Q&A with Dr. Mitchell Abrams, physician, musician, and educator

June 19, 2019 Dr. Mitchell Abrams

How one radiologist unexpectedly got a unique perspective on the world of healthcare—and has made it his mission to help others see it, too 

You’ve had a unique journey through western healthcare. How did you end up a Physician?

“I was always interested in science, from a very early age. My grandfather – who died before I was born – was a scientist. I didn’t know him, but just knowing what he did, what he was connected to, that was enough to draw me towards the sciences. When I got older, I came to a fork in the road that some of your readers may be familiar with: I could either go into the world of academia – focus on research – or become a doctor. The idea of having to write and publish all the time  just didn’t appeal to me. I liked people, I liked interaction, so I chose the latter path.”

How did you end up choosing radiology? Was it a specialty that you were always interested in?

“I didn’t choose radiology at first —I thought I was going to be a Urologist. I imagined myself as a surgeon. Ironically, very early on, someone told me I should consider radiology. But I had visions of being stuck in a dark room all day. During med school I found myself doing research with a urologist and through that experience, I met and became close friends with the urology residents.  I learned about the field through them and decided to continue along this path. When CaRMS came around, I had to write about why I selected urology…and I couldn’t think of an answer - I couldn’t convince myself that I should dedicate my life to that field. At the same time, I was in a radiology elective – my first deep exposure to radiology. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. I’d always loved physics and technology, and radiology was rooted in both of these worlds. I was also drawn to radiology’s breadth of practice. Most specialities have a relatively narrow scope of practice requiring deeply focused knowledge. In radiology, I really enjoy the wide scope of knowledge required in order to communicate with practically every specialist, at their level. I love that variety. When it comes to choosing a specialty, you just never know where you’ll end up—you have to keep an open mind. There are some areas of medicine that are like a black box, you get no exposure to them, and those places, very likely, might be where you belong.”

When did everything change for you?

“Following my fellowship, in my first year of practice, I discovered that I needed open heart surgery. I was diagnosed with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy and required surgery - a myomectomy.  As a patient, I saw healthcare from a very different perspective— I gained a new understanding about our model of care. I became acutely aware of the limited scope in which we study medicine. We focused primarily on the biomedical model and pay minimal attention to the mental aspects of one’s health.  We as health practitioners provide care using a narrow definition of what it means to be healthy.  In addition to that, I was astonished to see the state of health of those treating me. I witnessed the burden hospital staff had to carry - they were burned out. I felt their fatigue and began to appreciate their suffering - I was experiencing the underbelly of healthcare. These are all the things you don’t see as a doctor, only as a patient. The whole experience booted me off the hamster wheel and forced me to contemplate life and my role as a health practitioner.”

Dr. Mitch Abrams speaking on the convergence of science and spiritually; Toronto Conference, 2019.

How did that change your perspective when you came back?

“About a year after my surgery, I took on the role as department chief. I had to oversee staff and make big decisions. I found it so ironic, after experiencing medicine from the bottom up, I was now seeing it from the top down. After experiencing healthcare from every angle, I realized how antiquated our approach is - the current status of healthcare is very concerning.  I wanted to help.  I was convinced there was a better way.  I looked for solutions outside the box and began travelling to India in search of a more holistic approach to medicine. I met and began studying with Swamis, highly trained spiritual practitioners learned in the field of the spiritual sciences.  I began connecting with spiritual communities, learning how they approached health and wellness from a more wholistic perspective - a mind body spiritual context.”

What surprised you the most?

“All of the spiritual practitioners I studied with had a deep and profound background in physics and mathematics; many had graduate level physics degrees. At first I was bewildered but eventually began to appreciate the fundamental truth that ‘everything is energy: light, gravity, matter—even your thoughts—your consciousness. The more you come to understand energy and accept that, the more you can use energy (and your consciousness) as a tool for health and wellness.’ As a radiologist, this type of learning truly resonated with me as my entire speciality isbased on the application of energy. A CAT scan sends invisible fields of energy through the human body, which itself is made of atoms of energy, allowing us to slice the human body like a loaf of bread and examine every slice. Unlike cutting open a body with a scalpel—this is the interaction of two forms of energy. Understanding this was a real turning point for me.  This type of profound and simultaneously simple perspective on healthcare, is not adequately recognized and incorporated in our model of care.”

How does that translate into solutions for the antiquated approach to physician health and patient care?

“Simply put, we need healthy practitioners to have healthy patients. And right now, the rates of suicide and drug addiction among medical professionals are greater than the communities we’re serving. The Canadian Medical Association Journal reported rates of suicide among male and female physicians 40% and 50% greater than the communities they serve, respectively. This reality can only be addressed  by focusing on the corporate culture of the medical system, and providing all hospital employees with the tools to acquire the coping skills necessary to survive this stressful model. As health providers learn to open themselves up to a higher level of optimal health, physically, mentally and spiritually, they will connect with their patients on a deeper level. Rather than delivering care aimed strictly at addressing the physical body, they become more apt to deliver care that also considers the patient's mental and spiritual health. By educating health providers and providing them with powerful mental exercises, through their own personal growth, they will be better equipped to help their patients and communities.”

How have you found ways to connect?

“Around the time I had my surgery, I picked up a guitar and started to learn. I had never played prior to that time, so my introduction to music occurred hand-in-hand with my new perspective of the health care system. Music was key in helping me tap into my true self, opening an expansive space where I could more deeply connect with myself and others without judgement. Through music, I found meditation, and once I added it to my life, I immediately recognized its power and realized it was a key tenet missing in our model of care. Meditation is a very powerful tool - a ‘social technology’ that cultivates connections between people and is profoundly useful in accessing a healthy body, happy mind and an awakened spirit. Ultimately, it’s about opening your heart and mind and being truly available and present for others.  It allows for a deeper connection to other people's perspectives and provides you with the calm and clarity required to more effectively share yours. This needs to happen between doctors and their peers just as much as between doctors and their patients. How connected you feel to yourself and others greatly influences the way you affect the world and those around you.”  

Radiology Department, Cambridge Memorial Hospital. Medicinal Mandala Gallery as part of NexGenHealth’s staff wellness pilot program.

How do you convince a bunch of practically-minded doctors that ideas like these, matter? 

“The swamis say to think of everyone as fruit on the tree of life—everyone is ripening on their own time, and you shouldn’t pick the fruit until it’s ready. The point is, you should not try to convince people, let people convince themselves through their own journey, in their own way, in their own time. That’s the approach I’ve taken -  I just share my personal experiences and shed light on emerging brain health research and the mindful sciences. Most physicians, and all people for that matter, come to it on their own if they spend time listening to themselves. That said, using the arts as powerful educational and therapeutic tools, allows for a more integrated approach to learning, tapping into the right side of the brain to connect with the left side of the brain. Once people understand energy from a slightly different perspective, it provides a framework for understanding the intersection of science and spirituality.”

When did you start NexGenHealth?

“It all started a couple years ago when our radiology department at Cambridge Memorial Hospital was experiencing difficult times with severe budget cuts resulting in limited resources and staffing.  Staff were feeling burnt out and miserable; the department’s environment turned negative. As a pilot program, I gave a talk that explained the concept of a medicinal mandala, an artistic expression explaining energy based on the East-meets-West philosophy of science. This design includes a sacred symbol from the east, which has been used for generations as a meditative aid and was known for purifying the mind.  As part of the program, the staff began colouring those designs, and within a week, people were off their devices, colouring, engaging in conversation with each other. By the second week, they were decorating the walls of the radiology department with their art pieces. This spurred questions from other staff and patients who were seeing them, leading to new conversations and connections to each other. Soon, the practice spread to other departments and was adopted by other staff in support of their personal health and their health. This project assisted in cultivating a new approach to the patient-practitioner relationship.  Additionally, the art inspired some young people who began introducing it to schools (including the University of Waterloo) as a mental health strategy in support of gratitude/empathy/mindfulness. The uptake and organic spread was impressive, and I immediately recognized the inherent power in sharing this knowledge using art as the medium. That’s when NexGenHealth was conceptualized – a mission to create healthy minds and connected communities through the power of the arts.  

Radiology Department, Cambridge Memorial Hospital. Medicinal Mandala Gallery as part of NexGenHealth’s staff wellness pilot program.

How does that simple activity help people?

“The idea with NexGenHealth was to create fun and engaging educational platforms to learn, heal and inspire communities to come together and grow through mindfulness practices.  Making knowledge accessible and translatable, we aim to expand these art programs into schools, hospitals and corporations who want to develop a healthier culture and be part of this expanding connected community. Schools are decorating mandalas as part of gratitude, love and intention cards that are shared with patients and staff at hospitals and retirement homes. Gifted with the card is a mental health booklet I created called 'The Medicinal Arts: A Mindful Manual'.  It is a beginner’s guide to meditation and the spiritual sciences, and it explains energy as it relates to mental health, consciousness and our interconnectedness. The booklet illustrates a variety of meditative exercises that anyone can do, and it includes a number of mandalas for colouring. It’s all about passing goodwill throughout the community. I’ve hosted programs at schools for parents and teachers as well as students from primary grades to university students, including post grads and med students. I have spoken at conferences and an array of other forums and venues. The mindful sciences is a hot topic and using the arts is a creative way to make it scalable and transferable to a variety of audiences.  

I was eager to see how the teachings would be received in India, since it was there that these practices and ideas were birthed.  I visited Indian schools and hospitals and the program was very well-received. It made me realize that this innovative approach could be the catalyst for shifting healthcare in a proactive and preventative direction while simultaneously connecting communities, locally and globally.  And there’s a hunger for this kind of change- that much is clear in the way our uptake is growing.” 

And how has all of this influenced the direction of your own medical career?

“There came a point when I had to make some tough decisions about work/life balance. Not just about my job in radiology but being involved in a model of care that was against my moral values. I often think of the Hippocratic oath – “do no harm” – and when you look at the stats, it’s clear that we are, in many ways, creating, or at least perpetuating harm as opposed to treating disease (or preventing disease - imagine that!) . I realized I had a story to share, and by sharing my experiences and  learnings, I could help others.  Perhaps I could help people see the things that I’d seen during my journey. So, I relinquished my partnership in the radiology group I had founded, but kept myself available to do locums when they need me. Today, I feel very blessed that I’m able to pursue my passion. I was earning close to seven-figures — but the corporate culture was destroying my soul. Money can be intoxicating.  I had to get over that in order to do what I love.”

What is next for you and NexGenHealth?

“I believe that passion drives process. NexGenHealth continues to grow organically, connecting schools with community organizations – particularly organizations working with marginalized communities like our retired population – through educational, art-based mindfullness programs. In addition to expanding speaking engagements, I’ve taken on a new role as Director of Medical Humanities for an amazing organization based out of the University of Toronto called the Canadian International Science Exchange Program (CISEPO), which is a progressive non-profit organization that focuses on building peace by bridging human divides through the language of healthcare. 

What is CISEPO’s mandate?

“They concentrate on education and knowledge transfer, supporting health systems in over 40 countries around the world. They’ve been active on the international scene since 1984 when they were founded by Officer of the Order of Canada and renowned otolaryngologist, Dr. Arnold M. Noyek. This NexGenHealth/CISEPO partnership, in collaboration with international partners, will be delivering an innovative cross-cultural mental health initiative that will connect more than 60 countries. It will not only educate communities at a grassroots level - particularly communities in conflict - but it will educate physicians, medical students, and all health related practitioners that are as much in need as those in the community. 

Dr. Abrams delivers a Medicinal Arts program to 12 Canadian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian medical students, as part of CISEPO’s International Pediatric Emergency Medicine Elective (IPEME) program.  IPEME brings international students together to enhance cross-border understanding, trust, and cooperation among future physician leaders.

How does that align with NexGenHealth’s vision for the future?

NexGenHealth is positioning itself as an emerging leader for mission related investments. We’re able to create socially impactful investment opportunities by leveraging the power of the arts and technology to innovatively engage communities. These opportunities are powerful ways for companies and investors to support and benefit from activities that address one’s personal health and the health of communities, both locally and globally. Companies are moving towards more socially responsible investment activities, and NexGenHealth is poised to co-create these ‘next generation’ ventures.”

What would you say to a student just beginning their journey in medicine?

“The medical world can be tough—there is an ingrained culture of winners and losers - me vs. you - and it’s very hierarchical. So, it’s important to go into medicine for the right reasons, and with the right mindset. Medicine is a team sport, a community, a health CARE field, and you’re only as strong as your weakest link. If you can find a way to tap into the oneness of humanity andon that level, connect with your patients and the  community of people around you—that’s how you can really make a difference in the lives of the people you touch.”

 

 

Dr.  Mitchell Abrams, M.D. FRCP
Dr.  Mitchell Abrams, M.D. FRCP, is a Canadian radiologist and musician who has had a unique journey through western healthcare, as a physician, division chief and open-heart surgical patient. Through his knowledge and experiences, he was granted a unique and intimate perspective into our current healthcare model.  As a result, Dr. Abrams has cultivated a deeper understanding of medicine and life. With humour, depth and inspiration, he shows us what we can do as individuals to foster better health outcomes for ourselves, for our communities and for our world. His social enterprise, NexGenHealth, was born out of Dr. Abram's passion for music, medicine and mindfulness.  It was created as a platform to deliver a deeper kind of healthcare reform, incorporating art and technology as powerful tools to help communicate with and inspire his patients, clients, audiences and students. Dr. Abrams is also the Director of Medical Humanities with the Canadian International Science Exchange Program (CISEPO), where he is educating, healing and connecting communities, locally and globally.
 

About the Author

Dr. Mitchell Abrams

Dr. Mitchell Abrams
Contributor

More Content by Dr. Mitchell Abrams
Previous Article
CBC’s Dr. Brian Goldman, part 2: What does the future of medicine look like?
CBC’s Dr. Brian Goldman, part 2: What does the future of medicine look like?

The host of White Coat, Black Art gives us his unique perspective on where the health care system is going—...

Next Article
CBC’s Dr. Brian Goldman, part 1: From med school to the broadcast booth
CBC’s Dr. Brian Goldman, part 1: From med school to the broadcast booth

The host of White Coat, Black Art tells us how his diverse career path has made him a better physician.

×

We're going mobile - sign up for early access!

First & Last Name
Thanks for your interest!
Error - something went wrong!