The 2022 Healing the Heart of Healthcare Conference, hosted by the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS), drew hundreds of healthcare professionals and students from around the world to a virtual gathering May 5-7 for moving discussions on the state of compassion in medicine and urgent lessons for the future.
The 2022 Gold Humanism Virtual Conference brings to life the 2022-2024 GHHS International Initiative by the same name: Healing the Heart of Healthcare: Reimagining How We Listen, Connect, and Collaborate. This extends the work of the 2020-2021 National Initiative, Humanism and Healing: Structural Racism and Its Impact on Medicine.
For the second year in a row, the conference was completely virtual, owing both to the ongoing pandemic and the convenience of more than 300 registrants. All registrants have access to watch recorded sessions, browse the Art Gallery, and view more than 50 poster presentations until September 2.
Dr. Richard Levin, President and CEO of The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, shared opening remarks on the first day with Dr. Gina S. Brown, Dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University.
“All of us are mid-stride, late in an unexpected marathon, exhausted, battered, with the dual pandemics unfinished and a horrible war raging in Europe,” said Dr. Levin. “But we, this group, are also hopeful that we can heal, and that this optimistic few can lead that healing process through human connection.”
More than 75 schools and institutions participated in the conference. Major themes included burnout, self-care, advocacy, structural racism, and grief.
The third day of the conference, May 7, was set aside for members of GHHS, in commemoration of the honor society’s 20th anniversary this year. Founded with three chapters in 2002, GHHS now has 181 chapters and nearly 45,000 members worldwide.
“Here’s to a wonderful 20 years and beyond, in support of patient-centered care and true humanism in healthcare for all,” Dr. Gregory Cherr, GHHS Advisory Council Chair and Gold Trustee, said during the virtual celebration and toast on the GHHS Day.
Taking care in three ways
The conference was infused with three main themes: caring for patients, caring for healthcare colleagues, and caring for one’s own self.
As many speakers pointed out, if clinicians don’t care for themselves, they can’t effectively care for their patients. Eventually, without tending to their own needs for rest, connection, and healthy habits, they will be running on fumes and at high risk for burnout.
“I think we should all wear a big button that says, ‘First, I am human,’ said Dr. Terri Babineau, Associate Professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and member of the GHHS Advisory Council, who participated in the panel discussion “Nurturing a Culture of Optimal Well-being in Healthcare.” Dr. Babineau is also Chief Medical Officer for the Medical Society of Virginia’s SafeHaven Program, a groundbreaking, confidential resource for clinicians seeking help for career fatigue and other mental health issues. SafeHaven began in Virginia and has spread to several other states.
In the session “Fixing the Broken Heart: Radically Reimagining How We Heal,” Dr. Elizabeth Mensah ignited a thoughtful conversation with Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and nurse Crista Irwin. They discussed the difficulties changemakers face as they work to make the practice of medicine and the world beyond more humane and just.
While discussing the personal costs she has experienced, Ms. Irwin, a PhD candidate at Emory University School of Medicine, became emotional, her voice breaking a little.
“It’s exhausting and I am one person in this giant cog of problems I certainly can’t solve,” said Ms. Irwin, who is an exercise and HIV researcher, an abortion-care nurse, mother of a transgender son, and an advocate for LGBTQ+ issues. “I’m not doing this work for me individually. I’m doing it because it is the right thing to do and that it makes lives easier for others.”
Dr. Mendenhall, one of Ms. Irwin’s fellow panelists, said that when she thinks of the costs she faces in her work, she also sometimes thinks of the tears shed in the course of the work. Dr. Mendenhall is an Associate Professor in Sociology, African American Studies, Urban and Regional Planning, and Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also the recipient of the 2021 Pearl Birnbaum Hurwitz Humanism in Healthcare Award from the Gold Foundation.
Like Ms. Irwin – and so many of the conference participants – Dr. Mendenhall is juggling a seemingly impossible number of projects designed to make the world a more equitable and humane place.
“If you don’t mind saying, how do you cope with that?” Dr. Mendenhall asked Ms. Irwin. “How do you get your respite and kind of refresh?”
“I run in the woods,” said Ms. Irwin immediately, with a smile and a laugh. “I am a believer in the research that I do: Exercise is medicine.”
Such self-care strategies to ease stress and prevent burnout were the theme of several sessions.
In the “Nurturing a Culture of Optimal Well-being in Healthcare” session, GHHS members at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) shared how they created a student-led interdisciplinary initiative to support their well-being. Medical school training has always been demanding and stressful, but never more so than in the past few years during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We started med school online, we met everyone online. It was extremely isolating,” said Rachael Pace, a second-year medical student who is the research coordinator of the Wellness Initiative Program at UMMC. “‘Defeated’ – that word was thrown around a lot.”
To help teach their classmates how to take care of themselves and each other, the students developed a curriculum that included sessions on goal-setting, self-care, substance misuse, burnout, and imposter syndrome.
“You take care of yourself first,” Ms. Pace said, “and that will translate into really awesome patient care in the future.”
Humanistic care for all
In the session “Strengthening the Clinical Pipeline Through Compassion,” Dr. NanaEfua B. Afoh-Manin shared the inspiration for her life and professional career: her own mother. Dr. Afoh-Manin founded Shared Harvest, a nonprofit that relieves the medical school debt of its community volunteers, and myCovidMD™, which offers free COVID-19 testing in underserved communities hit hardest by the pandemic
Her mother, an immigrant from Ghana, was a midwife and critical care nurse. She was also a single mother who brought her daughter to work with her.
Dr. Afoh-Manin, a longtime GHHS member, saw how her mother treated her patients with kindness, compassion, and knowledge. But when her mother became ill with cervical cancer, she did not receive that same level of care. Her doctors seemed distant and uncaring. They would not answer questions. Her mother died without the kind of humanistic care she had spent a lifetime providing to others.
“I was very, very angry,” Dr. Afoh-Manin said. “I knew medicine did not have to be that way.”
Respecting patient expertise about their own lives and goals is often a gap in medical training and practice, particularly when the patients are from marginalized communities.
In the session “Partnering with Communities to Address Patient Populations That Have Been Marginalized,” three physicians who have dedicated their careers to improving the health of underserved populations spoke about the difficulties they face and the work they are doing to address inequities. This rich discussion was ignited by Dr. Taranjeet Kalra Ahuja, Assistant Professor of Science Education at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.
“In my four years of medical school, I had one hour of training on addiction, which is really unthinkable,” said Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports. “I learned so much from people with lived experiences, way more than I did in medical school.”
Dr. Cunningham stressed the importance of working with communities to earn their trust and to improve the quality of healthcare.
Dr. Ann Garment concurred.
“The temptation is to check off the list” instead of listening to and helping patients with their own goals, said Dr. Garment, Clinical Associate Professor at NYU Langone Health and Section Chief of General Internal Medicine at Bellevue Hospital Center. Her challenge was to get to a place where she had the power to say “I’m not going to do these checkbox things today. I’m just going to do what matters.”
What matters must encompass the patient’s point of view, too.
“Success needs to be what the patients consider success,” Dr. Cunningham added.
Supporting patients and clients through the toughest times was a theme of “Three Strikes But We’re Still In: Lebanon’s Resilience in the Face of Three Catastrophes,” a session by the newest international member of GHHS, American University of Beirut.
In the last two years, AUB has increased its number of student-run free clinics from two to six, serving marginalized populations such as refugees, children, and women in need of OB/GYN care. Such a marked increase in services would be a great achievement at any time, but AUB did this while Lebanon was experiencing “three strikes” – the triple challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, a plummeting economy with widespread fuel and medication shortages, and a massive warehouse explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people, injured 7,000, and destroyed parts of the city, including damage to the hospital itself.
What makes AUB students’ work especially impressive was that they are “going through the same experiences as the people they are trying to help,” said Dr. Zeina Kanafani, Associate Professor of Medicine, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, and AUB’s GHHS chapter co-advisor.
Language of the Arts
The conference also illuminated the role of the arts and storytelling in healthcare. The arts can both lift spirits and serve as practical tools of connection and wellness.
In the Art Gallery, more than 40 artists displayed their work across several media, covering feelings about the pandemic, homelessness, cancer, and death. A video offered a tour of much of the artwork, and a downloadable PDF catalogue detailed the artwork, poems, videos, and more.
The session “Rekindling our Love of Medicine and Self” brought together three physician artists: Dr. Jillian Horton, bestselling author of We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine, and Healing and Dr. John Luk, poet and Assistant Dean of Interprofessional Integration at the University of Texas at Austin, Dell Medical College, ignited in conversation by Gold President and CEO Dr. Levin, an essayist who studied theater at Yale.
“I find it so emotionally powerful to share my poetry, to write it as well as to appreciate the work of others,’ said Dr. Luk, who is also the inaugural director of the Dell Medical School Academy of Distinguished Educators. “I choose that path because, for me, it is the path to joy and the path to share something beautiful.”
Dr. Luk’s comments reminded Dr. Horton, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Manitoba, of her recent experience playing in a symphony for a COVID-19 eulogy program and being unexpectedly and deeply moved.
“I think, on one level, we’re so sick of talking about the pandemic,” Dr. Horton said. “But what I’m interested in – and drawn toward – is something that will metabolize all of those emotions in a different language, whether that language is poetry, music, or visual arts.”
The session “Traveling On Time” used opera to explore structural racism and steps that could be taken by participants to dismantle it. In this project, The Ohio State University College of Medicine teamed up with Leslie Burrs, who composed the music for the opera Vanqui, set during the 19th century and told through the eyes of an enslaved woman. In a unique 6-week pilot program, students came to learn that the past has all too many parallels to structural racism in the U.S. today.
“So many of those aspects of how people were suppressed and oppressed, how they were dehumanized, are no different than today,” Mr. Burrs said.
The “4 Ps” of Advocacy
Advocacy is central to practicing humanistic medicine, many speakers emphasized. Several sessions touched on how collaborating with patients and underserved communities is often also good for the advocate’s soul and an effective antidote to burnout.
The session “Fixing the Broken Heart: Radically Reimagining How We Heal,” mentioned earlier, examined not just the “why” of advocacy but the “how.”
In 2014, panelist Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was instrumental to drawing national attention to how lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, was harming children. She continues to be a fierce advocate for children. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was the recipient of the 2019 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare from the Gold Foundation in partnership with the Vilcek Foundation.
She summed up what she has learned over the years in advocacy as the “4 Ps”: passion, people, persistence, and preparation.
- “Find your passion. Find your why.”
- “Find your peeps. Find your people. Because when you are down, you need folks to lift you up and you need to be there for them.”
- “Stay persistent. Advocacy is a long game.”
- “Be prepared. You don’t learn how to advocate overnight. It’s not an innate skill.”
“This process isn’t a one-day, two-day thing, not even a one-year or two-year trajectory,” said Dr. Elizabeth Mensah, who is an incoming psychiatry resident at Yale University. “This is decades, this is centuries, this is us staying the course and deciding that we’re not going to give up until our healthcare system is equitable and fair and humanistic for all.”
The 2022 Healing the Heart of Healthcare Conference was one piece of that ongoing process toward more equitable, humanistic care for all.
As Dr. Afoh-Manin said, quoting her own mother: “You move mountains one pebble at a time.”