The Greek philosopher Plato is often quoted as saying, “All learning comes from an emotional base.” Regardless of whether he actually said it, the line deftly captures the essence of “emotional intelligence”— a concept that has steadily gained traction in the business world since it was first put forward in 1990.
Emotional intelligence is arguably more important in health care than in any other field. As the Institute of Medicine noted in a 2001 report, “Stable, trusting relationships between a patient and the people providing care can be critical to healing or managing an illness.”
It’s an approach that Taison Bell, MD, chief resident at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, practices himself and strives to instill in his residents.
“Forming a human connection with patients and their families is fundamental to providing good care,” says Bell, 31, an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP). “Putting the patient and family forward makes it a much better experience than it otherwise might be.”
He adds, “I look at it as an opportunity to alter that patient’s life trajectory.”
Permission to Succeed
Bell’s own life trajectory could have been very different from its present course.
Born in Boston, he was sent by his parents to be raised by his grandmother in Lynchburg, Va., believing it was better for him to grow up there than in inner-city Boston.
As a child, Bell dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I had terrible asthma when I was small, so I spent a lot of time at the hospital,” he says. “The pediatrician gave me his stethoscope and took me around to see patients, and the staff called me ‘Dr. Bell.’ I decided I wanted to be Dr. Bell for real.”
Somewhere on the road to high school, however, he cast that dream aside. “When you don’t see people who look like you working as physicians, you assume it’s beyond your reach,” he explains. “In my neighborhood, the markers of success were things like big cars and nice houses — and the people who had those things were involved in crime.”
He knew he was capable of making excellent grades, but Bell brought home mostly C’s and D’s through his freshman and sophomore years. “I wanted to be cool with my friends and fit in,” he says. “My vision of success did not involve going to college and graduate school, and having that kind of life.”
In 11th grade, Holly Frazier, Bell’s American civics teacher, sat him down and raised a series of transformative questions.
“She said, ‘What’s your dream?’ and I wasn’t able to answer,” he recalls. “I finally remembered I wanted to be a doctor when I was a little kid, and then she asked, ‘What’s stopping you?’”
Frazier put Bell on notice: she expected straight A’s for the remainder of his high school years, and he was going to become a physician. Bell embraced the challenge, producing all A’s and one B in his final two years of high school.
“When someone takes a personal interest in you and says, ‘You’re better than this, your dreams are valid,’ that’s a powerful thing,” he says. The human connection set the stage for much of his life and career: “She gave me permission to change my idea of success.”
Cultural Differences, Common Goal
His dream rekindled, Bell got a scholarship to the University of Virginia (UVA) on the strength of his personal story and Frazier’s recommendation. Despite his spotty academic record, “UVA took a chance on me,” he says.
Arriving on campus, he found that, despite there being a sizeable Black and Latino community there, he didn’t quite fit in.
“The divide was more economic than racial or ethnic,” Bell explains, noting that his upbringing was long on spirit and determination, but short on money. “My grandmother managed to feed and clothe us on about $12,000 a year. I didn’t realize we were poor until I got to UVA and was one of the poorest students on campus.”
He adds, “I wasn’t used to seeing African Americans live a middle-class life. There was similarity in the sense that we shared a common culture and ancestry, but we really were different people.”
Bell also discovered he wasn’t prepared for the academic workload. Taking advantage of the university’s robust mentoring system and tutoring program, he upped his studying game, and later paid that wealth of support forward by tutoring pre-med students and underclassmen. It was thanks to one of his peer mentors that he heard about MMEP.
“It sounded great — the chance to go to a medical school campus and be immersed in those classes,” he remembers. “The fact that MMEP paid for housing and meals made a huge difference, too. Everything was taken care of, so all you had to do was be a student and learn.”
At the Columbia University site — which he chose, he says, because “I wanted to be a part of New York City, this abstract, mythological creature” — Bell was electrified by the presence of so many others who shared his dream.
“It was the largest concentrated group of underrepresented populations I had ever been around,” he marvels. “All of us, despite our cultural differences and upbringings, shared a common goal. That was inspiring.”
The summer session offered Bell a scaled-down version of Columbia’s first-year medical school curriculum, along with the skill set and confidence to believe he could succeed at the real thing. He had the opportunity to test that belief when he was accepted two years later to the university’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (Columbia P&S).
“I can say without reservation
that MMEP made me a better student,
a better person, and a better physician.”
“My MMEP experience certainly made a difference in my acceptance to Columbia,” he says. Once there, he became involved with the school’s office of diversity and returned to the program [by then renamed SMDEP] as an instructor.
Using the example of his own life, Bell notes that the program has exponential impact. “Each person you help achieve that dream of becoming a physician is one more person in the workforce who can mentor someone else to do it,” he explains.
“I can say without reservation that MMEP made me a better student, a better person, and a better physician.
After medical school, Bell sought to serve his residency in Boston. He feels fortunate to have landed at Massachusetts General Hospital, whose commitment to diversity and leadership matched his own. The move to Boston was also a chance to connect with his parents in a new way, after years of summer and school break visits.
At the end of his residency, Bell was named chief resident — an achievement he calls “humbling.” Reflecting on his selection, he says, “I think what they saw in me was a way to connect with other residents and patients, and my commitment to mentoring.”
Before he could step into the chief resident’s shoes, however, he had a year of fellowship training in infectious diseases. He will complete his chief year in June, followed by a second fellowship year. Once that’s behind him, he intends to become an intensivist, a specialist in the treatment of patients in intensive care.
He was drawn to the field after serving in an ICU during the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic, where issues of life and death, fear, and sorrow were omnipresent. “I felt in the ICU that with the stakes so high, my ability to form a connection with the patient or family made a difference to them,” says Bell.
He adds, “At an enormously important time in someone’s life, a physician has the chance to affect care in a positive way.”
Looking ahead, Bell envisions reframing the concept of diversity—from “diversity for its own sake” to “diversity makes our institution better.” He believes there’s a crucial role in that evolution for SMDEP.
“The program transforms lives in a positive way. It’s a game changer. Even the people who go through it and don’t become physicians or dentists benefit from it,” he says. “A program like SMDEP needs to be much bigger and much more expansive.”
“We need more underrepresented minority leaders in all aspects of health care delivery and scientific discovery,” Bell concludes. “I think the more diverse we are—and the more connected we are—the better we are.”