"What’s the bigger picture here?” Hospitalist Christopher Moreland, MD, MPH, FACP, drops his question neatly into the pause in resident Adrienne Victor, MD’s presentation of patient status and lab results.
We’re on the bustling 9th floor of University Hospital at the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSCSA) in San Antonio during fast-paced morning rounds. As attending physician, Dr. Moreland is focusing intently on Dr. Victor’s face, simultaneously monitoring the American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of Todd Agan, CI/CT, BEI Master Interpreter. Immediately after his question to Dr. Victor, the discussion—conducted in both ASL and spoken English—shifts to the patient’s psychosocial issues and whether a palliative care consult would be advisable.
It’s clear that for Dr. Moreland, the work, not his lack of hearing, is the main point here. A hospitalist with the UTHSCSA team since 2010, Dr. Moreland quickly established himself not only as a valuable HM team member and educator, but also as a leader in other domains. For example, in addition to his academic appointment as assistant clinical professor of medicine, he previously was co-director of the medicine consult and co-management service at University Hospital and now serves as UTHSCSA’s associate program director for the internal medicine residency program.
Dr. Moreland’s question this morning is typical of his teaching, says Bret Simon, PhD, an educational development specialist and assistant professor with the division of hospital medicine at UTHSCSA.
–Christopher Moreland, MD, MPH, FACP
“He’s very good at using questions to teach, promoting reflection rather than simply telling the student what to do,” Dr. Simon explains.
Chris Moreland’s parents discovered their son was deaf at age two, by which time he had acquired very few spoken words. After multiple visits to healthcare professionals, a physician finally identified his deafness. The family then embarked on a bimodal approach to his education, using both signed and spoken English. He learned ASL in college. As a result, he communicates through a variety of channels: ASL with interpreters Agan and Keri Richardson, speech reading, and spoken English. When examining patients, he uses an electronic stethoscope that interfaces with his cochlear implant.
Medicine was not Dr. Moreland’s first academic choice.
“I went into college thinking I wanted to do computer science,” he says, speaking of his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas in Austin. When he realized computers were not for him, he switched his major to theater arts, continuing an interest he had had in high school. After that, research seemed appealing, and he became a research assistant in a lab in the Department of Anthropology. Finally, after shadowing a number of physicians, his interest in medical science was stimulated.
“Medicine,” he says, “became a nice culmination of everything I was interested in doing.” From computer science, he learned to appreciate an understanding of algorithms; from theater arts came the ability to understand where people are coming from; and from his link with research in linguistics and anthropology came the contribution of problem solving and methodology.
Dr. Moreland says his deafness presents no impediments to his practice of medicine. “I grew up working with interpreters, so I’m used to that process,” he says. “It forces you to become less inhibited about what you’re doing. People have questions [‘who is that other person in the room?’], and you learn how to handle those questions quickly, without interfering with communication in order to advance the work.”
When Dr. Moreland started his clinical rotations as a third-year medical student, he grappled with the best way to introduce himself and his interpreter to patients. His first attempt at explaining the interpretive process “went on for quite a while” and was too much information. “It ended up overwhelming the patient,” he says.
The next time he chose not to introduce the interpreter but to simply address the patient directly. “That didn’t work either, because the patient’s eyes kept wandering to that other person in the room.”
Finally, “I realized that it wasn’t about me,” he says. “It was about the patient.” So he simply shortened the introduction to himself and the interpreter and asked the patients how they were doing.
“Once I became more professional about the situation, the more positive and patient-centered it became, and it went well.” He says he’s had no negative experiences since then, at least not related to his deafness. He approaches each new patient interaction proactively, and he and his interpreters become part of the flow of care.
Teaching’s Missing Pieces
As illustrated with his first question, Dr. Moreland intends for his trainees to learn to think globally about their patients.
“Although rote information has its role,” he explains later in the conference room, “I’m always afraid of overemphasizing it. When I trained in medical school, we didn’t learn that much about communication skills and teamwork. We talked a lot about information we use as physicians—the mechanism of disease, the drugs we use.
“What I try to emphasize with trainees is, what skills in communication, teamwork, and self-education can we develop so that we can use those skills continuously throughout our practice?”
Dr. Moreland takes setting resident-generated learning goals seriously, says Dr. Simon, for which he and trainees give him high marks.
“He is very supportive and encourages us to make our own management decisions,” Dr. Victor says. “Though, of course, he will let us know if something is likely the wrong choice, usually by discussing it first.”
Patrick S. Romano, MD, MPH, professor of general medicine and pediatrics and former director of the Primary Care Outcomes Research (PCOR) faculty development program at the University of California Davis, where Dr. Moreland was a resident and then a fellow, found his trainee was always “very thoughtful and conscientious, presenting different ways of looking at problems and asking the right questions. And, of course, that’s what we look for in teachers: people who know how to ask the right questions, because, then, of course, they are able to answer students’ questions.”
Transformational and Inspirational
For many of Dr. Moreland’s colleagues and trainees, working with him has been their first exposure to a hearing-impaired physician. Richard L. Kravitz, MD, MSPH, professor and co-vice chair of research in the department of medicine at UC Davis, supervised Dr. Moreland during his residency and later during his PCOR fellowship. The American Disabilities Act-mandated interpreter for Dr. Moreland introduced a “change in standard operating procedure,” Dr. Kravitz notes. “None of us knew what to expect when he came onboard the residency program. But, very quickly, any unease was put to rest because he was just so talented.”
For visitors, Dr. Moreland seamlessly addresses his hearing impairment and makes sure that everyone on the team is following the discussion. Luci K. Leykum, MD, MBA, MSc, hospital medicine division chief and associate dean for clinical affairs at UTHSCSA, says that Dr. Moreland has brought “a lot of positive energy to the group—and in ways I would not have expected.” She praised his talents as both a clinician and teacher.
John G. Rees, DBA, RN, patient care coordinator in the 5th Acute Care Unit, says that Dr. Moreland immediately “blended” with the staff on his service. “The rapport was perfect,” he adds.
Robert L. Talbert, PharmD, the SmithKline Centennial Professor of Pharmacy at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin, often participates in teaching rounds. Dr. Moreland, he says, “has an excellent fund of knowledge; he’s very rational and evidence-based in decisions he makes. He’s exactly what a physician should be.”
Watching interpreters Agan and Richardson during group meetings, Dr. Leykum believes, has influenced their group dynamics. “On a subtle level, having Chris in the group has made us more aware of how we interact with each other.”
Nilam Soni, MD, FHM associate professor in the department of medicine and leader of ultrasound education, has noticed that he has become attuned to Dr. Moreland’s way of communicating and often does not need the interpreters to decipher the conversation between them. Working with Dr. Moreland has given Dr. Soni “a better understanding of how to communicate effectively with patients that have difficulty hearing.”
After working with Dr. Moreland at UC Davis, Dr. Kravitz observed that employing physicians with hearing impairment or other disabilities brings additional benefits to the institution. Dr. Moreland’s presence “probably raised the level of understanding of the entire internal medicine staff, because it demonstrated that a disability is what you make of it,” he says. “One recognizes how porous the barriers are, provided that people with disabilities are supported appropriately. In that way, Chris was inspiring, and may have changed the way some of us look at this specific disability that he had, but also other disabilities.”
A bigger picture, indeed.
Gretchen Henkel is a freelance writer in California.