Reflections after 4 years of emergency medicine training

On July 1st, four years ago, I walked through Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals with an odd mixture of fear, relief, and excitement. Now, as I leave the hospital after my last shift of emergency medicine residency training, I am filled with a similar hodgepodge of emotions and reflections.

1. “You were terrified of being a doctor!” I mentioned this article to the attending who oversaw my first shift as a newly-minted doctor. That day is forever etched in my mind; did he remember it? Much to my great embarrassment, he chuckled and said, of course. “I kept telling you not to worry if you don’t know something, but you were scared of everything!”

Though I knew that I was there to learn, it took me a while to get over my insecurities about not knowing so that I could focus on learning. And the learning was everywhere—on every single shift, I learned from great clinicians not just about diagnosis and treatment, but also important lessons on how to lead a team, how to teach, and, most importantly, how to help people who come to us in their time of need. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have learned from many colleagues along the way, including the amazingly skillful and compassionate nurses at Brigham & Mass General. As my mentors say, it is called the practice of medicine for a reason, and we should embrace, rather than fear, the learning.

2. Mistakes will happen. Every doctor has made a mistake some time in her life. Whether it’s a technical error (i.e. inserting a long IV into an artery rather than a vein), a systems error (i.e. ordering a medication for the wrong patient), or a communication error (i.e. angering a patient or colleague), all of us graduating residents will have made some kind of error. I myself made all three of these errors, and more.

With the volume of patients we will see throughout our careers, being the cause of medical error and interpersonal conflict is a terrifying and humbling thought. A wise physician said to me that just as residency is the time to learn how to practice medicine right, it’s also the time to learn skills like how to disclose mistakes to patients, and how to deal with conflict. “Don’t shy away from difficult situations,” he told me. “Put yourself in the middle of them to see what others do, and then develop your own style.”

3. That man has a name, and it’s not “the chest pain in room 8.” As busy residents with long to-do lists, we often fall prey to the tendency to dehumanize our patients and brand them as chief complaints to quickly decide their disposition. On the surface, this might appear to save time, but dig a little deeper, and such algorithmic, depersonalized medicine results in unnecessary tests, misdiagnosis, and worse patient experience.

Furthermore, practicing cookbook medicine is not why we chose to become doctors. My work became much more meaningful when I made a commitment to connect with each patient, no matter how busy I am. I learned that the “old guy with dementia” was a world-renowned philosopher, that the “the onc patient with fever and neutropenia” had ten children with her preschool sweetheart. As physicians, we are privileged to hear so many stories from so many people. Cherish this gift we’re given to share in our patients’ rich lives. Our healthcare system isolates patients and disenfranchises families; we have the power to practice real patient- and family-centered medicine.

4. Residency is hard, and you have to take care of yourself. My best friend from medical school, who had just completed his pediatric residency, warned me about this before I started intern year. How right he was. Work hours may have improved since our forefathers trained, but residents still work a lot and are exposed to high-stress situations with life-and-death consequences. Studies have shown that rates of depression and burnout increase sharply during training, yet the “hidden curriculum” of medical training still favors bravado over openness. Residents are taught to “suck it up” instead of talking about difficult situations and taking care of ourselves.

This is not the way it has to be! I learned this lesson the hard way during second year of residency, when my mother diedI suppressed my emotions rather than seek help, and saw how easy it is to feel isolated. Fight this impulse and stay connected. Find peers you can reflect with and openly speak about your experiences. Nourish the other people in your life and recognize their critical role in helping you through this process. For me, it was my wonderfully supportive husband and my friends who sustained me and kept me grounded. Make time for these people in your life. I cannot think of anyone who regrets the time spent with our loved ones and laments, “if only I spent that day reading one more research article!”

5. Emergency medicine is a phenomenal field. The first grand rounds lecture I heard as an intern was by Dr. Larry Weiss, then President of AAEM. He spoke about how emergency medicine is an ideal specialty for advocacy: as the frontlines of medical care who interact with every aspect of the healthcare system, we are the most well-positioned physicians to advocate for our patients, our communities, and our society. We see the problems with public health—smoking, obesity, gun violence, etc. We see the problems with under-, over-, and misutilization of healthcare. And we have the ability and power to act on these problems every day.

In my fourth year of medical school, I selected emergency medicine as a specialty because I wanted the ability to treat any patient, anywhere. Being one of the emergency providers who took of care victims of the Boston bombings made me grateful for my training and for the skills I’ve learned along the way. We in emergency medicine have the incredible opportunity to utilize our training to do what we love while making a difference to improve care for our patients and to transform our healthcare system.

What else can I say about these last four years? It’s been a rollercoaster ride. Now that I’m about to embark on the next journey as an emergency medicine attending physician, health policy professor, and Director of Patient-Centered Care Research at the George Washington University in D.C., I am filled with exactly the same emotions of fear, relief, and excitement that I came to Boston with. I have learned so much from so many incredible people along the way, and will forever be indebted to the amazing attendings, residents, nurses, physician assistants, and other colleagues at Brigham and Massachusetts General Hospitals.

Leana Wen is an emergency physician who blogs at The Doctor is Listening. She is the co-author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Prevent Misdiagnosis and Unnecessary Tests.  She can also be reached on Twitter @drleanawen.

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  • heartdoc345

    Congratulations on finishing residency! I hope you continue to have this positive attitude for countless years. I especially appreciate your desire to avoid “cookbook” medicine and remember first the humanity and stories of patients.

  • Rob Burnside

    Well-said, Dr. Wen. Your patients are fortunate, indeed. I’m not a doc, but I once was a firefighter/paramedic (in the old days, we were considered “allied health care professionals”) who routinely worked in the ED and on the streets, and I’d like to add my two cents to your fine piece. For me, one of the attractions of emergency medicine was the pace and volume of patients–rarely a dull moment as we “patched ‘em up and passed ‘em on.” But as you say so well, they were not simply critical patients, but human beings, people with compelling stories–if we had or made the time to ask and listen. Often, we didn’t, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was: we couldn’t wait to get to the break room for a smoke and a slurp of java (shows you how far back I’m reaching).

    Still, there was a nagging curiosity about many patients. What happened to them after they were admitted or went home? Usually, we didn’t know, and looking back I dearly wish we had. Again, for a variety of reasons. It would have helped us improve our patient care for sure, and it surely would have reinforced an elemental mindset of all good health care–”There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

    I can only suppose, with HIPPA, today’s ED staffers have even less knowledge of what I believe you call “outcomes,” and that’s unfortunate
    for everyone. In any case, thank you for an excellent blog, and best wishes toward a long, productive, and satisfying career.

  • Jeff Kunz, MD, MA

    Congratulations and best wishes! We need your expertise and energy in medicine. Thanks for sharing your insights and lessons learned.