical Association (AMA) Joy in MedicineTM Health System Recognition System, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing the kinds of things which would merit formal recognition.

Anyway, they all get my shout out.

The Groundhog Effect

Last year, we noticed a groundhog waking up and bulldozing our back yard, even though snow was forecast that day. It’s pretty good at just putting its head down and pushing through almost anything in its path including leaves, sticks, small rocks, flowers, and so on.

Their single-minded digging has helped uncover bones and pottery of old civilizations and aided medical researchers study a lot of things including the role of viral hepatitis in liver cancer.

I can compare them to those who bury themselves in the single-minded study of medicine in the transformative path to medical practice. I can recall my medical school classmates and their clicker pens taking notes in class. They weren’t called “gunners” for nothing. Call it the Groundhog Effect.

Even if you weren’t a gunner, you had to apply yourself just like a groundhog to your studies. It could lead to another characteristic common among these creatures. They tend to be loners.

The analogy is far from perfect, of course. Groundhogs aren’t lonely. People can be, which is why medical students and residents are often advised to always remember H.A.L.T.

H.A.L.T. refers to trying to avoid letting oneself get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. It’s probably a warning about incipient burnout, a problem that affects at least half of physicians and which is the hot topic these days.

I’m always a little puzzled that so many physician wellness programs and meetings seem to devote a lot of time trying to teach doctors how to improve their resilience. It’s as though we’re somehow to blame for getting burned out.

I’m not saying learning things like mindfulness are not important for promoting physician wellness. I have my own daily mindfulness practice and it is certainly helpful.

It would also be nice to spend more time addressing the systems issues contributing to physician burnout, such as very full clinic schedules, overly complicated electronic health records requiring hours of data input that create the need for “pajama time,” which is bringing your job home with you, board certification busywork, managed care rules that marginalize physicians, and so on.

This is a continuation of the hassle factors that can lead to physicians just learning to put their heads down and dig through the mess—sort of like the groundhog, and often in isolation from each other.

Transformative processes can also occur at the end of a physician’s career. I’ve spent a long time learning to be a physician and now that I’m in phased retirement, I’m finding out how hard that can be. It would be helpful to know that others are passing through this stage as well, and that I’m not alone.

Could it be that one way to counter the Groundhog Effect is to come together and share this retirement experience? There will always be those who work well into their nineties and that’s great. Statistically, though, most of us will retire in our mid-sixties.

The graying out of the psychiatrist population is contributing to the shortage, to be sure. But we could still be useful to the next generation of doctors acting as role models for how to navigate the other transformative process—reflecting on the task of becoming somebody other than a physician. I think it would be easier if several doctors did this.

Animals do this. I saw this several years ago when we owned a house with a fountain, which was frequented by more than a couple of species of birds, including Bluebirds. They gradually arrived but were at first tentative about immediately diving in. One would perch on the rim. Another would come along and do the same, maybe drink a little water while watching the other.

Eventually, one would dip its tail feathers in just for a moment. Pretty soon, they would make like ducks.

I guess you could call it the Bathing Bluebird Effect.

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