Matt Morgan: We should encourage short service awards

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6372 (Published 12 November 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6372

Follow Matt on Twitter: @dr_mattmorgan

As I walk towards the sound of 1970s music, coloured disco lights spill out from the window. I clutch a quickly wrapped bottle of cold wine, snatched from the fridge as I left the house. But an early start the next day means that the only drinks I’ll be having tonight will contain caffeine rather than the alcohol that sustains the bad dancing.

As I enter the social club, a line of hungry people talk about the weather, football, and Brexit while balancing beige, pastry based snacks on unstable cardboard plates. A silver banner, too small for the huge white wall it’s stuck on, exclaims the reason for tonight’s celebrations: “HAPPY RETIREMENT!”

For the doctor retiring, it’s been 30 years of sick patients, grateful families, and endless mandatory training—interspersed with times that made you smile, times that made you cry, times that you will remember forever, and times that you would rather forget.

The hospital’s medical director shuffles on to the dance floor, tapping the microphone to try to be heard above the sounds of “Dancing Queen.” The speech contains all of the right words: commitment, treasure, grateful, missed, dedication, thanks. The big moment arrives when an oversized card, signed by hundreds of people, is carried in from the sidelines, and they present you with that special gift that will soon feature on your mantelpiece. You deserve it, and we all applaud loudly.

Other people, other places

While the private sector embraces frequent moves, job shuffles, and the multi-hyphen method of people’s portfolio careers, healthcare still celebrates staff who show dedication, through long service awards. But, although this is only right and proper, we should celebrate short service too.

By reducing the number of geographical rotations that doctors experience to just a small cluster of hospitals—and by implementing more prescriptive, inflexible local guidelines, which are often based on politics as much as their worth—we risk losing the learning and experience that come from working with other people, in other places. “This is how we do it here” is fine, as long as you also experience “how they do it there.”

Run-through training schemes, based around a small number of hospitals—in one country, one county, even one city—can put the breadth of medicine at risk. A narrow focus can be powerful in healthcare, as long as you gaze at the horizon now and then. To help doctors obtain such long-sightedness, the process of moving between hospitals and experiencing different environments should be easy, seamless, and even encouraged.

So, perhaps we need short service awards as well as long service ones.

BMJ: Those three little words

https://www.bmj.com/content/367/bmj.l5918

I still remember the first time I said those three little words. Growing up in a loving Welsh family, I’d heard them said many times. But the first time they roll off your tongue will always be different. You try to choose your moment, but sometimes the words take you, and the listener, by surprise.

If “I love you” are the three most important words in life, then “I don’t know” are the three most important in medicine. They’re also the most underused. Their power comes from admitting that doctors don’t, and can’t, know everything.

For me, the first time I admitted to a patient’s family that I didn’t know the answer was after caring for a young man who died from sepsis. I was a doctor on the intensive care unit, surrounded by fancy blood tests and scans. Yet I couldn’t answer his family’s most basic, most important question. Trying to comprehend what had just happened, his mum asked, “Why him? Why has he died?”

All medical encounters revolve around things we don’t know. Patients and families often challenge us to predict the future, asking, “Will she survive?” or, “When can I go home?” Like the best meteorologists we must integrate science, history, and our gut instinct to make a stab at an elusive possibility that we hope clings to a truth.

Consider a weather forecast of a 90% chance of rain. If the sky stays blue the prediction wasn’t wrong—truth just happened to be found in that smaller 10%. Openness about uncertainty can lead to more understanding: a 90% chance of rain may tell you to take an umbrella, but “I don’t know” is the start of longer, more nuanced conversations.

Looking a patient or relative in the eye while saying “I don’t know” is hard. They’re difficult words to say. It’s hard to admit the limits of our knowledge, and sometimes it means hinting at the boundaries of medical understanding. Patients and families often expect doctors to have solid answers, or they assume that modern medicine can cure them. It can come as a surprise when we don’t and can’t.

They’re also risky words. When you’re standing on the solid ice of reason it can easily get slippery when that ice begins to melt. You can fall, become unsteady, and have little to grip on to. It’s a disorientating and unnerving experience for doctors to say, “I don’t know,” and once you admit the limits of your knowledge it can make you question more and more.

Yet these words also carry immense power: the power of hope, because there may be that chance to recover. They also carry the power to inspire people to strive for a better understanding of what’s not yet known. Even when these things don’t follow and hope is lost, perhaps honesty with yourself and those you care for is good in itself—although I’m not sure about that either. I don’t know.