I’d like to phone a friend…

This piece in WSJ this week generated quite a bit of conversation on Twitter within my circles.

You see, at times there is still this culture around the idea of calling for help being a sign of weakness.  I still know of too many faculty (because more than 1 is too many) who have reputations for being bears when called in the middle of the night- a reputation I consider only slightly more favorable than those who are known for ignoring calls and pages outright. And I still remember what it can be like to be on the resident end of those phone calls; you know that you’ll get berated for calling, but you also know that you’ll be in even deeper trouble if you don’t.

Teaching our trainees to call us for help is important, both for them and for the patients.  The trainees need to feel supported and we have an obligation to the patients to direct their care.  Residents shouldn’t expect to be spoon-fed, and I know that most of our residents will tell you that the first question I’m going to ask after, “What can I do for you?” is going to be, “What would you like to do?” because I still want them to be problem solvers.  I just want them to know that they have a safety net, which results in the last question I often ask: “Do you need me to come look with you, or are you okay?”

An important piece that extends beyond training is by calling for help when we’re concerned that we are getting into a bad situation. When I was freshly out of training, I didn’t think twice about calling my senior partner to look at things with me in the OR.  I can only think of once the he scrubbed in; more often he gave me someone to bounce ideas off of, and he validated that I really did know what I’m doing.  In the last 6 months, I’ve called one of my partners for help in the OR when I had unanticipated and impressive bleeding while doing a trach (he scrubbed, we fixed the problem together, patient did okay), and that same partner called me to look at a patient’s wounds with him intraopratively when he had concerns. I recognize that this is part of the culture that we have within our practice group, and I’m grateful for it; it supports us in making the best decisions for our patients and providing them with the very best care possible. And, as was astutely pointed out by a former student who is now a surgical attending, we’re providing good role modeling for our residents and students that calling for help is, in fact, the right thing to do, and that you’re never too senior or too experienced to invite someone else in to a complex situation.

While I value the culture that the Harvard hospitals are promoting around calling for help, I worry that the “card” described in the WSJ piece may be a bit too directive.  I can think of many scenarios that don’t necessarily fit the items listed and in which a trainee might wonder if they should call.  Ideally, they need to add one more item:

If you think you should call, call.

(Or, as I explain it to our residents- I’ve never gotten upset with someone for calling.  I have become very upset with someone for not calling when they should have.)