See, Hear, Feel

EP73: Dr. Peter Whang on emotional intelligence

August 02, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD Season 1 Episode 73
See, Hear, Feel
EP73: Dr. Peter Whang on emotional intelligence
Show Notes Transcript

A lot of the topics that are covered in this podcast are things that I never learned in medical school or training, and yet concepts that I think are very useful as a physician, mother, and person. Dr. Whang listens in every week, and as a surgeon, the concept that he has found most useful is emotional intelligence - that emotions can be used as a source of strength. Dr. Whang agrees with me that the podcast topics are universal enough for physicians of different specialties that, for the first time ever, listening to this episode and reflecting on the ideas can earn you CME. This CME experience is powered by CMEfy – an AI-powered platform that directs learners along a pathway to capture reflections at the point of inspiration, point of care. Clinicians may earn CME/CE credit via ReflectCE, the accredited activity portal. click here to reflect and earn credits: Learn more at Dr. Peter Whang, MD is an Associate Professor in the Yale Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. He attended Harvard University for his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and Duke University School of Medicine. We first met during our internships at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Dr. Whang also completed his residency in Orthopaedic Surgery. We actually shared a patient named Mrs. Hip, who had broken her hip. He completed fellowship in neurosurgical spinal surgery at the Rothman Institute at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. 

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today I am with Dr. Peter Whang. Dr. Peter Whang is an Associate Professor in the Yale Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. He attended Harvard University for his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and Duke University School of Medicine. We first met during our internships at the University of California Los Angeles, where Dr. Whang also completed his residency in orthopaedic surgery. We actually shared a patient named Mrs. Hip, who had broken her hip. He completed fellowship in neurosurgical spinal surgery at the Rothman Institute at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In full disclosure, for those listeners who don't know, Dr. Whang is my husband and listens to this podcast every week. Welcome to Peter. 

[00:00:46] Peter Whang: Thank you for the invitation. I've seen how hard you work on this podcast, so it's finally nice to get an invitation myself. 

[00:00:53] Christine Ko: I would've invited you sooner. I didn't know you wanted to be a guest. 

[00:00:56] Peter Whang: I've enjoyed the podcast every week, and I'm not sure if I have the same level of expertise as some of the other speakers, but I'm glad to be on.

[00:01:04] Christine Ko: First off, would you share a personal anecdote about yourself? 

[00:01:09] Peter Whang: One theme of the podcast is medicine and perhaps how we can learn how to be better as physicians but also people. I don't believe you've had many surgeons on the podcast yet, but when we trained, there weren't things like work hour restrictions, and there wasn't as much emphasis on mental health. So in many cases, particularly surgeons, I think our limits were tested. I think the longest I ever spent in the hospital was a Monday morning from 6:00 AM to a Wednesday evening about 10:00 PM. You were obviously witness to a lot of this where I would be operating all night and working the next day, or I would be on call and just get inundated with calls. That obviously shapes us as clinicians. It raises the question, is this the best way to train surgeons/ physicians? And perhaps, is this the best way to treat other human beings? Listening to your podcast has really made me think about the way we are as surgeons and how we're training the next generation of practitioners.

[00:02:07] Christine Ko: Yeah. Have you come to any conclusions? 

[00:02:11] Peter Whang: It's a lot different environment now. There are work are restrictions and other measures to try to be a bit more humane to residents. For the most part, they are probably good for people as a whole. But I think the real question is whether we are training practitioners as well as we were in the past, a question that many of my peers have as well. I don't think I necessarily know the answer to that, but certainly when we talk about things like mental health, emotional intelligence, the way practitioners are trained these days definitely plays an important role in that.

[00:02:43] Christine Ko: Had you thought about or heard of emotional intelligence before listening to the podcast? 

[00:02:50] Peter Whang: I've heard terms like metacognition and emotional intelligence, particularly recently, but I don't think I really fully understood it. It's been very interesting to hear the perspective of some of these experts who can really talk about these concepts, particularly as it relates to medicine. 

[00:03:06] Christine Ko: What do you really think of the podcast? I know you listen to other ones that have a lot more production help than me, like Bill Simmons.

[00:03:15] Peter Whang: Some of the medical content may not be as applicable to my own practice. You've had pathologists and dermatologists on. That may not be as relevant to my own medical experience, but I found that a lot of these concepts are more universal than I may have initially thought. Particularly not only as being a physician, but just as a person who's always trying to get better. These concepts, what really interests me, is that it's not only just relevant to me as a surgeon but also good skills to learn, as a human being.

[00:03:44] Christine Ko: These concepts of emotional intelligence, deliberate practice, growth mindset, metacognition. For our purposes as physicians, awareness of these concepts can really help us as physicians and also just as human beings. I agree with you. What is something that you have learned from listening?

[00:04:02] Peter Whang: All the discussion about emotional intelligence. Particularly as a surgeon, that's not necessarily something we emphasized in training or even in my practice. Both of us would agree that as we get older, as we have families, sometimes our priorities change. These are concepts that are not only important as physicians but also as human beings. What was most important to me to learn more about is how to use our emotions to become better. 

[00:04:26] Christine Ko: Can you think of an example of how you have used emotional intelligence? 

[00:04:32] Peter Whang: We all have our blind spots and certainly you more than anyone knows my personality and, certain strengths and weaknesses. Trying to embrace the concept of emotional awareness, using emotions to be a strength in my life rather than a weakness. That's, really been helpful not only as a physician dealing with patients, but also again, in my relationships with you and other people in my life.

[00:04:56] Christine Ko: Can you give a specific example? 

[00:04:59] Peter Whang: These concepts have certainly helped me to connect better with my patients. Particularly, with electronic medical records, oftentimes we are looking at the computer, we might be listening but not really making connection with our patients. This was particularly true during COVID. To connect more with patients, to make that emotional bond even if we only have a few minutes together. Patients respond well to it, and they have a better experience as well. 

[00:05:23] Christine Ko: What have you modified to be able to connect better? Is there a certain thing that you do?

[00:05:29] Peter Whang: Eye contact is important, particularly when oftentimes we are looking at x-rays, looking at labs, writing notes on our computers. Try to figure out patients' eye color. I found that to be very helpful. That has really made a difference in terms of my connection with my patients. I don't feel like I'm really doing much differently in terms of spending more time with them or interacting with them any differently. Being able to make that connection using eye color makes the time a bit more fruitful. 

[00:05:56] Christine Ko: Yeah, I was thinking that I was making eye contact, but I would come out of the room and I wouldn't be able to say what color my patient's eyes were. I decided to consciously note what color the eyes are to make sure that I've made eye contact. That helped me really make eye contact more habitual.

[00:06:17] Peter Whang: Especially now that many of us are not wearing masks, being able to make a connection is so much easier. During the pandemic, whether it was masking or just telehealth, I think a lot of connection was lacking. So that's, something I really appreciate now, that we are able to have this face-to-face time with our patients.

[00:06:33] Christine Ko: There's a lot of pressure in the operating room, things need to get done immediately. Have you been able to use emotional intelligence in any way in the OR?

[00:06:45] Peter Whang: I think it's really challenging. They say your true person comes out on the golf course and in the operating room. Sometimes it's hard to be rational because there is a lot of pressure, a lot of unexpected events can occur. That's definitely been a challenge to be able to translate these concepts to a more high pressure situation like that. Certainly in clinic, it's maybe a little bit easier, it's a bit more of a controlled environment. That's something that I can still work on moving forward.

[00:07:10] Christine Ko: You're very calm and controlled for the most part.

[00:07:14] Peter Whang: That begs the question whether in the operating room you even want emotions to take hold because you're doing a very technical procedure. The role of emotions in the operating room is an interesting concept. Maybe it's better to be more robotic, cool and collected, and just do the procedure. If anything, I would say that emotions sometimes can be detrimental in the operating room.

[00:07:34] Christine Ko: That's true even in life, right? You don't wanna have uncontrolled emotions, but there's research on suppressing emotions that when we suppress our emotions, we are using energy to suppress them. So we are not as able to focus or use our energies elsewhere. To a certain extent, if there are intense emotions, it probably does equally also take a lot of energy to suppress those, and maybe that wouldn't be good for concentrating on the task at hand? 

[00:08:09] Peter Whang: As a surgeon you learn to be good at compartmentalizing things. If there's something going on in your life that is distracting, you wanna make sure that doesn't affect you in the operating room. But, again, I think, as a human being, sometimes compartmentalization isn't necessarily good. And I think that's one thing that's been really interesting is that there are ways to use your emotions to strengthen certain aspects of your life. It's practical for me as a person, not only as a surgeon. 

[00:08:34] Christine Ko: What do you mean by that? You use your emotions to strengthen? 

[00:08:37] Peter Whang: Emotions are very powerful and I think being able to harness them and use them to your benefit is a real strength. If you can do that, I think it's a real tool, not only as a physician or surgeon, but also as a person. On the flip side, obviously emotions can be very detrimental as well. And I think it's been very interesting to hear how emotions can really have so much power, not only in medicine, in life in general.

[00:09:02] Christine Ko: Yeah. It's hard to have a good balance of emotion, to use them well versus have them affect you adversely. 

[00:09:09] Peter Whang: Like anything in life, you have to practice, and a lot of these things don't come naturally, certainly not to me. Just like any other skill we do as physicians, it's something that we have to learn, we have to practice. It's something that isn't necessarily gonna come naturally. And it certainly hasn't come naturally to me, but, again, I do recognize the value in it.

[00:09:27] Christine Ko: Yeah, I talked about this with my sister as well, that Korean culture, the culture that I grew up in, really didn't emphasize emotions at all. So there wasn't great emotional intelligence built into how I grew up. And the medical culture in general that I trained in was really more to be detached as a physician. To really express any emotion, even in a controlled, empathic way wasn't really emphasized in my training. So I feel like I grew up in family life when I was younger, and then also in training for medical school and residency, to just not really think that emotions were all that important. 

[00:10:08] Peter Whang: I think that's a sign of the times. Growing up when we did, I think society as a whole wasn't necessarily as open to a lot of these concepts. When we trained, things like mental health, even bedside manner, were not necessarily emphasized. It was all about learning and getting tough. Seeing the way that residents are trained now, it's really like night and day. At the end of the day, I probably would say it's a bit more humane the way they're trained now than the way we were treated.

[00:10:31] Christine Ko: Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:10:34] Peter Whang: I've really enjoyed the podcast. I think these are very important concepts. I think they are applicable beyond medicine.

[00:10:41] Christine Ko: Thanks for doing this. 

[00:10:43] Peter Whang: My pleasure. Anytime. Maybe I can come back again.