Career-Threatening Frustration – One Surgeon’s Moving Self-Awareness Story

I had the honor of sitting in on a meeting of the Board of Directors of the American Medical Student Association (“AMSA”).  The guest speaker was Dr. Steven M. Reich who told a moving story about his own career.  He talked about the challenges that physicians face, and how important it is for medical students to enter their careers with the tools to succeed, have a rewarding career, stay connected to their passion, and equipped to handle the frustrations that come with practicing medicine today.  Dr. Reich is a fellowship trained spine surgeon and Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics.

Steven Reich, M.D.

A summary of Dr. Reich’s presentation:

  • I was trained to believe that all that mattered was being a good clinician.  If you excel as a clinician, all things will take care of themselves.  You’ll have a successful practice.  You’ll be an effective leader. You’ll have a rewarding career.
  • Accordingly, I had no training in leadership, influence, effective communication, or the idea of self-awareness.
  • I quickly found out that my natural response to frustrations, or things I don’t agree with, is to confront them rather directly, and not too effectively.  I’ve always had a bit of a temper and was, as you can imagine, frequently called to the principal’s office when I was young.  I found out that even as a respected surgeon, my behaviors had me called to my administrator’s office.  Fortunately, we are friends, so I was never actually “expelled” but I was not making situations better. I was making them worse.  I was constantly frustrated.
  • I’ve managed to stay in medicine and have a thriving practice.  I still find it rewarding.  I had a friend though, who was a wonderfully skilled surgeon but left the profession because he couldn’t handle the frustration and lack of autonomy.
  • I’ve had physician collogues who took their own lives.   The frustrations of the profession and the burn-out that we are prone to, played a part in those tragedies.
  • Thirty years into my career, I finally got some of the support and resources I could have used much earlier.  I learned about the concept of self-awareness and how that awareness could help me to be a better leader, a better colleague, a better collaborator and a better problem solver.  It has even made me more adept at managing patients who might have otherwise been a challenge for me – as an example, today, I often see LGBTQ patients and my enhanced self-awareness has helped me to better understand their challenges and to more effectively engage them in their own care.
  • Today, I think a lot about self-awareness and behaviors.  I still work regularly with an executive coach.  It’s an investment with an amazing ROI.
  • These same skills have allowed me, later in my career, to continue to love what I do and stay connected to my passion for caring for patients.  I’m more effective at managing all of the “stuff” and frustrations that come with practicing medicine today – so I can stay focused on what I love.
  • I’m also more effective at influencing change.  As surgeons, we like to “see problem – fix problem” and we always know exactly what needs fixed.  Changing the organization, changing process, changing the culture – these require a different skill set.  Physicians need those skills – otherwise, we’ll drown in our frustration and quickly lose that connection to our passion.
  • No physician should have to wait thirty years to have access to these tools and abilities.  Through my work with J3Personica, understanding how self-awareness has changed my own career, I realized that we need to take this perspective and these tools to young physicians.
  • Medical students, residents and young physicians NEED to learn to be effective as people, as clinicians and as leaders. My wife Jodi, and I, recently formed the Humanologi Foundation to make it easier for this to happen.  Among other endeavors, our Foundation will be working on funding to make these tools and guidance available to a wider audience.
  • As a medical student, I didn’t have the funds to join an organization like the American Medical Student Association.  I was barely getting by.  Imagine how many years of frustration I could have avoided if I access to the resources of the AMSA, and training on self-awareness, communication, and leadership.  Imagine, perhaps, how many of my colleagues might still be practicing and finding joy in it.

The team at J3Personica is proud to be working with both AMSA and the Humanologi Foundation to improve the quality of care, the patient experience, and physician career satisfaction. 

We built the AMSA Self-Awareness Report to meet this need, specifically, for medical students. This is in addition to our work with residents, practicing physicians, and physician leaders. Our health system is desperately in need of talented professionals who are ready to face the challenges that come with practicing medicine today.  Clinical knowledge and skills are still paramount, but medical students, residents, physicians and physician leaders need the skills that Dr. Reich has developed over his career.  We can’t afford to merely hope that talented physicians like Dr. Reich get the tools and support they need to be successful.