Five things physicians need to stop doing if they want to lead

July 2, 2014 at 2:32 PM Leave a comment

In my last post, I talked about the need for physician leadership in the massive amounts of re-engineering necessary to get to a sustainable American health care system. This time around I want to talk about what we need to do differently, because the old saying is true: if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. Here are my suggestions for physicians:

Stop thinking money will compensate you for an unsatisfying work life. This is a popular misconception, that you can put up with anything so long as someone pays you lots of money. It doesn’t work that way. There is ample evidence in broken relationships, drug abuse, alcoholism and other expressions of distress in our profession to prove this. Money is a decent proxy for food, shelter, and security, but it doesn’t get you to the top triangle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and piling up more of it has very little marginal benefit to happiness. Doctors in the era of the third party payer have become wealthy materially while taking pay cuts steadily in respect and relatedness. And guess which way professional satisfaction has gone over the same period? Corollary: income preservation isn’t the thing that’ll make you happiest. Finding meaning in your work life will help make you happier. If we want a sustainable system and a sustainable place in it, we need to work for more satisfying lives over more spectacular livings.

Stop thinking that the solutions to our problems are to make other people behave differently while we stay the same. If only health plans would stop hassling us. If only the government would stop regulating us. If only, if only, if only. The heads of those entities are like leaders everywhere: there are days where they would give anything for someone to bring them a solution rather than a problem. Problem generators are abundant. Problem solvers are scarce. Which do you think stand a better chance of getting a meeting with these people?

This means that those who wish to have others change what they do, have to understand those others’ problems. And, they have to genuinely want to help solve those problems. Anything less, and you look like every other appointment on their calendars. I once met with a congressional staffer who picked my brain for an hour, and at the end said, “That was great!” I asked why, and he said, “Because you didn’t ask for anything. Everybody else always has something they want us to do for them.” Man, there’s a tough job.

Change most often begins with how we are going to change ourselves. And interestingly, that internal change often fosters change in those around us. We are hard-wired to respond to each other’s social cues, and neuroscience has found structures in our brains that are on automatic to sense and interpret those cues. Mirror neurons and the limbic system are parts of what Dan Kahneman calls System 1. It runs in the background while we are doing rational work in System 2, like math or logic. But as the older and more primitive portions of the brain, System 1 overrides System 2 in times of distress. These days, that’s a substantial portion of people’s days.

Stop thinking that we’ve paid our dues, and our living is compensation for suffering through school and training. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Actually, in most other areas of society, it never did. Once, before we were able to measure complicated things like medical outcomes, society basically gave us a magic key called a medical degree and said, “Death scares the bejeezus out of us. We did our best to pick agents in our fight against it, and we picked you. Please, please, please do a good job, because we have no way to know whether you did or not. We’re trusting you with our lives, literally.” We were honored by their selection of us, and we promised to do good the day we graduated.

But these days, people can measure doctor’s performance, and they are increasingly dissatisfied by what they’re finding. Seventeen years to adopt obviously good medical practice? Wassup with that? Today the boards and hospital privileges are no longer the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval they once were. So what if you passed a really hard test a few years ago? Today, people who buy medical stuff want proof, and they want it on an ongoing basis. That’s been happening for people who build stuff like cars and dishwashers for a long time, since those are simpler tasks. But computing has caught up with measuring complex tasks, like hip replacements and chemotherapy.

Stop seeing everyone else as them, instead of us. This one is going to take a while, because we are products of a selection and training process that did nothing if not tell us that we were different than other members of the species. Smarter. More hard-working. More tolerant of sleep deprivation. And then we were inculcated into a subculture that extrapolated that (much of which wasn’t true) into the fatal delusion, “Not subject to the normal failure rate of human beings.” Think about it. Who are the heroes of our lore? Osler, DeBakey, Starzl. People who never admitted an error in their lives, ever. And yet, they all made mistakes. They weren’t a different species. But we share a comforting delusion with the larger society that we are error-free, because all of us want to believe that our error rate in life-and-death stuff can be reduced to zero by individual will and effort. It can’t.

We need to reclaim our own humanity, including the error part. We compensate for that in other industries by having redundant safety features and procedures, such as those in operating commercial aircraft and nuclear power plants. But we can’t compensate for an inherent human error rate until we acknowledge it. And we can’t do that so long as we claim we are innately exempt from errors. We can’t rejoin the human race until we acknowledge we are part of its imperfection, and ask for help in minimizing the impact of that imperfection on our brothers and sisters. To borrow from a recent bestseller’s ironic twist on Shakespeare, the fault lies in our stars, and in our selves. We should stop purporting that we have no part in what goes wrong with the way we treat our fellow human beings. We do, not because of bad intent, but because of our underlying humanity.

Stop hoping that it’ll all work out in the way we want without our having to lead the change. As if. “The best way to predict your future is to create it,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. It’s still true today. The future of medicine is being created today, and not necessarily by people who took the Hippocratic Oath.   Nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s nothing compare with what it thinks about a power vacuum. When you’re talking about a $2.7 trillion industry, there are lots of people who want to make the rules for a modest commission on that $2.7 trillion.

But you all took an oath to help and not to harm people in the most vulnerable moments of their lives. The way I see it, that still applies, whether you do your work in the exam room or the board room. At the very least, I want you at the table to express that value. But you won’t get there so long as you continue to do the five things above. Here’s hoping you’ll stop.

Next time, what I think we should start doing.

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Physician Leadership: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Retooling for the information glut age: five things physicians should do to lead

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