Part 2: Humanizing the Practice of Medicine

To get you ready for our upcoming 2019 Arbinger Summit, we’re highlighting an interview with Dr. Laura Lambert, one of our featured speakers. This interview was originally published in February 2017 and is the second installment of a two-part series.

By Arbinger Institute | April 17, 2019

Dr. Lambert’s Journey to Humanizing the Practice of Medicine

My path towards practicing a more humanized, healing form of medicine really started to crystalize when I read a book called Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. I absolutely fell in love with the concepts this book teaches about what it means to be “in the box”— seeing people as objects rather than as people and the impact that has— and how important it is to recognize when you’re in the box and how to get out of it. When you are in the box, you constantly justify yourself for not responding to people’s needs in a human, compassionate way.

Another book by the Arbinger Institute, called The Anatomy of Peace, explains that your self-justification causes you to be at war in your heart with others. Whereas, when you act on your sense of humanity and care for others with kindness, your heart is at peace with them.

Inspired by what I’d read, I wanted to learn more about the Arbinger Institute and its guiding principles, so I completed a training course and began looking for ways to bring these concepts back into our hospital. After completing additional facilitator training, I’m now teaching Arbinger’s principles on a formal level to our third-year medical students rotating on the surgical clerkship in a course that I call “The Anatomy of Humanism” and I’m working to apply them to perioperative settings with the goal of improving conditions for patients—and for those who care for them—before, during and after patients’ surgical procedures.

As a faculty advisor to our hospital’s third-year medical students, I’ve also been facilitating a group training session called “Maintaining Humanism.” Our sessions give these students an opportunity to reflect on their experiences in surgery and some of the challenges they’ve faced. Through our conversations, it’s become apparent to me that these students have a huge need to reconnect with their purpose for getting into medicine: to help people heal. It’s very easy to lose sight of that original intent given all of the demands and pressures of medical school.

By the time third-year medical students begin their surgical rotations, the constant stress of competitive classwork, combined with continual critique and often condescending remarks from professors and residents have left many of them vulnerable to losing sight of the humanity that originally drew them to medicine.

A Deeper Dive into the Anatomy of Humanism

Seeing people as people is foundational to the Arbinger Institute’s outlook. This seemingly straightforward concept is the absolute epitome of humanism.

As a medical student, however, you’re always under the gun, overloaded and stressed out. Someone who holds the keys to your future is watching and grading everything you do. And you’re often dealing with egotistical personalities—especially in surgery. Under these extremely demanding conditions, it’s challenging for our students to not feel as though they are being treated like objects and to not pass that same feeling along to their colleagues and patients.

Building on these ideas and my professional experience, I’ve put together a small course that I call “The Anatomy of Humanism.” In it, my students and I explore how we can help our patients and their families heal by applying the principles from “The Anatomy of Peace” to medicine and to the challenging experiences our medical students are experiencing in the moment.

We help our students learn how to get “out of the box” and relate to patients as people to be healed—not problems to be solved—especially when students feel like they have no power as the lowest person on the hierarchical medical totem pole.

Although they don’t have much applied medical knowledge at first, students are often more humanistic than many seasoned physicians. Most students still feel a human connection to patients. They recognize the humanity of patient suffering, but they don’t feel like they can address it because they’re in an environment where they don’t feel empowered to speak up and say, “Hey, what you’re doing is wrong. Why are you saying that about this person?” That’s really, really hard for students.

I love spending that extra hour and a half with our students, often meeting early in the morning before the OR starts on the days when we meet, because I know that sharing these humanistic principles is more important than anything I can teach them about surgery. How our students view others will affect who they are for the rest of their lives and how they treat their patients, colleagues and families.

Humanism as an Antidote to Burnout

Learning again to see patients as people is a powerful antidote to burnout, which is important when you consider doctors’ heavy administrative responsibilities. Dictating and billing for the patients we see in clinic is like having a second job.

Medicine is big business now. The doctors in a hospital are the people who bring in the money. Management is constantly pressuring us to see more people in less time, with added responsibilities to go through checklists with patients for preventive medicine. In addition to that, when there is a complication with a procedure, or if something doesn’t go right, there’s a possibility of being sued, and that’s a real pressure on doctors, too.

In response to all of these pressures, I love to tell students that the key to retaining your humanity is to see people as people. That is the one thing that will help them get the most satisfaction out of their practice. It’s the best preventative measure against burnout. By discussing these issues, my students and I help one another remember that, when we close the door to an exam room or to a hospital room and we’re with a patient and their family, that’s why we went into medicine—to be there, to help people, to serve them. Those are the times when humanistic doctors feel most at peace in medicine.

Once you experience that, you really know what it feels like to have a heart at peace, no matter what your patients’ problems are. That is how you hold onto your humanity and your humanness. And once you have this understanding, you can apply it to almost any type of relationship.

Jed Morely, Vice President of Marketing at Banyan, conducted this interview with Dr. Laura Lambert, a specialist in surgical oncology at University of Utah Hospital.

Learn more about the keynote speakers at the 2019 Arbinger Summit and Facilitator Training here.