Hassan A. Tetteh, M.D., United States Navy Chief Medical Informatics Officer, has developed a powerful, optimistic, and inspiring philosophy forged by a life of tragedy and triumph. A renowned Board-Certified heart and lung transplant surgeon, and bestselling author, he’s a keynote speaker at the Telemed Leadership Forum 2019 next April. Dr. Tetteh is an Associate Professor of Surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, adjunct faculty at Howard University College of Medicine, and served as Division Lead for Futures and Innovation at Navy Medicine’s Headquarters, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. He spoke with The URAC Report in late October.
The centerpiece of your work is a program called Catch the Passion https://vimeo.com/270735907 . Can you elaborate on it?
Sure. That is a result of a several year project of mine which stems from talking to my colleagues, interacting with medical students and residents, and observing in my own way, that the passion for why folks go into medicine quickly dissipates over the years. Perhaps in my later years here of practice I've recognized that that has happened at an accelerated pace, and I think it's multifactorial, but I think it has to do with the increased regulation, less autonomy, and the de-professionalization of medicine and healthcare, if you will.
I think also that when many of us have gone into the profession, we had a little bit more of an altruistic view of what it meant to be a healer, to be a professional healthcare provider, etc. Over time, that naturally may dissipate. So, what I've been doing over the last few years is sharing some stories and observations with my colleagues and my friends in medicine that help to bring back that passion. Give them a perspective, perhaps that is often lost in the day-to-day practice, that hopefully inspires and brings back some of those early feelings and inspirational thoughts we had when we first went into the practice. I call it “catching the passion.”
You nearly died as a young man. I imagine that’s contributed to your perspective on life?
Yes, prior to becoming a physician, I experienced a very traumatic life experience. [I almost died] of bacterial meningitis. I think that event probably more than any other event shaped the trajectory of what would happen after.
What I mean by that is that it was a time when I was old enough to understand a little bit about the world, but not too old that most of my life had already passed. I was a junior in college, and I had just returned from interviewing for medical schools. Early decision, as a matter of fact, at Johns Hopkins, which at that time probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I was on my way to becoming a doctor. I was really excited that I interviewed at Johns Hopkins and was really looking forward to the life ahead. When I returned from that interview, I became deathly ill. Thanks to an intervention by some of my fraternity brothers at the time, I was taken to the hospital literally just in the nick of time to be treated appropriately and ultimately survived what should have been a lethal infection.
From that moment, being a patient and having that experience of almost dying and the trauma of that, I think it gave me a unique perspective in terms of how I would ultimately take care of patients. I guess what it did first and foremost was that it gave me a unique capacity to have an empathy that I've carried on now for a couple decades that I've been practicing. It's been reinforced with several other experiences which continually just inform that perspective. Among those have been joining the military, deploying and taking care of our service men and women, not only on a ship but particularly in a battlefield. Seeing young lives cut down and then ultimately restored with some of the work of our healthcare professionals inspires me.
[Editor’s note: Dr. Tetteh served as Ship’s Surgeon and Director of Surgical Services for the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) battle group in support of OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM in 2005. In 2011, he deployed as a trauma surgeon to Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimroz provinces in support of OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM with II Marine Expeditionary Forces and most recently supported special JOINT FORCES MISSIONS to South America, the Middle East, the South Pacific, Australia, and Africa.]
You also have a long-range perspective when it comes to telehealth. Talk about how you plan to share some of that insight during your presentation at the Telemed Leadership Forum 2019.
Yes, I call it "Accelerate 1924.” I include a picture of Radio News Magazine from 1924. On the cover there's a cartoon picture of a patient seeing a doctor on a radio-like device with a stethoscope. When people talk about, "oh telemedicine is this brand-new innovation that's going to revolutionize healthcare...no one's thought about it before." I think to myself, "well, that's not, in fact, true. You know, they had thoughts of that in 1924.”
[Telehealth is] not a new invention, per se, but what makes telemedicine have a lot more potential now is that obviously we do have some of the other things that can be uniquely put together to bring an experience to a patient that is unique and unlike anything they could have experienced in 1924, and probably make it a lot more viable an idea.
Some people say that telehealth takes away from the patient/provider relationship. Can you talk about empathy and individual connections in terms of practicing telehealth?
Whether the patient encounter is through telehealth or physically in person, listening is paramount, and how you communicate is essential. Communication is the cornerstone of any relationship. Listen carefully to your patient so that you fully understand their needs. In this context, when you listen and interact with care, sincerity, and empathy you embody the words of Maya Angelou and, "people will never forget how you made them feel".
What's your hope that the takeaway will from your keynote session?
My hope is that they will be inspired. I think that making connections is really important. Not only when you make individual connections, [but when] you develop relationships with people. I think there's a unique opportunity for folks to grow in their station in life when they make a connection with someone, have a shared experience, share some ideas and collaborate, but also making connections with the things that are already available to us.
I'm hoping that when people listen to my perspectives and I share some of the stories that I've come to experience over the course of my life, and observations that I've made, that they, too, will find similar connections or make similar connections moving forward that not only enhance their own individual lives, but also bring to life the work that they're doing and make things better for people moving forward.