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Addressing the curiosity decline in medicine: Scope@10,000

Why do doctors become less curious over time? And how can it be fixed? Physician Amitha Kalaichandran discusses the importance of promoting curiosity.

"So, if we're worried about viral myocarditis, would the patient have similar symptoms as someone with pericarditis?" The astute medical student slipped me his question as we hurriedly made our way across the ward to the next patient's room.

He had wondered whether inflammation of the heart muscle (as in myocarditis) presents like inflammation of the protective layer around the heart (the pericardium). Classically we are taught that pericarditis-type chest pain is better when sitting up (because the protective layer is kept away from the nerves that transmit pain) compared with lying down or when taking deep breaths. 

"Well there is some overlap in clinical signs," I began. But we were already on to the next patient, and so my attention was redirected. The student had looked eager to hear my response, but that expression quickly slipped away.

These missed opportunities, to explore and address complex questions, are frequent in medical education, and the downstream consequences of not fostering this curiosity are significant. 

Curiosity is the necessary fuel to rethink one's own biases, and it can reap dividends for patient care. When doctors think about a set of symptoms separately, they may reach different conclusions; for example one study found that up to 21% of second opinions differ from the original diagnosis. 

Allowing doctors to express their curiosity is crucial and it's time we encourage all medical trainees to be curious.

The decline in curiosity could be caused, in part, by medical trainees assuming a traditionally passive role in hierarchically organized settings like hospitals, suggests a 2011 paper, coauthored by Ronald Epstein, MD, a professor of family medicine, psychiatry, oncology and medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

"There's a dynamic tension here. People pursue medicine because they are curious about the human experience and scientific discovery, but early in training they are taught to place things in categories and to pursue certainty," Epstein told me. 

A 2017 McGill University study led by pediatrician Robert Sternzus, MD, took this theme a step further. Sternzus and colleagues surveyed medical students across all four years about two types of curiosity: trait curiosity, which is an inherent tendency to be curious; and state curiosity, defined as the environment in which the trait curiosity can survive. Trait curiosity across all four years was significantly higher than state curiosity. The authors concluded that the medical students' natural curiosity may not have been supported in their learning environment. 

"I had always felt that curiosity was strongly linked to performance in the students I worked with," Sternzus says. "I also felt, as a learner, that I was at my best when I was most curious. And I certainly could remember periods in my training where that curiosity was suppressed. In our study the trends that we found with regards to curiosity across the years confirmed what I had hypothesized." Sternzus has since spearheaded a faculty development workshop on promoting curiosity in medical trainees.

So what might be the solution, especially as the move towards competency-based training programs may not reward curiosity, and at a time where companies in places like Silicon Valley -- which invest in curious and talented minds -- position themselves to be another gatekeeper of health care?

New work led by Jatin Vyas, MD, PhD, an infectious disease physician and researcher who directs the internal medicine residence at Massachusetts General Hospital, offers one idea. His team developed a two-week elective program, called Pathways, which allows an intern to investigate a case where the diagnosis is unknown or the science isn't quite clear. They then present their findings to a group of up to 80 experienced physicians and trainees.  

"What I have found is that many interns and residents have lots of important questions. If our attendings are not in tune with that -- and it's often due to a lack of time or expertise -- the residents' questions are oftentimes never discussed," Vyas says. "When I was a resident, my mentors helped me articulate these important questions, and I believe this new generation of trainees deserve the same type of stimulation and the Pathways elective is one way to help address this."

At the end of June, Pathways reached the end of its second year, and Vyas recounts that resident satisfaction, clinical-teacher satisfaction, and patient satisfaction were all high. "Patients have expressed gratitude for having trainees eager to take a fresh look at their case, even though they may not receive a breakthrough answer," Vyas says. 

The job of more experienced clinicians is to nurture curiosity of learners not just for the value it provides for the students, but for the benefits it poses for patients, Faith Fitzgerald, MD, an internist at the University of California Davis, has written. Physicians of the future, and the patients they care for, deserve this.

Amitha Kalaichandran, MD, is a resident physician based in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @DrAmithaMD.

This piece is part of Scope@10,000, a series of original narrative essays from writers, physicians and thinkers in honor of Stanford Medicine's Scope blog publishing 10,000 posts. Stay tuned for more.

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