Vacations – Poker – Diagnostic and Research Skills

What’s the point of vacations?  As a consultant that’s something I often ask myself since with the internet, cell phones, etc., it seems almost impossible to really “get away” and not be connected to work.

So what’s the value of vacations?  I think I’ve found the answer at the poker table.  As Ricky Ricardo used to tell Lucy, “Lemme splain!”

The point of vacations is to recharge by being in a different environment that presents a new context for viewing our normal “reality.”  A great practitioner of this principle was Teddy Roosevelt.  He would travel to the wildest and most dangerous parts of the world, and hunt the largest of animals. After these experiences he probably came back to Washington DC and the political world, and said to himself, “Hey, this jungle and these animals really aren’t so bad or ferocious.”

As a consultant, I often find my vacations are pieced together days, (or pieces of days), that often include work “time-outs.”  For example during a recent 5 day trip to visit family in Seattle, aside from the many emails, I had two 8 am conference calls, and a 6 am telephone presentation.  Trips like this have forced me to schedule “vacation” time like I schedule exercise time – in 2-6 hour chunks.  The challenge is making these mini intra-day vacations count.

Which brings me to the poker table.  I had gone with some friends to play at a local casino a few months back, and we all had a good time.  I also found that while playing I could completely focus on the game, and not keep drifting back to ongoing work projects.  I later realized that this was a mini-vacation which provided a refreshing break from the work mindset – a cranial reset if you will.

But there is more to it than just a diversion, because a good movie provides that same 2 hours of alternative focus.  What the poker table provides is an intellectual and rather fast-paced set of interpersonal interactions.  This is when I realized the two connections between poker and clinical medicine:

First, playing cards for many years has helped me learn how to read people – an essential skill in poker, and very useful in clinical medicine where non-verbal communications are a big part of the clinician-patient relationship.  This is similar to teaching medical students about art as a way to improve their observational-diagnostic skills.

And second, while playing poker I get the most gratification not from winning a hand, but from tossing down a hand I had started to play but then decided was probably not going to win.  This latter “skill” is essential to playing good poker, and is also related to good diagnostic skills.  Lemme splain.

In clinical medicine, the diagnostic process starts with gathering the first round of information – by talking to the patient, reviewing their chart, and doing a physical exam.  (This is like looking at the first cards you are dealt.)  Then, as more testing and inquiry are done, you and the patient learn more about their medical problem.  (In poker this information comes in the additional cards in the hand.) And then, as the patient tries different treatments, even more is learned about their condition and how best to treat them.  (This is similar to what happens with the betting in poker – each bet tells you something about the other players and their cards.)

Thus, by seeing the cards as they are dealt and the other players’ bets, (and their responses to my bets), I learn about how my cards stack up against theirs.  And with this additional information I can make a better diagnosis – and decide whether or not my cards are likely to win.  By correctly folding my cards in the middle of a hand, I have in essence made the right diagnosis – which is the ultimate goal of any clinician.  It is an essential step for helping patients – and at the poker table, for limiting losses from that hand.  Conversely, winning or losing a hand – no matter how big the pot – doesn’t carry the same thrill since the intellectual options have been exhausted and all that’s left is to get ready for the next hand – or get back to work.

The clinical analogy to staying in until the end of the hand is that the patient has no more options; every test has been done and treatment considered, and either a treatable or controllable condition has been diagnosed – or not. Medical research strives to expand these options by providing patients and clinicians with more and better diagnostic tests and treatments.  Successful research gives patients the opportunity to draw more cards and play more hands.  And just to come full circle here, medical research is very much like poker in that the skill to correctly fold research spending on an experimental compound or diagnostic test is very valuable – hundreds of millions of dollars valuable.

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