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What did You learn from Your Patients?

Many of us in physician leadership roles are tasked with carrying out professional reviews with our physician colleagues. It can be a useful or disappointing event depending on the process, people and purpose surrounding the meeting.

Having led large groups of physicians in a number of leading academic medical centers, each of the institutional leadership hierarchies produced a process that we followed. Some were helpful, and others seemed bureaucratic at best. Over the last fifteen years of my leadership career, I always added one question to the institutional process. That question alone was often the only one needed to determine whether my physician colleague and teammate was growing a professional career or simply held a doctor’s job.

The question I added to the review was: What did you learn from a patient this past year? Some of my leadership teammates thought I had gone soft when this question was added to their long established process. Yet, it wasn’t long until these same leaders turned to that question first when we were meeting with a colleague. Answering that single question often probed the physician’s engagement with patients, passion for our practice, and professionalism. There are many examples of physicians that were growing professional careers, one follows from a mid-career, outstanding physician, who was well-published and respected clinically by colleagues:

As a physician, the patient often has little, if any ability to judge our knowledge or skill. You are measured by your empathy, and ability to communicate and set expectations. I had a very complex patient who presented challenging pain control issues. I thought I had failed her; but when all was said and done, the patient made a point of calling me back to the bedside to thank me. She apologized for being "so difficult" and said that more than the medication, she appreciated being "talked to like a person." She had spent so much time in the hospital that she felt like she had "lost her identity" and had become "a disease to be treated." I was touched and humbled that a little thing like taking the time to talk to her had meant so much.

This respected colleague was also respected by many other patients. Another physician comparable in length of career, and yet quite demanding as a colleague, answered the “what did you learn question” with brevity:

This past year brought no new knowledge from patients.

Without question, the second physician had morphed into a doctor with a job, rather than a physician growing a career. Our patients reward us physicians with the gift of a career with meaning, relationships and responsibility. I think often on the question, what did I learn from my patients.

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