By Alisa Kim
Can health care be delivered more thoughtfully, with doctors afforded the time to engage problems deeply and nurture relationships with patients instead of scrambling to clear a backlog of cases? Dr. Brandon Tang thinks such a change is possible.
A graduate of the System Leadership and Innovation program at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME), Tang is passionate about quality improvement in medicine. He says his training at IHPME fostered a “big picture” perspective on health care. “In medical school you learn how to look after individual patients, but the System Leadership and Innovation program put in the back of my brain, how can you design a system that allows for excellent patient care? Having this parallel angle has affected how I think and view my role as a doctor,” he says.
Tang, who graduated from the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at U of T in 2018, is completing his residency in general internal medicine. The narrow focus and high intensity of his clinical work inspired him to again seek a broader view of the health system and develop his leadership skills. In the fall of 2020, Tang enrolled in Vernissage Health, a program out of IHPME that focuses on the inner work of leadership in health care. Here, emerging health care leaders learn from established health leaders through a series of dialogue sessions. “I got to hear all these amazing stories from people more senior and experienced than me. They gave me an idea of what the road ahead might entail. The chance to get to know them one-on-one and find new mentors was really valuable,” he says.
During one session, Tang shared a leadership challenge he was wrestling with: the sense that the hospital was feeling increasingly like a factory. He spoke about the need for a different approach to health care based on a principle called “deep work.” Coined by Dr. Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University in the U.S., deep work refers to the ability to focus without distraction on a mentally demanding task. Applied to the world of medicine, deep work means “slowing down to process what’s going on,” says Tang. “From a provider’s perspective, it is taking the time to build the relationship and think deeply about what’s going on with your patients. Patients who receive deep work don’t feel like they’re on an assembly line. They feel cared for and listened to.”
His sentiments resonated with his mentors at Vernissage Health, who encouraged Tang to turn a challenge into an opportunity and share his ideas. He took their feedback to heart and was accepted to give a TEDx talk, which he titled “Healing Assembly Line Medicine.”
Suggestions Tang has for facilitating deep work in medicine include reducing doctors’ administrative tasks and integrating process improvement into the work culture of care providers. “As someone relatively junior on the frontline, I hear amazing ideas during proverbial ‘watercooler’ conversations. Capturing the voice of frontline providers, scaling them up and creating a system that’s nimble enough that you could try out all these different ideas is how we could build in deep work,” says Tang, who recently received a 2021 Canadian Medical Association Award for Young Leaders.
He will address the issue of physician burnout in a panel discussion in a webinar hosted by Vernissage Health on October 20, 2021. The webinar, titled “Beyond Heroes: Building Supportive Work Cultures in Health Care,” will examine how to build healthier environments for providers and patients post-pandemic.
Looking ahead, Tang says his goal is to weave his interests in medical education and improving patient care throughout his career. “The perfect ecosystem for me to work in is academic medicine in a clinical teaching unit where there are trainees, interprofessional care providers and senior physicians, where everyone is always learning and providing patient care in tandem. I’m passionate about how we can align the training of future generations of doctors with ongoing quality improvement.”