Finding Balance and Peace on the Medical Journey with Dr. Wendy Lau

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PMY 565: Finding Balance and Peace on the Medical Journey with Dr. Wendy Lau

Session 565

Joining us today is Dr. Wendy Lau who talks about her journey from working in tech to becoming a physician. Today, we have a great conversation about being Zen in this crazy world that we live in. She also shares how she helps physicians process emotions and avoid burnout through cultivating empathy and remembering their original intentions for becoming doctors.

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

Interest in Becoming a Physician

Wendy first realized she wanted to be a doctor in high school. However, she didn’t pursue pre-med in college and instead studied computer science. It wasn’t until after working in technology for a while that she decided to go back to school to become a physician.

Wendy was programming and building websites for big corporations, which was fun because it was new technology and she enjoyed learning new things. However, she felt like she was just selling more stuff to people who didn’t need it. She realized she wanted to serve people, make a difference in people’s lives, and have meaning and purpose in her own life. That’s when she decided she needed to make a change and pursue a career in medicine.

The Challenges of Applying to Med School as a Nontrad

Wendy said the application process was challenging as a non-traditional student coming from the tech world. She had to redo all of her science prerequisites since her original degree was in engineering and computer science.

She found it helpful to do a postbaccalaureate program. Being surrounded by other nontraditional students going through the same process made her feel less alone and crazy. The support from counselors in the postbac program also helped navigate the application process.

“On a lot of college campuses, is the premed culture is very toxic and very competitive.”

Comparing the Collaborative Culture of Tech to the Toxic Culture of Premed

Wendy said that in the tech world, they tended to work as a team and the environment was more collaborative. However, she felt that the premed culture in college was very toxic and competitive. As a nontrad student in her postbac program, she felt the environment was more collaborative. After all, they were all nontrad students who had real life experiences and were more supportive of each other.

What Most Surprised Wendy About Medical School

Wendy recalls that the biggest thing that surprised her about medical school was the lack of emphasis on developing relationships and connections with patients, and focusing on the softer, more human aspects of medicine. She enjoyed learning in small groups and labs. But she felt medical school training didn’t encourage discussing the importance of serving patients and how to manage the emotional challenges of working in healthcare.

“The actual important side of medicine – the connection and my intention to serve.”

The Missing Conversations: A Lack of Discussion Around Death, Grief, and Emotional Processing in Medical School

Wendy said specifically that conversations about death and dying were missing from her medical school education. She had a whole chapter in her book called “Reimagining Mortality and Morbidity” about facing death for ourselves and with patients. These deep questions were not addressed at all during her training.

She also felt conversations about grief, both for patients and personal losses, were lacking. Practical tools for processing emotions were not provided.

“We’re human beings. At some point, we’re going to feel something and we don’t really have a way of dealing with it, because we haven’t been modeled that – we haven’t been taught that.”

Finding the Balance: Cultivating Compassion Without Burnout

Wendy acknowledges it can be difficult to find the balance between being too emotionally detached from patients versus becoming overburdened by caring too much. She suggested the key is focusing on how connected one feels to patients when interacting with them, rather than getting distracted by other tasks.

Letting meaningful relationships with patients that give you energy can help avoid burnout. It also maintains professionalism at work through confidence and competence. The goal is to intentionally cultivate compassion without taking all the emotional weight home with you.

“It’s about having the space to be able to actually openly talk about how we feel about our own mortality, or how we hold on to grief.”

Finding Motivation Without Taking on Undue Blame

Wendy acknowledges that wanting to help people and make a difference is what initially draws many to medicine, and can provide motivation through the challenges of training. However, she warned that the flip side is taking on too much personal blame when outcomes aren’t ideal, which can lead to burnout over time from resentment and stress. Learning not to blame oneself for factors outside of one’s control is an important part of sustaining a long career in healthcare.

“Blame can turn into resentment can turn into burnout or depression.”

While it’s important to learn from mistakes, taking on too much personal blame for things outside of one’s control can be detrimental. She said blaming oneself can turn into resentment and eventually lead to burnout or depression. Conferences to learn from errors are useful, but processing grief and not shouldering undue responsibility are also necessary to avoid excessive stress.

Reassessing Motivations to Avoid Burnout

Wendy believes having the wrong reasons for entering medicine, such as only wanting to fix problems without understanding the human aspects of care, is a major contributor to burnout. Students need to gain a more realistic understanding of what being a physician entails as this prevents some from choosing medicine as a career when other fields may be a better fit.

Having open conversations about the challenges and emphasizing the importance of empathy and relationships with patients may discourage those lacking a strong commitment to serving others from entering medical training in the first place.

The Need to Foster Empathy, Compassion, and Finding Meaning Through Patient Relationships

Wendy acknowledges that while qualities like wanting to solve problems and enjoy science and medicine are important for being a physician, medical education does not sufficiently emphasize the human and relational aspects of the career.

It’s important to foster relationships with patients, empathy, compassion, and find meaning through caring for others. These are significant parts of medicine that need more focus in training to set students up for long-term fulfillment and avoid burnout.

How Recalling Original Intentions Can Combat Burnout Over a Career in Medicine

Wendy says that looking back at one’s initial motivations for medicine from earlier times may seem more idealistic or even naive. But reconnecting with that original intention to help and serve others is actually what will sustain physicians through long careers in healthcare.

Remembering why someone first wanted to become a doctor can help combat burnout. And that’s because they’re able to maintain focus on meaningful patient relationships rather than getting lost in job demands and stresses over time.

Addressing Burnout Through Honest Conversations While Avoiding Judgment

With physicians, Wendy says it depends on the individual – some may need an alternative career, while others can reconnect with their motivations to find renewed purpose if given space to process emotions and find work-life balance. The goal is not to judge but provide perspective and tools to rekindle intrinsic motivations for patient care.

Wendy acknowledges that people are multi-dimensional and have a variety of motivations for becoming physicians. She believes the key to sustainability is intentionally cultivating the humanistic aspects of medicine. These include empathy, compassion, and remembering one’s original intention to help and serve patients.

By focusing on meaningful connections with patients and finding purpose through relieving suffering, physicians can avoid burnout even amidst other job stresses and demands over a long career.

Lessons for Premeds: Practical Guidance to Prioritize Wellness from the Start and Avoid Burnout Down the Road

Wendy believes there are several important things that can be taught to premed students to help prevent burnout and avoid becoming one of her clients later in their career. This includes making students aware of physician burnout as a real issue. They should have open conversations about the challenges of medicine to develop realistic expectations. They should also consider medical schools that support wellness over just prestige.

Make lifestyle choices around managing debt and not overworking to enable work-life balance. Don’t choose a career where you’re only thinking about money because that’s not going to sustain.

It’s also important to intentionally cultivate empathy, compassion, and remember their original motivations for patient care. By learning from Wendy’s work addressing burnout, students can take proactive steps to prioritize wellness from the start of their medical journey.

The Benefits of Financial Freedom

While financial considerations are part of the reality of medicine, it’s important to achieve financial freedom through managing debt. That way, physicians can choose less stressful jobs that give more time with each patient. She said this would likely feel much better and less burnout-inducing for doctors. They would be able to focus on connecting with patients rather than feeling rushed as a “technician.”

Financial planning can thus support well-being by facilitating the ability to prioritize meaningful relationships over productivity demands.

Contemplating Life’s Deeper Questions to Find Renewed Purpose in Medicine

Wendy’s book, Inner Practice of Medicine: Guide to Becoming True Stewards of Health, contains practices and discussions aimed at helping physicians process emotions and reconnect with their motivations.

Wendy clarifies that she wasn’t just promoting her book, but was highlighting how exploring deeper life questions, like one’s purpose and mortality, can help physicians avoid burnout. She believes it’s important for doctors to make space for contemplating existential issues rather than forgetting them amid busy careers. Her book provides avenues for such reflections.

Wendy suggests having a supportive group of friends to discuss life’s profound questions. Because this can help physicians stay grounded. She felt medical training lacks spaces for meaningful conversations about issues like purpose, suffering and death. Forming connections with others to openly explore existential topics may help prevent doctors from losing sight of their motivations over time amid career demands.

Respecting Individual Preferences for Processing Emotions

“Let yourself feel that loss… and then work through it.”

Not everyone is comfortable directly talking about difficult topics like death and grief. She believes the most important thing is for each individual to find what works best for them to process emotions in their own way. Whether that be exercise, writing, spending time in nature or other solitary activities, the key is listening to one’s own needs rather than judging oneself or others for how they cope.

Wendy emphasizes the importance of truly recognizing one’s own inner experience when processing difficult emotions, rather than dismissing or denying feelings. She said it’s crucial to understand what is genuinely happening for oneself, such as feelings of helplessness, sadness or grief, instead of acting like one doesn’t care or it doesn’t matter. This allows for meaningful reflection and healing from challenging experiences.

Processing Anger

Wendy noted that anger is often a sign of an underlying emotion like feeling helpless in a situation. She stressed it’s important for physicians to recognize what may be fueling their anger, such as an inability to save a patient. That way, they can process the true source of hurt rather than just the surface anger. This allows for healthier coping with difficult feelings.

Navigating Institutional Constraints While Prioritizing Self-Care

Wendy suggests not blaming oneself if one is unable to speak up due to hierarchical pressures. The priority should be self-care over pleasing others or feeling guilty. It also helps to choose schools committed to wellness where support is available. While standing up may not always be possible, taking time for solitary processing can help avoid adding stress through self-criticism during a challenging training period.

“Sometimes you do have to stand up and say something, but it’s hard when you’re out on the lowest part of the totem pole.”

Why Self-Criticism Only Exacerbates Suffering

Wendy referred to the concept of the “second arrow,” where the initial problem or difficulty is like the first arrow. But people often compound the suffering with a second arrow through self-criticism or negative self-talk about how they handled the first problem. She advises avoiding adding extra stress through feeling guilty or blaming oneself, since that only serves to increase distress without solving anything.

Final Words of Wisdom

Wendy encourages premed students to hold on to their idealism and commitment to serving others, even when the realities of medicine make it seem naive. This original intention is important to remember amid challenges. This is what will sustain students through their medical journey if they make lifestyle choices supporting wellness and prioritizing meaningful patient connections over other stresses of the career. Cultivating compassion without burnout takes conscious effort but makes the work deeply rewarding.


Inner Practice of Medicine by Dr. Wendy Lau

Meded Media

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