I graduated from college with a degree in Economics. This is where I came across the term, ‘externalities’. The official meaning of this is the cost or benefit a third party receives from an activity. For example, a negative externality of alcohol use is increased motor vehicle collisions as a result of impaired driving. For the purposes of this post, I see it as an unintended, uncontrollable consequence.
As I’ve mentioned I recently began shadowing physicians in the clinic, beginning my long journey to managing patients again. I usually follow with an Attending Physician, a physician that has already completed residency, but sometimes I will follow a senior level resident. Last week, I had the privilege of being matched up with a resident by the name of Abigail Urish (or Abbie). I met Abbie when she was an eager, bright-eyed intern. She is now a third year resident, elected chief, and ready to embark on her own in only a few short months. I have always admired her, not only for her obvious high intelligence and willingness to learn, but also for her optimistic disposition, finding the light in the dimmest of situations.
We entered the room for a patient encounter together. There are times when the moment you enter the patient’s room, you can sense that something’s amiss. Perhaps it is the look in the patient’s eyes, or maybe it is from the way they are sitting, or possibly a combination of factors, but when we entered her room both Abbie and I could sense her depressed mood.
I know I have written on the topic of depression several times before, but what Abbie told her was very poignant and struck a chord with me. During the encounter, the patient told us of several of the hardships she was enduring (i.e. loss of custody, a dispute with her child). Abbie was then faced with the daunting task of describing depression in less than the 15 minutes allotted for each visit. Abbie told her that, “Depression is a hard entity to treat, because unlike so much else in medicine, with Depression there are no blood tests or x-rays we can obtain to aid us in diagnosis. Also, response to treatment is so variable and really depends on the individual patient. My thought is that Depression is very much related to how we react or internalize external situations. There are some who face incredible hardships, yet are able to see the silver lining in any situation. You just told me about some very hard events in your life, but you also mentioned some bright happenings too. Unfortunately, someone who suffers from Depression zeroes in on the bad or tough situations. Just to give you an example, if someone takes a test with 100 questions and gets 99 out of 100 right, a depressed person will only remember the one question they missed as opposed to the 99 they got correct. The medications and therapies we prescribe can only serve to help with this outlook. We can’t control much of what happens to us, but what we can change is how we react.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how right Abbie was. We as a society are obsessed with trying to control or modify situations that are thought of as immutable. Examples of this are littered throughout medicine: risk factors for developing a disease are generally divided into modifiable and non-modifiable risks. The idea of attempting to alter these modifiable risk factors is drilled into our heads from the first day of medical school. I am by no means saying that these external, changeable factors should be ignored. For example, stopping someone’s smoking habit can have repercussions throughout their life. But I believe that too much of our focus is placed on factors beyond our control. All of us receive a ‘raw deal’ at some point in our lives, and while we cannot control many of these situations, we can change how we face these challenges.