Beyond the White Coat

Being whole


Medicine is a rewarding but demanding field. Part of being a professional is handling the stresses of the job. That ability is as important as tying strong horizontal mattress sutures, choosing correct antibiotics to treat staph, and gently breaking bad news.

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The divorce and suicide rate among physicians are evidence that many physicians handle stress poorly. Our rates of depression, burnout, alcoholism, and substance abuse are further evidence of the suffering caused by unmitigated stress. It is endemic and destructive, harming physicians, their loved ones, and their patients. While this situation has long been true, in the past decade its importance has become better recognized. Some scholars have added physician wellness or fulfillment as a fourth aim of medical care to complement the triple aims of patient outcomes, consumer experience, and financial stewardship.

The sources of stress can be either external or internal. Internally, many physicians feel torn between competing professional roles. Recently one fellow in pediatric intensive care wrote an insightful reflective essay about two conflicting roles (“Virtue and Suffering: Where the Personal and Professional Collide,” Lauren Rissman, MD. One side is the potential benefits of technology and modern medical interventions. The other side is compassion and knowing when to say enough. Finding that balance – or boundary – or mixture is difficult. Even more difficult is helping patients/parents who are struggling with those choices.

Some old models of the doctor-patient relationship insisted on an emotional detachment to promote objectivity. This often is paired with using nondirective counseling. The admonishment for a physician to be nondirective comes up in end-of-life care choices in the ICU. It comes up in genetic counseling, particularly in the prenatal time frame, and when I do ethics consults requiring values clarification and mediation. But I also have found times during shared decision making when the model of a fully informed consumer choice is not valid. There are situations in which a paradigm of emotional detachment impairs the ability to convey empathy, compassion, and presence. Being detached also may prevent the moments of personal connection between doctor and patient that are the intangible rewards of the vocation. A good physician knows how to choose among these idealized models. It requires being genuine when employing a diverse bag of bedside tools.

High technology and highly invasive care pose dilemmas in assessing outcomes, minimizing suffering, and ensuring financial stewardship. When one addresses those different types of dilemmas happening simultaneously, the initial approach can be to separate the different influences into separate vectors. But when one does this on a regular basis, it fractures one’s self-image. To survive and flourish, the physician juggling these competing, conflicting goals must shun the split personality and seek to live as an integrated moral agent. This integration is not achieved by working harder or longer or even smarter. It requires time and effort directed to self-reflection. When pediatric ethicists get together at conferences, I notice that about one-half of them are neonatal ICU docs and one-quarter are pediatric ICU docs. Many view their work in ethics as a survival mechanism. We all are looking for answers to questions we may not be able to fully articulate.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

In this short column I will not endeavor to offer a neat package of advice on how to achieve being whole. Dr. Rissman in her essay is just starting her career while I’m nearing the end of mine. It is a lifelong process to integrate oneself rather than exist in turmoil. It truly is a journey, not a destination. After a career dedicated to considering technology, compassion, and costs, I know there are no simple solutions. I also know that it is important to keep seeking better answers.

To encourage group discussion of ethical problems, I have heard facilitators say that there are no right and wrong answers. I strongly disagree. In ethics, there often is more than one correct answer. Ethicists can write books on why one right answer is slightly better than another right answer for a particular individual or population. We live for debates over such minutiae. In the real world of medical ethics, there also are definitely wrong answers.

The difference between medical ethics and philosophy is that, when all the talking is done, in medical ethics something happens. That makes a difference. Professional athletes know the importance of recovery after an intense workout. Muscles have accumulated microscopic tears that must heal. Professional physicians must develop a personal regimen of caring for overexertion of their own emotional and moral/spiritual muscles in order to remain whole.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at [email protected].

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