When Breath Becomes Air

As I write this, I’m wiping away the tears in my eyes stirred by Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. Richly reflective and powerfully evocative, it’s the touching narrative of a doctor’s attempts to confront death—as a student of literature, as a neurosurgeon, and as a patient—and, through the lens of terminal illness, examine how dying gives meaning to living.

With When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Kalanithi allows us to, in his words, “Get into these shoes, walk a bit, and say, ‘So that’s what it looks like from here … sooner or later I’ll be back here in my own shoes.'” It’s a walk that resonates particularly strongly for me as a fledgling physician.

As he reflects on his medical training, Dr. Kalanithi looks back with the perspectives of both patient and provider to offer valuable insights on what it means to be a physician: someone who translates statistics and survival curves into a patient-oriented language of values, identities, and capabilities; someone who is relentless in the pursuit of operative excellence, but understands that a surgeon is more than an expert technician; someone who aspires to perfection, but ultimately accepts his fallibility.

For any avid reader of medical non-fiction, these reflections will sound familiar, the stuff of Better and Being Mortal. And yet, When Breath Becomes Air feels different, because it explores medicine’s virtues, values, and flaws from the perspective of a patient, someone who is both an insider and outsider to medicine. As Dr. Kalanithi writes, “As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know.” His perspectives on what makes a good doctor are informed by an intimate understanding of what patients feel, what patients think, and what patients want that most of us, as providers, can only infer and intuit from our interactions with illness in the third person.

At its heart, When Breath Becomes Air is about more than how we ought to provide care; it’s a contemplation of how we ought to live. The life of a physician-in-training often feels like a life of anticipation, of potential, of surviving the present to reach the rewards of the future. We spend a third of our lives studying, sacrificing sleep, accumulating loans, and watching our friends build lives that are less exhaustive and more lucrative, all of which we accept for the eventual promise of a career that offers an unparalleled balance of intellectual engagement, moral fulfillment, and socioeconomic comfort.

I ask myself, then: if faced with a terminal illness tomorrow, would I feel that I’d achieved anything more in 23 years besides a pursuit of a life still yet to come? For Dr. Kalanithi, the prospect of dying gives the present an immensely deeper significance, a more imminent urgency. As I read his detailed recollection of his last day as a physician, a heartfelt recall of each interaction, each sensation, each incision, I felt uncomfortably reminded of what I’ve seen and done over the last week, and how it felt so unremarkably routine. I’d been present, but I hadn’t been truly present.

Reading When Breath Becomes Air, I felt called to attention, awoken from autopilot to embrace the quiet miracles and subtle wonders that transpire around us each day in the hospital. If we practiced medicine each day as if it were our last, what might that look like? What could it do for our connections with patients, for our interactions with our colleagues, for our thirst for meaning and fulfillment in our daily lives? This, I think, is Dr. Kalanithi’s strongest parting advice for us. And as cliche as “live as each day is the last” sounds, that we so rarely do it makes it advice worth hearing.

When Breath Becomes Air is an easy read that raises difficult questions, a short book that invites lengthy pauses for thought. Whether you’re in medicine or not, you’ll invariably someday find yourself pondering the matter of mortality and the meaning it imparts to the closing days of life—and therefore, you’ll invariably find this book to be both moving and meaningful.

Thanks, Dr. Kalanithi.

This Just In: Patients Can Use the Internet Now.

Sometimes, the future arrives so swiftly that we don’t even notice the subtle revolutions unfolding before our eyes.

For years, the notion of patients searching for health information online was anathema to physicians. The slightest mention of patients as engaged consumers of health information would cue a noxious reflex from most providers, fueled, no doubt, by stereotypes of patients like these:

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 20.18.23

As recently as 2013, when I interviewed for medical school, stated interests and curiosities in healthcare social media, e-health, and participatory medicine were best, bold propositions, and at worst, toxic taboos.

“Do me a favor,” one dean of admissions quipped, “When you’re a third-year on clerkships, you’ll meet the man who’s been convinced by a WebMD search that his toe pain is diagnostic for brain cancer. Spend 15 minutes with that guy, then come find me and let me know if you’re still an optimist about online resources as tools for patient empowerment and engagement.”

Fast forward to 2015, where I’m now a clinical-phase student on an outpatient pediatrics rotation, and I finally have an answer for that dean–though it’s probably not the one he expected. I’m still an optimist in the power of online communities and digital content to equip patients with the information they need to engage in their clinical-decision making, as equals, with their providers.

Actually, after the conversations and clinical interactions I’ve witnessed these past weeks on pediatrics, that optimism has never held more firm.

Figure 1. An adolescent seen one week earlier for an acute infection and prescribed antibiotics returns with unresolved infection. The physician makes a diagnosis of antibiotic treatment failure. As she studies the literature for an appropriate second-line treatment, the patient’s mother does a Google search on her phone–and suggests a finding of her own. The physician reviews it, confirms it, prescribes it. Snap.

Figure 2. A child who is seen frequently for recurrent febrile illnesses presents for a well-child visit. The child’s parent mentions having searched online and identified a periodic fever syndrome consistent with the child’s clinical history. The parent shares printouts of relevant patient education materials, academic review articles, and diagnostic manuals with the physician. The physician agrees with the parent’s impression, and makes the diagnosis. Snap, crackle.

Figure 3. A neonate with a congenital condition arrives for a new-patient evaluation. The patient’s mother admits she selected this physician based upon reviews and recommendations from a local online patient community for disease-specific support. At the visit’s conclusion, the mother impresses the physician when she suggests a prescription for ondansetron–a tip she found through, yes, an online patient community. Snap, crackle, and pop.

As a health technologies optimist and medical futurist, it’s evident I’ve been so focused looking ahead to the future that I’ve missed the simple reality: in subtle ways, it’s already arrived.

We used to see e-health as synonymous with WebMD, the digital quack doc where all differential diagnoses lead to cancer. We used to think too much information would break the patient, break the doctor-patient relationship, or worst of all, break the monopoly on expertise that gave our profession relevance. We were, clearly, misguided.

The patient’s access to communities and open-access platforms for online health information is breaking healthcare–but not as doctors once thought it would. Instead, it’s breaking hierarchies, allowing patients to contribute to differentials and suggest treatments as engaged participants on their care team. It’s breaking barriers, connecting patients to insights and innovations previously sealed beyond paywalls and subscriptions. And it’s breaking the metaphorical walls of isolation, bringing patients in touch with others who understand the experience of living with illness and navigating a complex health system.

And every evening, as I drive home from another day in medical school, I’m inspired by the resilience of children, the resourcefulness of their caregivers, and the realization that I’m blessed to be entering medicine at a time of profound transformation, revolution, and creative destruction.

MedX|Ed: Fast Four

Medicine X is an event that’s one part performance art, two parts academic conference, and three parts social movement. The last 24 hours have been a whirlwind of awe and inspiration that’s left me speechless—sorry, tweet-less.

First and foremost, I have to applaud Medicine X for its unique approach to medical education. Traditionally, medical education meetings are where deans, program directors, and educators meet to prescribe a top-down vision of what’s best for medical learners. MedX|Ed—and naturally, MedX is anything but traditional—takes the opposite approach. It begins with the end users, learners and patients. Next, it identifies these users’ needs in an evolving healthcare system and dynamic social-technological climate, and imagines how academic medical ecosystems might be re-engineered to better support them.

What a wild idea: that medical students might actually have a vested interest in crafting their ideal learning modalities, and that patients might actually have a vested interest in shaping their ideal provider’s skill set. Imagine that.

As the MedX webcast and tweet-stream illustrate, when students, patients, providers, and educators converge, the discussions are delightful, and the ideas are incredible. If you’re not keen on combing through 6,500+ tweets of lofty ideation, raw emotion, and heated disruption, here’s a “fast four” of take-always to ponder.

Reimagining pre-med. Creative destruction of medical practice starts with creative destruction of medical training, which starts with creative destruction of medical admissions and selection. If we want scholars, innovators, and humanists, why do we, as Nisha Pradhan critiqued, put physician-hopefuls through a meat grinder of memorization and multiple-choice assessments? As a medical student, I never solve Diels-Alder reactions or draw Krebs cycle intermediates. I frequently search for the subtexts in dialogues and make perceptual assessments of subjective situations—you know, fluencies I built from my humanities coursework. How might we rethink pre-medical prerequisites to actually hold relevance to the practice of medicine?

Reimagining med ed. Anki, Picmonic, Firecracker, Pathoma, Goljean, DIT, UWorld: the last decade has seen an explosion of digital study tools, tutorials, and Q-banks in medical education, and it’s all driven by the increasing centrality of standardized testing in residency selection. Have dreams of derm? Better splurge for that $500 test prep resource. Now consider that this ‘Step 1 economy’ exists in addition to a medical education that costs $30-60,000 per year. Medical students today are dually enrolled in the study of patient care and the study of Step 1. Why is that? If our tests are so detached from the curricula they evaluate, shouldn’t we aim to close the gap? How might we redesign assessments to capture a holistic excellence in clinical practice, rather than an acute ability in factual recall?

Reimagining patient ed. It’s no coincidence that the word ‘doctor’ derives from the Latin word ‘docere’: to teach. At its core, to be a physician is to be an educator. In today’s volume-driven healthcare system, though, that teaching interaction is often confined to a brief moment at the close of a patient visit. As more physicians become content creators and digital connectivity becomes ubiquitous, might we extend patient education beyond the clinic? It’s easy to imagine a near future where a patient’s ‘presenting complaint’ triggers an email with curated educational content, like an Evans Health Lab video, ahead of a visit. Such ‘flips’ would allow more time for the clinic visit to focus on hands-on teaching or addressing questions. How might we use digital media, informatics, and educational theory to inform a ‘flipped classroom’ for tomorrow’s patients?

Reimagining educators. Traditionally, teaching moves down the hierarchy: attending physicians teach residents and fellows, who teach medical students, who sit at the bottom of the totem pole and try not to mess up. As we continually extend the competencies and fluencies expected of providers in an age of accountable care and networked medicine, perhaps the best educators aren’t solely physicians. Maybe the best educator on empathy, bedside dialogue, and the patient experience is, as Dave DeBronkart and Emily Kramer Golinkoff proposed, a patient. And maybe not even just learning from a patient lecturer, but from a patient’s chronological illness narrative on social media,or from a patient who brings their ‘Google biopsy’ results to an appointment. How might we create structure opportunities for trainees to connect to and learn from non-conventional teachers?

Clearly, we have much to think about, and even more to still accomplish. Again, a huge kudos to MedX for extending the vision of ‘nothing about me, without me’ from the clinic to the classroom. And a final note for healthcare students: now that we’ve been given the opportunity to participate and speak, we’re charged with the responsibility to co-lead and actively shape our learning ecosystems. Let’s get to work.

Closing question: what are your “how might we’s” from MedX|Ed, and how do you envision implementing them by MedX|Ed 2016?

Well, Here Goes Nothing

It’s finally here.

After 13 years of K-12 schools, four years of college, and one year of pre-clinical medicine, I’m finally doing the unthinkable: stepping beyond the classroom, trading chalkboards for charts, swapping study guides for stethoscopes, and putting 18 years of learning into application at the bedside.

Well, sort of–there’s still grand rounds, morning report, and core didactics. And I’m far from done with textbooks or tests. But it’s hands-on, and it’s dynamic, and it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to actually doing anything tangible, applicable, or useful, so I’ll seize the opportunity for a little ‘hooray!’

Just one thing: I’m scared to death–tense, timid, terrified, and (D) all of the above.

In the days to come, I anticipate carefully budgeting my umms, uhhs, and I don’t knows. I expect to know all the right answers–that is, about five minutes after the question’s been asked and the resident’s moved on. I plan to stockpile the responses that are valid for almost any question; I’m told ‘cytokines’ and ‘idiopathic’ are reasonably reliable. The unshakable conviction that I’m only here because of an admissions office clerical error is back, right on cue from this time last year.

Here’s the wild part, though: even though all that’s true, and sleeping in is about to mean 8:00am, and a two-day weekend is about to be a vaguely fond memory of days past, I’m still really, really amped for this.

These next few months, there’s no telling what might happen. I might get to introduce a life into this world. I might get to reboot a heart that’s stopped beating. I might get to offer someone a word of comfort in their waning days. Even the most simple of things sound like opportunities–I might draw upon 19 years of lessons and lectures to decipher what’s making someone feel crummy, then find a way to make them feel less crummy.

It’s going to be petrifying, but profound. Terrifying, but terrific. Wild, but wonderful.

As I embark on this next chapter, then, these are my promises to myself. In the months to come, I hope to revisit these promises, to measure my personal growth against them, and to hold onto them as my compass, my ‘true north,’ of moral and intellectual character.

Start humble; stay humble. This one’s easy, especially when you don’t have the expertise or credibility to be anything but humble. As I grow in this clinical life, though, I hope to retain what it feels like to not have the answers, to speak from a place of low hierarchy. and minimal confidence.

Remember that everyone’s an educator. Even while learning to think like a doctor and do as doctors do, I hope to bear in mind that there are many things to be even better learned from my other colleagues and collaborators: from nursing, compassion and advocacy; from social work, resourcefulness and relationship-building; from environmental services, perseverance and ‘can-do’ willingness.

Seize every moment like it’s once-in-a-lifetime. This year, I’ll rotate through 100 specialties, and 99 of them won’t be my future profession. In other words, for anything I do this year, it could be the first day of the rest of my life, or the last time I ever deliver a baby or close a surgical incision. I’ll inevitably be tempted many times this year to skip a learning opportunity or cursorily participate in an educational experience–”I’m never going to need this skill.” When that happens, I hope to catch myself, to cherish everything as potentially unique, and to stay open to the moments that might unexpectedly captivate me.

Resist a reductionist view of the patient. Toward the end of first year, I knew I was overdue for a summer break when I’d catch myself tuning out of the ‘irrelevant’ parts of the patient narrative, feeling impatient with the details that weren’t pertinent to a diagnosis. As the medical student, I have the gift of being ‘non-essential’; my histories and physicals are, most likely, just educational exercises. In that context, I hope to remember that it may occasionally be more impactful to defer the review of systems to allow a patient space to reflect. I hope to remember that there’s more to patient care than a detailed differential.

Exist beyond medicineFor better or worse, medicine isn’t my all-consuming identity, my sole purpose. I’d like to think I exist beyond the hospital, in the form of values, leisurely pursuits, and relationships. Naturally, this won’t be the year I chase my dreams of seeing the world, or the year I take a step back to focus on my relationship. The hours of clerkships and the drive to study more, to know more, to perform better will be demanding, and these will come first. I hope, for my sake and for the sake of those dear to me, that this medical apprenticeship doesn’t become everything–the only thing–that I’m about.

So there it is–the manifesto of who I am now, and who I hope to become (or not become) by the conclusion of this whirlwind of a year. Preachy? A bit. Sappy? Definitely. Over-ambitious and doe-eyed? Sure, probably. Still, I know the odds are against me, and chances are high that I’ll end this year more jaded, more skeptical, and less empathetic. And maybe, just maybe, if I set my goals to an aspirational degree of virtue, goodness, and empathy .. then I’ll land somewhere in the middle, and fare just okay.

Well, here goes nothing.

On ‘Leadership’ in Medicine

In medicine, there are many buzzwords that are thrown around so frequently and loosely as to lose meaning or purpose. I’m looking at you, ‘patient-centered.’ And you, ‘disruptive innovation.’

Now that it’s August–the season of medical school orientations and white coat ceremonies–there’s another that, as if on cue, is making the rounds: leadership. This time of year, medical students are treated to speech after speech by deans who wax poetic about the physician-leader.

“We brought you here not to be 9-to-5 employees, but leaders in medicine.”

“We’re not just in the business of training doctors; we’re developing leaders.”

At the time, I was a fresh-faced, doe-eyed disciple in my first days of a lifetime in medicine, and I hung onto every word of the sermon–enchanted, captivated, inspired.

In the coming months, though, that inspiration turned to curious inquisition. Inquisition turned over to weary skepticism. One year in, I’ve started to deconstruct and critically evaluate the ambiguous aspiration that is ‘physician-leadership,’ a process that’s led me to these questions.

What’s a physician-leader? A year ago, we were challenged to be more than “9-to-5 employees”–to go beyond the ‘ordinary’ work of doctoring and patient care to advance the frontiers in scholarship, administration, and healthcare delivery.

Since then, though, I’ve seen some sparks of inspiration among the seemingly mundane that reveal a broader sense of leadership. There’s the country family doctor who, as a lone knight, stewards the health and wellness of an entire community. There’s the intensivist who speaks up to oppose medically futile care and guide patients to ‘a good death.’ Does one have to be an Ezekiel Emanuel or an Atul Gawande to be a physician-leader, or can we find and appreciate glimmers of leadership in the day-to-day labors of being ‘just a doctor?’

What’s it mean to train physician-leaders? As orientation became an ever-faint blip in the rear-view mirror, so became the relevance of leadership and transformative thinking in our day-to-day coursework. If we were being trained as physician-leaders, how was our training any different from that of physician not-leaders? I think we learned anatomy the same way. Same for physical diagnosis and pathology, too. A year in, I’m not sure how exactly one trains as a physician-leader, as opposed to a not-leader.

To train physician-leaders is an admirable aspiration, but it would be a little more admirable if there were a little more substance to it.

What’s with the love of leaders? As the old adage goes, if everyone’s special, then nobody really is. Likewise, if everyone’s a leader and trained from the start to think only as a leader, is there anyone left to be led? Students are selected into medical school by leading in the classroom, leading in activities and organizations, and leading in the community. When students who have only ever led arrive at medical school and are instructed to lead, does it compromise the profession’s ability to form hierarchies or collaborate?

I wonder if medical schools ought to teach, along with leadership, the principles of good followership–active listening, influencing from below, knowing when (and how) to challenge a leader. Perhaps then, we’d see stronger cohesion and collegiality, both within our profession and among the health professions.

Don’t get me wrong, now–the importance of effective leadership in medicine by physicians, for physicians is hard to overstate, especially at a time when doctors are facing increasing pressures from changing practice models, shifting payment structures, and growing information technology demands. For now, though, leadership as it’s preached and praised in medical education is a notion without clarity, an ambition without substance.

Speeches and sermons at orientations and white coat ceremonies are good. If we want to do better, though, maybe we should recognize and teach the brand of leadership that happens not only at the highest levels, but in “9-to-5 medicine.” Maybe we should actually think critically about what it means to train physician-leaders as a functional practice, rather than a buzzword not reflected in the curriculum. And maybe, just maybe, we should understand that there are limits and complements to a singular emphasis on leadership that are worth instilling, too.

The eStudent: Nothing About Me, Without Me?

I recently had the wonderful privilege of being accepted to present at a conference on medical education. I’m excited; this is a first for me!

It also came with a less-than-wonderful ‘first’: the privilege of paying a hefty conference registration fee.

Now, I can appreciate that organizing a conference is an expensive endeavor. Venues cost. Staffers cost. Esteemed keynote speakers cost. I get that.

What I don’t get is how a conference on medical education can accurately reflect interests and engage stakeholders in medical education by pricing out the main recipients of medical education: students.

Sure enough, looking over this conference’s speakers list, students are scarce. Plenty of deans, administrators, clinician-educators, and research scholars, though. It’s a conference about learners, but without learners.

To be fair, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Last year, I was elated to see the AAMC webcast its Medical Education conference. With great interest, I watched. I learned. I chimed in via Twitter when the dialogue called for (more often, presumed) a student’s perception or perspective.

And then I rolled my eyes when the post-conference survey, to the question, “Which of the following describes your role?” failed to include the option, “Student.” That moment spoke volumes, and it said everything about the student’s role in educational innovation and curricular design.

This is the essence of the problem. As students, there has to be a bigger role for us in medical education than taking post-intervention comprehension assessments or filling out satisfaction surveys. There has to be, to draw upon clinical analogies, a shared decision making model that invites students’ values, goals, and habits throughout the design process. Medical education without student engagement makes about as much sense as patient care without patient involvement.

To give credit where it’s due, I’m lucky to attend an institution where the student voice is present from the inception of an educational design process. But my experiences on the national scale imply these are outliers, not norms, and that’s a fundamental flaw.

ePatients, as advocates for access to their clinical records and active involvement in their own care, have in recent years coined the moving message, “Nothing about me, without me.”

That’s the attitude we need in medical education. That’s what we have to aspire to, and advocate for. To be eStudents: learners who don’t just participate in and function within an educational ecosystem, but actively shape it.

On Rounds | 4.26.2015

It’s the weekend after end of block exams, which means it’s time to dig through the 742 links in my Pocket queue. That also means it’s time for another edition of “On Rounds,” bringing you my favorite reads of the week.

On the new MCAT | Forbes
There’s a lot to like about the new Medical College Admission Test; with new content in psychology and sociology, MCAT 2015 acknowledges that there’s more to doctoring than biochemical pathways and physics equations. But are multiple-choice tests the best way to identify humanistic, socially aware aspiring doctors? What more we can do to foster diversity and holistic thinking among medical trainees? Allan Joseph and Karan Chhabra break down the good, the bad, and the path forward.

On quack science and journalistic ethicsVox
When it comes to pseudoscientists and their cults of personality, what’s a better-knowing journalist (or healthcare provider) to do? Speak out, and validate a quack? Or stay silent, and let faulty information rule the airwaves? Julia Belluz is on point with this one, and her insights and advice here ought to be required reading for every journalist, scientist, and clinician with a social media account.

On medical schools as laboratories of health transformationForbes
Esther Dyson once remarked that change in medicine happens one retirement at a time. She’s dead right. If we want our healthcare system to pivot from expensive care and late-stage interventions to systems-based practice, preventive care, and population health, the transition begins with how we train future doctors to think. At UT-Austin, the new Dell Medical School is bringing a ‘re-boot’ to a 100-year old model of medical education. David Shaywitz breaks down their educational approach, and what it could mean for medical schools nationwide.

On the value (or maybe not?) of health apps New York Times
There are two kinds of people. On one hand are those who own wearables and use health applications: the young, the affluent, the health-conscious. On the other hand are those who might often benefit from digital health but can rarely afford it: chronic disease patients, the elderly, and those with limited access to care. Today, the consumer market for health apps and devices is larger than ever. How do we connect tech fads to health outcomes? How do we balance rapid innovation with health equity? This NYT article doesn’t offer all the answers, but it raises many of the right questions.

On restoring the ‘joy of medicine’Medstro
When it comes to physician lifestyle, we keep hearing the same stuff: provider burnout is at a high; satisfaction is at a low; most doctors today wouldn’t recommend the profession to their children. We know all that; now, what are we going to do about it? Medstro and Geneia’s “Joy of Medicine Challenge” invites your ideas to restore joy to the practice of medicine, and they’re offering $1,000 for your thoughts. Instead of talking about how our healthcare system is broken, let’s ideate on how to fix it.