Tag Archives: philosophy

Altruism: a foundational trait of a new generation of bronchoscopy educators

(Photo downloaded from stock.adobe.com)

Altruism is often defined as the belief and practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Generally, medical ethicists agree that medical doctors cannot be altruistic in their daily encounters with patients because they act within a professional relationship that entails the obligation to relieve suffering and care for their patients. While I personally agree with this position, I do not believe it applies to the new generation of medical educators. 

For example, a few weeks ago I conducted a Train-the-Trainers course in Buenos Aires, Argentina. With participants from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Chile, it was refreshing and promoted enthusiasm. None of the participants were required to be there; all are successful bronchoscopy educators in their thirties and forties with busy careers and family lives. Yet, they volunteered their time and energy to enhance their knowledge about teaching and to experiment with techniques and educational systems well outside their comfort zones.

Some might say that participating in such professional training is not so much a sign of the participant’s altruistic nature as it is simply a means for professional development and continued medical education. But most presumptive bronchoscopy educators are not paid for their teaching services, nor are they thanked by their institutions for taking on such important work. No one mandates that bronchoscopy educators become better teachers. In fact, in most countries, much of our medical education consists in a “see one-do one-teach one” mode of on-the-job training without ever teaching teachers how to teach. After all, teaching others has been a natural obligation of medical professionals since the Hippocratic Oath. 

For a “caring profession,” however, “the see one-do one-teach one” educational model is not particularly caring. Other uncaring behaviors practiced in the name of education include learning to perform procedures by using live animals, glorifying  the physical and emotional abuse associated with long work hours and sleepless nights on-call, overt sexism in the workplace, and the predomination of patriarchal dominance practiced for centuries.

The educational model emphasized in our Train-the-Trainer programs, on the other-hand, promotes team-building, self-reflection and repeated opportunities for positive feedback and reinforcement. Learning to optimize situational “teaching opportunities” separates education from clinical service. Targeted practice using simulation scenarios spares patients from the victimization that results from doctors climbing the learning curve one patient at a time.

For a new generation of educators such as those who came to our program in Argentina, embarking on such a novel voyage of exploration is altruistic because the benefits of helping others come at a cost to oneself. Well-engrained institutional biases and personal resistances must be overcome. New techniques must be learned and eventually mastered before teachers become comfortable incorporating changes into their practices. This journey also requires a questioning of the self, and provides an opportunity for personal-growth and self-actualization that goes beyond what is taught or experienced as part of a medical practice. Ultimately, this prompts an irreversible shift in philosophy by which educators take ownership of the new methodologies and forge them into a new paradigm; a paradigm whereby patients do not suffer the burden of physician-related training.

“The whole point of life is this moment.”

The author of this simple statement is Alan Watts, who, in one of his many philosophical ponderings about life and death, argues that dying, which happens to you once, should be a great event.1

Watts passed away in his sleep on November 15, 1973. He was 58 years old. An inspiring thinker most known for his popularization of Zen Buddhism and his efforts to reconcile Eastern philosophies with a Western way of life, Watts was also a man of contradictions. He was endeared to all that life could offer, but in addition to being a foremost theologian and interpreter of Eastern religions, he was addicted to cigarettes and alcohol, married three times and, despite efforts to let go of his ego, incredibly adept at self-promotion.

I was a twenty-year-old college student when I discovered Watts’ writings, only three years after his death. I quickly devoured several of his books, starting with his first, The Spirit of Zen, which he wrote when he too was only twenty. From then on, I plunged into the study of Eastern religious and philosophical texts; an arduous task while simultaneously working a night job after school, struggling to learn scientific concepts for class, and nomadically exploring psychology and the intricate writings of Wilhelm Reich, Melanie Klein, Carl Jung and other thinkers.

Many years later, I was doing what many interventional pulmonologists must often do: informing patients of their terminal illness, and interceding with palliative procedures that prolong life without the hope or expectation of cure. Many patients and their families engaged me in conversations about death and dying, God, religion, and the meaning of life. My experience in these discussions reached into the hundreds. I gratefully acknowledged the privilege given me to address these issues in part because of my profession, but also because of my availability to discuss such matters, and most of all because of the special place my patients were offering me in their lives at that particular difficult moment.

What amazed me then, and troubles me now is how little most physicians are prepared, whether during medical school or afterwards, for conversations about such things. Some might say we have no business embarking on such discussions with our patients, while others say that to refuse when asked condemns us to abandon our humanity. This is an interesting debate that warrants our consideration.

Not all interventional pulmonologists, of course, should feel inclined to participate in this aspect of our profession. Certainly, the ability to converse with patients about life and death from a position that is neither therapist nor theologian, but that of a trusted friend and treating physician should not be taken lightly. And, unlike our ability to empathetically communicate bad news or ethically obtain informed consent, participation in such exchanges does not necessarily warrant a particular demonstration of skill within the context of a defined competency. When these occasions arise, however, as they may because of the very nature of our medical practices, we should be able to address at least some issues by referring to knowledge that results from more than our personal perspectives and individual biases. This may simply mean becoming aware of the value of referral to a specialist in such matters.

I am hopeful for the day when our specialty will grant weight to this subject in our national and international conferences and training programs. Whether from experience or specialty training, I am sure we have in our ranks many individuals who can help educate others. At the very least, an open discussion of these matters will provide insight for those inclined to embark in a discourse about death and dying.

Alan Watts spent much of his life thinking about what it means to live. For those of us who aspire to be healers, our ability to provide guidance and comfort for living in the now may all too often be the most we have to offer.

1 From Psychotherapy and Eastern Religion, in The Essential Alan Watts (Posthumous publication), Celestial Arts, Berkeley CA, 1977.

The Universal Subjective: Justification for using objective assessments

In Immanuel Kant’s 1790 treatise, The Critique of Judgement, the German philosopher writes of beauty, taste and aesthetic judgement, stating “As regards the agreeable, everyone concedes that this judgement, which he bases on a private feeling, and in which he declares that the object pleases him, is restricted to him personally.” This reminds me of the injustices of subjective assessments used in medical education. As is often the case, panels of experts or professorial staff provide subjective reviews of trainees during the course of traditional medical apprenticeships. Based on input from a variety of faculty members, trainees are deemed able or not able to perform procedures such as flexible bronchoscopy, with little if any objective evidence to support competent practice.

Furthermore, competency itself is rarely defined. Does competency imply technical skill, and if so, for what procedures exactly? Does it also include communicating bad news, informed consent, the ability to effectively employ universal precautions, the ability to troubleshoot, avoid, and treat complications, as well as the capacity to effectively interact with the bronchoscopy team? What about the ability to advocate for patient rights, communicate with a nursing team, or satisfactorily assess infection control and equipment sterilization/cleaning systems. Few institutions, and even fewer medical societies have written guidelines that clearly identify what is meant by procedural competency, and when they do, they are rarely accompanied by examples of objective assessment tools used to document levels of practice and competency itself.

Until very recently, therefore, the subjective assessment has been a cornerstone of medical teaching. Whether we like it or not, subjective assessments are important considerations related not only to how professors feel about their trainees, but also to how their presumably unbiased observations are used in the overall measure of a trainee’s ability to perform and practice medicine independently. I would argue, however, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that subjective assessments are too easily influenced by mood, character, personality, conventional wisdom, and other factors that may have little to do with a trainee’s ability to competently perform a medical procedure. Objective assessments, on the other hand, are reproducible, identify a trainee’s strengths and weaknesses, allow documentation of improvement along the learning curve, identify clear outcome measures, goals, and objectives, and also provide a starting point for objective feedback. In addition, objective measures provide a measure of the professor’s ability to teach effectively, forcing both institutions and medical societies to define competency, or at the least, a minimum standard toward which all practitioners can strive.

Perhaps that is a reason why medical societies and university-based teaching programs have been reluctant to introduce a battery of objective measures into their training curricula. After all, the number of issues raised by the formulation of an objective measure is enormous. Addressing issues such as how to provide remedial training, what to do in case information is poorly acquired, how to define a minimum standard, what to actually measure as a test of competency, who will do the paperwork and shoulder the administrative burdens related to documentation etc.… require manpower, expertise in educational philosophies, strict methodology, and an ability to persuade students, trainees, teachers, and administrators that such measures are an important part of medical training. While some might argue that such a task is Sisyphean in nature, I would argue it is simply Herculean, and that once initiated, will result in greater equality of practice among health care providers around the world, which ultimately will benefit patients everywhere.