Di stress / Distress / De-stress

Please enjoy this post I wrote 2 years ago while struggling to survive my intern year. The level of optimism is truly remarkable considering I was on my Paediatric rotation at the time.

The shift from medical school to internship is the shift from dipping one’s toes in the swimming pool to diving in the deep end. When you’re a medical student, duty ends at 10pm. If you can’t get an intravenous access, you call the intern. 12 o’clock is always lunchtime.

Suddenly, it’s July 1 and the minutes don’t roll over. Free paper has been burnt. You have passed the dreaded MBBS and received, in return for your labours, more hard work. Harder work, in fact. Your duties extend for 24 and 48 and 56 hours. Sleep becomes a concept. Lunchtime, a luxury. You become the person the medical student calls when they’ve destroyed all the veins in their quest for an IV access.

Why am I here again?

If you haven’t asked yourself that question at least once in the last six months, consider yourself lucky. You might actually want to try your hand at the Lotto.

If there was a buzzword for internship, disillusionment would be it. When asked what lessons have been gleaned from the “Internship Experience”, one intern from a hospital which shall remain nameless (we’ll call it the Really Tall One) responded with an outburst,

“Old doctors want our experience to be as frustrating as theirs to ‘build character’.”

You know it’s time for a paradigm shift when you point out workplace inadequacies and your boss responds with,

“You merely adopted high patient loads and low resources. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t have the luxury of readily available investigations until I was already a SR and by then it was an insult to my clinical acumen.”

It’s admirable to want your interns to be the best they can be but there are practices in medicine that in any other profession would spark the ire of an entire HR department. But I digress. This isn’t meant to be a call to arms.

Sometimes the answer to that ever-present question is positive. Real life patient care (as opposed to the dabbling that’s done in medical school) can be and has been rewarding and invigorating. The General Surgery rotation is particularly satisfying in this regard: patients enter the hospital bleeding, broken, dying and with the flick of a scalpel, the swish of a stitch (and some strong pain meds) they survive to maim themselves (or someone else) another day.

Lest this turn into a clichéd trope about the satisfaction of a job well done, I do have some misgivings about the surgical field. Once a patient expressed their profuse gratitude for having their infected digit amputated. You’re . . . welcome?

As uplifting as those moments are, they seem to be outweighed by the downsides of working in the public system. Like McGyver and Miss Lou, you has to tun yuh hand mek fashion. Whether it’s performing an entire sepsis screen (including lumbar puncture) on a neonate without assistance or manoeuvring a 250lb patient with bilateral skeletal traction off their stretcher and onto the CT machine, provided the CT machine is working. One disadvantage faced by every public hospital is inadequate funding, but necessity is the mother of invention. If you haven’t made an IV drip stand out of a curtain hook or a chest tube out of a Foley catheter, you haven’t really lived.

There is a certain satisfaction to seeing patients managed conscientiously despite low resource settings, but can medicine be equally reward and punishment? Ours is the lot of sleepless nights, thankless hours and the constant threat of occupational exposure (latent TB, anyone?). Is the smile of a mother when you tell her yes her baby can go home really worth the stress of q4hrly bilirubins?

As the most junior member of the medical team that stress of ‘getting it done’ rests squarely on the intern’s shoulders. It often feels like we’ve been left in the deep end of the pool to sink or swim, complete with Yoda-like figure declaring “do or do not, there is no try”. Coping mechanisms become currency as we try to stay afloat despite the setbacks. Periodic nervous breakdowns, the impenetrable veneer of cynicism and a strong tendency toward smoking and alcohol are only a few of the methods employed.

If you are stranded amidst the sea of disillusionment, clinging to the battered lifeboat of responsibility it helps, I think, to remember the reason you started out on this journey in the first place. Sankofa, my friends. It is okay to look back for that which you have forgotten. Whether it was the personal fulfilment you get from helping other people or the determination to be consultant someday, internship is decidedly BYOM. Bring Your Own Motivation.

At six months in we’ve already committed to this gestation period, for better or for worse. And when we are delivered in another six months, freshly registered and happy to be out of the frying pan of internship, we’ll look back from the fires of Senior House Officer year with the same clouded nostalgia as the consultants who believe that their internship experience was the only one worthwhile.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

 

on the Legitimacy of ‘Free’ Health Care

Disclaimer: Opinions reflected here are my own, and not representative of any other person or entity. This post isn’t even about a specific country. It’s entirely hypothetical. Any resemblance to actual places or policies is completely coincidental and should be ignored.

No person in need should be refused health care because they are unable to afford it.

If someone is sick they should get be able to access the treatment and investigations they need without going bankrupt. This is what the World Health Organization considers ‘Health for All‘.

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But health systems need to be sustainable. Governments shouldn’t promise health care gratis and then serve up a substandard product. Free service with unacceptable wait times, drug shortages and costly basic interventions is impractical and unfair to the population receiving it. It’s free health care in name only, a political tactic, and frankly demeaning to the patients who must navigate these inaccessible territories.

Being able to get medical help without having to pay through the nose is great! I see a doctor at my local clinic for free, get a prescription which I fill at the nearest government pharmacy for free. If I need blood work, an x-ray or ultrasound, those are all free too. If I need to be hospitalised, I don’t need to worry about a bill, and I can rest assured that the hospital has all the resources required to treat me according to international standards.

But what if there are not enough doctors in the clinic, or not enough space in the hospital? What if there isn’t enough medicine in the pharmacy, what if the machines for blood testing or x-ray or ultrasound aren’t working? What if the hospital is overwhelmed by demand and its resources are inadequate for a population this size?  What happens then?

I don’t have the answers but I’m sure the solution is more complicated than just throwing more money at the problem. Sustainability and capacity building are nuanced and necessary concepts that demand to be addressed. Failing to take them into consideration results in a quagmire of dissatisfaction and deteriorating quality.

If high quality, patient-centered health for all is the goal, then the steps to get there must reflect this realignment of values. Any health system that decides to serve users at no charge must remember that it exists to serve, and not to inconvenience or ignore its customers.

Reflections and Re-purposing

It’s officially a year since I left hospital medicine and ventured into the clinics and primary care. Like Lot’s daughters I never looked back to watch the world I once lived in burn, almost literally. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced this strange new territory and I’m coming to think of it as my home.

There’s a lot going on with primary care in Jamaica. One news story just a few months ago reported on the high level of dissatisfaction patients have with the way service is delivered. Primary care is plagued by low resources, for a number of unfortunate reasons. And primary care as a system is badly fragmented. There are many gaps in this new world.

When I walked sprinted out of secondary care I did it with a vow in my heart: I would try as hard as I could to prevent the untimely deaths and strokes and heart attacks that were caused by manageable chronic diseases. I was eager, I was willing and I was hopelessly naive. Stepping into clinic was like being splashed in the face with cold water; determination would only take me so far, about as far as the burnt out bridges of patient behaviour and system capacity. My sprint slowed when I realized this could not be the only direction I expended my efforts in. I needed to study the system to understand how to improve it.

So I began to learn, as much as I could and as often as anyone would let me. I didn’t just start to learn about holistic patient care, I started reaching for every training session that passed my way. The closer I got to the source, meaning the Ministry of Health, the more I was able to identify the gaps between protocol and reality. We play a hard-core game of Chinese telephone with our standards that usually ends with the front-line health care worker simply doing the best they can with what they have. This system was a mystery I was determined to unravel, and that curiosity illuminated an unexpected career goal.

I love organization. I love rules and protocols and standards and guidelines. It tickles my fancy to improve system efficiency, to find innovative and easier methods to meet goals and targets. And as it turns out, all those things that people in high school called me weird for liking are actually super important to the world of work. Those skills and interests can translate into actual jobs, with the right qualifications to back them up.

So it seems that after all these years of worry about a loveless career I am now falling, stumbling, eagerly crawling toward a purpose that resonates with my own ‘weird’ frequency. Hurrah.

If It’s Monday this must be Lucea

You might be wondering where I’ve been and what the hell I’ve been up to. I’ve been wondering that myself. My absence from this space hasn’t so much been a lack of things to talk about as feelings of uncertainty “am I allowed to talk about that?”. I will say that the confidential nature of my job isn’t exactly conducive to a personal blog, especially when most of the things I want to talk about are not always ‘fitting’ for ‘doctors’ to talk about, and I feel like my insignificant opinions carry more weight now. Self-censorship is hard to get over.

But I’m back. Because I feel as if I will burst if I do not write or yell something into the void. More catharsis than infomercial, this writing for me is therapeutic and I ask that you allow me the space to untangle my wrapped-up tied-up experiences.

My life these days is a delicate balance of work and school and relationships. Adulthood has a lot to do with balance, and I tend to measure my success as an adult by how well or how poorly I keep all these balls in the air. (Spoiler alert: I do not juggle well).

Moving up the career ladder from Senior House Officer to Medical Officer came with a new batch of responsibilities. This might seem logical to you, but I was wholly unprepared for later working hours, deadlines, reports and programme coordination; getting a new clinic off the ground, meetings with international stakeholders and the subsuming world of regional politics. It’s more than a mouthful, but it’s work that I’m excited about: making an impact on patients’ lives, experiencing infrastructural issues firsthand, being in a position to effect change, however minimal. I feel like I’m laying the foundations for the rest of my career so even though the building blocks might be heavy this groundwork will pave the way for something glorious. I hope.

In the same breath, I have been lucky enough to get a scholarship for an online Diploma programme taught by UWI St. Augustine. It’s a year long programme in the Clinical Management of HIV (an area I have grown very attached to) and I am in month two. I am discovering never before seen time management skills. They’re still new, like a foal on wobbly legs, but I haven’t missed a deadline yet which means progress. Yay, personal growth.

But like any of those ‘pick two’ triangles, one side just can’t seem to fit in with the rest.

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My grandmother likes to complain about, among other things, the way I seem to be too busy to spend time with her. To my credit as a granddaughter I only screen about 10% of her calls and I see her almost weekly but I’ve noticed that parents and grandparents get more sentimental as they get older. I also missed my best friend’s birthday because I forgot to account for time zone differences and I haven’t seen my other close friend in months because of our crazy schedules (she’s a new mom and I work in a different parish). The point is that balance gets harder as you get older, and if like me you didn’t have much practice before it will take a lot of stretching to get it right.

I’m not including moving house and furnishing a new apartment, keeping my cat happy, maintaining a healthy relationship with my partner, trying not to kill the houseplants or my second and third jobs in the hospital and elsewhere because that’s another mouthful. It gets stressful and frustrating and I’m constantly questioning whether I’m making the right choices. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially with all the background noise of the rest of the country and the wider world. Violence, bullying and bigotry seem to be run of the mill these days but I still have to follow through on the paths I choose to tread.

Of course there are times when I drop the ball, when I miss the mark for perfect daughter/partner/colleague, times when I have to say no for my sanity instead of saying yes for a million other reasons and the negative self-talk threatens to drown me in tears. But I am learning that adulthood, at least for me, means walking on these wobbly legs until I’m strong enough to gallop in the direction of my dreams.

 

“Senior” House Officer: Doc, where’s my steth?

Firmly in the category of Things No One Asked For (wedged between merchandising coffee mugs and your annual pelvic exam) this one is all about how I spent my Senior House Officer year. If anyone is still reading this to get some idea about medical life in Jamaica, you’re in luck. Everyone else, bear with me.

For my SHO year (the second year of relative supervision, coming after internship and before postgraduate study), I spent four months at the hospital in Internal Medicine and eight months in primary care bouncing around the clinics of St. James and Hanover. I had wanted an even six month split but the powers-that-be changed the schedule from two six-month rotations to three rotations of four months each, likely as an incentive for doctors to spend at least some of their time in primary care (which is woefully understaffed).

While I enjoy solving the diagnostic mysteries of Internal Medicine and relish the mental challenges of our limited resource setting, I did not particularly like my time at the hospital. One of the reasons is the aforementioned limited resources, which made it exponentially harder to get the job done (the job being getting the patient better and out of the hospital) but another more important reason was the unhealthy and sometimes toxic working atmosphere.

Doctors in hospitals across the world have to battle against so many barriers to effective patient care. Sure there are administrative and technical hurdles, but one of the most damaging and pervasive problems doctors face is other doctors. We can be unkind and unsympathetic toward our colleagues, we can be harsh and critical where kindness and compassion are needed. We can be overly competitive, deliberately misleading, and frankly aggressive. Specialties often argue instead of cooperating, departmental heads are sometimes overbearing and the support staff is at times less than supportive.

I frequently left work feeling like I spent the last 8-36 hours running a hamster wheel, exhausting myself and getting nowhere. For all my efforts I was yet to see any noticeable improvement in the quality of care being offered, and in fact quality of care was on the decline as Cornwall Regional was on the brink of a crisis by the time I had moved to my next rotation.

Unlike its older brother, primary care has no pretensions about the level of care it is able to offer. Clinics don’t promise CAT scans and then tell you the machine isn’t working; or promise urgent lab results that take hours to be processed. Primary care understands that its role is to prevent and screen, to catch the life-threatening emergencies before they become life-threatening. And that pace is so far suiting me just fine.

Hanover is the smallest parish in Jamaica, splitting its geography between enchanting sea vistas and rolling hills of green green bamboo. I spent my four months here really sharpening my clinical skills and patient interactions. I honed my management of chronic illnesses and developed some much-needed confidence (from all the time spent in clinic by myself because there weren’t enough senior doctors available). Hanover’s narrow, winding roads are where I learnt to drive and the country clinics reinforced all the stories I hear about the generosity of rural folk. I was sad to leave it behind.

(Spoiler alert: I’m stationed back in Hanover for the foreseeable future)

The camaraderie and team spirit were like a breath of fresh air after Cornwall’s sometimes hostile overtones. I felt more comfortable offering care at a less urgent pace (even though we had our fair share of emergencies!) and I appreciated the opportunity to effect behaviour change before it got to the stage where tertiary or secondary care was needed.

Despite challenges with patients’ educational level and access to care I still believe that primary care is where our efforts need to be concentrated if we are ever going to make our country truly healthy.

But enough about me. SHO year is all about testing the waters and seeing where your passion lies. It’s about picking up skills you think are important and spending time with physicians or surgeons or anesthetists who you think can teach you a thing or two. Internship is merely meant to be survived; SHO is where you thrive. Attack the smorgasbord of hospital specialties like an all-you-can-eat buffet, or settle down to dine at one specialty for the whole time – it’s up to you. Just remember that along the way you’re molding yourself into the medical officer or resident who will be the ‘senior’ by the start of the next year.

What kind of senior do you want to be?

Should you go to Med School? Probably not.

Medicine has long enjoyed its reputation as a distinguished and well-respected profession with an assortment of perks. Not just in Jamaica but worldwide, doctors rank up there with lawyers and politicians in the hierarchy of  ‘jobs you want your kids to have’. Children with even a mediocre aptitude for science get pushed into medicine and often for the wrong reasons. If you want to be a doctor because you “like helping people” or just so you can put that “Dr” in front of your name you probably shouldn’t go to medical school.

If you like helping people that’s awesome, but you have to be realistic about what exactly you’re working toward and what that work involves. (If you just want the fancy title, get out now). I’m not trying to discourage anyone from becoming a doctor but I do think it needs to be said that being a doctor isn’t for everyone. Similarly, being a garbage collector or plumber isn’t for everyone. And yet someone has to do it. You can appreciate this comparison once you understand that the way we ascribe meaning to jobs is totally arbitrary and ultimately pointless.

People who create immense joy and inspiration like musicians or writers are not revered or compensated equivalent to the value of the work they produce. Conversely our government leaders who exist to serve the tax-payers who elected them are revered and compensated entirely out of proportion to the work they don’t produce.

The bottom line is this: If you could be guaranteed the same amount of wealth and respect by working as a grass cutter (or any other underpaid job), would you still want to be a doctor?

If you said yes, be prepared for a lifetime of hard fucking work. Getting accepted to medical school is only the first hurdle, and it’s a pretty big one. You need the right grades and a decent collection of co-curricular activities. In today’s society it helps if you know the right people. The sheer number of applicants to medical schools annually is staggering; competition is fierce and it will be like this for most of your career.

Aside: If you don’t get into medical school it isn’t the end of the world. If after reading this article and doing your research you decide that you 110% want to do medicine there are ways and means. And you’re young, you have so much time. If after the soul-searching and the research you decide it isn’t for you then congratulations! Go do something that makes your heart sing.

Let’s say you get accepted to medical school here at the University of the West Indies. If your parents can’t afford to, you now have to figure out how to finance all five years of your education. A part-time job is out of the question because you won’t have the time, scholarships are hard to come by and student loans are expensive to repay. Where do you turn then?

Let’s say you decide to take out a student loan. Now you have to hit the ground running with your studies. Medical school is essentially a brain dump of information, most of which has to be memorized until you can understand it enough to apply it. There is constant competition among your peers in tutorials and exams and a stifling atmosphere of one-upmanship. The pressure to continuously outperform your colleagues rarely lets up. Starting here and continuing for a good half of your career, sleep will become a hypothetical concept.

Once you graduate, you’re staring down the barrel of what will probably be the worst year of your life. Internship is a grueling marathon of stamina and skill with the added weight of being responsible for people’s lives. And halfway through the year, if you took out loans, the Student Loan Bureau will come knocking.

If you decide to pursue postgraduate studies, you’re looking at another 3-5 years of school, loans and now trying to balance your family life (probably) with your career and education. If you don’t pursue postgraduate studies, your marketability plummets and your pay grade stagnates. Either way you will probably go prematurely gray from the stress of it all.

If you’re still not re-considering, you’re likely thinking one of the following thoughts:

But doctors are rich!

Unless they inherited wealth (which admittedly, a good many doctors do) doctors aren’t rich. For an average Joe from a lower to middle income family, it takes several hours of overtime to maintain the lifestyle the public usually associates with doctors, especially in the early years of a career. In the grand scheme of income rates, Jamaican doctors get paid very poorly compared to our international counterparts (even South African doctors get more money than we do). But there a lot of different factors influencing how much money you make, most importantly post-graduate study.

But doctors are well-liked/respected!

This is true to some extent. Certainly doctors have special privileges: people smile at you more (people smile at puppies a lot too), you can stand as a character reference (so can ministers of religion) and banks tend to want to lend you money (it’s a trap, Jim). But like Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. And if you slip up even once it’s a long way down.

But doctors are _______!

It doesn’t make sense to generalize. The experience of the doctors you have so far been in contact with will not be your experience. The field of medicine is constantly changing and rapidly evolving. It isn’t now what it was fifty or even ten years ago. Technology makes things easier and harder, popularity and accessibility make competition a hundred times fiercer, and regulatory bodies have turned medicine into a business, always looking at the bottom line.

The volatile landscape of the medical profession demands a special kind of adventurous spirit who does their research beforehand. Map your territory. Talk to a medical student, talk to a young doctor, talk to an older doctor, shadow them at work, flip through a medical journal, visit a hospital. Get a feel for the shoes you’ll be walking in.

And after you’ve done all that, talk to yourself. If you have a keen interest in helping people, if you love challenges and relish hard work (and care very little for sleep), if you’re naturally competitive and have a good head for business with a passable understanding of the human body then medicine might be the career for you. Otherwise, set your sights elsewhere. Preferably something in line with your natural inclinations.

Might I suggest Banking and Finance?

Dear Patients: Please Stop Asking Me for Sick Leave

Dear Patients,

Please stop asking me to write you sick leave and then getting disgruntled when I say no. If I don’t think you’re sick enough to stay home then that is the medical opinion you have paid/waited in line for. If you don’t like it you can go and pay/wait in line somewhere else. Please stop asking us (doctors) to compromise our ethical standards (and potentially risk losing our license to practice) for your benefit. It’s considered fraud. I wouldn’t show up to your place of work asking you to break the rules; I only want you to extend the same courtesy to us.

Sincerely,

‘Doc’

P.S.

While we’re at it, please stop asking me to write your prescription in someone else’s name. It’s not just that your boyfriend clearly has no medical use for the vaginal inserts I’ve prescribed for you, it’s also insurance fraud. Thank you.