Affecting Positive Change

President's Blog,

The turning of the new year usually brings with it a mix of retrospection and hopeful resolution.  2021 was a year that more than a few people would rather wipe off the books. Just watching the Netflix mockumentary “Death to 2021” was causing me to have palpitations.  If you are struggling to be optimistic about 2022, or even considering throwing in the towel yourself, you are not alone, but not without hope.

It might be just one thing, but it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to see, and how we can affect that positive change this year. Some will think big and take steps towards global issues. Others may try to shape the effects of local politics.  As physicians, our actions and decisions will absolutely impact healthcare. Maybe your goal is to just get through. That’s completely OK. But the way we choose to look at our day-to-day experiences shapes how we feel about all of these things.

It can be downright impossible to actually take care of patients these days with COVID affecting what we do so broadly, from the resource intensive care required for the critically ill, to the day-to-day routine care. How can a specialist do their job, let alone chip away at a backlog of referrals when procedures and surgeries must be postponed because of limited resources? How can primary care providers catch patients up on their preventive healthcare screenings while resuming chronic disease management, addressing the delayed care of acute issues, and trying to dispel misinformation about vaccines and unsupported therapeutics?

We are entering the new year a more deeply divided nation than at any time in recent history, and this challenge is reflected at every level of society, from the legislature to the corner café.  The strain on healthcare providers is now compounded by the COVID fatigue of pretty much everyone, and the recent skyrocketing of cases and overfilled hospitals pours salt in that wound.  Already rife with burnout and moral injury before the pandemic, healthcare workers have not been immune to The Great Resignation. Those professionals remaining are faced with an even greater workload.  We have produced highly safe and effective vaccines that have saved countless lives but have become targets for a growing public distrust of science.

Has COVID killed the joy of practice for you?  Are you finding yourself feeling nostalgic for those pre-COVID days? I miss seeing my patient’s faces. Whether smiling or frowning, it’s an important part of the direct connection I miss. I miss the hug that the older generation of patients greet me with. I miss sipping a cup of coffee and chatting with a patient in our quiet waiting room. But I never would have expected that I would someday pine for a simple strep throat visit, or an ear infection.

So where does this all leave us today or tomorrow? With a lot of challenges and substantial opponents, certainly. But these are challenges that we can take on, one step at a time, building on each other’s actions.

The fight in the legislature will continue. We can find morale in the committed efforts and strategy of the Medical Society and our physician legislators to continue to strongly advocate for physicians and science from the top levels of the state government to our community partners. But we can also each play a part in preventing extremist views from legislating how we practice medicine or protect public health. Pick a bill that matters to you and write an email or make a call to your representatives. If that sounds too intimidating, just send it to us at the Medical Society. We can amplify your voice.

Maybe you work better one-on-one, putting your listening and motivational interviewing skills to work at the individual level. Both camps are digging their heels in deeper about vaccinations, masking, public health, and individual rights.  But we routinely are in a position to listen compassionately, (re-)build trust and stay open to opportunities for incremental change, one patient at a time.

Maybe you’ve had it with trying to change anything.  That’s OK, too! It is completely OK to feel like you’re sick and tired of it all and would rather quit.  But I hope you don’t. If you made it this far and are still reading, there is hope that you can find a way to rekindle joy in medicine. Even if it is just one little spark at a time. Relish that moment when the postponed care finally gets completed for your patient. Or feel encouraged that the patient that you gave a few extra minutes of support to finally went and got vaccinated.

While the hug or handshake may be gone for a while, I now take any opportunity that I can to step outside with a patient after the visit to chat without a mask. Both the fresh air, and the absence of a computer screen is refreshing and invigorating. So much energy used to be expended convincing patients that they don’t need antibiotics.  Now, a simple “it’s not COVID, it’ll run its course” seems to suffice! Remarkable.

My own personal favorite pleasure – staring at the fish tank in our waiting room with the little kids and getting lost for just a few moments in a childlike underwater daydream.

When I do return to the real world, I find myself among a community of passionate and capable colleagues and staff.  Weary, yes, but still taking on the challenge. I hope that you will be able to find something that is personally meaningful to you to cultivate in 2022.  Share your ideas and your progress, however small or personal, for better or for worse. It starts with just one little thing, but if we stand on each other’s shoulders, we can be the makers of the change that we want to see.
Eric Kropp, MD

NHMS President