Friday, October 19, 2012

How we teach medical students to view other healthcare providers

I've been thinking about an aspect of the 'hidden curriculum' lately.  It came up in reviews of the neurology clerkship over the last several years.  There have been a few comments over the last few years about staff and residents making statements behind the closed doors of the conference room about the competence of colleagues from other departments and other institutions.  I don't think this is unique to our department or to our school of medicine.  The question I have is why does this happen?

I know this is not unique to us as I encountered these same scenarios as a student myself on all the services I rotated through. This is a typical scenario, a resident takes a call with a request for a consultation by another service.  They hang up the phone, and break into a tirade (sometimes with expletives included) about how stupid the person/team was for not being able to address this problem by themselves.  Too often this exchange happens before the phone is put down, and it can grow into a literal shouting match. I've seen this same pattern after discussions with support staff for a lab value or to call an on-call tech in to the hospital ob the weekend.  There's also the easy target of the referring physician from a smaller hospital who called to transfer a patient.  Often these comments include jokes about the intelligence of the people on the other end of the phone.

So, why does this happen?  Let me discuss one possible reason.  First, from a medical training perspective, I was taught very early to be a critical thinker.  Much of clinical reasoning - especially diagnosis and treatment decisions - occur in a vast grey area between the seemingly sharp lines of common diseases and syndromes seen in medical school textbooks and lectures.  This means you should approach every patient's problems from the beginning and rework the steps to diagnosis to assure yourself of the correct diagnosis and treatment path.  Taken in a positive way, if you come to a different opinion than previous providers, you can potentially change the treatment course and make the person better - which is good.  Taken in a negative way, every time you do this exercise, you find that there are many people who don't think like you do, and you can start to get the idea that you are the only provider in the region who has competence.  This bias towards thinking that presumed errors are based on incompetence are sometimes actually true - perhaps the provider is indeed not safe to practice medicine.  However, I think this is not really true as often as may be grumbled about int the confines of a conference room. First, clinical presentations are often subtle initially, and just the fact that you are evaluating the patient later makes things clearer.  Also, you already know what didn't work which usually helps narrow the differential diagnosis or treatment options.  Also, you have no idea what the context of the day/ night was for the provider as they were making those decisions.  Again, I'm not saying that every misadventure is justified, but I'm saying as professionals our job is to take care of the patient.  Out job is not to jump to conclusions about what happened before we were there.

This behavior then gets passed along to our students who see it modeled all the way from residents to staff.  It's accepted as normal behavior, and like other parts of the hidden curriculum it is passed down from one generation to the next.  Please remember this the next time you are tempted to make a disparaging remark.  Now, I'm not saying good natured joking and  friendly competition should be outlawed.  There are very good jokes out there about neurologists, and I know some good neurosurgeon jokes.  Humor can help us all deal with stressful situations.  I'm not for banning it completely.  I'm just asking for some thought before making a sarcastic comment about a colleague.  Would it be OK for that person to be in the room with you when you say the comment?  If yes, then it is likely just some banter.  If no, it may be time to rethink.  Especially with students in the room.

One final thought.  The other side of the coin is that we usually hear back from colleagues who tell us about things we did well.  Rarely do our colleagues report back to us on things we could have done better.  Thus, you likely have a reporting bias on your own performance on  these types of issues.  So, be careful who you are criticizing as it may well be yourself.