It’s July, the month that marks the annual rite of passage for both newly minted physicians starting their internships and somewhat-less-fresh trainees completing their residencies and moving on to the next stage of their professional journey. I would imagine that many of you, like me, spend at least a fleeting moment this time of year thinking back to your first days as interns and, hopefully, extend at least a little empathy to those anxious souls who are being called upon to serve as “doctors” for the very first time.
When I reflect a little further, I am also reminded of the immense power and influence of role models over the course of our training. Although internal medicine was certainly interesting to me, even during medical school, I will candidly also say that the residents and attendings who I served with on teams during medical school at the University of Pennsylvania had at least as much if not more to do with my choice to match in internal medicine. I remember many of their names to this day. While I am not in touch with them, I will always be grateful for the way they demonstrated enthusiasm for medicine; compassion for their patients; partnership with nurses, therapists, and the many other members of our teams; and a genuine love for teaching and conveying a sense of mission in what they did.
I had many great teachers in other areas (particularly, I have to admit, surgery, where some of us students were so enamored of the clinical clerkship director that we memorialized him in a sendup of Forrest Gump in our annual comedy show). However, the consistency of this enthusiasm in the medicine teams was incomparable. In short, these were physicians who I wanted to be like, to emulate. They were role models.
Likewise, during residency, it was those attendings who were among the earliest of academic hospitalists who demonstrated those same skills. I will always remember an encounter with one of my chief residents at the Veterans Affairs early in my internship, when I was struggling with a particular issue. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of my ultimate career choice, but I was disappointed with my ambulatory clinic experience. As a chief resident, he could have dismissed my frustration or told me to suck it up. He didn’t. He empathized, acknowledging my exasperation and assuring me that I wasn’t alone in how I felt. He also helped me frame the experience to find positive learning aspects—after all, it wasn’t a problem he could just fix and make go away.
Most important, he listened and didn’t judge.
Long before we started thinking of empathy as a teachable communication skill, I experienced it firsthand, and it turned my entire experience around. To this day, I try to emulate that empathy when frustrated physicians or employees come to me with issues.
As hospitalists and physicians, the spotlight is on us almost every minute of every day. We are watched (yes, we are judged) all the time by nurses, pharmacists, case managers, and our patients to see if we live the values of teamwork, collaboration, and emotional intelligence that we claim to embody as system thinkers and system reformers.
But no one watches us more closely than those who we are charged with training. From the very earliest medical student to the most seasoned resident and fellow, how we act is how they will act. When we demonstrate that the bar is highest for us in terms of professionalism, collegiality, and empathy, we imprint upon our trainees those same behaviors and the values that they reflect.