The Flame asks Thomas Cox, PsyD, director of Faculty Development and Research Education, five questions about his time teaching at Baylor University Medical Center, a part of Baylor Scott & White Health, and why physician emotional intelligence and well-being is essential to medical education.
1. What made you decide to enter the field of psychology?
I decided to study psychology because I have always been amazed by the brain, emotions and behavior. Psychology was actually my third career endeavor. Before, I assisted open heart surgeries as a PA, and then moved to clinical specialist teaching for medical devices.
From my daily interactions, it intrigued me to know why people behaved the way they did. Unlike physical medicine, behaviors are not as predictable, and I wanted to learn more about the motivations behind these behaviors. In addition, depending on how you look at it, I have been blessed or cursed with the ability to feel others’ emotions, understand their needs and have a sense on how to help them. Having heightened emotional intelligence can be both emotionally and physical exhausting.
2. What are the hot topics affecting physicians today?
Without question the most critical area affecting physicians today is burnout, unmanaged stress, changing healthcare landscape and reimbursement programs, and electronic health records. Physicians today are required to do more with less resources, see more patients than ever, and the cost of medical school is daunting given the financial responsibilities to pay off student and resident loan debt. In burnout, I see a lot of younger physicians trying to get through medical school and then residency, believing when they get into practice it gets easier, but it doesn’t.
In my teachings on physician well-being, I try to relay to the residents how to recognize and manage stress to sustain their professional career. If we start recognizing it from the start of training, it will be easier to navigate this stress when they go out to practice.
However, no question it is the epidemic of physician burnout in the profession.
3. What big developments do you see changing in the training of house staff in the next 10 years?
We have to incorporate more virtual training, simulation and utilize technologies more now than ever. The new generations of residents have been educated utilizing different learning methodologies and strategies that we must incorporate into medical education. The way past generations have learned is no longer beneficial today. As a result of technological dependency, the average attention span today is a mere 20 minutes. Additionally, we must continue to build a culture of educational inclusion, and the day of standardized didactic lectures no longer aids in the retention that is needed for medical education.
4. What do you want residents to remember most about their time with you?
I want residents to remember that they are not alone, and what they are feeling is entirely normal. When residents start their residency, they go through a physiology change: who they start out as is not who they will be when they graduate.
With specialty training, there is so much pressure and stress that it is evident. Medical and surgical residents are physically different than when they began their training. When residents spend time with me, I try to educate them on being in the present – able to withstand everyday stresses. I don’t think they realize 50 percent of house staff experience this.
In addition, while it may not seem evident, there are many people who care about their success and well-being as a physician and person. I can teach them many things regarding teaching, research, test taking, etc. But them knowing they have another person they can trust and come to is of the upmost importance to me. Since I have served as director of Faculty Development and Research Education here at Baylor Dallas, I have been able to counsel and assist many residents who considered leaving their medical training and putting their careers in jeopardy, by facilitating coping strategies.
5. What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice? I have been blessed to have received so much great advice over my life – both personal and career advice. But I think the advice that has resonated with me most and fits who I am and my personality is: you can gain all the wealth you will ever need, be very accomplished in your field professionally, published etc., but you will be remembered by your character.
That is how you treat people, the Golden Rule, being kind and loving, sharing your gifts and knowledge, and giving people your most valuable asset (your time), and listening to people with the intent to learn and understand them. And finally, character is about working hard when no one else is watching. This is what you will be remembered for, your character.