Resident Didactic Training – How Do You Learn Best?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I need from my residency training to become a competent pathologist when I graduate and how I learn best. I’ve never been a good audio learner so I don’t learn as much from a purely lecture-based education. And truth be told, I often skipped classes during medical school but wasn’t reprimanded probably because I did fine in my classes. It’s taken me years to realize but I learn best by making connections. Maybe it’s the scientist in me but I remember more, and can figure out the concept again if I forget it, if I understand mechanisms than by rote memorization. So for me, what I need most is time that often is not afforded in a live lecture. I often prefer to watch video recordings on pathology topics because I can stop the recording and think (or jot down a note or two). The “flipped classroom” concept works better for someone like me.

And so, this brings me to resident education. Unlike other specialties, we spend a lot of time on didactics. But there are many different permutations to how programs accomplish this objective. At my program, we have a lot of live lectures or multi-scope sessions. I faithfully try to attend (especially since we have a 90% attendance policy), but most of my attendings know that this is not how I learn best. Anything I have to learn by hearing on the spot has never been my strength.

But, I’ve found two methods at my program that do fit my learning style. First, we have a whole slide scanner. It’s great because we are allowed to scan slides to build our own virtual slide sets for repetitive study later if we so choose. Also, our surgical pathology director has given much of her time to annotating slides for us to use for “unknowns.” She can even compile data such as tracking how long it takes us to find an important required feature on the slide as well as our movements on the slide. She can also compare our scores from year to year if we use the same slide set (which we found didn’t significantly increase our knowledge if tested on the same subject the following year so we’re no longer required to do so).

With digital slides, I like having the option to go back and look over the slides as many times as I need. I didn’t realize how fortunate we were to have a slide scanner at our disposal until I presented some of this data at USCAP during my first year – many residents and attendings that stopped by my poster told me that they didn’t have access to digital slides or a slide scanner at their institutions. But looking at whole slide imaging (WSI) is a skill we all need to master since up to 2/3 of our AP boards can be digital (not glass) slides so I’m glad that I’m exposed to it early and throughout my training.

The second method that I found that really helps me to learn surgical pathology is the unknowns conference conducted at one of our four hospitals. We’re given four slides (which is the perfect number to cover in up to an hour) a couple of days in advance and the residents work together to come up with a differential and diagnosis. Since our attending always gives us papers on the diagnoses, we often read articles while we are working up the differential – which for someone who is used to reading journal articles and reviews, is right down my alley! We take turns during the conference driving at the scope and describe what we see at low then high power and then we give our differential and begin to narrow it down.

After each slide, our attending will reveal the correct diagnosis, point out salient morphologic features (especially with mimickers that can confuse us), and ask us about appropriate ancillary tests and expected results before giving us articles to read on the diagnosis. I’ve found that the interactive approach really helps but more so than that is the visual learning (ie – reading books and articles, googling on the internet) that I did to prepare for this conference. More important than getting the right diagnosis by “wallpapering” (ie – matching up a picture with the slide to reach a diagnosis) is the thought process to narrow down the differential.

And lastly, this is not specific to my program, but I am a strong supporter of open sourcing and sharing of free online didactics. I’ve often found great videos from other programs online or on YouTube to supplement my learning. So how do you learn best? Does your program provide all the tools that you need?

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

ASCP Call for Abstracts

Do you want to present your research at a national meeting? The American Society for Clinical Pathology is currently accepting abstract submissions for their Annual Meeting. This year it’s in October in Tampa, Florida. Soak up the sun while presenting your work and networking with your peers.

Preventing (Pathology) Resident Physician Burnout

Fellow residents, do you sometimes feel burned out, especially with the dismal winter weather than many of us have been experiencing lately? There have been many, predominantly small sample size, cross-sectional studies over the years on this topic. Methodological deficiencies in many of these studies may bring into question some of the generalized conclusions that they assert but does not discredit the truth that resident burnout exists and should be taken seriously by training programs.

In 2004, an article in JAMA on this topic defined “burnout” as a “pathological syndrome in which emotional depletion and maladaptive detachment develop in response to prolonged occupational stress.”1 Multiple studies have identified factors such as time demands, variability in faculty expectations, work overload that inhibits learning, systemic program issues, inadequate elective time, and lack of communication and support from faculty and peers as potent contributors to resident burnout.1,3 Furthermore,a subsequent study identified that burnout was associated with absenteeism, low job satisfaction, and medical errors.2

So, first, how can we identify if we are experiencing burnout? As with everything in life, know thyself. Conduct an honest self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as well as your absolute needs, both at work and outside of it. If you are not good at honestly evaluating yourself, then ask a trusted person who has your best interests at heart their opinion and truly listen. Then set aside designated time to recharge your batteries. For some this means exercise, for others, it may mean spiritual or community volunteer experiences, or even, just doing “nothing.” The key is to not do any residency work during this time. This is often easier said than done but the first step is to make a commitment to try to do so.

Next, be proactive to bring out the change you want to see. Often when we feel that a situation is out of our control or that we have no choice but to submit to a situation that makes us unhappy, fatigued, or emotionally drained, these negative feelings we internalize may manifest as burnout. So, find a way to take back some control. Frequently, part of this does mean cutting out those aspects of your life that have become toxic, whether it be negative situations or negative people. Of course, this is also easier said than done. If I had the cure for this, I’d bottle it and sell it.

Finally, find support. This statement can mean interacting with a mentor who will both personally and professionally “be in your corner” and help guide you through acquiring the necessary skills you need to be a good doctor. It also means to turn to those positive people in your life, whether it is a family member or a good friend, who will listen to you without judgment, let you vent, encourage you in healthy pursuits, but most importantly, remain honest with you and not just be your cheerleader.

Interestingly, a small survey study in 2013 by Medscape of pathologists showed that only 32% of respondents stated that they were burned out.4 Even though the methodology for this study is not stated to be able to determine the legitimacy of this study, it at least gives me hope that if I survive residency, there is hope at the end of the tunnel for a reprieve from those often seemingly, hydra-like tentacles of burnout that threaten to bring us down.

  1. NK Thomas. Resident Burnout. JAMA, 2004;292(23):2880-2889.
  2. LW McCray, PF Cronholm, RA Neill. Resident Physician Burnout: Is There Hope? Fam Med, Oct 2008; 40(9): 626-632.
  3. L Joseph, PF Shaw, BR Smoller. Perceptions of Stress Among Pathology Residents. Am J ClinPathol 2007; 128:911-919.
  4. Pathologist Lifestyles – Linking to Burnout: Medscape Survey. Last updated on 3/28/13. Accessed on 2/11/14 at http://www.medscape.com/features/slideshow/lifestyle/2013/pathology#1

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum–Book Review

I recently read The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, a book about poison and forensic investigation in Jazz-age New York City. Dr. Norris and Dr. Gettler transformed death investigation from a good-old-boy coroner system to one based on science and data analysis. Blum weaves several cases into a narrative that covers several poisons used during the 1920s and ‘30s. Over time, poisoning deaths decreased due to public awareness as well as the realization that murderers were increasingly likely to get caught. Blum discusses Prohibition at length and its contribution to poisoning deaths in New York City. I found this particularly fascinating; not only were people willing to risk their lives to drink alcohol, the government tried to dissuade people from drinking by actively poisoning the supply.

Several of the reviews of this book note Blum’s lack of chemistry knowledge, and I can’t disagree. While my own knowledge base isn’t wide, even I notice a few inaccuracies (HCN isn’t a “potent” acid, for example). One must remember that Blum is a journalist, not a chemist; I tend place blame on the publisher’s fact-checker as well as the author. Because this book is about the evolution of the public perception of forensic toxicology and not just the science behind it, I could overlook the scientific stumbles.

As a laboratory professional, I loved reading about the early days of forensic science and forensic toxicology. While these professions existed in Europe well before 1920, Norris and Gettler forever changed how we treat death, murder, and justice in this country.

 

Swails

Kelly Swails, MT(ASCP), is a laboratory professional, recovering microbiologist, and web editor for Lab Medicine.

 

 

Use of Remembrances, Part Deux

So, I’d like to continue with the thread of thinking on my previous blog post about the use of remembrances–and thank you to those who have either commented on the blog or emailed me. I personally believe that using old questions that I know are questions that will more than likely be recycled on a standardized exam (which is how I define remembrances), is not for me. However, I don’t believe that using other study materials that may give you an idea of topics or styles of questions that may be asked is the same–after all, there is a whole industry devoted to the topic of study materials for specific tests. For me, it’s about the intention more so than the action because I don’t see life in terms of “black and white”. But I understand that it is often difficult to distinguish between these two and that lines may get blurred unintentionally. But writing down the questions after taking a test and using them or passing them down to one’s juniors to use to study for an upcoming version of the test is using a remembrance in my book.

To me, to cheat or not to cheat, that’s a personal choice and I don’t really judge (or honestly, feel it’s worth my effort to do so) and I think we can say we all have different definitions. But for me, the more important question is whether I choose to cheat myself. Multiple times during my medical training, I’ve felt like I’ve had to play catch-up. I think that this is because I didn’t truly take the time and effort when I should’ve to learn the material in a way that I could internalize it enough to stick–and often that may be because I was too stressed to see the “forest through the trees.” But, now I’ve begun to see the outlines of the forest.

Being more of a scientist-trained person and less of a clinical one, I still find myself having to go back and relearn a concept I should’ve learned well during medical school to carry out my resident responsibilities. And while I may internally curse myself for this, I understand that I need to do this–that I may hurt a patient if I just brush under the rug that I’m missing some knowledge, no matter how small a crumb it may be. I might be able to get by without fully understanding it, but I need to participate in their care. First, we need to be self-aware enough to even question ourselves. I believe that starts with at least making the decision to make an effort to ask these questions, which we can all do. And much of that comes from experience. But it also comes from listening to the consistent patterns that percolate throughout the feedback we have been given over time from our mentors and from identifying what characteristics we want to live up to in our role models.

I also believe that this effort should not be one-sided in that all the responsibility is on the trainee. Factors in this equation equally include our residency programs, and specifically, those who serve as our role models and mentors. Even if our attendings may not realize it, they do serve these two roles just as much as they fill the role of being our didactic teachers in their topic area. Also important is the critical thinking or analytical process that we need to learn and make our own. I’ve found that the best teachers, or at least the ones I relate to most, are the ones who lead me through the thinking process–to look first at low power at the architecture and then to move on to high power where I consider the nuclear and cytoplasmic features, chromatin texture, the company that the primary lesional cells keep, and so on, to put together the pieces of the puzzle to come to a reasonable diagnosis and differential. Same process, albeit with different pieces, when it comes to my CP rotations. And I’m slowly but surely attempting to get there.

I also believe that the American Board of Pathology (ABP) who writes our board exams, and even the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) who writes our resident in-service exam (RISE), have an equal responsibility to help us transform our culture. Pathology and diagnostics are changing at a rapid pace and both organizations need to be up-to-date and reflect this in how they construct our exams. We are (or are training to be) the diagnostics experts and we need to know not only certain facts but also understand the relevant concepts—and truly understand the importance of training ourselves to be life-long learners. If both organizations want to absolve themselves from culpability in maintaining a culture that silently endorses the use of remembrances, must not recycle old questions. Of course, this does not mean writing exams from scratch each and every year. And of course, I am not trying to belittle the efforts that these organizations do make every year on our behalf when they write these exams. I am only entreating them to make honest, focused, and deliberate efforts each year to re-examine the content of these exams and to retire those that may fall under the definition of a remembrance. We need to have these exams truly reflect the knowledge and critical thinking we need as a practicing pathologist—more case based multiple-step questions rather multiple-choice (which I’ve always called “multiple-guess”) might help.

So, fellow residents, figure out how you learn best–and in a nice and respectful way, convey your expectations to your teachers–ask questions, read more books and journal articles, step up and take more responsibility in your rotations for patient care and safety issues and don’t just do the minimum amount of work required.If you are so inclined, get more involved. Next week, I’ll talk about resident engagement in pathology organizations and my recent experience serving as the resident representative on ASCP’s Annual Meeting Steering Committee Education Working Group. I encourage all residents to at least take advantage of the FREE resident memberships from both ASCP and CAP (you get discounts on books, apply to serve on committees, etc).

And also, turn in abstracts to present at their annual meetings, both have their submission period open NOW!

CAP in Chicago, IL Sept 7-10, 2014

ASCP in Tampa. FL during Oct 8-11, 2014

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

Are We Cheating Ourselves Out of Our Competency?

Last October, I attended the CAP Residents Forum where I heard the President of the American Board of Pathology speak about the use of remembrances for boards studying and how it was considered cheating and a breach of the honor code. I was a bit surprised when we took a live vote via text that the majority of residents felt that the use of remembrances was not cheating. But this all goes back to the medical school culture (and maybe even before that) in which we were trained.

During my 1st year of medical school, I remember feeling that it was inequitable that some students got old exams from their assigned 2nd year “big siblings” and that others got nothing. So I did something to neutralize the playing field – before every test, I scanned the old exams I had and emailed them to the class listserv. For the few exams that I didn’t have an old exam, other classmates stepped up and scanned and emailed them out. And so we built a culture of sharing. I was very proud that my classmates did not put having a personal advantage over the concept of equity.

But unexpected and unintentional shenanigans ensued. Once a classmate emailed out what was thought to be an old exam but was later found to be a “stolen” exam as that professor purposely did not give back his exams. This required our waiting while he re-wrote parts of the exam as this was discovered only on the morning of our actual exam. And during my 1st year of PhD (I was initially DO/PhD), when my original classmates were in the midst of their 3rd year rotations, a classmate emailed some study materials they had obtained from a friend at another DO school that unbeknownst to them were remembrances from previous NBOME shelf exams.

Eventually as the year went on, my classmates began to realize that what they had were remembrances and one classmate actually stepped up and turned them into one of our deans. Since I was no longer in this class, I only heard after the fact, but our dean had called the NBOME to warn them to retire the questions in these remembrances and had also called the school from which they originated to let them know what their students had done. At that time, I was not very invested in what was unfolding as I was in the graduate school portion of my dual degree program. But I do understand the fear of others having advantages that you may not and having that thought cloud one’s thinking.

These memories flooded back into my mind as I listened to this talk at the Residents Forum and voted. I didn’t realize it then when I watched from the sidelines but do now, that the use of remembrances—whether it is considered cheating or not—is in fact cheating oneself. A Machiavellian “ends justify the means” mentality is often used to justify such actions. But in the end, what have we truly accomplished? Yes, maybe passing our boards. But what happens when we become practicing pathologists if we didn’t understand what it was that we so diligently memorized off of remembrances?

It may be slower and more difficult, but I’ve pledged to myself that I won’t take the easy road, no matter how tempting it may be (I admit I’m just as vulnerable to temptation as everyone else). I tell my M2 students when I TA their pathology small group discussion lab that if they don’t know even one word when they are reading to learn a concept…to stop immediately and look it up, even if it just means to Google. And I’ve tried to practice this as well. I still may not pick up on surgical pathology concepts (especially grossing) as quickly as I do clinical pathology concepts, but I have noticed a difference. Concepts seem to stick better in my aging brain because I have shifted how I focus my efforts. I try not to waste as much time on worrying (but I still sometimes do) that others may have an advantage over me because that is wasted effort.

Gaining competency means to take ownership and responsibility for one’s learning. Figure out how you learn best and make a plan to do it. And if you fail, keep trying until you make it. Really try to understand the mechanisms and not just memorize minutiae or facts. I find that I can figure out the answers this way if I had a solid foundation. And don’t take too many shortcuts, which invariably, remembrances may turn out to be. But I’d like to hear your take on the topic…is the use of remembrances cheating or not? And do you think that using remembrances cheats you out of obtaining competency as fast and as well as you might have gotten there without them?

 

Chung

Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.