This story starts with the acting class I took in my first semester of college at West Virginia University (WVU).
Students in this class were required to watch all three of the WVU student theatre performances during the semester and write a commentary on them. Fortunately, the professor let us know that we could watch the performances free of charge if we volunteered to usher for them — an opportunity I continued to take advantage of throughout undergrad. It was while watching those plays during my first semester that I learned to notice the subtle movements of the actors, their expressions and gestures and their use of space, speech and silence. Importantly, I learned to discern what the effects of all these nuances were. Needless to say, I was always impressed by the performances.
Despite the legend that there would be no free time during medical school, I maintained my interest in theater. While seeing a play called “Race” in the first semester of my MS-2 year, I again appreciated how much the acting enhanced the story. I then consciously realized something that I likely already knew: Patients have poignant stories to tell about their health and experiences with health care, but physicians rarely ask about them.
The opportunity to be immersed in learning the stories behind the health of patients is one of the things that drew me to medicine, and, indeed, it still intrigues me. More importantly, I was (and still am) intrigued by the opportunity and challenge of using the multiple streams of information patients present with to make functional improvements in their lives. With all this in mind, I formed a group called “Of the Mindful Physician” (the name was inspired by the way I title most of the poems I write) which had a three-fold mission:
- Discovering the contributions of multiple disciplines to health and health care.
- Discovering the issues patients face that influence their interactions with health care.
- Discovering how using the arts and humanities can help enhance patient outcomes and strengthen physician-patient relationships.
Halfway through the year, I realized that these topics are applicable to all health care professionals and trainees and not just physicians and medical students. Thus, I started inviting other people to these meetings, including students and professors from other health professional schools, past speakers, the university’s president, the administrative staff of our medical campus and other people I knew to have like-minded interests.
The topics and presenters that “Of the Mindful Physician” hosted included:
- The uses of music therapy in patient care — given by WVU Hospital’s music therapist.
- The uses of equine therapy (physical therapy using the motion of a horse) — given by a pediatric physical therapist and the owner of a non-profit equine therapy organization.
- The practice of engaging patients in storytelling — given by a WVU faculty member and poet.
- The journey of students with addiction, recovery and re-integration into university life — given by WVU students recovering from addiction.
- Considering patient factors in making surgical decisions — given by breast cancer and plastic surgeons.
- The impacts of eating disorders on pregnancy — given by a PhD student recovering from an eating disorder.
- The art of talking with patients and their families about death and mortality — given by neurosurgeons.
- The journey with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the outlook for the future — given by ALS patients, their physicians and an ALS Association representative.
- Using service dogs to complement patient care — given by representatives from a service dog training organization and a veteran with one of the dogs.
- The impact of homelessness on health care — given by faculty members from medicine, nursing and public health as well as the director of the local free clinic.
- The impact of intimate partner violence on health care — given by an emergency medicine physician, a PhD researcher, a representative from the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center and martial arts instructors.
- Using health care settings in West Virginia to promote good nutrition among patients — given by WVU’s Extension Health Promotion specialist and the director of West Virginia’s Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program Education.
- The roles of physical and occupational therapies in helping patients live with pain — given by physical and occupational therapists.
- Principles of dance in treating patients with disorders that affect movement — given by a professor in exercise physiology and a community physical therapist.
Because “Of the Mindful Physician” encapsulated multiple aspects of the health care team, this is no longer the name of the group. As I prepared to begin my clinical rotations in another city, I changed the group’s name to “Of the Mindful Clinician” and recruited interested students who are studying social work, pharmacy, physical therapy, public health, nursing and medicine to lead the group and give it a broader reach.
Indeed, I have found my cause to be advocating for all health care professionals and considering the multiple elements that affect a patient’s health, functionality and well-being. Upon recognizing the diverse issues that patients face beyond the medical setting, I also advocate that health care professionals consider how to effectively use resources within and outside their communities to enhance the health of their patients. Ultimately, health care professionals, regardless of their passions, are in unique positions to act beyond their job descriptions. They can promote patient health and well-being by listening, sharing information, volunteering, advocacy or donating.
The speakers who “Of the Mindful Physician” hosted were grateful to have a platform to voice their perspectives, to see that students were interested in learning about the many factors that determine health and to see that students wanted to use this information to make themselves better health care professionals. The students who attended these talks were grateful to learn about these topics from a diverse range of speakers and to be exposed to the non-medical factors influencing health care.
I now offer “Of the Mindful Clinician” as a template to any motivated individual who values the group’s three aforementioned goals. If you choose to take on this effort, please consider the lessons I’ve learned along the way:
- Be interested and interesting.
- Be willing to reach out to people.
- Be courteous.
- Recognize and use resources within your community.
- It does not matter which topics you use.
- Be grateful for, and keep in contact with, those who help you.