How Health Care Teams Resemble Star Trek

Pohl by Susan Pohl

Each summer those of us in residency education experience a bittersweet time of transition.  Our seasoned third year residents graduate and begin their chosen career.  A new class of first year residents arrives and starts the residency educational cycle.  It is a busy time for faculty.  We spend hours orienting our new team members and additional hours with tearful goodbyes.  During this time, however, our clinical teams continue to provide medical care and our educational mission remains constant. 

                How do we maintain our focus?  How do our clinic, hospital, and quality improvement teams function during this time?  Our teams function best by focusing on our story.

                I grew up reading science fiction and watching the original Star Trek reruns.  As I grew older, the Star Trek episodes transformed into blockbuster movies and a more modern television series.    As I think back to this long running series, I realize that it shares many of the attributes of great adventure tales.  Most fantasy and adventure stories involve groups of people exploring, learning, or discovering new things.  You could say that science fiction and fantasy epics like Star Trek, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones share some similarities with other mainstream fiction like the novel Little Women or the long running comedy Friends.   Each of these series have common elements that grab our attention.  In each case, individual characters are very unique.  The characters have humorous or flawed character traits.  Each character also has wonderful strengths.  The group of characters seems to function well: a team that is more skilled than its individual members.  These casts form teams of characters that communicate well and respect each other.  There is always tension, humor, and drama within each episode, but watching the team interact is intriguing.  (The poor redshirted team member on the original Star Trek exploration team always meets an untimely death, but, we’ll ignore that small detail.)  The characters become familiar, and the group interaction keeps us returning for a new chapter, a new episode, or a new book.

                As we welcome our new residents each summer, I am reminded that we are writing our own adventure story.  I look forward to learning about the unique characteristics of each of our residents.  I know we will have drama, humor, and challenge.  Each clinic, hospital, or quality improvement team will eventually find its own harmony.  The truly great teams will communicate well and respect each other.  We will see magic and poetry in motion as they function better together than each individual could alone.  It is this anticipation that makes me eager to watch our residency thrive and grow.  Just as I became enthralled and somewhat addicted to science fiction novels as a teenager, I have become enthralled with writing my role in the cast of our new adventure story each year.   My hope for each resident is that they see our crew function well together.  I hope they each can write their own individual role into this ongoing epic.  They are part of a unique team that functions best when we each write our roles carefully and respect our unique partners in this adventure.   (Fortunately, we haven’t lost any red-shirted crew members on interplanetary clinic missions……. Yet!)

Susan Pohl, MD is an Assistant Professor in the University of Utah Family Medicine Residency Program. Her research interests include how health care teams function.

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