It’s time to focus medical education on training the whole person

Here I am, 17 years out of my fellowship training, and I’m just getting some of the most important training of my medical career.

I continue to believe that my medical school, residency, and fellowship training were all outstanding. However, either I missed something in the course catalogue, or like for most medical students, residents, and fellows, there were some glaring omissions in the course offerings.

Here are some of the courses I never knew I needed until now:

Empathy, compassion and self-compassion 101

Prerequisite: You’re human

This course is intended for any student who intends on talking to patients, colleagues, staff, or people in general. It’s also required for any student who plans on practicing medicine one day. Students will get the opportunity to understand how empathy and compassion facilitate better relationships with and care of patients. They will also have an opportunity to see how these skills will help them become stronger team members. Students will understand how self-compassion can help protect against burnout and stress. This course will comprise didactics, fail at some stuff, and talk to people about hard things.

Physician leadership 311

Prerequisite: You plan on working as a physician

This course is intended for any student planning on working as a physician in any capacity, in any setting. In addition to knowledge in health care delivery and medicine’s clinical practice, students will build skills around communication, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and building their vision of exceptional patient care. Students will examine all of the different ways physicians show up, formally and informally, as leaders. This course will comprise of didactics, case-discussions, and leadership coaching.

Burnout, perfectionism, and imposter syndrome: Navigating the triple threat 522

Prerequisite: You’ve been stressed-out at any point in your life

This course is intended for any student who will experience their own and other people’s expectations. Students will learn how to identify each of these syndromes and how they can impact their personal and professional lives. Those students currently dealing with any of these syndromes will receive support and encouragement on navigating their struggles, learn how to recognize the situations and circumstances that are potential triggers, and learn how to set boundaries to minimize future risk.  Students will also learn how to recognize signs that a peer is struggling and be prepared to help them get the support if needed. This course will comprise of didactics and whatever support an individual needs in a safe, non-judgemental environment.

To my knowledge, these courses aren’t offered alongside anatomy and physiology at most medical schools. However, these courses, which comprise the majority of what I coach my physician clients on, address the core of physician identity.

Current medical education, training, and career development excel in cultivating clinical experts, problem solvers, and thought leaders, but that is a 2-dimensional understanding of becoming a physician.

Leaving my fellowship and starting my first job in an academic setting, I wasn’t prepared to lead a team with a clear understanding of how to best handle the non-clinical responsibilities. I was reluctant to engage in tasks that took me out of my clinical role. How should I approach my psychologist team member who was over-stepping her medication knowledge while still maintaining cohesiveness, open dialogue, and idea acceptance within the team? I’ve learned this and other leadership skills over the years, but it was an, at times, messy learning by doing.

Regardless of our practice settings, by default, we are leaders in a variety of clinical and community settings. While a minority of physicians are in formal leadership positions, all physicians at some point in time will find themselves in an informal leadership position within a group.

Even more harmful were the hours of stress and overwhelm I experienced struggling with my own imposter syndrome and perfectionism. Never feeling like I was doing enough, doing it correctly, or doing it as well as everyone else was a poor substitution for motivation and a growth mindset.

Had I understood the nature of my struggles and felt permitted and supported in actively addressing them, I would have been more effective, a better learner, and more fulfilled. After trying out a few clinical settings, a lot of reading, and some much-needed coaching, I found my identity as a healthy, inspired physician. Eventually, by setting boundaries and understanding my patterns, I discovered what I needed to thrive.

So, maybe we need to reimagine medical education. From medical school onward, physician education and training should be conceptualized as a career-long process supporting the holistic development of life-long learners, leaders, and healers. Certainly, there has got to be a better way than my circuitous, self-designed, and at times, painful and exhausting pathway.

Tracy Asamoah is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and can be reached at Tracy Asamoah Coaching.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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