Unlike most of us, physicians spend their days (and many nights) immersed in issues of human life and death. How do those daily experiences that carry so much gravity affect the way doctors reflect on their own lives and shape their personal goals?
We asked some physicians around the country about their New Year’s resolutions for 2017. Resolutions ranged from calling parents more often and listening to their patients better to seeing more art or just the simple act of loving the people in their lives every day. Fitting meditation into the day was also a popular intention. And not surprisingly, many are inspired by their patients to live better lives.
Less screen time, more listening
Dr. Nina Shapiro, professor of head and neck surgery at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Shapiro has several New Year’s resolutions: to spend less time on screens, to finish a book she’s been writing, and to “listen more and assume less” when it comes to her patients, she said.
She said cutting down on screen time may be the biggest challenge.
“I spend a lot of time at a screen. We have screens at work, all of our records are electronic. I use email for communication and several email addresses. My pager is an app on my phone. People say good morning to their iPhone before they say good morning to their kids — that should be a wake-up call right there.”
As for listening more, she said, “There’s a statistic that doctors, when they first meet a patient, they cut them off in under a minute when a patient starts to speak. We’re always rushed, seeing lots of patients these days, and the inclination is to move things along. When patients start to talk and tell their story, we need to consciously stop, button our lip, and let them finish.”
“It helps the patient feel recognized,” she said, and often reveals important insights for their care.
“Find a way to laugh”
Dr. James Adams, chair of emergency medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine
Adams said his New Year’s resolution is the same every year, driven in part by his experiences in the emergency room. As background, he told CBS News about some of the cases that have stayed with him over the years:
“A man in his seventies came to the ED [emergency department] and was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm that was inoperable and it began to leak. He was going to die in the ED and nothing could be done. His wife was there and they had the chance to talk, laugh, cry, and reminisce. It was so tragic but meaningful. Another man in his seventies was brought in cardiac arrest and was unable to be resuscitated and pronounced dead. His wife said that he was having trouble getting dressed, had been through therapy and needed to do it himself but he got frustrated, she got frustrated, they had a fight, she yelled, left the room, and when she came back he was on the floor in cardiac arrest. She was terribly troubled that their last words were an argument after decades of marriage. Finally, a woman was told that her husband had a cardiac arrest at work. When she came to the ED to see him she told us, ‘He always made me feel good.’ She went on to explain, ‘If I made dinner I would ask how he liked it. If he liked it, he would rave. If he didn’t like it, he would pause, look at it, look at me, and say, ‘My, you look nice tonight.’ I would laugh, he would laugh and I was not insulted; neither of us cared too much that the dinner was bad.”
In light of that, Adams said, “My New Year’s resolution, as always is to find a way to laugh, not sweat the small stuff, say nice words, and value each moment and each conversation. The small words and small moments can have big impact. I will focus on them.”
“Create a kinder world”
Dr. Amit Sood, professor of medicine and chair of the Mind-Body Initiative with the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program; author of “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living” and “The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness”
“I will make at least one person feel worthy every day. The reason: we are so busy trying to figure out how to live longer, be more connected, have cheaper energy, and faster everything, but if we do not build all this around the core of kindness, then none of our success will matter,” Sood said about his 2017 resolution.
He said if people embrace kindness, everything else will follow.
“An essential step to create a happier world is to create a kinder world. Our children deserve that.”
Dr. Michael Smith, WebMD’s medical director and chief medical editor
Smith hopes to better manage stress by practicing meditation. “While this is important for my mental well-being, as someone with a chronic pain condition, an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis, better stress management plays a significant role in minimizing pain as well,” he said.
He hopes to incorporate at least 10 minutes of meditation into his daily routine at least five days a week.
“This may amount to 10 minutes of deep breathing exercises, quiet time focused on quieting the mind, progressive muscle relaxation, or any number of meditation techniques. This will also have the secondary benefit of improving sleep, another healthy habit that I intend to work on in 2017,” Smith said.
Dr. Angela Gardner, emergency physician at the University of Texas Southwestern
Gardner wanted to share her resolution from last year, in addition to her goal for 2017, because last year’s made such an impact on her life.
“My New Year’s resolution last year was to get more sleep. You know that ER docs work crazy hours – nights, weekends, holidays. I had been wearing a fitness tracker and was shocked to find out that I averaged 5.75 hours per night.”
She said she made a commitment to reach her goal: she forced herself to shut off digital screens earlier at night, turned down invitations that would keep her out too late, and scheduled naps before her night shifts.
“After a year, I have increased my sleep to 6.9 hours average per night, and it is the hardest thing I have ever done. I actually had to schedule a bedtime for myself, just like you would for a toddler.”
She added, “The fitness tracker keeps me honest. No fooling the electronics.”
This year, Gardner’s resolution is to keep a journal.
“The importance of shutting off and breathing”
Dr. Andrew Goldstein, researcher at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
Goldstein said eating healthfully and exercising regularly are already a priority in his life, so he’s hoping in 2017 to add a few more health goals, including finding time to meditate every day, to get more sleep, to spend more time phone-free.
“Definitely with the election and the crazy amount of anxiety everybody’s been experiencing because of it, and just generally the level of stress that comes from a job where you’re managing other people, managing a budget, and using your brain to think — I’ve started appreciating the importance of shutting off and breathing.
“So some of my resolutions are connected, like getting enough sleep to function properly and turning off the phone connects with sleep, too,” Goldstein said.
He also aims to connect more often with his family.
“I probably talk to my siblings on a quarterly basis and my parents maybe every few weeks, at least once a month. I’d like to talk to my parents every week and talk with my siblings every month, to just stay connected,” he said.
He said making time to fit meditation in a few minutes after the alarm goes off every morning “sets the tone for the day,” and taking a moment to breathe deeply as he’s walking to a meeting are little ways he’ll begin making changes.
Another resolution: to explore more of Los Angeles’ cultural offerings in the coming year. He wants to check out the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Tolerance, the Hammer Museum, and more musical performance.
“Do more traveling”
Dr. Cedric Dark, emergency physician and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine
“My wife and I, both ER doctors, are resolving to do more traveling this year. It’s what we like to do for fun, and what we used to do a lot more before having a baby two years ago. And after a few health scares and with some milestone birthdays coming up early in the year, why not now,” said Dark.
Dark said his work also helps him remember what’s important. “Being in this profession, you learn tragedy can strike anyone at anytime, so make the most of it.”
“Nourish my spirit”
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City
“My New Year’s resolution is to make more time to nourish my spirit — to be in environments and with people doing things that make me feel good,” said Steinbaum.
She said this year her patients have had a deep impact on her thoughts about how she plans to move forward into 2017.
“Not to get political, but I take care of a lot of women and I’m in New York City, and this election has really affected a lot of my patients. So much so that I ran out of heart monitors. I’m seeing a lot of women crying. A lot of women of the previous generation who were activists and paved the way for our generation, and they are devastated. So I am always trying to come up with advice or something to say to help them feel better. I don’t think anymore that the basic New Year’s resolutions (diet and fitness goals) are really working. I think so many people right now are having such a hard time getting through the day.”
Steinbaum, a single mom, said up until now being a mother and her work have been her everything.
“But that is not enough. There has to be room to allow my heart to be filled with the other wonderful people in my life. I’m valuing the people in my life who are like-minded, who care about the world in the same way, who we can talk with each other and communicate and be open to having conversations.”
Typically a private person, Steinbaum said she’s also realizing that being “a little bit vulnerable” is OK. “Life is so unpredictable. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be real, authentic, honest.”
“Reset my priorities”
Dr. Robert Glatter, emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City
Glatter said this year he didn’t wait for January 1st to begin his resolutions. Traveling to Brazil last summer as one of NBC’s physicians for the Summer Olympics inspired him to make changes right away.
“I began a comprehensive diet and exercise program that began in Rio, and which I plan to continue through 2017. Being immersed in such a complex medical operation on a large scale provided inspiration to help me reset my priorities,” he said.
As a busy ER doctor, he said he used to grab a muffin for breakfast and snack on chips and pretzels throughout the day. He’s ditched the calorie-dense foods for more fruits and vegetables, chicken, fish, nuts and nut butter.
“The crazy lifestyle of the ER and rotating shifts leaves a tendency to have quick foods that are going to give you energy, but it’s quite to the contrary,” Glatter said.
He’s also making more time for exercise — spinning, elliptical training and weights — and he hopes to meditate more in 2017.
“I’ve found meditation to be incredibly helpful as well. Part of the inspiration to utilize meditation was because of a patient I cared for earlier this year who started using meditation to lose weight after suffering a heart attack in his late 40s.”
Take time to smell the roses
Dr. Aurelia Nattiv, professor at UCLA Departments of Family Medicine and Orthopaedic Surgery
“I realize that we, including me, often get so caught up in the details of life, that we often forget the beauty around us, like a beautiful sunset or amazing flower. I think by increasing our awareness of our surroundings and the beauty therein, it helps us to see the big picture a bit better.”
Nattiv said she’s also inspired by a Gandhi quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and hopes to live by it a bit more this coming year.
“We’re all a work in progress”
Dr. Deanna Attai, breast cancer surgeon and assistant clinical professor at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and UCLA Health Burbank Breast Care
“So I’m terrible at New Year’s resolutions. Of course in the past I’ve done the usual — exercise four days a week, decrease chocolate intake, have more patience.” But a few weeks into the New Year, her old habits always seem to resurface, Attai said.
This year, she said, “I haven’t had much time to breathe” or come up with personal resolutions for 2017, but she has thought about her goals for her patients.
“My goal is to help my patients become healthier in general, not just treat their breast cancer. This time of the year, patients often tell me they will improve their diet, exercise regularly and get more sleep as part of a New Year’s resolution. I’ve started telling them that I don’t want them to do it as a New Year’s resolution because we all know how that goes. One slip-up and you feel the whole effort is lost. Rather, I suggest that they just try to make some small changes aimed at better health on an ongoing basis. At the end of the day, we’re all a work in progress.”
When it comes to her own resolutions, there’s one thing she does know will happen in 2017: “I will still most likely eat too much chocolate.”