Education Medicine Nonfiction Reflection

A Week in School!

I spent the past week at a health care ethics seminar. Here are some reflections:

How lucky was I to spend a week in school? The last time I sat in a classroom for five consecutive days was about 15 years ago. Prior to starting my clinical rotations in medical school, I was a professional student: There were 18 years between kindergarten and my second year of medical school. I got really skilled at sitting in classrooms, listening to people talk at me, and organizing the information for either tests or real-world application.

I’ve recognized the privilege of attending school. I don’t think I appreciated the depth of this privilege until this past week.

Different perspectives makes for rich learning. Most of the students in this seminar came from three professions: Chaplains, nurses, and physicians. There were some social workers, as well as an attorney or two.

There were further divisions within those groups: Some people were professionals within the military; others came from Catholic hospitals; multiple medical specialties were present. Most of the people there were already participating in ethics committees.

The different perspectives that each profession, specialty, and individual brought were useful. Decisions by committee can be onerous (cf. the pain of some meetings), but discussing and learning within committees is often humbling and fascinating. My classmates brought up ideas and arguments that I would not have considered.

One wonders if these rich discussions occur because we know our time together as a group is limited. In standing meetings in our usual jobs, we sometimes get accustomed to who says what and why. We might also face formal or informal consequences for speaking up (or not speaking up). In a week-long seminar, what have you got to lose by sharing your thoughts?

On not speaking up. As both a student and physician, I continue to receive feedback that I should talk more. (Given how much I blather here, one might find this surprising.) When I was a student, sometimes teachers thought I didn’t care about the topic. (Usually untrue.) Sometimes they thought I was shy. (I’m not, though people who haven’t gotten to know me might think otherwise.)

These days, sometimes people wish I would speak up to demonstrate my expertise. Sometimes I get the impression that some people want to know what I’m thinking, but when I don’t speak, they believe I’m withholding information on purpose. (Rarely true.)

There was plenty of dialogue that occurred between teacher and student and between students during the lectures. I said little. The admonitions from my past (and present) echoed in my ears: “You’re not talking! You’re not contributing to the group! Why don’t you say something and help out?”

Honestly, I think I’m just a slow thinker. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; I just find myself thinking about multiple perspectives at the same time. This muddles my thoughts. Muddled thoughts often leads me to produce incoherent speech. While I’m slowly clarifying a single line of thought, others who are able to organize their thoughts faster have raised their hands and are ready to speak.

Health care ethics isn’t limited to death and dying. Most of the discussions we had during the seminar surrounded death and dying. For example: A child is in a coma in the intensive care unit. The medical team wants to proceed with further interventions and treatment that has a 50% chance of recovery. The parents of the child want to withdraw treatment, which means imminent death. Discuss.

I imagine that most ethics consultations in the hospital are related to death and dying. But what about all the other ethical quandaries that are not as “glamorous”, but occur more frequently?

Like informed consent for medications. How much informing is “enough”? How much detail of the risks, benefits, and alternatives should we offer? If someone doesn’t want the information, but wants the treatment, is that a valid consent?

When I was a resident, one of my attendings commented in half-jest, “A common problem with informed consent is that by the time someone is truly informed, they are not able to provide consent… and when someone consents, they are not truly informed. Consider someone who is experiencing CPR: The chest compressions, the mouth-to-mouth breathing, the ribs breaking. That person is completely informed about CPR now… but he can’t consent. But when we obtain consent about CPR, that person usually has no idea what happens during CPR.”

Involuntary treatment is a big deal in psychiatry (as it should be). Sometimes we don’t seem to devote sufficient attention to all of its ethical issues.

The value of teachers showing vulnerability. Some of the speakers at this seminar take care of patients. They offered real clinical examples of ethical quandaries (e.g., a patient who doesn’t want to know her diagnosis, even though the physician believes that the patient should know). Those discussions were the most compelling because these teachers had opinions about what to do, but were not sure and still are not sure if they did the “right” thing.

I admired the thoughtfulness and humility of these speakers. Ambiguity is present in all of medicine. Sometimes we—all of us, regardless of our role—want a clear, concrete answer, but it doesn’t exist. Sometimes people craft an answer to reduce the motion sickness they feel while floating on the sea of ambiguity. It takes courage to recognize that sometimes there is no anchor, that the clouds are blocking the stars, that we don’t know where we are or what to do next. We just do the best we can with the information we have at the moment.

The value of pithiness. Several of the instructors seemed to speak solely in aphorisms. It didn’t matter how muddled or disorganized our questions were; they reformulated our questions with wisdom and clarity and provided concise answers.

I wish I could do that all the time.

Each instructor highlighted the importance of clarifying the ethics consultation question. This idea was also drilled into our minds as psychiatry residents when we were learning how to do hospital consults. What is the question? It doesn’t matter how great the answer is if it doesn’t actually address the question. And sometimes we don’t know what we’re asking.

Pithiness comes from clear thinking. Clear thinking comes from understanding the issue at hand. We don’t understand the “issue at hand” unless we ask questions.

Of course, these instructors have been thinking about ethics for years. They have likely heard our questions or some variant of them before. The various moral frameworks (e.g., utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc.) are novel to us, but not to them.

It also takes time to think clearly. The time pressures inherent in clinical medicine contribute to muddled thinking or, in the worst case scenario, not thinking at all. This is yet another reason why I was grateful to attend this seminar: There was time to think, reflect, and consider the “bigger” picture of the work we do.

As I’ve noted before, the more experience I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know. (It’s disturbing.) This is why I now value more how to think, rather than what to think. The content changes over time as psychiatry makes (slow) advances. Knowing how to apply this information in the service of caring for patients is paramount.

For those of you interested in health care ethics, the primary paradigm this seminar used is called the “four boxes“. Look over my Twitter timeline for more comments about the seminar (though I stopped sharing much after day three, only because my mind felt full).