Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Stanford #MedX Adventure: Worlds of Health and Worlds of Faith...Converging

For those keeping score at home, I ended summer and began autumn by attending the highly acclaimed Stanford Medicine X conference in Palo Alto.

I was there as a 2014 ePatient Delegate (read more about that here) plus as a panelist discussing "Communicating the Experience of Illness in the Digital Age" (read more about that here and see the panel on video here).

On the plane to California, I spent some travel time thinking about the psycho-spiritual dimensions of this adventure. Not for the first time did I feel called to ponder where I "live and move and have [my] being" (Acts 17:28). Worlds of health, wellness, and healthcare? Worlds of faith, spiritual life, and church? When and why do these worlds remain separate? When and how do they come together? 

I decided to devote some time during #MedX talking with physicians and other healthcare colleagues about how they manage the intersection of health and faith. Like nearly all my interests, this one is personal as well as professional, which makes me either an admirably whole person or a raving narcissist.

At some point I'll write more about when and how health and faith came together in my personal life. Short version: During my mid-30s, chronic illness was one of several realities that got (read: forced) me to think about big (and typically spiritual) questions like, "Why this?" "Why me?" "Why now?"

I wanted to have this conversation at #MedX because starting around 2010, I began receiving messages from physicians and healthcare policy wonks asking, "How do you get away with tweeting about your faith?" Interesting and, in some instances, heartwrenching conversations. Conversations about how health and faith and medicine and healing intersect (or can't) for them. All via the back channel.

Why the back channel? I guessed and then have had my suspicions affirmed that talking about faith is too risky, especially for those practicing medicine within corporate healthcare systems. Risky? I've understated that. Try dangerous.

In face-to-face discussions about this, more than one physician has physically recoiled when I've asked "Do you talk about faith with your patients." They blurt out, "No!" Then typically soften that visceral response by adding, "not unless they ask me." They expect those conversations to be handled by whomever is brought in for consultation, usually the hospice team.

More often than not I cannot follow-up with, "How does this affect you? What would your experience of practicing medicine be like if you could talk about spiritual issues?" The atmosphere has become just too charged with anxiety and we're just too busy process all that.

Except while sitting on comfy chairs in a hallway at #MedX.

Dr. Mike Sevilla (@drmikesevilla), who gave me permission to mention him by name said, "Religion has become too politicized. If I raise issues of faith, they hear 'religion' and then make negative associations and assumptions." (For the record, Mike did not recoil when I asked the question, he became contemplative.)

So, how might we change our language during medical encounters to reach the destination another way?
What if patients were asked, "Where do you seek and find comfort?" What if they were asked this long before receiving a devastating diagnosis and sent off for traumatizing treatment?
What if practitioners asked themselves, "How might I find meaning in the practice of medicine today?"
Questions about meaning and comfort are quintessentially spiritual questions. (No surprise that the Twitter handle for the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network is @meaningcomfort.) These are also questions that invite connecting with our common humanness.

Among many glorious things, this year's #MedX was notable for addressing the stigma of talking about depression and other mental health issues, especially for those with chronic illness (see below for resources).

Meanwhile, conversations about faith and health, for me anyway, took place in the hallways and the VIP room; during walks and meals off-campus. What if we brought those conversations to the mainstage?

Mike Sevilla's post about the depression and chronic illness panel on Dr. Mike Sevilla | Family Physician.

For videos of keynotes, panels, and Ignite talks visit the Stanford Medicine X channel on YouTube.

On Pinterest, take a look at Meredith Gould's Inspired Healing board.

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