Oncology hospitalist: Listening is my favorite part of the job
Josiah Halm, M.D.
I used to think I was going to be a lawyer like my father. But in Ghana, the West African country where I grew up, education is modeled after the British system. So, if you do well academically, there’s not really much choice in terms of opportunity, particularly in the sciences.
In the sixth form — which is equivalent to the 11th and 12th grades here in the U.S. — you’re either doing the arts, which take you into business or law, or the sciences, which lead into engineering and medicine. You have to declare your interest kind of early. So, even though I loved the arts, I found myself doing medicine.
In residency, I trained as an internist, but for the last 13 years, I’ve been what’s called an oncology hospitalist (onco-hospitalist) at MD Anderson. That means my job is to take care of acutely ill cancer patients while they’re hospitalized.
Inpatient care is a new area of medicine
Taking care of patients while they’re confined to a hospital bed was just being birthed as its own area of oncology medicine at the time I was hired. Since then, onco-hospitalists have become a recognized subspecialty, and we have become a standalone department at MD Anderson. I feel so blessed to have been a part of its growth and development.
A lot of what MD Anderson’s onco-hospitalists do deals with care coordination, standardizing care and improving metrics. But ultimately, it’s all about improving the outcomes and experiences of our patients.
Taking over the care of our inpatients also frees up our colleagues in medical oncology, surgical oncology and radiation oncology to focus more on their outpatients. That means we can offer expedited care to more people and greater access to clinical trials.
The importance of feeling heard when you’re sick
Most people are admitted to our inpatient unit because they’ve been struggling with the side effects of cancer treatments, problems caused by the cancer itself, or other medical conditions. Usually, our goal is to get them well enough that they can resume treatment. But sometimes, we are there to transition them to the best supportive or hospice care available at the end of their lives.
Often, when someone is that ill, what patients tend to want most is just someone who’s willing to listen to them. Feeling heard is a significant part of the healing process. So, sitting down and listening to a patient can really help them process and accept what is happening to them.
That’s actually my favorite part of the job: listening. And that is especially true for patients who’ve been told that they have an incurable disease. Hearing what’s important to them and explaining my role in their care makes many patients feel better, regardless of their stage of cancer. Because most people who come to MD Anderson have very high expectations, so it’s important to listen and do our best to address their concerns, especially at the end of their lives. And taking the time to listen and show empathy demonstrates that I care.
Sometimes, when a patient or loved one is very ill, they entrust all their medical decisions to a good friend or family member. But the way I see it, my job is to empower patients with the information they need to make the best possible decisions for themselves. Because if the decisions are their own, they will be more at peace with them.