‘Mindful Physicians’ aim to know patients’ whole stories

MORGANTOWN — As a longtime volunteer usher at WVU’s Creative Arts Center, medical student Ogaga Urhie sees a lot of plays. So he wasn’t really seeking a revelation when he happened to watch a particular performance in the fall of 2016.

But he got one anyway: An insight into practicing medicine that goes beyond the boundaries of medicine itself. The insight led him to form a student group called Of the Mindful Physician to explore that greater realm.

The play was David Mamet’s “Race,” put on by the School of Theatre & Dance, about a bigotry-tainted investigation and legal defense of a murder suspect.

He was a second-year medical student at the time.

Individually, he said, the subtle elements of the story didn’t necessarily make sense. It was only taken together that they formed the full story.

“I’m guessing many patients have their own stories to tell but no one asks them for their stories.”

That’s how he became interested in listening to what other people have to say and formed the group.

Its initial aim was to expose students to issues patients face outside the medical setting that influence how they interact with healthcare. But the purpose grew, to discover the contributions of other disciplines toward health and healthcare, and to explore how the arts and humanities can help build stronger relationships with patients.

That mindfulness, he said, is important in the 20-minute patient visit model that drives much of healthcare.

“I think that given the pace at which we have to see patients we can miss things, we can forget to ask things — go to the story. With the pace we can just miss opportunities.”

Group meetings acquaint students with patients, with other health care providers and with professionals in other fields who help people in other ways.

“I think having that knowledge in the back of their mind would make them more prone to seeing those opportunities and not missing them.”

Presenters have opened their minds to such topics as music therapy; hippotherapy; eating disorders during pregnancy; death and mortality; addiction, recovery and reintegration into college life; animal therapy; homelessness and healthcare; and domestic violence and healthcare.

ALS patients came and shared their perspectives on living with that disease.

Group members also do volunteer work in fields that contribute to health care but not directly in the realm of medicine. Most recently they’ve lent hands to the Hearts of Gold therapy dog nonprofit — holding a fundraiser and building a playpen for puppies.

“What can a physician do? We’ve had that question many times,” Urhie said. And the answer from the presenters has always been, “We want you to know what we do so that when the time comes that you need us, you know where we are.”

First-year medical student Farha Khan has been involved since the beginning. She met Urhie, she said, during her first week of medical school at an involvement fair. His message clicked.

“I don’t think health care is a solitary thing,” she said. A doctor can’t just diagnose, hand them their medicine and send them on. “Everything that a patient goes through is part of their life. We are just one aspect of that. … It’s in the name itself. It’s about mindfulness.”

A person with a movement disorder, for instance, may need exercise, but that doesn’t address how that patient needs to get there, she said. Of the Mindful Physician helps them identify areas where a patient might need additional help.

“OMP sets up a really nice paradigm,” she said. “I think OMP is all about that social, emotional, mental, environmental aspect of medicine.” You’re not just dealing with a patient but a person.

Urhie and Khan aren’t alone in their vision. Clay Marsh, WVU vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences, has preached that broader view and commends the group for its work.

“Medical students must learn the fundamentals of science and technology to become capable and skilled care providers,” he said. “They must also nurture a compassionate relationship with their patients, and connecting through the avenue of the arts and humanities provides an opportunity for mutual understanding and respect which can facilitate better communication and ultimately better care.”

Also with that view in mind, said Health Sciences spokeswoman Tara Scatterday, the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences is offering a new minor in medical humanities and health studies. The program’s description says it “teaches the social and cultural contexts of health, illness and medicine. It demonstrates how perspectives of the humanities and social sciences can help future health care participants — patients and professionals alike — think of health and medicine as more than just science.”

Asked about the 20-minute visit model and the possibility of a culture change among providers, Urhie talked about teamwork and physicians learning to see themselves as leading a team that extends beyond medicine. The group’s outside presenters can help that.

“If they are going to take on the role of leaders, they are going to have to know who all the other members of the team are,” he said. Many people, inside and outside healthcare, have roles to play in the issues patients face.

The group has morphed since Urhie first founded it, he said. Last semester it was just for medical school students. This year, meetings are open to all. They typically draw five to seven people, with a couple of them being med students.

The next step he wants to pursue is to take the group out of the medical school and make it more accessible to all of Health Sciences by putting it under the auspices to the Interprofessional Education office. It would still run by students, but with representatives from each Health Sciences school.

Urhie himself will be stepping out soon. During his second year in medical school he took a break to pursue a master’s degree in clinical research. Next fall, he resumes medical school with a clinical rotation in Charleston. So he’s hoping that by the end of this year, capable hands will step forward to take over the group and keep its mission going.

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