Some acerbic notes on the new generation of physicians

“My impression is that the older ones found work-life integration while the younger ones are focused on work-life balance. There’s not a lot of balance when up at 3 am with a sick patient or 5. And the a common refrain is “I don’t want to work weekends “

Crippen: When I was a medical student on clinical rotations in the early 70s, I was expected to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. I “took” patients and was responsible to the resident for reporting on morning rounds everything going on. I did procedures under guidance and I got chewed out or my ass kicked when I didn’t perform up to expectations. I was expected to have no other obligations during that rotation and it NEVER crossed my mind to complain that I was overworked. Had I done so, that revelation would have been greeted with dropped jaw astonishment and an admonition to get with the program or take my mangy ass elsewhere.

When I was a resident at Bellevue, there were about 100 patients on the general surgery service and ten in the surgical ICU. There were two first year residents on the service and every-other-night call. Do the math. Similarly, there was no excuse for not getting the work load done. One learned to prioritize to get the important stuff done and suck up the hassles on the rest. Complaints of overwork were nonexistent. Not conceived of.

And yes, I did walk to work 20 miles one way on crutches in waist deep snow fighting off alligators and snakes along the entire course.

Then in the new millennium, Libby Zion came along and the path of least resistance led to the proposition that residents were overworked and too sleepy to function so they had to be given a break. That evolved to a situation where medical students and residents became entitled. No more of this “service” stuff, it has to be all book learning education. Complaints of “I’m overworked” are forwarded to the RRC (Residency something Committee) a body that immediately investigates all such complaints and the burden is on the teaching program that they’re not overburdening the poor babies with a work load that they can’t handle. As a result, that work load gets smaller every year.

This is an honest to God true anecdote told to me by the Chair of one of our clinical departments here. He was teaching a session for medical students on some subject he felt was important and after a while one of the students raised her hand. She told him maybe he had spent enough time on this subject and maybe he should move on. Astonished, he told her he wasn’t finished yet, whereupon she picked up her books and walked out.

Medical Emergency Teams (MET) appear in at least some, not all, data to be doing a good job in interdicting acute deterioration episodes for hospital inpatients. As they evolve, however, the propensity for nurses to call for the MET instead of the responsible resident evolves with it, for a number of complex reasons. Then the responsible resident stands at the back of a crowd of people watching as their patient is taken care of by someone else. The issue as far as the hospital is concerned is that patient safety trumps medical education, and that may be. But in the immortal words of Bill Gates:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”

And that’s exactly what’s happening with medical education. We’ve entered a realm where the “education” portion has exceeded the “experience” portion. We’re teaching them all the contents of the Textbook of Medicine and then sending them out into a world where the translation of education into experience is required to survive, and it isn’t there. They were standing in the back of the crowd that day, and every day they survive the mix is a day that their minuscule experience base fails them. To be exceeded only by the next wave of graduates.

Similarly, critical care fellows have complained about night and weekends now for the 28 years I have been involved with the UPMC system and they are following the lead of the rest of them. When I was a fellow in 1986, I was on call every third night and every other night when someone one went on vacation or got sick. Now the fellows are on call one night a week and the night calls are progressively being taken over by Certified Nurse Practitioners and Physicians Assistants. The fellows want to think of themselves as executives now, in a teaching and mentoring mode for the night and weekend crews. How they are getting that knowledge base now is with books and simulators.

I hasten to add that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the CRNP and PA mode of direct patient call after hours. I have some in the NICU and they are REALLY great in every respect. They do EXCELLENT patient care and they know when to call for the executive modulators, which consist of the Resource Intensivists covering the house at night.

The problem with this model is that since every critical care fellow has the same training as most other residents in their specialty, they are at risk for the same dumbing-down (not always). As the syndrome as Med Student/resident Entitlement continues, will the fellows not bear fruit from the poisoned tree? Unclear at this point. We shall see.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about the poor overworked physician trainees that I am not particularly impressed with. I went through all that and not only did I survive, it made me a provider that is never surprised at ANY clinical situation because I’ve seen them all, and there aren’t many physicians that have had a fuller personal life than me (trust me on this).

Hand wringers lament that overwork and overstress creates drop outs, landing in psychiatrists office, going through ten divorces or killing themselves from what amounts to PTSD related disorders. Sorry, I can’t fix those that sink into PTSD. I wish there was a better way to sort those with a tendency for PTSD out before they get into medical school (unlikely as long as grades move all). I went through all that in Vietnam and I just worked it out and went on. I know Viet vets that thrived on it and wish they could go back and do more of it. PTSD is just luck of the draw.

I don’t know what the fix is for PTSD. I think arbitrarily decreasing work loads may solve some of it but invokes the Great Principle of Unintended Consequences (GPUC), we’re seeing it now and we will continue to see it in the future. Well rested physicians aren’t necessarily the ones you want to look up and see during a disaster in the middle of the night. But then at the rate things are going, no one may ever see one after 5 pm anyway.

I am the last of my kind.

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