Slow Down to Speed Up

Written by Dr. Shelly Agarwal, gynecologic surgeon and first-time missioner

Production. This word has become the driving force for most physicians. See more, bill more, chart more, work more. I remember a few years ago, when my practice really started picking up and I was feeling the weight of the constant pursuit of increased numbers, a friend told me I  should really try to “slow down to speed up”. Naturally, I didn’t completely absorb the advice—“yeah yeah, I’ll try that, you don’t really get it but ok, thanks good advice”—but it nestled itself somewhere in my brain. 

Dr. Shelly and her interpreter Dr. Denise take a quick snack break, enjoying a Bolivian salteña.

Dr. Shelly and her interpreter Dr. Denise take a quick snack break, enjoying a Bolivian salteña.

This week, I had the opportunity to spend some time working in Cliza, Bolivia. For the first time in my career, the emphasis wasn’t only on production. My focus shifted. Everyone was working hard, but at a completely different pace. The hospital provided a snack every day at 10 am!  Can you imagine? Taking 10 mins out of the day to make sure you’re well fed. 

I found myself getting antsy. I am not fluent in Spanish and everything seemed to take twice as long because it had to be translated. I couldn’t chart or write orders either. I was completely dependent on the 2 people helping me, and whatever speed they chose to work. As someone who is used to double and triple booking herself, this slower pace seemed so inefficient and I wanted to see as many people as I could. 

On my second day in their office, I decided to try something different. I slowed myself down. I stopped counting charts and pressuring us to hurry up. All of a sudden 3 hours went by and we had seen 12 or so people. Not too bad! I didn’t feel rushed, my team wasn’t getting frustrated and I took time to work with Dr. Espinosa, my Bolivian counterpart,  and develop a camaraderie with her—a large objective and purpose for this trip. 

This experience gave me a lot. Besides the personal challenge of working in a new environment—a foreign language, limited supplies, patient expectations different than what we realistically could provide—it also showed me what a change in perspective can really accomplish. I stopped seeing charts as numbers and started seeing them as women that traveled far (very far) to be seen and to be helped. I took time to ask about their lives and families and what challenges they may experience with executing our treatment plan. 

The advice to slow down to speed up can benefit all of us, physicians or not. How often do I feel overwhelmed by a list of things I need to get done? Now, I set an alarm for 10 minutes and say “stop thinking about it, just work for 10 mins and see what you can get done” and it’s amazing how much I can actually finish. I will use this new mindset, instead of feeling frustrated or anxious, I will just start tackling everything one by one, with a clear mind , a touch of ingenuity and a game plan.