To conclude a description of my previous job at PPOH in New York, let me tell you about Friday afternoons.
Every Friday afternoon, the staff psychiatrists met as a group for three hours.
Those three hours were important and valuable. During that time, a variety of activities occurred:
Case presentations. Different psychiatrists presented cases to solicit ideas and help. Hearing the thoughts of others provided fresh perspectives and helped us “think outside of the box”. Each psychiatrist had his specific strengths and this forum allowed us to access his expertise.
Example: Someone once presented a case about a woman who was refusing to accept treatment for a major medical problem. The psychiatrist had assessed her decisional capacity and it appeared intact. This meant that we—other doctors, her psychiatrist, other non-medical staff members—had to respect her wishes… and also watch her become more ill and eventually die. The psychiatrist who presented this case wanted to (1) ensure that his assessment of her decisional capacity was thorough, (2) learn how to manage the (often angry and frustrated) reactions of the other physicians and non-medical staff, (3) get ideas about how to coach the other physicians involved in the patient’s care when they wanted to do something and she refused, and (4) vent and get support from us, as managing his own reactions and the reactions of others was taxing.
Sometimes the case presentations were less complicated: How can I encourage this patient to try medication? Is there anything I can do to get this patient to stop asking for medication? Do you have any ideas as to how we can keep this guy out of the hospital?
Grand Rounds. Grand rounds refers to a lecture on a specific medical topic. It is often considered a “big event” (i.e. lots of people are invited or expected to go). In academic medical centers, someone well-known in the subject usually gives the lecture.
PPOH established a Grand Rounds committee1 to organize a series related to homelessness and mental health. Speakers with expertise on schizophrenia, common infections in the homeless, harm reduction, housing first, tobacco use and cessation, and other topics shared their knowledge with us.
These lectures were an essential part of continuing medical education. We need and want to learn so we can provide excellent care for our patients, particularly since there is a dearth of literature for this population.
Peer supervision/support. Every job has its challenges. In psychiatry, it is no different. Working with individuals who have significant mental health problems, homeless or not, can be stressful. Sometimes we feel anger towards patients. Sometimes we feel frustration with other psychiatrists or physicians. Sometimes we feel scared that we did something wrong. Sometimes we worry that our patients will die.
Much of psychiatric training uses the apprenticeship model. While in residency, we meet with “supervisors” (attending psychiatrists) on a regular basis. Supervisors provide coaching and guidance to help residents learn psychotherapy and prescribing practices. This is also where the informal curriculum is taught: Supervisors are essential in teaching (demonstrating) professionalism and attitudes. It is during supervision that we also learn to examine our own reactions to clinical encounters… and, oftentimes, our reactions tell us more about ourselves than about our patients.
I was deeply grateful for these weekly three-hour meetings. (I have since realized that this set-up is rare. No money is gained while physicians are meeting for supervision. Neither patients nor insurance companies are billed. From a financial standpoint, it is wasted time. However, I’d like to think that this investment in physicians ultimately provides benefits for patients. I don’t know if there is any data to support this, though I believe it is absolutely true.) The built-in network of peers gave me security: I knew I could trust them to help me become a better doctor.
Many medical students and residents feel embarrassed to ask questions. They might feel ashamed to say “I don’t know”. With time and experience, that shame goes away. It’s okay if you don’t know. What you do next is what matters: If you need help, ask for it. You will (re)learn something, you will take better care of your patients, and you can then help another doctor in the future.