My job recently changed to include some administrative responsibilities, so having done purely clinical work for my entire career as a physician, I thought it wise to begin broadening my horizons to learn how to best meet the new challenges ahead of me. Fortunately, not only was the Hospital Medicine 2015 conference just an hour’s drive away, it occurred just when I needed it most, within days of my taking on a new role.

Naturally, I opted for the Practice Management track this year since I will need a different skill set than I currently have. In the first session, called Case Studies in Improving Patient Experience, I learned about a patient named John, who had developed typical ischemic chest pain during a weekly tennis game with his wife. His doctors did everything right, or so they thought. They exceeded the national guidelines for each quality measure, including the time it took them to revascularize his blocked artery. John had no significant residual damage and within 2 weeks was back on the tennis courts.

But there had been a huge disconnect. His doctors practiced excellent medicine, yet John was displeased with his care. The hospital team had not communicated well with John during his hospital stay. A great success story seen through the eyes of his medical team was a great failure as seen through the eyes of John and his wife. The hospital team’s lack of communication trumped the fact that they had played a huge role in saving John’s life.

As a matter of fact, John and his wife were so distraught over their experience that they went to the hospital administration to express their concerns about how poorly they had been treated.

This story also was aired as part of a segment on National Public Radio. Some of the comments of listeners echoed the sentiments we hear often, such as “doctors don’t know how to communicate with patients” and “doctors don’t care.” While the former statement may be true in many cases, the latter couldn’t be further from the truth. We do care. Why else would we sacrifice so much of our lives to help others? There are certainly other careers that pay more than medicine, especially considering all the time and financial investment that go into becoming a physician.

So why is it that as intelligent as we are as a group, we often fall short of meeting the communication goals that are so important to our patients? Some believe – and I am one of them – that most physicians are examples of the cognitive load theory. Our brains are simply overloaded. This theory , developed by psychologist John Sweller in the 1980s, refers to the total amount of mental effort used in one’s working memory.

There are three types of cognitive load : intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to how much effort goes into a particular topic, and in the field of medicine, the complexity of the information we deal with is very high, as is our intrinsic load.

Extraneous cognitive load refers to how this information is presented to us. When the pager is incessantly beeping, a line of nurses is waiting to ask a question, you desperately need to get to the ED to admit a potential stroke patient, and you eye a family member anxiously pacing the hallway and waiting for a chance to speak with you, your brain is bombarded with a variety of complex issues coming in all directions. In short, your extraneous load is through the roof.

The germane cognitive load refers to the work you put into processing information and creating a permanent store of that knowledge, creating a schema, so to speak. For instance, after much experience, it has become relatively simple to classify a patient as having heart failure if he presents with bilateral leg edema, progressive shortness of breath, and crackles on exam.

Experience helps us with our germane cognitive load and sometimes we have little control over our intrinisic load, but there are many potential opportunities to organize our extraneous cognitive load into chunks that flow more seamlessly, make our workday run more smoothly, and free up mental energy and time to deal effectively with other important issues. We all have our personal preferences for how we like our workday to flow. Chances are, with a little creativity, we can have a significant impact on our own extraneous loads.

Getting back to John, he is just one of many patients who feel emotionally neglected, not respected, or not kept up to date regarding their statuses. Considering his doctors, they were probably overwhelmed with the load they were carrying; the responsibility for a life is something only medical professionals can fully grasp. I know there have been times when I too felt simply overwhelmed and unable to do every single thing that would have been good, but not crucial, to the goal of curing the patient. Had I managed my intrinisic load better, perhaps I would have been better equipped to spend more time talking to patients and their family members. I suspect I am not alone.

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