by Stuart Pickell, MD, TCMS President
This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of the Tarrant County Physician. You can read find the full magazine here.
IT IS AN HONOR AND A PRIVILEGE TO serve as president of the Tarrant County Medical Society for 2023. I aspire to lead as ably as those who have preceded me and to move the ball forward on the many priorities we have as physicians and citizens of Tarrant County. To that end, I posed several questions at the installation event in November that I will follow up on this year, using this space as a launchpad for discussion. At the root of these questions is identity- our identity as physicians and leaders in our community.
For many physicians, and I know this is true for me, there is a sense that, like Harry Potter’s wand, we didn’t choose medicine- it chose us. We have a sense of “calling” to the profession, as if by something external to us or deep within us- either way, something so profound and unknowable that it may defy articulation.
The language of “calling” resonates with nem although for me it was problematic because I had two. When I was five years old, I told my family that when I grew up, I was going to be a minister, a doctor, and a fireman. I have done all three. Firefighting didn’t stick.
What did stick was ministry and medicine. I hoped it would be one or the other, but it never was. In college, I took classical greek and 400-level biology and chemistry courses and majored in history because I liked it. i sought advice from people I respected who were ministers and physicians and they all said the same thing: If you’ve ever thought about doing something besides ministry or medicine, do that instead. As my wife would say, “Hmmmm.”
Years later, and several years into a full-time ministry position, I told a parishioner about my dilemma. He also happened to be a therapist, which only reinforced my commitment to Calvinism. After patiently listening to me explain all the reasons why it wasn’t practical to do both, he looked at me and asked, “Why not?”
Ministry and medicine are similar. They are both vocations in the truest sense of the word, a word derived from the Latin vocare, which means “to call.” Both are professions to which the people in them tend to feel a sense of calling that compels and propels them to serve.
It makes sense that medicine, as a profession, would be hardwired toward serving others. After all, our calling first had to be validated by a medical school that saw in us what we saw in ourselves. We had to be chosen by someone else to become part of a tribe. Do you remember how you learned that you had been accepted to a medical school? I do. I got a letter. I think it’s fitting, however, that student admitted to TCU’s Anne Burnett School of Medicine literally get a call- by telephone- telling them the good news. And admissions committees seek candidates who have integrity and demonstrate empathy; people who are team players and servant leaders. This is and always has been at the core of our identity as physicians.
How we grow into that identity, and how our call to serve becomes manifest, will be as unique as each one of us. People who are called are called not just to be but to do- to apply their knowledge and expertise in a unique and meaningful way. In a way, physicians don’t have a career so much as a mission- which, at the risk of sounding pedantic, comes from the Latin word mitterre, which means “to send.” The English word is rooted in medieval Christianity, but today’s “mission” is more likely to describe the driving principles of an individual, or a business, or a non-profit group or a healthcare institution. it speaks to their identity, their raison dêtre. We are called, and we are sent, sent on a mission to serve the people in our charge- our patients- and the community in which we all live.
So, how are we doing? Are we fulfilling our mission? In many ways, we are doing quite well. We have excellent physicians in just about every specialty. We have fine institutions for adults and children and one of the best county health systems in the country. But we still have pressure points. How does the execution of our mission, individually and corporately, impact the larger community- not just us or our practices or our institutions but the people we have been called to serve?
Throughout the year I will use this space to explore this question, examining our individual and corporate roles and responsibilities as physicians in the hope that doing so will promote a constructive dialogue that furthers our mission to serve the larger community. Some of the pressure points I see and hope to explore include:
- The inadequacy of Graduate Medical Education in Fort Worth, and especially at Cook Children’s Health System. The Cook Children’s Health System and its flagship hospital are among the finest in the country. It has excellent leadership and medical and support staff. But would the community not be better served if it leveraged this prestige and became an academic center as well, training physicians and pediatric specialists who, by the way, often practice near where they train?
- Lack of access to the county healthcare system for undocumented county residents. Undocumented residents can receive emergency care at a reduced rate (which is often still too expensive for most) but are ineligible for the preventive care that might have averted the need for emergency services in the first place. Even Project Access can’t access county health facilities for use by our member physicians who are willing to donate their time and expertise to do necessary but non-emergent procedures.
- Lack of physician input in the assessment, planning and implementation of strategies to address community healthcare needs and crises. Such planning should start with physicians, the people in the community who know the patients personally and who, because of these relationships, the patients trust to act in their best interest. COVID – a crisis made worse by its politicization – quickly devolved into divisive rhetoric that led to a profound mistrust of medical authorities, especially at the national level. Our member physicians voluntarily stepped into this nightmare. We partnered with neighboring county medical societies and aided the local health authorities with its media information operations, providing an honest assessment of available information to inform and educate physicians and the public. And yet, when it came to planning and implementation, the local authorities turned to non-clinical hospital leadership for input and direction.
Working together to address challenges and overcome obstacles is the center of our mission, a mission that emanates from a calling, a calling that forges our identity as physicians. What makes our calling and its ensuing mission so important, and our profession so rewarding, is the relationship we share with each patient – one that is founded on empathy, trust, and mutual respect. It’s the one thing that remains constant in the chaos, because when our patients don’t trust anyone else, they still trust us.
Our mission is not about us – it’s about our patients and our community. And if our mission is to improve their health and safety, we must be willing to take an honest look at ourselves, to understand where we have been, assess where we are, and anticipate where we are headed. And if we discover that our mission is no longer serving our patients or our community, we must have the courage to change it.
Organized medicine helps us identify challenges, assess the adequacy of our mission, and if needed, adjust it. I am honored to be a part of that process and look forward to continuing our conversation.