Category: Guest Blogs

The COVID-19 vaccine fertility myth

Posted November 07, 2022

In the winter of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Ava” presented via video visit for our appointment. Ava and I are similar in several ways. We are both Black women in our 30s, and neither of us have children, although I was starting to think about the possibility. As we wrapped up the appointment, she asked a seemingly routine question about the safety of the recently approved COVID-19 vaccines. I was acutely aware of my position as a trustworthy bearer of medical news, which I was afforded due to my racial congruence to the patient. I had given my response countless times and immediately launched into my spiel – the vaccine is safe, has been tested on many people and will protect you from a severe infection, hospitalization, ventilator or death.

She then asked a question that made me pause. She had heard that getting the vaccine could impact her future fertility. She worried it would be hard to get pregnant and that she would need assistance.

I did not expect this question, so it caught me off guard. I fell silent, and hesitated to respond. Several thoughts ran through my head at that moment. I had not specifically considered the implications of the vaccine on future fertility. Nor had I heard this discussed in my clinical circles or read data deterring women of childbearing age from getting the vaccine. Since the vaccines were so new, how could I definitively state that they would not impact her fertility? There was also an earned mistrust in medicine in the Black community. She and I are from a vulnerable population and she was already skeptical of the medical system. I did not want to do anything that would make her hesitate more. 

My pause continued, verging on uncomfortable silence. I finally informed her of my plans for vaccination, and that there was no data that I was aware of linking them to decreased fertility. I knew right away that she could sense my hesitation. Her body language and facial expressions clearly showed that she knew I was not as confident in that recommendation as I had been when initially discussing the vaccine. It was a fleeting moment, but I knew I had squandered the opportunity to provide sound guidance that would impact her decision about the vaccine. I felt disappointment and sadness. She declined the vaccine that day and continued to decline it until several family members fell ill and she wanted to travel.

When I reflect on that encounter, I cannot help but feel as though my hesitation somehow played a role in Ava delaying the vaccine. This was a moment lost, a space that clinicians will experience throughout their careers. It does not feel good and yet there are valid reasons why we have those pauses. I know as a trusted medical professional that there are real consequences when we hesitate and I do not take the responsibility lightly.


Dr. Adetoye is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. She attended medical school at Michigan State University and completed a residency in Family Medicine at the University of Michigan.

How food poisoning became a pathway for misinformation

Posted October 24, 2022

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated up close and personal how misinformation can spread rapidly in underserved communities. One story in particular sticks out for me when I think of this notion.

I am a practicing internal medicine physician at a community health center on the south side of Chicago. Last year, I treated a middle-aged woman who, after her fourth discussion with me, decided to get a COVID-19 vaccine. She was relieved and excited about finally being protected as best as she could be, and I was relieved as well, as she has serious chronic conditions including diabetes and hypertension. She received her vaccination and went on her way.

Several days later, I saw her name show up on my schedule and I was not sure why. I gave her a call and she began to describe the symptoms that started the evening after receiving her vaccination – including abdominal pain, loose stool, and nausea. She denied fever, chills, or upper respiratory symptoms. I asked her to come in to my office as soon as she could that morning. She appeared to be dehydrated, but otherwise her exam was normal. I asked her questions about the history and onset of her symptoms and then I asked her: “What did you eat after getting your vaccine?”

She told me that she went out to celebrate and had raw oysters and fish. As soon as her symptoms started, she believed that it was all due to the vaccine. She told her family and a dozen or so friends, and posted on social media about her experience – how the vaccine “made her sick” and was not safe.

Based on her history, exam, and labs, I let her know that she had symptoms from a virus caused by food poisoning and not from the vaccine. We then discussed trust, misinformation, and jumping to conclusions, and how all three can have a vast impact on a community. Her loved ones, friends, and followers trust her and believe her experiences to be true. I validated her fears and concerns about the misinformation that she had already spread, and then reinforced the importance of talking with your health care team about symptoms and all of the medical possibilities related to those symptoms before spreading information so widely.  

As a result of that experience, I have had similar discussions with most of my patients about the harms of misinformation, and I’ve reinforced the importance of contacting me before attributing symptoms to the COVID-19 vaccine. I provide my phone number and email to each and every one of my patients so they know how to get ahold of me.

Within six months of instituting this new practice that helps build trust and stop misinformation, I received two dozen calls from patients who needed someone they trusted to turn to in times of vulnerability and uncertainty.

Americans spend 145 minutes daily on social media, where false information spreads about six times faster than the truth.[1] We need to curb this epidemic of misinformation and it will take all of us working together to do so.


Dr. Jay Bhatt is a primary care physician in community health centers in Chicago, and co-founder and on the leadership team of #ThisIsOurShot – an initiative to bring credible and trusted information from clinicians to communities to increase vaccinations. He is also Executive Director of the Deloitte Health Equity Institute.

[1] 1. Daily social media usage worldwide. Statista. 2022; Accessed Jun 22, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/433871/daily-social-media-usageworldwide/#:~:text=Currently%2C%20the%20country%20with%20the.

Politics: An unlikely answer to the crisis of medical mistrust

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Assosciation and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

What could I say? I looked at her, two piercing blue eyes staring back at me over a yellow polypropylene mask. The mask had muffled her voice but the words she spoke, courteous yet firm, were unmistakable:

“No, thank you.”

She held my gaze for a moment longer before turning in her chair, reaching a hand out to the man lying in the hospital bed beside her.

“It’s our fiftieth wedding anniversary next week,” she added, almost as an afterthought, her gloved fingers interlacing with his – black and gnarled.

The clicking and whooshing of the ventilator echoed in my ears as I stepped back out of the room into the quiet hallway. 

I had been on my sub-internship two months before when Mr. Marshall was first admitted, hypoxemic, gasping for air. I had listened as my attending spoke to his son over the phone to get consent to intubate. I had seen his heart rate rise, his blood pressure fall, and our team order one, two, three vasopressors. Now, on an infectious disease elective I was back in the medical ICU, Mr. Marshall was dying, and Mrs. Marshall still did not want a COVID-19 vaccine.

I have thought a lot about Mr. and Mrs. Marshall in the months since I met them: their pets, children, and grandchildren; the birthdays, vacations, and anniversaries they celebrated together over half a century. And I have thought about where we, as a medical community, failed them, and millions of others like them. How did they become so alienated? How have we become so mistrusted? Moreover, what if I told you that Mr. Marshall’s son had pressured my attending to start ivermectin? Or what if I told you that their real last name was Martinez? What if it was Ming?

Regardless of the origin – disinformation, medical racism, neglect of and disinvestment in marginalized communities – the roots of skepticism grow deep and intertwined. How else, despite the breathing tubes and necrotic digits, could a loving, devoted partner like Mrs. Marshall remain unconvinced?

So, there was nothing I could say to her then; but that does not mean there is nothing we can do. As Dr. Rudolf Virchow wrote in the nineteenth century:

Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine at a larger scale.”1

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the answer to mistrust of the medical establishment in the wake of this pandemic is to push it further into the bitterly divided, polarized environment that did so much to exacerbate the problem in the first place. However, when party affiliation is the strongest predictor of whether someone will get vaccinated against COVID-19, it is indisputable that partisanship is a social determinant of health.2

More to the point, it is key not to conflate partisanship with politics. I am not suggesting this; in fact, I would explicitly urge that medicine should not align with any particular ideology. Instead, I am calling for the medicine – its practitioners and institutions – to fully embrace its crucial role in the body politic. This means more advocacy education for students and trainees.3 It means more healthcare providers participating in community organizing, petitioning legislators, voting, and even running for elected office; and it means their employers and organizations actively encouraging and supporting this work. Finally, it means a greater willingness on the part of the medical community to recognize its mistakes, acknowledge scientific uncertainty where it exists, reject groupthink, and engage openly, honestly, and with good faith about policy disagreements.

Politics is not a dirty word. It is instead how a diverse, multicultural, pluralistic society solves its most pressing issues; and a revitalized civic discourse is the only way that we will address and rebuild public trust in medicine.


Teva Brender is a first-year internal medicine resident at the University of California, San Francisco. He completed his medical degree at Oregon Health & Science University. His academic interests include health policy, physician advocacy, and narrative medicine. In his free time he enjoys reading, cooking, rock-climbing, and spending time with his fiancé and their miniature wire-haired dachshund Winston. 

References:

  1. Mackenbach JP. Politics is nothing but medicine at a larger scale: reflections on public health’s biggest idea. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2009 Mar;63(3):181-4. doi: 10.1136/jech.2008.077032. Epub 2008 Dec 3. PMID: 19052033.
  2. Kirzinger A, Kearney A, Hamel L, Brodie M. KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: The Increasing Importance of Partisanship in Predicting COVID-19 Vaccination Status. Kaiser Family Foundation. Published November, 16 2021. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/poll-finding/importance-of-partisanship-predicting-vaccination-status/?utm_campaign=KFF-2021-polling-surveys&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=2&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–Da1u1V7IKYdhRp6Bka4x7FhGIifNIszjMBdITNNweqiz1Lr3KqBkI33Wd6F7T6mGuuNfn8klOKaFeolETdxO1-AsIZg&utm_content=2&utm_source=hs_email. Accessed May 17, 2022.
  3. Brender TD, Plinke W, Arora VM, Zhu JM. Prevalence and Characteristics of Advocacy Curricula in U.S. Medical Schools. Acad Med. 2021 Nov 1;96(11):1586-1591. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000004173. PMID: 34039856.

Don’t impress, just express

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

It was my first day on the internal medicine rotation. A 77-year-old male, Mr. Marrow, had been admitted overnight for disseminated MSSA bacteremia. I went to his room and introduced myself.

“Good morning Mr. Marrow, my name is Sunil and I am the medical student on the medicine team that will be taking care of you.”

Before I could ask any questions, he looked up with his blue eyes, stared at me for a good ten seconds, and in a sharp tone said, “Who let you into this country?”

His words were palpable. I felt my face, hidden behind an N-95, go pale. My hands and feet went numb. Still, I plodded forward with the lessons my parents always instilled within me: Do your part well and with purpose.

I gently deflected his comment: “I am happy to tell you more about myself, but we should focus on getting you better first. I am worried you have an infection in your blood that needs to be treated before it worsens.”

Despite his unwillingness to fully cooperate, I performed a focused physical exam. I walked out of his room, doffed my N-95, and took a deep breath of relief.

This was not my first experience with racism, nor will it be my last. But each experience has weighed on me. As I walked away, I was reminded of my very first patient experience from seven years ago when I began my journey as an MD/PhD student. My patient in that encounter thought I was their janitor. Two years ago, while running in my neighborhood one evening with a mask early during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was questioned and inspected by a police officer. I also recalled the feedback I received just last year as I began clinical rotations from a middle-aged, white male attending; he suggested that I religiously wear my white coat, exude overconfidence,apply hair gel, iron my clothes, and disclose that I have a PhD so that patients took me more seriously.

And so, my experience with Mr. Marrow was no exception, but rather part of a continuum. Despite this, my interaction with him unique because there was no ambiguity in what he was inferring. To him, my dark skin and thick black hair coupled with a masked face were not to be trusted.

Given his comment, it would have been very easy for me to request being reassigned to a different patient. However, that would not be a solution but merely a compromise. Systems only change if people change. To change people, initiating dialogue is essential. I chose to continue working with Mr. Marrow.

Over my 4-week rotation, I consulted various specialists to drain the many pockets of infection that were seeding throughout his body. Despite his relentless pain, I made every effort to comfort him. Such efforts led us to develop rapport, laugh together, and most importantly build trust. This was most evident when I held his hand through the placement of his chest tube to drain an infected area in his right lung. A procedure that he had delayed for too long, given his anxiety and ongoing pain.

He saw me at the procedure and burst into tears. He looked up yet again with his blue eyes and said, “Thank you for being here. It means so much.”

The next day during morning rounds, Mr. Marrow stopped me and said, “My initial words were extremely racist for which I apologize.” He went on to say that he grew up where “everyone looked alike.” I was startled. No patient had ever apologized to me.

I walked away with a new sense of hope. I now recognize that for people to change, apart from initiating dialogue, building trust is paramount. Don’t impress, just express. And with time, Mr. Marrow began to trust me.  I’d like to believe that our rapport allowed him to be reflective. His newly gained insight reminds me that there is no age limit to growing. Importantly, no age limit to becoming more inclusive and open-minded.

On my last day, Mr. Marrow said “…I don’t know if my infection is gone but you are leaving me with a new perspective, one that I overlooked for years.

While he was simply expressing himself, in doing so, he impressed me.

My care for Mr. Marrow was no different from what I provided to other patients. I did nothing extra to impress him. I didn’t change my appearance or personality despite an attending’s suggestion. I simply continued to do my part with purpose.


Sunil K. Joshi is an MD/PhD student at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). He completed his PhD in cancer biology under the mentorship of Dr. Brian J. Druker. Sunil is passionate about empowering and advocating for patients from underserved and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities through clinical practice, scientific research, and education. He is currently applying for residency in internal medicine.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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The importance of medical communication in building trust

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

“Is this going to hurt?” The words rang from a young, noticeably anxious girl who gripped her mother’s arm. Reassuringly, I smiled and told her she would experience a slight pressure on her arm that would feel like a hug from her teddy bear. While she was still visibly shaken, my words brought about a reserved smile across her face. As I was adjusting the blood pressure cuff, I made a joke about the SpongeBob SquarePants shirt she was wearing. With similar effect, this quip brought about a small chuckle from the child as she became more relaxed. “Just sit tight and it’ll be over in a jiffy!” I gave these instructions as the cuff slowly began its monotonous inflation. On the radiating green screen, the results read 110/70. I congratulated her on having perfect numbers and began to prepare for the next patient when she asked a question that stopped me in my tracks: “What does blood pressure mean?”

I could define blood pressure using cardiac output and vascular resistance, and I could describe the effects of blood pressure on the cardiovascular system. However, my head scrounged for an answer to what blood pressure is and how I could relay that information to an 8-year-old.

Should I answer that blood pressure measures pressure against artery walls? Should I mention how the systolic and diastolic numbers correlated with the cardiac cycle? Luckily, the attending physician overheard our interaction and jumped in. “Blood pressure is just a sign of how your heart is doing. If it’s too high or too low, that means your heart is sick and needs to be treated.” Amazed, I observed the rest of the interaction with my mentor as he easily simplified complex concepts into digestible material for the girl. Although I had just finished my cardiology unit in medical school, I was humbled by my inability to provide a simple definition.

After the event, I began to garner an appreciation for medical communication between health care providers and their patients. Although it is important to retain updated medical knowledge, it is of even more importance to ensure that our patients understand this knowledge and how it affects their lives and health. Through these interactions, trust is fostered between the patient and health care provider.

I began to volunteer at more health fairs offered by my school in hopes that I could gain more exposure to medical communication and promote trust between our free clinic and the underserved communities that we served. We created pamphlets that instructed patients on at-home blood pressure monitoring and informed them of the importance of cardiovascular health. Though this was a small feat, it was astonishing to find that many of the patients at our health fairs expressed immense gratitude at having someone to sit down with them and clarify their medical concerns.

Having served as a tutor throughout my undergraduate career, I quickly recognized the ‘a-ha’ moments many of the patients expressed as their faces beamed at finally understanding the intricacies of their health. Oftentimes, we assisted patients through discussion of blood pressure and its effects, the importance of monitoring blood glucose levels, and the need to adhere to medication for better outcomes. Through these candid conversations, we found that patients became more comfortable and more willing to discuss their medical ailments and concerns.

By explaining the relevance of blood pressure to a patient’s health or discussing the progression of diabetes, I found that many patients felt comfortable in discussing their medical ailments. Instead of outright diagnosing a patient with heart disease, it may be more meaningful for the patient to learn they have heart disease and how it will affect their life; patients may wish to hear about the feasibility of living with heart disease and how the medication regimen will fit into their busy lives.

Due to a plagued history of medical mismanagement against minority communities in medicine, many patients in these communities are wary of trusting a health care worker. Through my work, I want to improve trust in underserved communities by providing holistic, empathetic care that allows the patient to rest assured that I will prioritize their autonomy and health.


Nicholas Wilson is a second-year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA. With aspirations of becoming an Internal Medicine-Pediatrics (Med-Peds) physician, Nicholas plans on treating a wide variety of medical problems throughout his career. His research interests are health disparities, sickle cell disease, biomarkers, and improvements in patient care. In his spare time, Nicholas enjoys trying (and occasionally) cooking new foods, improving his painting skills, going for relaxing runs, and catching up with friends and family.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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From personal connections to community advocacy

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

Sitting in an old, creaky school chair in Panama, I beckoned a mother and her children to sit across from me. Still nervous about meeting new patients, I tried to avoid meeting their gaze and instead focused on innocuously gathering information. After all, I was a foreigner and even though I was in Panama as a medical volunteer, I felt like I was forcing my way into my vulnerable patients’ lives with nothing more than my broken, inadequate Spanish.

At first, I was hesitant when interacting with them because I thought that providing health care professionally meant that I had to be serious or even solemn. As I took the mother’s blood pressure, the weight of the silence grew, until it finally became overbearing.

Not knowing any other way to connect with the woman, I decided to smile at her. To my surprise, she immediately returned the gesture. Suddenly, the tension in the air seemed to break. Her smile melted away my anxiety. The patient, too, opened up and looked happier while I took her children’s vitals.

From that moment onward, I put myself and my personality out there. I tried to converse and smile more with locals, learning more about their lives than just their medical history. After this change, when I engaged a patient in conversation, they seemed more comfortable when listening to the medical information I provided. Even though I was far from fluent in Spanish, the patients appeared more interested than before in understanding me and supporting my effort.

This experience has repeated itself time after time. When I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Chicago, a pop-up clinic in Tampa, or a vaccine distribution center in Philadelphia, I was always quite uncertain about my presence in the room. It was only when I interacted with the guests and patients that I felt more comfortable. My own comfort eventually allowed me to open up, hear other people’s stories, and understand my community.

Medical students come from various backgrounds and interests. They become involved in their communities in a variety of ways – by leading their own initiatives, by advocating with policy non-profits, by creating music to bring peace to patients, by creating videos to increase awareness of health disparities, and many more.

However, a major factor which makes any activity or project successful is how connected the student is to the community. If an individual takes the time to get to learn about the people they are helping, and the people learn about the individual’s personal story and interests, trust is built. But building connections with a community on a personal level, by establishing trust, a medical student can maximize the impact of their work.

Medicine is the combination of small connections and larger-scale efforts, patient care and health advocacy. In pursuing this career, we, as medical students, have to always keep in mind the depth of our patients’ hidden stories and the importance of striving for health equity in our community. For each one of us, this will be different. However, by doing so, we will all build trust in our communities, and advance health care.


Veenadhari Kollipara is a first-year medical student at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2022 with a summa cum laude in Health & Societies (Health Policy & Law Concentration) and a minor in Cinema and Media Studies. Her experiences as a Health Education Associate at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, a volunteer at the Sayre Health Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution Center, and a Hoesley Digital Literacy Fellow have motivated Veenadhari to be passionate about both patient care and health policy/advocacy. In medical school, Veenadhari plans to become more involved in health equity initiatives focused on race and gender disparities.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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Yo quiero aprender mas

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

“Social determinants of health” – four words that compose one of the most significant phrases to ever traverse health care. They have prompted me to explore exactly what these words mean: to myself as a person, my education, my future practice, and my impact on my community. How could I, a single medical student, work within the teams I have formed with my mentors, friends, and colleagues to improve the social determinants of health experienced by the members of my community?

The major public health threats of diet, exercise, smoking, addiction, housing, and so much more, can be resolved through the development of trust between health care professionals and the community members they serve. That trust also has to overcome a history of systemic racism, language barriers, and individual anecdotes of providers with implicit biases against gender, racial, and ethnic minorities.

I was recently part of a team that helped run a flu drive and perform diabetes and hyperlipidemia screenings for members of a predominantly Spanish-speaking community in South Dallas. During the event, I began to recognize the trusted sources of this particular community, especially of those who did not speak English.

I went to the flu drive equipped with only a 10th grade level Spanish education and attempted to engage in conversation as I screened people for hyperlipidemia and diabetes. I was eager about the event, but nervous about how I would communicate with the participants. I immediately witnessed the immense trust many older participants placed in the hands of their children and grandchildren who knew English, as they straightforwardly relayed test result interpretations.

Over the next few hours, as the insecurities about my Spanish-speaking abilities diminished, I began to understand the importance of being able to communicate directly with whomever I was serving. Most of the interactions I made with a patient went this way: I would greet them with “Buenos Dias,” and then would preface the rest of our interaction with “Lo siento, mi espanol es muy mal, pero yo voy a intentar y quiero aprender mas,” or “Sorry, my Spanish is very bad.” This well-rehearsed phrase of mine was always answered with a reassuring chuckle from the other side of the table and “Bien.”

The people I spoke with understood that even though I could not converse with them fluently, I was trying to communicate with them as well as I could. I was given reassurance that they trusted what I had to say when they would fill in words for me as I spoke to them about their test results and lifestyle modifications. 

At the same event, I also saw the impact of a community’s leadership as a source of trusted information for its members. The health fair was hosted on a Sunday next to a church, and the biggest waves of participants came to us within the hour of the end of each service. I realized that we, as servants of our community, need to tap in to the currently trusted platforms of information held by the community – like the local church. We can use this foundation of trust to improve our relationship with the community to serve them in a more impactful way – a way in which they will feel comfortable disclosing conditions beyond their physical health, so that we can also address their social determinants of health. 

I’m now exploring the causes of vaccine hesitancy within this community. To improve trust, we do not need to start from scratch, and we do not need to work alone. We can continue to learn about the viewpoints held by this community to unlock where their trusted sources of information are to use these platforms to deliver accurate information.

During the flu drive, not only did we see the important role that young family members served – as translators for their community – but we also saw the importance of the local church in their social lives. We experienced the synergistic impact of the drive’s coordination with the church’s leaders in boosting participation in the flu drive. This clued us in to how we can continue to use places of worship to provide accurate information about vaccines, healthy lifestyle habits, and other public health information to the community. This is how we can serve our communities beyond the four walls of our hospitals and clinic buildings so that patients can take control of their health status on all fronts. 


Suman Vadlamani is a second-year medical student at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She is also in her second year of her MPH degree through UT Health. She has an interest in Women’s health, which is the direction in which she wants to take both of her degrees. She hopes to become an OB/GYN doctor and focus her public health work on progressing women’s health initiatives.           

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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Two missed proms

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

It took exactly three Tuesdays. Each week, I knocked timidly on the door, waiting for his characteristic gruff “come in” before I dutifully entered the room clad in the paper gown. I would approach the bed, chipper as ever, as he glanced at me through lidded eyes of disdain.

A brief history of our interactions would read as:

Tuesday #1: A cup of Jell-O and please turn off the lights.

Tuesday #2: Do you guys have Call of Duty? Fine, can I just have FIFA.

Tuesday #3: I’m good for today.

and then…

“Tomorrow was supposed to be my prom, you know,” barely a whisper behind me.

My tongue felt as if it was glued to the roof of my mouth as I turned ever so slightly, waiting. I could sense the air saturated with tension.

He laughed bitterly. “They told me I’d be out of here by now. I promised my girlfriend I would take her.”

Each word dripped with acid that ran off his tongue and pooled at my feet.

I swiveled slowly, afraid I might spook off this moment of rare vulnerability. I mustered a weak, “I can’t imagine.”

I had hoped this would be a benign offering, but his head snapped towards me so sharply that I stepped backwards.

“No. You CAN’T imagine. I bet you got to go to your prom, didn’t you?”

It was more of an accusation than a question. Bracing myself for his next inundation of rage, I nodded my assent wordlessly.

But his anger dissipated as quickly as it came. He shut his eyes tightly and leaned his head back against the steel bar of his hospital bed. The movement was so familiar, so practiced, that I could tell he had assumed this exact position before, searching for meaning in this unholy campground.

I suddenly realized that when I entered every week, I was intruding on the most intimate moments of his life. I could see it more clearly: my knock, the threat of an invader as he haphazardly tucked in the corners of his Tuesday.

“They promised I would be out of here. I don’t know why I believe them anymore.”

Suddenly, I remembered a slight caveat, a correction to my previous answer.

“Well actually… I only made it to one prom. The other prom I was in a full leg cast because I tripped and broke my knee.”

He glanced at me beneath the curtain of sandy-brown hair as I looked back at him, no longer afraid to meet his eyes. We challenged each other in silence for a few moments until his bubbles of laughter burst forth.

“That has to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

We were both doubled over at my clumsiness as I assured him that I had fallen onto the pavement with a satisfying thwack.

There was an imperceptible shift. Our Tuesdays were now intertwined. In sharing a piece of my history (and an embarrassing one at that) I had reminded him that I was also fallible and human.

“Damn. Well at least cancer is a better excuse to call a raincheck than being a klutz.”

I see medicine as an opportunity to forge relationships in unexpected ways, its core remaining the in-between moments of people connecting in shared spaces. As the hours of my shift unraveled, he confided in me his tricks to get extra dessert and his frustrations that his hair was falling out in clumps.

It took three Tuesdays for me to learn that fostering trust is a broken and messy process, oftentimes taking one step forward and three steps back. It is no easy feat for someone in their most vulnerable moments to invite you into the complicated prism of their lives. Instead of expecting an easy connection, I have learned to sit with the awkward and uncomfortable. Even when it feels like no headway has been made, continuing to knock on the door is its own kind of promise. I may not always find a quick joke or common thread, but I can choose to show up anyway.

As I stepped outside onto the slick sidewalk that Tuesday, I knew without turning that he was watching from the window. So, I let my feet skid on the asphalt as I pirouetted dramatically to the ground.

From a dimly lit window on the 4th floor of a children’s hospital, I was rewarded by a toothy grin and slow clap before the curtains swung shut.


Meher Kalkat is a second-year student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is originally from West Palm Beach, Florida. She is passionate about medical education, physician and trainee wellness, and combating mental health stigma. In her free time, she loves to sing karaoke, bake, and take photographs.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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Humility and trust  

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

“A woman is a puppet; she only knows to cook the meals and wash the clothes of her husband and to care after the children.” My research informant, a 24-year-old in her seventh pregnancy, was describing why she felt a talk therapy program for perinatal mental health could not help women like her, living with antenatal anxiety in the cultural norms of Pakistan. Her words, an expression of powerlessness and distrust, were among the most powerful that I encountered in my studies. Her account gave voice to the lifeworld—one at the intersections of women’s disempowerment, gender norms, and psychological distress—in which she experienced her illness. 

While we are decades removed from Elliot Mishler’s 1984 study, The Discourse of Medicine, the patterns of distortion and fragmentation that he observed in doctor-patient communication remain as relevant as ever, even as the specific barriers—technocratic models of medicine, layers of electronic or virtual discourse, etc.—continue to shift. The permanence of this challenge is rooted in the timelessness of what our patients are urgently seeking from us: to be heard and seen as whole people. The art of building trust with our patients requires, above all else, the humility to meet them in the lifeworld they occupy.

This was a lesson first taught to me by my grandfather. Scribbled in the margins of his worn mus’haf—his copy of the Quran, passed down to me after he died—my grandfather left me a final reminder: that we are closest to God or al-Haq (the truth) at that moment of prayer when our heads touch the earth in prostration. It is humility, he wrote, that brings us closest to an understanding of truth. I imagine he penned these words toward the end of his 23 years of diplomatic service in Central Asia and the United Nations. Having lived through violence in Ladakh and exile from his home in Tibet, he dedicated his career to empowering communities that, like his own, were uprooted and marginalized by conflict. I internalized his ethic of service.

Inspired by my grandfather, I brought to medical school aspirations of helping the vulnerable, specifically to find within contexts of illness or crisis avenues of healing and relief. Of the many challenges that I faced while studying to become a physician, however, the most difficult was not relinquishing my humility along the way. Education and expertise are defined as much by what we learn to forget as by what we learn to remember.

In medical school, while memorizing dizzying amounts of information and formulas for efficient clinical communication, I am afraid I would at times unwittingly learn to forget my own limits—the limits of not only my own knowledge and abilities, but also the limits of my own importance. This was evident in every instance that I thought myself too busy or considered my time too precious to speak with my patients rather than at them.

I’ve since experienced firsthand the difference that empathic listening—listening with the heart as well as the ears—can produce in gaining patient trust.

Recognizing the distress in the voice of a teenage driver I was evaluating for whiplash injury in the Pediatric Emergency Department, I was moved to offer open-ended questions and extended moments of silence, thereby learning that he had been running from home at the time of the collision after his mother discovered a suicide note in his bedroom.

While caring for a terminally ill nursing home resident during one of several repeat hospital admissions, the patient and I decided together to explore the benefit of a palliative care consult. During the resulting discussion with her and her husband, I learned that while neither wished to pursue aggressive or curative treatment, both had a yet unspoken need for the other’s permission to accept that the patient was approaching death.

“Listen to your patient,” William Osler would tell his students. “He’s telling you the diagnosis.”

I believe our patients are telling us much more than their diagnoses. For our communication with them to produce genuine trust, for our care to be patient-centered, and for our interventions to produce therapeutic change in their lives and the lives of their families, we must be committed to always considering our patients as among our teachers: confronting complex yet intimate connections between health and social context, hearing their meaning-filled narratives, bearing witness to contextually-grounded suffering or dysfunction, and humbly recognizing behind each of our patients the multifaceted identity and lifeworld that they offer us.


Armaan Ahmed Rowther is a final-year MD-PhD student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who completed his doctoral studies in International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. His thesis focused on structural and sociocultural factors shaping the design and implementation of novel telemedicine and task-shifting approaches for improving maternal and child health services in Pakistan. Prior to this, he was a research fellow under the Fulbright US Student Program in Jordan conducting a study on digital health intervention development and evaluation for cardiometabolic risk screening in medically vulnerable women receiving care from the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation’s Institute for Family Health near the Baqa’a Refugee Camp. Currently, his clinical interests include Reproductive Psychiatry while his research interests center on applying social science theories and mixed methods to understand perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and innovations for advancing maternal health equity.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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I hurt like you

Posted September 19, 2022

The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

How would your trust in your physician change if they disclosed that they had the same health condition as you?

Physician self-disclosure – wherein the physician tells the patient something personal about themselves – is an understudied phenomenon in healthcare communication. Yet, it occurs so frequently and innocuously within clinical encounters, especially in the form of “small-talk” (family or hobbies, for example) that its impact is often unnoticed.1

But what if the physician reveals a personal illness? What risk does this pose to the archetypal patient-physician relationship, in which the “sick” and “healthy” roles are plainly differentiated? What gains in rapport may arise from such self-disclosures? 

These questions first captivated me a decade ago, when I dealt with a medical issue that brought me to a provider who had recovered from the same condition. He possessed unique expertise largely because he understood the problem from the perspective of both patient and healer. I found him to be a kindred spirit. The therapeutic alliance we built over a mutual tribulation manifested in the ways he anticipated my doubts before I even uttered them, the optimistic attitude accompanying his pearls of wisdom, and his ability to instill in me an enduring sense of hope in the midst of uncertainty. My trust in him, which made me confident in his treatment recommendations, ultimately proved integral to my healing. 

This novel experience of self-disclosure affected me so profoundly that I decided, after getting well, that I too would care for others struggling with similar health concerns. This commitment eventually drew me to medicine, where I could walk closely with patients in the loneliness of their pain and suffering. 

In medical school, I sought to learn how patients perceive physician self-disclosure. Was my experience normative? Does revelation of shared illness typically enhance the therapeutic alliance? Or does self-disclosure actually do more harm than good? 

Guided by my research mentor, I explored these queries by surveying 924 patients with chronic pain. I asked them to imagine that they were seeing a physician who had chronic pain themselves. Would they want their physician to reveal this to them?

Sixty percent of patients said “yes.” Among those who responded affirmatively, a prevailing theme was trust.

“I would trust their opinion more, because they lived with pain,” wrote one patient. “Part of the challenge with chronic pain is feeling believed; I think that if a provider has experienced chronic pain, sharing [this] can create an innate trust that they do understand,” wrote another.

Chronic pain is a deeply isolating affliction. Corroborating the published data, our respondents often recounted having their pain minimized or dismissed by others, including their physicians, whom they counted on to validate their struggle more than anyone.2

I discovered that patients did not desire sympathy, but empathy. They longed not to hear “I hurt for you,” but instead “I hurt with you.” 

After reading nearly a thousand comments from patients with chronic pain, I appreciated anew how truly delicate it is for patients to entrust their lives to people they barely knew. I also gleaned that when delivered without the patient’s utmost wellbeing in mind, physician self-disclosure can deteriorate trust.

While the majority of patients we surveyed wished to know about their physician’s ailment, seven percent did not, and 33 percent were unsure. Chief among patients’ misgivings was that their singular narrative would be overridden by the imposition of their physician’s subjective experience. They also feared that self-disclosure would divert the focus away from them and onto their physician. Principally, patients yearned to be heard as unique persons, not be told that they were just like anyone else. 

Our respondents imparted to me a clear imperative: to earn and never assume the trust of my future patients; handle it always with the tenderest care; and disclose the details of my journey only when conducive to these intentions.

The physician-as-patient occupies a cherished space in modern medicine. Historically, the predominant view within the medical profession was that divulging personal information to patients would blur professional boundaries and imperil the integrity of patient-centered care.3 In certain contexts, this may invariably be true. But Western ethos has increasingly respected the humanness of the physician, particularly in light of a pandemic that has touched everyone, especially healthcare workers.4

I believe that the more we acknowledge and celebrate our bondedness – one teeming with all the familiar joys and sorrows of the human condition – the more patients will become empowered when they hear from their perceptibly unbreakable healers: “I hurt like you.” 


Howard is an LA-native who is currently a fourth year medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He intends to pursue a career in neurology and is broadly interested in optimizing functionality and quality of life in individuals with neurodegenerative disorders. He hopes to discover and employ ways to improve patient-physician relationships through communication, trust-building, and shared decision-making. Outside of medicine, he loves reading, writing, basketball, and bubble tea.  

References

1. Beach MC, Roter D, Larson S, Levinson W, Ford DE, Frankel R. What Do Physicians Tell  Patients About Themselves?: A Qualitative Analysis of Physician Self-Disclosure. J Gen Intern  Med. 2004;19(9):911–6.

2. Buchman DZ, Ho A, Illes J. You Present like a Drug Addict: Patient and Clinician Perspectives  on Trust and Trustworthiness in Chronic Pain Management. Pain Med. 2016;17(8):1394-406.  

3. Candib LM. What should physicians tell about themselves to patients? Am Fam Physician.  2001;63(7):1440–1442.

4. Søvold LE, Naslund JA, Kousoulis AA, Saxena S, Qoronfleh MW, Grobler C, Münter L.  Prioritizing the Mental Health and Well-Being of Healthcare Workers: An Urgent Global Public  Health Priority. Front Public Health. 2021;9:679397.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions

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