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These past few years have been incredibly stressful for physicians in Alberta and across Canada. On a daily basis, I’m impressed by the dedication and professionalism I see in the vast majority of Alberta physicians. However, I’ve also seen stress and frustration expressing itself in many different ways. In a small number of physicians, these frustrations are being expressed in how we communicate with each other as colleagues. Over the past two years, I’ve seen public attacks against colleagues in both mainstream and social media that are not grounded in the professional and collegial way we should all expect from the medical profession. It’s so bad at times that some physicians are unwilling to express an alternate perspective for fear they will be publicly shamed. Without question, these actions come from a small number of physicians, but they can have a significant impact on everyone and really shouldn’t exist at all.
The reason I bring this up here is because I believe the profession of medicine is at a key inflection point. The practice of medicine 10 years from now will be considerably different than it is today and for our profession to survive, we need to embrace a respectful and collegial approach to our communications with each other.
It’s incredibly important for any physician to feel they can share their opinions and perspectives without fear of shame or reprisal. This allows us to capitalize on the wisdom that comes from diverse thinking. The evidence is very clear: diversity of thought leads to better decision-making and in medicine, this means better patient outcomes. It’s therefore essential we not suppress other opinions when we share ours. This is not about winning or losing an argument. It’s about learning from and being open to the perspectives of others. We are never all going to agree with each other and that’s okay. However, we need to be respectful in how we share our thoughts and how we open up to other ways of seeing a problem, or we will inevitably make mistakes.
There are times when answers to questions may seem easy if you’re not directly engaged in complex issues, but we need to be careful not to pass judgement without fully understanding the circumstances in which decisions are made. Prior to deploying to Afghanistan, I remember thinking how simple the solutions seemed to be for the complex problems they were dealing with prior to my arrival. However, once I was put into the battle space, the things that previously seemed simple were far from it. The best support I received was from a highly experienced Director of Operations in Canada, who once told me he would never judge the decisions I made in the battle space because I was the only one with all the insight in the moment when and where the decision was made. He was always there for advice and guidance, and our conversations were always collegial, even if he was trying to understand why I made some decisions. From that, I’ve learned unless I’m in the identical position as the person making decisions, I never judge the decisions others make until I have a much greater understanding of the surrounding facts and circumstances. I’ll admit I’m not perfect with that, but I do my best every day.
As professionals, we should always seek to better understand other people’s perspectives and opinions. We don’t need to agree with them, but it’s essential we understand them. The CMA Code of Ethics & Professionalism, which CPSA has adopted, lays it out very nicely:
- Treat your colleagues with dignity and as persons worthy of respect. Colleagues include all learners, healthcare partners, and members of the healthcare team.
- Engage in respectful communications in all media.
- Take responsibility for promoting civility, and confronting incivility, within and beyond the profession. Avoid impugning the reputation of colleagues for personal motives; however, report to the appropriate authority any unprofessional conduct by colleagues.
I realize these are difficult times and there are no easy answers to the many complex problems we’re grappling with. We have so little control over what is happening around us, so let’s focus on what is within our control. Let’s be respectful and collegial while both listening to and sharing our diverse thoughts, opinions and perspectives.