July 06, 2021

Humanism, mentorship drives Corey’s career in medical education

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Fourth-year medical students at UAB School of Medicine recently awarded the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award to Britney Corey M.D., MACM, FACS, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery and director of the General Surgery Residency Program.corey britney 1609194919

Each year, Medical Student Services asks students in the graduating class to nominate one classmate and one faculty member for the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award. The Tow award recognizes graduating students and faculty members who demonstrate “both clinical excellence and outstanding compassion in the delivery of care and who show respect for patients, their families, and healthcare colleagues.” 

Corey first had an idea she would pursue medicine following a childhood volunteer experience in her hometown of Longview, Texas.

“My mom basically told my older sister and I that we were going to start volunteering at the hospital during summer. And so, we did that, you know, delivering flowers and helping transport patients to their cars and things like that.” 

“One of my assignments was in the medical ICU, which was a relatively low acuity, considering the ICUs that I've worked in now. But there was this one patient who developed a GI bleed unexpectedly and it was a very big deal. All the nurses get excited, there's lots of rushing around, and I just remember that everybody was really concerned and excited until the doctor arrived. Then everything just calmed down, and the patient got taken care of, and you could just feel the whole tune kind of changed in the unit, once they got the help they needed. And for some reason, that just really planted a seed in in me to consider medicine.”

Corey said it took her about a year until she was able to work up the courage to tell her family she wanted to be a doctor.

“It just seemed like such a bold thing to do,” she said. After she told them things started to fall in to place. 

“I went to undergrad and did pre-med studies and got into medical school at Texas A&M straight out of college and then came to UAB for residency. So my path into medicine really did come out of a desire to help people. In some ways, there's a lot of serendipity to it as well. It just ended up being a real combination of my love for people, but also my love for science.”

Corey entered medical school convinced she would pursue primary care, to help fill in the gap of primary care providers. 

“I scheduled my surgery rotation first, thinking I would just get it out of the way. That first week was one of the weeks that I slept the least—but it was also one of the best weeks of my life.” Corey found that she had a passion for surgery and the feeling of fulfillment that came with caring for patients. “It was like coming home, if that makes any sense. Like finding my people, finding my tribe”.

“I felt like every moment of surgery was so exciting and so crucial ─ that what we were doing was really important, and that we were making a very immediate impact in patients’ lives.”

Corey chose to be hernia surgeon because she feels there is a lot that hernia surgeons can do to improve a patient’s quality of life.

“Those kinds of crucial moments is what I think defines a surgical relationship with a patient. Even though you may not know them for forever, it's a very intense relationship because it’s a big deal to have an operation. So it provides the intense, patient centered sort of relationship that I was looking for, even if it's not necessarily long term.”

“It's very rewarding for me to see a patient, offer them an intervention, and then see them back in clinic after doing that intervention and them having an improved quality of life. And there’s some patients that have difficult problems that take a long hospitalization to get them through. Those can be the toughest patients but those turn into some deep relationships because you are their guiding light through that process. They’re looking to center them and to explain what's happening to them, and how we will overcome it.” 

As a surgical educator, Corey places high importance in medical education.

“I really feel very lucky or blessed that a lot of people invested into my career and that they continue to invest in my career. So, I choose to be involved in medical education so that I have the opportunity to pay it forward.”

Despite her love of medicine, Corey acknowledges that it can be hard and the potential for burnout is high.

“Medicine, in a lot of ways, can be a cruel taskmaster. You have to show up every day, performing at the top of your game, and there are critical details that if you miss, patients, people, can suffer. Sometimes those details are just the smallest of things.”

“I love having the challenge of a surgical problem in front of you and using all the skills that you have to meet that problem and fix that problem. But sometimes it starts to wear you out. There's always somebody that needs your help, and there's never enough hours in the day. And there's a lot of things that you have to do to be able to take care of patients that feels unnecessary, or feels onerous, like charting, calling insurance companies to try to get them to approve the necessary care that patients need, etc. The list is just kind of endless there.”

Medical education offers Corey a reprieve when her clinical practice can get at times overwhelming.

“It's another hat that I wear, that is extremely rewarding. You couldn't ask for a better group of people to work with than those who are interested in learning medicine. They're extremely bright, engaged, absolutely committed. They have the most brilliant ideas, and they have incredible questions that just push you to think about things differently.”

“Whenever I first started my clinical practice, I had these expectations that I had arrived, and that things were going to get easier. I was finally doing what I wanted to do. But instead, I very much felt like I was floundering all the time and could never keep up.

“And then I started mentoring and career advising medical students. It was me supporting them through a process that's super stressful, and feels very, out of your control. I was there to listen and to provide advice and advocate for them. That was my favorite thing that was ever on my calendar, because it's very different than the needs that my patients had, and at the same time it was a lot alike in that they just need your time and your understanding and your empathy. Mentoring students during that time was like a little part of my career where the sun was shining when everything else felt dark and cloudy.”

“I started making more time for that, even when I felt like it didn't have enough time. And it was just enough to fight off the burnout that I was facing in other areas. It made a huge difference. 

As a medical educator, Corey says excellent patient care is something all physicians need to strive for.

“Excellent patient care is attending to the problem the patient has, and doing it to the best of your ability. Having a successful outcome, that's excellent patient care. But you also can't forget that there's a patient behind the problem. Hopefully, this problem they have, whenever they zoom out and look through the entirety of their life is just one little blip in their years of lived experience. But it's usually a very big thing at the time. It's the whole thing that they can see right then and there. So you have to attend to the patient as well as to who they are as a person, and address their fears and anxieties.” 

“Humanism in medicine to me is looking at others and seeing the “imago dei” in them, recognizing there’s a reflection of God in each of them and that we were made for interaction and relationship,” Corey said. “Life is better when we are willing to share the journey with others. It’s my deep honor to be a part of my patients’ stories, and a part of the story of my learners too. It’s an incredible privilege.”