Apr 26, 2016
By Hilary Adams, Staff Writer
Steven G. Eisenberg, DO, approaches oncology with a passion for patient-centered care, connection, and education. He recently developed a weekly online talk show—The Dr. Steven Show—in which he discusses innovations in medicine and whole-person care with guests.
Where did you get the idea for The Dr. Steven Show?
SE: I was on the Today show a few years ago; they did a feature on my program—my passion project, if you will—called Lyrical Life, for which I co-write an original song for a patient going through cancer treatment. It’s a personal anthem to help them rally through the chemo, to remember what moves, touches, and inspires them in life, and to remind them that they are not their cancer: they are an individual, a wonderful human being who happens to be dealing with cancer as part of their journey.
Today got word of it and they sent out Jenna Bush and followed me around and chronicled the process of how we give birth to a song for a patient with cancer. That led to a lot of interest on social media and I started doing some speaking about how important the doctor-patient relationship is. It’s really not about writing songs together; it’s about listening to each other and being with each other in such a way that both parties feel heard. That became the mission of my oncology practice: to become a champion for the patient-doctor relationship, communication, and empathy: really getting in the other’s shoes.
Out of that mission came my show. A patient came to me about an abnormality in their complete blood count; we worked together and found out that it was nothing serious, just dealing with some inflammatory disease. He just happened to have a television studio. During the time that we spent talking about hematology and oncology, he said, “You know what? You should really have your own show...We want to create a health show dealing with all aspects of health and wellness and cancer prevention, all these new innovative things going on in medicine, and you should be at the helm.” So it fell into my lap in this beautiful organic way, and he became the sponsor.
This show became a beacon of light in the digital health world where we talk about innovation, information, and inspiration in digital health.
How do you select your guests?
SE: We have guests who are making a profound difference in the world of health, health care, and wellness. Dr. Eric Topol was our first guest and talked about the future of digital health. He did an echo on my heart using his phone, right on the air. Then we had J.J. Virgin, a celebrity trainer and nutritionist, who was very mad that I would eat some of my child’s chicken nuggets as leftovers. She said, “What, is there a ban on chicken at your house? Just give them plain chicken!”
What we are doing is getting information out to the public in an entertaining way. The show’s really about “edutainment”: you leave each episode with things you can try for that week, and if you like it, you can keep it. If you don’t, you can try the next week’s tips and tricks.
How does The Dr. Steven Show fit in with your work as an oncologist?
SE: We talk a lot about the future of health care and where we’re heading, and we have a lot of luminaries—people from Exponential Medicine, Stanford Medicine X, TEDMed—these very innovative types who talk about what they’re doing in their research and how these new innovations will affect medicine moving forward. That includes a lot of stuff related to oncology specifically, like how we’re using genomics in our everyday decisions in oncology. That’s really the future of oncology, and a lot of what we talk about overlaps into other medical specialties.
But we also talk about quality of life on the show, and that’s where the inspiration comes in. We had a comedian, Craig Shoemaker, who started a wonderful organization called Laughter Heals, which does research, projects, and media related to the health benefits of laughter. He came on and we just laughed. The episode was an experiment in digital health: we wanted anyone who was watching live to laugh. He told stories about his life and how he brought laughter to a friend who was dying of glioblastoma, how laughter was a huge part of his relationship with one of his best friends. They told that friend he had 5 months to live; he lived 15 years. Craig believes, and so do I, that laughter had something to do with that.
We talk about all aspects of health and wellness, with an eye on the future, but always from the foundation of heart. We want to really leave people with a little bit of laughter where they might think they can’t have laughter. Going through cancer treatment is a prime example of something where we feel like we can’t have our sense of humor. With the show, we’re saying you can embrace all aspects of yourself, even your sense of humor, in any circumstance. We all know as oncologists that these are the hardest moments of our patients’ lives, when we’re giving them news that’s sometimes very devastating. The basis of this show is to tell people that there’s still a possibility of having a great quality of life, even when you’re going through treatment.
What have you learned by interviewing so many different specialists?
SE: I’ve learned that health care at large is really a team approach. We’ve talked about the oncology medical home and accountable care, and it’s wonderful to be open to learning from all kinds of providers on your team. The team for a patient with cancer has the medical oncologist as the “quarterback.” But who wins Super Bowls? The team that works best together. In oncology, “winning the Super Bowl” is giving that patient the best quality of life they can have, and that means being open to anything that could help them battle through the hardest days of their treatment.
I love having people on from all specialties and subspecialties and all modalities, because you never really know what’s going to connect on a deep level with someone going through cancer treatment. If you’re open to it, sometimes someone will appear on the team who really makes a difference to that individual, and while I’m always going to be the quarterback, it’s great to hand the ball off to that other person for a while. They may impact the patient’s quality of life in a way that can’t be measured.
One of my mentors, Dr. Emanuel “Manny” Fliegelman, came in on the first day of medical school for the white coat ceremony. He pointed to the door and said, “If there are any of you out there who will not recognize the patient as a whole person, there’s the door.” It was a very integral moment, that first day of medical school; it was drilled into us that you’re dealing with a whole person, not just a disease. That’s what I’m trying to do here: to give anyone who’s watching a taste of something innovative, something heartwarming, and leave them with a few takeaways that they can put into action.
With all the work you do in addition to your clinical practice, do you ever feel burned out, and how do you recharge?
SE: I’ve experienced burnout, and the statistics that came out last year said that one out of every two doctors experiences symptoms of burnout, and the leading specialties [with the highest rates of burnout] are internal medicine, family practice, and ER. As oncologists, we’re internists first.
Several years ago, I walked into the room of a patient with lung cancer, one of my favorite patients. She was in the hospital with complications from chemo. I walked in her room, and I said, “Flavie, how are you doing today?” and she said to me, “I’m doing okay; I’m only doing this chemo because my daughter wants me to see my granddaughter graduate. That’s really the only reason I’m doing it. But more importantly, how are you, Dr. Eisenberg?” And I said what I was telling everyone during that time: “I’m fine.” And she saw right through it. She said “Uh-uh, you’re not fine, I can tell, what’s going on?” And she was right, but I was FINE—Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. Our practice was going through a difficult period and there was a lot of stress going on, medicine was changing. And she saw right through it; she called me on it. She said, “If you don’t take care of yourself, how are you going to take care of all of us?”
Flavie was a dancer. When I saw her, she was in her late 80s, but back in her heyday she was a pretty famous dancer. Right then and there she said, “You’ve got to remember to have fun in life, and you have to be able to let go of stress.” And she asked me to dance. I was taken aback, since I was a fairly new oncologist at this point, but I said yes. So right in the hospital room, we have a little dance, and in that moment I could feel the burnout starting to lift a little. From that moment on, I started connecting with every patient on a deeper level, and it really became my cure for burnout. That’s what led to the songs: the songs came after that dance, and they nudged me back to the reason why I became an oncologist, which was I wanted to bring a little bit of my personality to medicine and give a bit of that to patients who needed it the most, those who were faced with life and death.
So my cure for burnout is to keep your creativity and self-expression alive, and to always take care of my patients as I would take care of my own family member. That’s what keeps me feeling centered and present with patients.
What advice would you give to oncologists looking for inspiration?
SE: Always check in with yourself, it never hurts to ask yourself, am I being fully present in my life? Am I being fully self-expressed? If you feel that you’re going through the motions, it’s a good idea to give yourself a little CPR—Compassion, Presence, and Resilience. Have compassion for yourself; it’s not easy being an oncologist. Look up from the computer or the EMR and do your best to be fully present with that wonderful human being in front of you. And finally, keep that flame of creativity alive, and never forget that you’re a human being first. That’s going to bring you more resilience than you’ve ever had before.