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Resisting The Power Paradox Of Medical Care: A Seminar In Resisting Retraumatization

New bwogger Alexandra Tsorvas attended a medical school training event that discussed the unequal power dynamics inherent in doctor-patient relationships and how to mitigate them.

How do medical providers navigate power dynamics in their positions? How might they approach the intersections inherent to patient care, especially in the face of an institutionalized denial of human autonomy? These questions, among others, were those explored in “Navigating Power Dynamics with Patients: a Trauma-Informed Lens for Serving Survivors of Sexual and/or Intimate Partner Violence,” a training held on September 16 and led by Columbia FMIG, SAVI, and SVR.

The intimate event, which served as a training session for medical students, primarily focused on navigating power dynamics between healthcare workers and survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. The event also meaningfully called into question the “power paradox” of medical care, as the system currently in place is designed to systematically retraumatize patients. Where every person has the power to question, interrogate, and find resilience within the structures we live in, there also exists the potential to weaponize the power of being a doctor, whether that power comes from where you sit, what computer you use, your white coat, or your stethoscope. 

The foundations of resisting re-traumatization are rooted in the following commitments: recognizing that some privileges can be earned, recognizing the importance of helping others, recognizing signs and symptoms of trauma in individuals, and responding by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, practices, and procedures. The seminar was firmly rooted in the belief that unhealthy power dynamics in the healthcare industry mimic and mirror those of abusive relationships. It is the doctor’s responsibility to educate themselves on sexual and partner violence and to help their patients set healthy boundaries in both intimate and professional relationships. The event, designed to supplement the knowledge each of the participants brought with them, honored the insights and intersections of identity that color how individuals approach sexual violence. There was less of an emphasis on punishment or justice, as everyone’s justice is individual and looks different based upon the needs of the survivor. Instead, seminar leader Amanda Burden, firmly asserted that patients are not fragile, delicate, or destined to be traumatized – they are resilient, and that spirit needs to be honored and recognized by the practitioner. 

In the spirit of honor, Amanda ensured the seminar practiced the same values it shared; the session began with an acknowledgment of indigenous land, incorporated a brief “eye break” to promote self-care in the midst of a thematically charged discussion, and ended with encouragement and promotion of self-advocacy, as medical school itself can be minorly traumatizing. It is important to avoid sacrificing your wellbeing for your career, Amanda urged, as this leads to burnout.

As an aspiring mental health practitioner, this seminar truly helped me reconcile the reality of earned privileges, and the ways in which those privileges have the potential to be wielded with as much damage as born privileges. As a person of color, and a queer one at that, I’ve always considered the intersections of my identity to be somewhat stationary, and my ability to navigate them fluid. As I progress along my Columbia education, however, I realize the smallest aspects of my presence here – the way I walk through Low Steps, the way I carry my backpack, the way I walk into Butler Library hassle-free – are all indicative of a silent power I carry, and I will continue to do so as I pursue graduate school and enter a career where I inherently need to prioritize the wellbeing of patients above all. 

Individuals who want to engage in similar events may register for any events in the Peace and Presence series, which is a mindfulness series geared towards student survivors of sexual assault. There are a variety of events ongoing from now until September 30th, all of which explore a variety of healing techniques, mindfulness, and self-calming tools. 

Image via Columbia Health

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