A Letter to the DO Graduate Class of 2016

From the June 2016 Inside OME. 

Stephen C. Shannon, DO, MPH

Dear Class of 2016,

It seems like not so long ago I was in your shoes, looking out at the road ahead, full of the knowledge and skills I acquired during my time at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNECOM) and ready to move forward into my internship and residency as a newly-graduated DO. The career I had chosen was one aiming to improve the lives of others; a career I was proud of in a profession that I was honored to be joining. Although my undergraduate medical education and training was tough—countless nights studying instead of sleeping, demanding exams and labs, followed by the rewarding, yet draining, months of clinical training—I felt I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It had been worth it.

However, it did not take long into my internship at the Osteopathic Hospital of Maine in Portland to fall into a grueling routine of long hours, strenuous work, and responsibility often fraught with stress and pressure, all while working to preserve my important connections with family and friends. In short, I was living the life of an intern and resident.

I share this with you because I know that many of you will have similar experiences in the future and I want you to remember the reasons and follow the passion that started you on the journey toward becoming a physician. It is that passion and your commitment that brought you this far. In the face of extreme stress, I ask you to remember a most critical element to success, one that is in constant danger of becoming victim to the time and pressures of a physician’s daily routine: the personal characteristics that moved you to follow your path toward excellence as a physician and the closely-associated empathy with the patients that will rely on you. I sincerely urge you to hold tightly to your inspirational foundations.

The values of osteopathic medicine instilled in you during your training have taught you to focus on the patient; to touch, respect, and treat the whole person. As a physician, your patients, their families, and caregivers will share with you the most private and important facets of their lives, a vulnerable space that must be handled with care and treated with respect. Regardless of the pressure you will be experiencing, it will be far more beneficial for your patients—and for you—if you deliver patient care with empathy, understanding your patients’ experiences and concerns within their frame of reference, and applying your communications skills with the intention to help. Empathy is at the core of the physician-patient connection; an attitude and sincere approach that helps patients feel respected and validated; it is a characteristic that others on your health care team will recognize and respect; the hallmark and example of our shared humanity. It will sustain you while improving the health outcomes of your patients.

As stress and tension add up during residency training, the drive to get things done, the temptation to fall into lockstep with the technologically-driven aspects of medicine and focus on processes, can all threaten your ability to maintain that core aspect of the physician-patient relationship that is so important to the patient and to the physician. It can also affect your life outside the confines of training and responsibilities. Maintaining a work-life balance and preserving your resiliency involves taking care of yourself—practicing self-care and making the space for your own personal growth even as you grow in experience, knowledge, and skill as an osteopathic physician. Plan for the time and space to develop and maintain your own healthy lifestyle and encourage it in your peers and in your work place. Maintain connections with friends, loved ones, and others who can provide encouragement and support when needed.

The coming years will change you as you develop skills, gain knowledge and understanding, and undergo experiences that will progressively build greater confidence and competency. But as you put in the hard work and long hours, as you experience both rewards and frustrations, please preserve your spark and your unique personality traits. Become the physician you wanted to become when you set out on this journey.