Small connections matter

My Dad died last week in New Brunswick.

I write that not as an invitation to sympathy (but, thank you), but to share a few thoughts from the patient’s family perspective – not on death during a pandemic, although that intensified and complicated things, so much as death in general.

Dad had a stroke nearly four years ago and his memory wasn’t what it once was. I’ll leave parsing out what was effects of the stroke versus medication versus dementia to course case studies. When he fell two weeks ago and broke his hip, the cause of his cognitive difficulties didn’t matter so much as the fact that he was an old man who was scared who was in hospital with visitor restrictions. That is: no visitors at all, unless the patient had palliative status (and Dad didn’t until his last day). Dad didn’t really understand the pandemic, and sometimes forgot what was really going on with his care – doing such things as trying to pull out his IV and catheter, for example. He was scared and in pain and confused.

One bright part of these terrible days was the day his nurse was from Miramichi, his hometown. He was so delighted to talk with her and talk about the places of his boyhood with someone who knew where he was talking about. Who shared the same connection to the River, to the place, to home.

This reminded me of decades ago and my last visit with my maternal grandmother in a Moncton, NB hospital a week before she died. My grandmother was Acadian but lived most of her life in a predominately English community. Her children spoke English. Her grandchildren were truly assimilated with only classroom-based, mediocre French. One of my indelible memories from that last visit was that her conversations with the nurses were always in French. And she seemed so happy to be able to do that. That her first language mattered; that she mattered.

I don’t want to suggest that for meaningful connections healthcare professionals need to share hometowns and language with all of their patients. This is both unrealistic and absurd. These connections highlight just that: connections. Those two nurses, decades apart, connected with scared, dying patients by honoring their shared humanity. My father wasn’t a broken hip; my grandmother wasn’t a failed kidney.

When my mother-in-law was in palliative care in a Toronto hospital in 2010, one of the volunteers did music therapy with the patients. When I arrived for a visit one of the last afternoons, there was a Rachmaninov CD on the table with a Post-It note: “When she wakes up, play track 4 for Sylvia”. He hadn’t had one in his kit and she had spoken about it with him; she was sleeping when he came back with it. (We still have the CD, as he wanted us to keep it).

There isn’t always time in busy clinics and wards to make substantial connections with each and every patient – especially for students who are wrestling with mounds and mounds of material to learn, remember, apply. I’d argue that small connections are just as meaningful. Small moments matter – a shared favourite song, listening to reminiscing. Dignity and connections matter.

None of those things I mentioned were “medical care” for Dad, Nanny, or Sylvie, but it was medicine in the compassion, the care, and the connections. And it’s these connections which give comfort to those of us left behind.


If you want to read a bit about my Dad, check out this link: https://nble.lib.unb.ca/browse/n/michael-o-nowlan

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Silent Victims of the Pandemic

“Jean died last night.”

That was my first email message of the morning. It came from Jean’s daughter. Jean (not her real name) had been in hospital being treated for heart failure. She didn’t want to be in hospital, to be sure. It took her daughter, her family physician and I to convince her that she could no longer manage on her own, up most of the night sitting in her chair panting for breath, the skin of her swollen legs beginning to break down.

Although I wasn’t her attending cardiologist during this admission, I had treated her for many years and dropped by to visit with her the day before. Propped up in her high backed hospital chair with her feet elevated, she almost reluctantly admitted she was feeling a bit better. Her legs were clearly less edematous. But she didn’t think she was going to go home this time and that, she said, was OK. She had made her wishes clear to all. Her “comfort care” status was well documented.

Although in her late 80’s, Jean retained a perceptive intelligence and disdain for convention. Anything she didn’t approve of was quickly dismissed as “nonsense”. The word that immediately comes to mind to describe her is “feisty”.

She’d immigrated to Canada with her husband and infant daughter shortly after the second world war. They worked various jobs eventually opening and operating a successful small business . When her husband passed away, she operated the business, eventually turning it over to her daughter.

Jean had rheumatic fever in her youth which left her with valvular heart disease. In the early part of the twentieth century, rheumatic mitral stenosis was a major cause of morbidity and mortality in young women, resulting not only in heart failure but also stroke due to cardiac thrombi precipitated by the onset of atrial fibrillation, often during pregnancy. Many years ago, when she began to develop symptoms,  Jean underwent a closed mitral commissurotomy. This was one of the first surgical approaches available. The surgeon would attempt to break the fusion of the mitral leaflets caused by the rheumatic inflammatory process, either with dilators or a finger passed across the valve.

This approach, which sounds rather crude to us today, was very effective in relieving symptoms and is the same basic approach used today with catheter based balloon valvuloplasty.

She did well for many years after the commissurotomy and even had a baby despite conventional medical wisdom at the time advising against pregnancy. Her mitral stenosis gradually progressed, and she went on to have a valve replacement with a mechanical prosthesis about 25 years ago. Over the years, she evolved varied and expected cardiac manifestations including atrial fibrillation, progressive aortic valve disease, coronary disease and, most recently, right-sided heart failure.  She faced each challenge with grace and acceptance. As she said many times, she never expected to live to be an “old lady” and was grateful for whatever treatments were available to her. But, in recent years, she was quite clear that there would be no more interventions, catheterizations or surgeries. The goals of care were very clear: “I’ll take whatever pills you suggest, just keep me independent and out of hospital”

And independent she was. In her own home until moving into a rather posh retirement complex a few years ago. I attended a reception in her honour organized by her daughter and friends for her 85th birthday. She was the epitome of charm, holding court like a duchess at a ball.

Her daughter’s message was accompanied by a request to call. She let me know how very important it was that she was able to visit with her mother the evening before she passed away. Given the pandemic restrictions, what they both feared most about the hospitalization was the separation from each other. This, no doubt, was the main reason they delayed so long in asking for help. However, the medical and nursing staff went out of their way to make arrangements for them to see each other. She asked me to express how important this was to them and to pass along their gratitude, which was one of the motivations for this article. What may have seemed to be a small act of kindness was highly meaningful.

The other objective of this article is to highlight the impact this pandemic is having on management of chronic disease and end-of-life care. Jean’s reluctance to come to hospital despite a clear need for help is typical of many patients suffering from cardiac and other chronic diseases.

A recent article examining emergency room visits for acute heart failure found a 43.5% reduction in 2020 compared to the previous year, and a 39.3% reduction in hospital admissions (Frankfurter et al. Can J Cardiol 2020;36:1680).

From: Frankfurter et al. Can J Cardiol 2020;36:1680

The authors conclude with this important observation:

“The precipitous decline observed in ADHF (acute decompensated heart failure)-related ED visits and hospitalizations raises the timely question of how these patients are managing beyond the acute-care setting and reinforces the need for broad public education on the continued availability and safety of emergency services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

This issue is not limited to heart failure patients. In fact, while preparing this article, I was contacted by another patient with known multi-vessel coronary artery disease and previous myocardial injury who was awaiting much needed surgical intervention. He’d been experiencing chest pain for two hours and was calling to ask whether it was “safe” to go to the emergency department. He’s now being admitted awaiting surgery while being treated for his unstable ischemic syndrome.

In an examination of patients with coronary artery disease presentations, Natarajan et al (Canadian Journal of Cardiology Open 2020: 678e683) reported both lower rates of myocardial infarction and delays to coronary angiography in 2020 compared with the previous year.

From: Natarajan et al. Canadian Journal of Cardiology Open 2020: 678e683

Clearly, the coronavirus has not reduced the prevalence of either heart failure or coronary disease. It has, however, imposed barriers to access. Although we do not yet have precise information as to the nature of these barriers, it’s apparent that each step along the path from initial symptom assessment to final treatment is made more difficult by necessary pandemic precautions, and that patients, advised strongly to isolate, are understandably more fearful about venturing into emergency departments and diagnostic facilities.

And so, the accounts of these two patients have much to teach us.

It’s important to remember that, even during a terrible pandemic, most of the patients we’re treating do not have COVID-19. Most of them are suffering from the same medical and surgical conditions they’ve always had, and these diseases don’t wait for the pandemic to pass. However, the pandemic does impose barriers to their ability and/or willingness to access care. As the medical and public health communities message the public about the need to adhere to all the preventive measures, it’s important also emphasize the importance of continuing to manage all health concerns and work to diminish access barriers wherever possible.

As always, our patients are our greatest teachers. Jean taught me and the countless learners she was always pleased to engage along the way much about the natural history, features and available treatments for rheumatic heart disease. That’s a legacy that will benefit many future patients. For that, she deserves our gratitude, and the kindness shown her during her final admission seems well earned.

I will miss her.

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Lessons in Diversity and Inclusion: The Legacy of Joey Moss

Joey Moss, by all accounts, achieved his dream job. He was an avid hockey fan who became locker room attendant for the Edmonton Oilers.  The Oilers, it must be understood, are not just any hockey team. They were Mr. Moss’s favourite team and personal passion. During the 1980s, they were phenomenally successful, winning no fewer than five championships.  

As a locker room attendant, he will have had a variety of tasks, including organizing equipment, looking after needs of players during games and generally bringing some order to the chaos that ensues when 20 or so young athletes are engaged in a fast-paced, high-pressure sport.

Mr. Moss, who was born with Down Syndrome, passed away last week. It appears, based on numerous testimonials that have come forward since his death, that his influence extended well beyond his designated tasks. His unrelenting good humour, infectious enthusiasm and continual encouragement of the players brought value far beyond his assigned duties. Wayne Gretzky, a star member of those teams, summed it up nicely when, upon hearing of Mr. Moss’s passing said simply “He made our lives better”.

bardown.com

Mr. Gretzky was, in fact, instrumental in bringing Mr. Moss to the attention of the hockey club. The two met when Gretzky became acquainted with Moss’s sister. Gretzky, at that time, was in the ascendancy of a career that was to eventually define him arguably (and these things are always arguable) as the greatest hockey player of all time. He arranged the introduction, but it was Mr. Moss’s work ethic, dedication and attitude that made him such a fixture and success with the team.

How did all this come about? What motivates a rising star and celebrity to go the trouble to advocate for someone they’ve just met? Gretzky is not known to be a comfortable public figure nor a vocal advocate for social change. At that time, he was a young man adapting to celebrity in a large city. He’d been born and raised Brantford, a town in southwestern Ontario best known (pre-Gretzky) as the birthplace of the telephone. His father Walter worked for Bell Canada and, together with wife Phyllis, taught their five children lessons of life and hockey in their busy home and on the ice rinks installed annually on their lawn. Those lessons, one might imagine, involved how to relate to the people in one’s community and a responsibility to help those in need when the opportunity presented itself. In advocating for Mr. Moss, it appears Gretzky was perceiving and responding to such an opportunity. What he did was not about publicity or self-promotion. It was something personal, a selfless act of kindness.  

nhl.com

The struggle for inclusion and acceptance of diversity will not be won solely by legislation, public campaigns or vitriolic dialogue. It will be won through individual encounters that challenge assumptions and dispel fears. Mr. Gretzky and Mr. Moss did not set out to convince a team of young athletes, a business organization, a city or a nation that a person who looked different and was considered disabled could make a valuable contribution. And yet, that’s what they did, all beginning with a chance encounter and simple act of kindness. Indeed, making lives better.

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Medical Student Research Showcase moves online

By Drs. Andrea Winthrop & Melanie Walker

This year the School of Medicine is proud to invite you to the 9th annual Medical Student Research Showcase on Friday October 30th, 2020. The event this year will be held virtually.

This event celebrates the research achievements of our undergraduate medical students, with both posters and an oral plenary session featuring research performed by students while they have been enrolled in medical school. All students who received summer studentship research funding through the School of Medicine in 2020 will be presenting their work, as well as many other research initiatives. This year we have 80 poster submissions and students will be presenting their posters virtually from 10:30-11:30 a.m. The links to the 2020 Medical Student Research Showcase Abstract Book, posters and the virtual room for each presenter is on our Medical Student Research Showcase Community in Elentra at the following link https://elentra.healthsci.queensu.ca/community/researchshowcase:2020_poster_submissions. (You need to log in to Elentra to access this link).

This year’s Research Showcase will look different, with online delivery.

The oral plenary features the top research projects selected by a panel of faculty judges, and will run virtually from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. The Zoom link is available on the Elentra community page (above link).

This year’s faculty judges included:

  • Dr. Sheela Abraham
  • Dr. Andrew Bickle
  • Dr. Anne Ellis
  • Dr. Laura Gaudet
  • Dr. Sudeep Gill
  • Dr. Mark Harrison
  • Dr. Robyn Houlden
  • Dr. Diane Lougheed
  • Dr. Alexandre Menard
  • Dr. Shaila Merchant
  • Dr. Sonja Molin
  • Dr. Lois Mulligan
  • Dr. Chris Nicol
  • Dr. Stephen Pang
  • Dr. Emidio Tarulli
  • Dr. Timothy Phillips
  • Dr. Michael Rauh
  • Dr. Sonal Varma
  • Dr. Maria Velez
  • Dr. Nishardi Wijeratne

We are very grateful to these faculty members for evaluating our oral plenary applicants this year.

The three students who have been selected for the oral plenary session, and the titles of their research presentations and faculty supervisor names are listed below. Each of these three students will receive The Albert Clark Award for Medical Student Research Excellence.

Ricky Hu – “An artificial intelligence-based time-dependent model to predict prognosis of patients with colorectal liver metastases” Hu, R.; Chen, I.; Beaulieu, K.; Zhang, Y.; Reyngold, M.; Simpson, A.*

Nathan Katz -“A Novel Way of Teaching Gross Anatomy to Medical Students: Instructor-guided ‘Fly-by’ of Digital 3D Anatomical Structures” Katz, N.K.; Kolomitro, K.; MacKenzie, L.W.; Zevin, B.*

Michelle Lutsch – ““Local” Anesthesia: A history of malignant hyperthermia in southwestern Ontario” Lutsch, M; Healey, J*

Please set aside some time to attend the Medical Student Research Showcase on October 30th. The students will appreciate your interest and support, and you will be amazed at what they have been able to achieve.

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Revisiting Brainstorming

Have you ever used brainstorming in your teaching? If you want groups of students to come up with a variety of ideas quickly, brainstorming is one tried-and-true way to get creative juices flowing.

Since the concept was introduced in Alex Osborn’s 1953 Applied Imagination, brainstorming has caught on in business, education, volunteer organizations and elsewhere to generate ideas and solve problems. Brainstorming, as set out by Osborn, is designed to produce a large quantity of ideas in a short space of time, in order to encourage creativity. He had four simple rules for brainstorming sessions:

  1. Don’t allow criticism
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Go for quantity
  4. Combine and/or improve on others’ ideas

A few years ago, some writers recast “brainstorming” as “brainwriting”. This is a new name for a familiar best practice: brainstorming works best when it’s planned, not haphazard, and it starts with the individual, not the group.

As described by Patrick Allan (citing work of Leigh Thompson and Loran Nordgren) brainwriting avoids the brainstorming pitfall of anchoring: where an early idea streams all other suggestions in a particular direction. “Brainwriting” gives individual team members time to write down their own ideas free of others’ influences.

Osborn himself advocated this (although he didn’t use the term brainwriting), asserting that the best ideas come from a blend of individual and group work. Classroom brainstorming shouldn’t be unplanned: students should have prep and thinking time. As Robert Sutton notes in “Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming”: “Skilled organizers tell participants what the topic will be before a brainstorm.”

Barbara Gross Davis also encourages individual preparation in Tools for Teaching. She suggests posing an opening question and having students spend five minutes writing a response. This “gives students time to think and enriches subsequent discussion.”

Here are some other ideas to encourage better brainstorming in your classes:

  • Assign roles within the brainstorming group. Groups need a moderator (to guide discussion, keep the group on topic, and encourage wide participation), a scribe (or two) to capture the ideas (using either flip charts, Post-It notes, computers or consider audio recording), and members (to contribute and build ideas).
  • MindTools advises that the moderator can help keep the team on task and can help the team avoid narrowing its path too soon. “As the group facilitator, you should share ideas if you have them, but spend your time and energy supporting your team and guiding the discussion. Stick to one conversation at a time, and refocus the group if people become sidetracked.”
  • Remember, the students who are the moderators and scribes aren’t actively brainstorming while they’re attending to their key roles. Encourage teams to share these tasks throughout a term, so it’s not always the same couple of people who end up taking notes rather than contributing their ideas.

And, yes, even with Zoom: with all the above, you may think this is a post-pandemic teaching tool. With a bit of planning and creativity (and the right tools), you can use brainstorming even in our online (synchronous or asynchronus environments. You can use online tools such as PollEverywhere’s “Q&A” function – once students provide initial ideas, classmates can vote up or vote down a suggestion. You can also use Zoom’s built-in white board as a brainstorming wall. (This takes a bit of set-up to get right, but could be worth it for the right topic).

And, what to do with all those ideas the groups generate? Sutton points out that brainstorming should “combine and extend ideas, not just harvest them,” so have a plan for what you want students to do next.

The next steps are sorting and follow-up. In Small Group and Team Communication, Harris and Sherblom recommend an “ACB Idea Sorting Method”:

  • Assign an A to the best one-third of the ideas
  • Assign a C to the least usable one-third
  • The middle one-third automatically receive a B
  • Go back to the B’s and separate them into the A or C category
  • Store the C category ideas for later use
  • Prioritize the A list in terms of item importance, urgency, or applicability to the problem at hand.

The Education Team can help you with incorporating brainstorming and other techniques in your teaching. Contact me to arrange for one-on-one coaching or to facilitate a workshop for your team.


References

7 Tips on Better Brainstorming. (n.d.). OpenIDEO. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from https://openideo.com/blog/seven-tips-on-better-brainstorming

Allan, P. (n.d.). Use “Brainwriting” Instead of Brainstorming to Generate Ideas. Lifehacker. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://lifehacker.com/use-brainwriting-instead-of-brainstorming-to-generate-1615592703?rev=1407126541539&utm_campaign=socialflow_lifehacker_twitter&utm_source=lifehacker_twitter&utm_medium=socialflow

Brainstorming: Generating Many Radical, Creative Ideas. (n.d.). Brainstorming. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2. ed.). San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Harris, T. E., & Sherblom, J. (2011). Small group and team communication (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. P. (2009). Joining together: group theory and group skills (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Merril.

Sutton, R. (2006, July 25). Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming. Bloomberg Business Week. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-07-25/eight-tips-for-better-brainstorming

An earlier version of this post was shared in August 2014

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Imagining the Post-Pandemic University: What COVID-19 is telling us about young people and higher education.

Like any species that migrates annually in search of a more nurturing habitat, young people around the world have, for centuries, left their homes in the late summer to attend university or college. For the vast majority, this has meant moving to another city and, for the first time, separating from family, friends and familiar surroundings.

The presumed primary reason for this migration has been to seek advanced education in order to pursue interests and prepare for chosen careers. A second purpose, less overtly expressed, is to further personal independence. Over the years, those two purposes have been intimately interwoven. Moving away, for the vast majority, was an indisputable requirement of advanced education. For some it has been seen as difficult and a major personal hurdle. For others, it is welcome and long overdue. For virtually all, it has been seen as necessary, beyond personal choice or preference.

COVID-19 has changed all that. Because of the massive shift to alternative forms of curricular delivery required by the pandemic, most (all but those in programs where personal attendance is considered essential) have been provided a choice. They are, for the first time, able to continue their studies whether or not they move to the community in which their learning institution is located. By making personal attendance optional, COVID-19 has provided a fascinating natural experiment. What have we observed?

Here at Queen’s, about 1,900 students have returned to university residences, despite the fact that only a small minority of them need to be on campus to engage any part of their curriculum. In addition, the Office of the University Registrar estimates that a further 8,600 students have moved to local Kingston accommodations. Although exact figures aren’t available, a reasonable guess would be that about 1,000 of these are required to do so to engage required in-person curriculum. It’s therefore reasonable to estimate that over 9,000 young people have chosen to move to Kingston to take up their education even though it has been deemed pedagogically unnecessary for them to do so by those overseeing their programs.

We also know that there is historical experience to support the desire of students to move away from home to pursue their education even if it isn’t essential to do so. Young people who happen to live in communities that house excellent institutions of higher learning will very often choose to move away for the “university experience”. Even those who remain in the same city will often choose to “move out”, seeking separate accommodations away from home.

All this should, of course, come as no surprise. It’s all part of the process of normal human development. Erik Erikson, as far back at the early 1950s, postulated that late adolescence and early adulthood were critical times in the development of personal and social identity.  He theorized that such identity develops most effectively when people at that stage of life are provided what he called a “psychosocial moratorium”, by which he meant a time and situation during which they could feel free to “sample” and experiment with various social roles for themselves before taking on a more fixed and permanent role, i.e., before they “committed” to a profession, personal philosophy, or relationship.  Colleges and universities are critical to providing this environment for most young people, certainly in North America. For that environment to fully meet the needs of students, it must allow them to interact, both passively and actively, with other young people and with teachers with differing life experiences and perspective who can challenge assumptions and promote new thought during this critical developmental phase. Much of those encounters are passive and unanticipated, occurring in various social contexts, small and large.  

And so, the “education” that young people seek by leaving home and moving to universities isn’t simply limited to the acquisition of new knowledge or qualifications. They’re also seeking, and very much need, an environment where their personal development can continue to grow and expand. The “social” components of university life, the “partying” so troubling to many, are not simply troublesome indulgences. They are very much part of the overall growth/educational experience.

The 9,000 or so young people moving back to Kingston this month are basically “voting with their feet” in stating what’s important to them, and what they’re seeking at this point in their lives. As they return, their integration into the community given the threats of COVID has never been more difficult or potentially divisive. Their presence brings an understandable degree of fear. Although their return has been rather muted compared to previous years, many social behaviours previously easily tolerated are now considered unacceptable and, on occasion, infringements of new public health requirements.

Given all this, what are the implications for universities and colleges once the stresses and problems of the pandemic are finally resolved and we are able to resume “normal” operations? If they wish to remain relevant and attractive to young people, what lessons are they to take forward in considering their post-COVID world? I offer a few (very personal) perspectives.

  • The concept of university education being defined by rigid schedules and classrooms of defined capacity should now be considered antiquated and obsolete. The educational adaptations to COVID have shown rather conclusively that the transmission and learning of information and fundamental knowledge can be accomplished quite well without these time-honoured constructs, vestiges of early childhood education.
  • We are also learning that higher level teaching about integrative or complex concepts, knowledge application and simple exchanges of thought between learner and teacher are clearly not fully accomplished through computer interfaces. The absence of personal interaction lessens the educational experience, for both learner and teacher. To be truly a community of higher learning, universities must find effective ways for students and teachers to interact, at the right times, and for the right reasons.
  • Behaviour has to be interpreted realistically. Expecting young people to not socialize is like expecting a fish not to swim. It’s in their nature. It’s how they navigate the world. Expecting that they won’t be overly boisterous from time to time is like expecting a puppy to be placid and stationary. Socializing is not inherently evil but rather a necessary part of development. In young adults who may be somewhat lacking in both experience and judgement, borderline behaviour is an inevitable consequence. This is not to say that anti-social or criminal behaviour should be condoned. Far from it. It should be condemned in the strongest terms. But our condemnation should consider whether there was intent to do harm, be directed at the behaviour and not the individual, and should reflect support, understanding and efforts to educate.

The campus of the future should reflect these lessons learned. The ability to deliver foundational information and basic knowledge more efficiently and flexibly through various remote interfaces shouldn’t be seen as a temporary bridge back to “normal” but rather the beginning of new and promising innovations. Technologies for remote delivery should be embraced and enhanced. At the same time, the critical importance of personal interactions between teachers and learners for higher level teaching of core concepts, knowledge application and exchange of ideas merits preservation and emphasis. The development of creative and effective ways to enhance such exchanges, using both traditional and innovative formats warrants encouragement and support. Finally, the university environment should recognize the critical requirement of young people to socialize and allow them to do so in a safe and responsible manner. Campuses that evolve from being collections of buildings and rooms accessed according to rigid schedules, to more open communities where learning is a more natural lived experience will better meet the needs of students and find themselves in high demand.

The pandemic is, along with many troubling challenges, also providing valuable insights and opportunities. We should learn from this natural experiment playing out around us. We should aspire to more than to simply return to “normal”.

 

I’m very grateful to Stuart Pinchin, University Registrar, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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5 Tips: Coping with learning in COVID Times

I’m writing this from what I dubbed my “basement bunker” back on March 23 when we started our remote teaching and learning. At the time, it was a way of injecting some humor into a stressful, face-paced pivot to working from home and supporting teaching and learning online. Six months later, I’m still here, but conscious that a few quips won’t get us through the potential tedium and distractions of working and learning from home.

Picture is of a narrow basement window, looking out at a thin strip of "outdoors" beyond a metal window well. This is to illustrate the author's limited view of the outdoors from her desk.
The lone window in my basement bunker…

As we all settle in for a semester unlike any other (are you tired of “unprecedented times” yet?), the Education Team offers these 5 additional learning strategies to help during COVID-Times:

1. Carve out spaces: Staying home for most of the semester’s classes (except for your short “Red Zones” with small-cohorted face-to-face instruction) could make it difficult to focus and concentrate. One strategy to break up the day is to carve out more than one “school” space where you’re living: one for “class” and one for “homework”. Simply moving to the other side of the room can signal your brain that you’re switching activities. If you have a roommate and limited spaces (say, one desk and the kitchen table), maybe trade off your class and study spaces.

2. Get up and move: There’s a reason FitBit buzzes every hour when you wear one, and it’s not just marketing. Too much sitting is bad for everybody. At least once an hour, turn off your camera and walk around a bit, do some standing yoga stretches, or a few jumping jacks – you can still listen! Pro-tip: make sure this isn’t when you might need to turn on your mic. I was on the far side of my (admittedly small) basement bunker on a walking break during a meeting, when the chair said: “Theresa, what do you think?”

3. Pack your lunch: This one may seem silly, but I’m serious. You don’t have to go to the extreme of putting everything in a lunch bag, but think about prepping your lunch either the evening before, or while you’re making breakfast – just like you would if you had to take it to campus. Chances are, you’ll eat healthier that way. After a morning of zooming, and facing an afternoon of more, if you have nothing prepped, you may be tempted to gobble that leftover pizza, or half-finished bag of chips instead of the great lunch you (would have) packed.

Picture shows a streetscape with trees, grass, and sidewalk. Purpose is to illustrate that getting outside is a good idea.
Walking around my neighbourhood at lunchtime helps shake off the feel of the basement bunker.

4. Get outside: Whether it’s after class or during, make sure you get outside at least once a day. While the weather is still nice, if you have access to an outdoor space and your Wi-Fi extends that far, consider setting up outdoors for your afternoon classes. (I saw a few of our students on a couple of Zoom classes last week doing this). Keep social-distancing rules in mind, but get some fresh air to wake up your brain.

5. Do something social: Don’t get bogged down in “just” doing schoolwork – schedule something social. It’s good to connect with people outside your program. Again, keep social-distancing rules in mind, but book time for something fun. Schedule a Zoom story time with nieces and nephews, set up a walking phone visit with a pal, or sign up for a non-academic class or activity. Lots of organizations are getting creative about programming. My sister (a high school teacher in Toronto) and I signed up for the Kingston-based Cantabile Choirs “Virtual Voices” season of weekly online voice lessons.  Not only do we each now have a scheduled “fun” activity, we’re doing it together while apart. Think outside the box for planned not-school-work! (If you like singing, there’s still time to check out Virtual Voices, which begins Wednesday evening: https://cantabilechoirs.ca/virtual-voices/)


Do you have a learning from home tip? Share your advice in the comments!


~ With thanks to my teammates Rachel Bauder and Eleni Katsoulas for their contributions to this post.

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A Quirky, Unique and Heartfelt Welcome to Meds 2024

Everything is different during a pandemic. Last week’s orientation events for our first-year students proved to be no exception. In fact, I on the first day I found myself standing alone in large hall speaking to a medical school class and their families, none of whom I could see.

To explain, the Orientation Week usually starts off with a gathering of the entire class in the main lecture hall of the School of Medicine Building with a series of welcomes and presentations. I’ve always found it a particular pleasure to meet the newly gathered class for the first time and share in their enthusiasm and excitement. Because of pandemic restrictions, we had decided some time ago to hold the first session in Grant Hall, with the hope that we’d be able to bring the entire group together in a large venue that could provide appropriate social distancing. Since the hall was updated over the summer with appropriate audiovisual capacity for large class use during the semester, that seemed like a reasonable idea. Alas, the escalating requirements necessitated by the changing characteristics of the pandemic made that impossible. Nonetheless, we felt we could still use that space as a base for the presentations and livestreaming to family members (a pandemic bonus!). When we arrived Monday morning for what would prove to be the first such session from that site, we found that the set up was such that the speaker could only be seen by viewers by standing not on the stage, which would provide scale and an academically appropriate backdrop, but from the floor.

And so, I found myself a small figure in a large space speaking to people I couldn’t see. Fortunately, I wasn’t completely alone. I was followed by Dr. Renee Fitzpatrick, Assistant Dean Student Affairs, Mr. Anthony Li, Aesculapian Society President and finally Dr. Jane Philpott, our new Dean who delivered an inspiring address about the privilege and responsibilities of a medical career. Many thanks to our MedsVC team, and Bill Deadman in particular, for very capable assistance and guidance through all this.

This year’s group consists of 107 students, drawn from an applicant pool of over 5500. They come all regions of our country and backgrounds. One hundred and seven individual paths leading to a common goal that they will now share for the next four years. Sixty-two of them have completed undergraduate degrees, 27 have Masters degrees, and three have received PhDs

They hail from no fewer than 47 communities spanning the breadth and width of Canada:

They have attended a variety of universities and undertaken an impressive diversity of educational programs prior to medical school:

An academically diverse and very qualified group, to be sure.  Last week, they undertook a variety of orientation activities organized by both faculty and their upper year colleagues.  They were called upon to demonstrate commitment to their studies, their profession and their future patients.  They were assured that they will have a voice within our school and be treated with the same respect they are expected to provide each other, their faculty and all patients and volunteers they encounter through their medical school careers. 

Over the course of the week, they met a number of curricular leaders, including Drs. Lindsey Patterson and Laura Milne.  They were also introduced by Dr. Fitzpatrick to our excellent learner support team, including Drs. Martin Ten Hove, Jason Franklin, Mike McMullen, Josh Lakoff, Erin Beattie, Lauren Badalato and Susan MacDonald who oriented them to the Learner Wellness, Career Counseling and Academic Support services that will be provided throughout their years with us.  They met members of our superb administrative and educational support teams led by Jacqueline Findlay

They attended an excellent session on inclusion and challenges within the learning environment, organized by third year student Chalani Ranasinghe supported by Drs. Mala Joneja and Renee Fitzpatrick. Stephanie Simpson, University Advisor on Equity and Human Rights, provided a thought-provoking and challenging presentation intended to raise self-awareness regarding diversity and inclusion issues. This was followed by a very informative dialogue from a panel of upper year students (Nabil Hawaa, Sabreena Lawal, Andrew Lee and Ayla Raabis) who provided candid and very useful insights to their first-year colleagues.

On Thursday, the practical aspects of curriculum, expectations of conduct and promotions were explained by Drs. Renee Fitzpatrick, Cherie Jones and Lindsey Patterson.

Dr. Susan Moffatt organized and coordinated the very popular and much appreciated “Pearls of Wisdom” session, where fourth year students nominate and introduce faculty members who have been particularly impactful in their education and invited them to pass on a few words of advice to the new students.  This year, Drs. Peter Bryson, Casi Cabrera, Bob Connelly, Jay Engel, Chris Frank, Debra Hamer, Nazik Hammad, Mala Joneja, Michelle Gibson, and Narendra Singh were selected for this honour.

Their Meds 2021 upper year colleagues, led by Miriam Maes, welcomed them with a number of (generally virtual) events.  A highlight included the always popular distribution of backpacks, this year in brilliant school-bus-yellow (the group is already becoming knows as “the Hive”). Thanks to Molly Cowls (Meds 2024) for sharing this collage.

For all these arrangements, skillfully coordinated, I’m very grateful to Erin Meyer and Hayley Morgenstern of our Student Affairs team.

I’m also grateful to Erin for not allowing the first years to be deprived of the traditional Orientation Week group picture which, this year, required some creativity and extra effort:

I invite you to join me in welcoming these new members of our school and medical community. Their first week be long remembered for the most unique in the history of our school, and hopefully also for the commitment, persistence and adaptability of all involved.

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Including learners with “remote” patient encounters

We’ve been focusing on classroom-based teaching tips in recent blog posts, this week, we focus on some practical tips for clinical teaching for clinicians working with learners while using telephone and computers for patient appointments.

By Debra Hamer, MD FRCPC, and Theresa Suart, MEd

Image is an overhead view of a laptop computer, smart phone, coffee cup and stethoscope.

Since March and continuing for some patient populations, physicians have shifted to “remote” technologies to conduct patient encounters, which used to take place face-to-face. This has complicated how to readily include learners – clinical clerks and residents – in those encounters.

First – let’s just put this out there – we don’t like the word “virtual” to describe working with patients using telephone or computer interfaces. This is not simulated care, it’s actual care!

Whether you’re using telephone appointments or a computer-facilitated patient interface, it can be a challenge to incorporate learners. We’re providing some suggestions based on telephone and OTN (in this case); these can be modified for your own tech situations. (As always, feel free to reach out to the UG Education team for help brainstorming solutions.)

The tasks associated with each can be divided into three parts: before, during, and after. These are things you likely do automatically with in-clinic or in-hospital patient visits that include learners because you’ve been doing it for years. Working with “remote” technologies just requires a bit of deliberate thought to what that preparation, appointment, and debrief looks like.

Depending on what social distancing is in effect, you may be in the same room as your learner, or you, the learner, and the patient may be in three different locations. The suggestions below assume you are in three different locations. If you and the learner can be in the same room, this will be simplified.

Telephone Appointments

(You may book your appointments yourself or have an administrative assistant who does so.)

Prior to Encounter:

  • When the patient’s appointment is booked, ask if a learner can be involved with the appointment.
  • If there’s a reminder call, include a reminder that a learner will be involved (if they said yes, of course!)
  • Make sure you’re in a room by yourself with no intrusions or distractions. This might seem self-evident, but work-from-home situations can change day-by-day.
  • Ensure your phone is set up to block your caller ID. On an iPhone, you need to deselect this under settings.
  • Ten minutes before the patient call, call the learner and review the referral and any pertinent information from the chart, since students won’t have access to the chart if they are not physically in the clinic. At that point, you can answer any questions or concerns the learner has

The encounter:

  • If you’re using a phone with “conference” capabilities (adding a participant) you can keep the learner on the phone while you initiate the call with the patient. (On iPhone, this is “add a call, put in the patient’s number, then press merge calls).
  • Once the patient answers, check to ensure both the patient and learner are on the call. All three participants should be able to hear each other.
  • In the greeting, you can remind the patient of the learner’s role on the call.
  • Make sure the patient understands the potential privacy issues with cell phones and consents to continue, then outline what to expect during the appointment.
  • Proceed with the patient interview/discussion/assessment as you would do ordinarily.
  • Depending on the learner’s stage, at this point they may be listening in; if not, let the patient know you will mute yourself and unmute yourself near the end to join back in. (If the learner is going for too long or going off the rails, you don’t need to wait until the end, simply unmute yourself and redirect them, as you would in a face-to-face encounter).
  • At the end of the appointment, if you haven’t already, you can unmute yourself, ask any questions and finish off.

The debrief:

  • After ending the call with the patient, call the learner back and debrief the encounter.
  • If it’s a senior learner, you may take the option to call the patient back – talk to the learner, find out a diagnosis and plan and then call back together with this. This will vary on the learner’s level. (Be sure the patient knows you are going to do this!)

Variation:

  • With a more senior learner, with the patient’s consent, you could use a three-step appointment: the learner initiates the call with patient, then ends that call to confer with you (by phone or other means), then the learner or you calls the patient back with the plan for going forward.

Pro-tip: If you use headphones, then there’s less reverberation and you can use your hands while you’re listening to the phone calls.

Computer-mediated appointment:

(Dr. Hamer uses OTN, you may use another platform. These instructions assume the patient has agreed to an internet-mediated appointment and has received the log-in instructions by email).

Preparation

  • Make sure your computer is set up with a neutral background with nothing to distract the patient.
  • Also, make sure you’re in a room by yourself with no intrusions or distractions.
  • Telephone the learner 10 minutes before the appointment time and review the case with them. End this call

The appointment:

  • Launch the appointment with the patient. (In OTN, this is either “make a video call” or clicking on the link from your schedule). Use your program’s function to add the learner. (On OTN, it’s “add a guest”
  • Ensure the patient still consents to continue with the appointment online, and outline how the appointment will go. Then mute yourself and block your video so it’s just a black box at the bottom of the screen. The learner and patient will just see each other. (This is less distracting)
  • Re-enter as needed (similar to the telephone suggestions above).
  • If there is time available on the appointment, ask the patient to stand by for a few minutes. You and the learner both mute and block your video and have a telephone discussion about the case.
  • Come back to the call to see the patient. (Make sure the gap is no more than five minutes).

Debrief

  • Once the computer-mediated appointment has finished, call the learner back to talk about the case.

Do you have advice or suggestions for facilitating learning with these types of patient encounters? Share your advice in the comments.

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This is Not Normal. Let’s Not Get Used to it.

We are growing accustomed to the sight of people wearing masks in public.

We are growing accustomed to maintaining a distance between ourselves and others.

We are becoming wary, even fearful, of personal contact.

We are no longer expecting that we will be able to celebrate accomplishments or significant events in large gatherings.

We are growing accustomed to not assembling to grieve the loss of friends or loved ones.

We are accepting the need to interact with our patients through remote interfaces.

All this is necessary given our current circumstances. These measures deserve and require our support. We may even be coming to regard many of these changes as beneficial, efficient, a “new normal” in how we engage our professional and casual relationships.

But they are not desirable. They are not virtuous. They come with a price.

Nelson Mandela, who learned a thing or two about isolation during his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, is quoted as saying “Nothing is more dehumanizing than isolation from human companionship”. Although our restrictions may seem like trifling inconveniences in comparison to his experience, the parallel is valid.

Personal relationships require personal contact. An image on a screen can never convey the same meaning or depth of understanding. The concept of caring or concern for another person cannot fully be expressed or understood remotely. Learning how to encounter, assess and care for a person in need can only be accomplished through individual, personal contact.

Beyond these individual considerations, our social structure is built on the concept of “community”. Communities can be defined in purely geographic terms as a group of people inhabiting the same location. The deeper and more significant meaning relates to the commonality of values, attitudes and goals. Communities, in short, are made up of people who share certain understandings of how they wish to live and what they hope to accomplish collectively. Community requires its members to be accepting and concerned about each, which can only come through personal interaction.  

The education of its young people is, by any measure, a defining characteristic of a community.

The very word “education” has etymological roots that are both interesting and revealing.  It evidently derives from the Latin “educo”, roughly translated “I lead forth” or “I raise up”.  “Educatio” is “a breeding; a bringing up; a rearing”.  The definition that I prefer is simpler and more consistent with the origin and intent of the process; “an enlightening experience”

Facts and information can be learned in isolation. True education requires contact with teachers, mentors and, in the case of medical education, patients.

A community without social interaction and personal exchanges is not a community. A society without healthy and vibrant communities is not a society.

Getting back to Mandela, the remarkable thing is not that he survived 27 years of social isolation, but that he emerged from it all not embittered but with an even greater sense of purpose and understanding. The quote cited above continues as follows…“there I had time to just sit for hours and think.”

Let’s hope we emerge from our own prisons soon, a little more appreciative of what we are sacrificing, and a little more enlightened.

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