Practice Perfect 818
Don't Worry, Be Happy

For today’s Practice Perfect, we have a guest editorialist. Rebecca Moellmer, DPM is an associate professor at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Podiatric Medicine, practicing foot and ankle physician and surgeon, and one of my best friends. Dr Moellmer is a past president of the California Podiatric Medical Association and has the distinction of being one of the few people who can say they led a team that increased the scope of practice for podiatrists in California. She’s an upbeat and dynamic person with a strong voice and positive attitude that I think you’ll see through her thoughtful editorial. I hope you enjoy Dr Moellmer’s perspective as I did. Best wishes.

Podiatric physicians are generally rumored to be a cheerful bunch, but it is doubtful that only friendly applicants are admitted to Podiatric Medical Colleges. Instead, it may have a lot to do with our work. So many of our interactions with patients, colleagues and staff can be perceived as altruistic. Altruistic behavior, coined by French Philosopher Auguste Comte in the 1800s, has been shown in biochemistry, sociology, and psychology literature to release dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin. These hormones may contribute to increased happiness, motivation, alertness, and focus. They can decrease stress and anxiety and stave off depression. This is sometimes referred to as a “helper’s high.” It could be said that our daily professional interactions are strengthening what is essentially a positive feedback loop.

When a patient is seen in our clinic or on rounds in the hospital, most of the time, they appreciate our help and trust us. Something as simple as listening to our patient may elicit a response such as “I wish you could be my PCP.”  We don’t ask for it, but when our offices are overrun with delicious homemade treats during the holidays, it is an expression of their gratitude, and when we accept the gift, it enhances our patient-doctor relationship. A referral from a patient may not only contribute to our “helper’s high” but also to our bottom line.

Most of us walk into our offices or onto the hospital floor for rounds, and are greeted by nursing staff. We may also have our favorites as well. Our first day or week didn’t likely begin that way. It took time for staff to recognize not only that we are knowledgeable but that we are also considerate of staff’s time and energy and not just dumping more work on them that we could be performing. Making efforts not to increase the staff workload can be seen as altruistic because it requires that we gather supplies for something like a dressing change and that we apply it. Daily greetings to a familiar custodian at the hospital could lead to a congratulatory hug for graduating a residency program, which is what happened to a friend. Hugs, when welcomed, also release similar hormones to the “helper’s high.” Small efforts can yield large rewards. 

Whether working in a multi-doctor office or in a community, respect and gratitude from colleagues is always welcomed. When we are asked for a “curbside consult” by the ER or to see a patient for the hospitalist when not on call, it is because they value our skillset. When asked by another specialty team to do what we can to save the patient’s leg because their team is signing off, we assume it will be challenging but likely rewarding if successful. These experiences can all feed into our positive feedback loop.

Aside from the above, what’s in it for us? When we leave work for the day, these potential feelings of increased happiness, motivation, alertness, decreased anxiety, and decreased depression follow us home. Our families undoubtedly enjoy spending time with us when we are in this state. I would like to think that the benefits of our altruistic behavior can overcome or at least reduce feelings of physician burnout that we all hear so much about these days. Without any other factors considered, some research suggests that this altruistic behavior throughout our careers can even lead to lower blood pressure. Lastly, psychological research has determined that people have happy lives when they do something they consider meaningful…and I can’t imagine something more meaningful than saving limbs and lives.
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We should all continue to treat our patients well, be considerate of staff, and work collaboratively in team settings, all while improving our own health and outlook. For many, this is already our approach, but if not, I challenge you to adopt this mindset. Everyone benefits from the “helper’s high.”

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