Alicia Mikolaycik Kurtz, MD

Humans have been telling stories since the very beginning. It’s how we innately process our experience in the world — the joys, sorrows, surprises, and humor. We tell our friends and families our stories. And yet in medicine, we rarely pause to talk about our experiences.

Sure, we have plenty of opportunities to share our cases, do quality review, and reflect on our mistakes. But we rarely talk about how it all feels. We don’t discuss what it’s like when our patient dies, when a child is sick, when we witness a miracle, or what it’s like to be a part of a team that literally saves lives.

I was given a lot of wellness advice when I was a resident. Much of it involved eating healthfully, doing more yoga, and taking advantage of the organization’s wellness program.

Meanwhile, I was working 80 hours a week in a very intense environment. I didn’t want more salads. Sometimes I just wanted to make it through the day without crying.

My fellow chief residents and I saw a need for more emotional and existential forms of support. So, we created Real Talk — a storytelling experience for healthcare providers that gives airtime to those unique experiences we have working in medicine.

As a live event, Real Talk was a runaway success that has been adopted by healthcare teams across the country. Fueled by this success, I recently launched the Real Talk Podcast in the hope of bringing the healing power of storytelling to physicians everywhere.

In this post, we’ll take an inside look at the Real Talk Podcast and how storytelling helps providers find joy in the practice of medicine. We’ll also share how you can tell your own story on the program.

What Is Real Talk?

Real Talk was inspired by The Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling competition and podcast with the mission to “honor and celebrate the diversity and commonality of human experience.”

Storytelling is especially powerful for healthcare providers because so few people outside our profession understand what our jobs are really like. By sharing our stories, we bring dignity, meaning, and significance to our experience, honoring our human side without seeing it as a sign of weakness — letting vulnerability be accepted and celebrated amongst our teams.

In each episode of the Real Talk Podcast, one person shares a seven- to 10-minute story about an experience that sticks with them or affected them personally as a provider. When possible, we record the stories in a group setting to create a feeling of intimacy and connection between the speaker and the audience.

A Real Talk story is not meant to be a rehash of the medical aspects of a case. Instead, the storyteller focuses on how the case made them feel. How did it challenge their patience, strength, compassion, judgment, and worldview?

After the story, I offer a couple of reflection questions that listeners can use to process their own experiences. Clinical and educational leaders can also use these questions to initiate a group discussion with their teams.

Real Talk Podcast: A Sneak Peak

Real Talk stories can be serious or funny, conceptual and more generic, or deeply personal.

In the early episodes of the Real Talk Podcast, you’ll meet Yafa Minazad, DO, a physician executive, neurologist, and mom to two daughters. For decades, Yafa felt torn between her rewarding medical career on one hand and her family on the other. Listen in to learn how her daughter’s high school essay shocked her, delighted her, and ultimately brought her peace.

You’ll also hear from Steve Zahn, MD, a clinical leader and emergency physician. Steve tells the story of caring for a patient experiencing a miscarriage. This case hit home for Steve because he and his wife recently experienced a similar loss. The patient’s grace and gratitude in the face of grief inspired Steve to focus more on the human side of medicine and connecting with patients.

Impact of Real Talk

How does Real Talk change the way we practice medicine? I hope to study this question and gather some data in the future. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the experience is a powerful one. When the 40 residents in our residency program completed a survey that ranked the wellness and social activities they valued most, almost all of them put Real Talk at the top of the list.

In addition, Real Talk challenges the culture that doctors should be impenetrably tough and stoic and bucks the old “go it alone” cowboy doctor mentality. It shows us that our stories — our experiences — matter, and that the simple act of sharing them can heal us. It always amazes me how vulnerable people will be when we give them space and permission to do so.

Got a Story to Share?

The Real Talk Podcast is actively seeking storytellers, so please reach out if you are interested in participating! We welcome doctors, nurses, advanced providers, and anyone who cares for patients. To get involved, email us at [email protected].

The Real Talk Podcast is now live, so please subscribe via your favorite podcast app. Search “Real Talk Podcast” and look for the white and orange logo.

Alicia Mikolaycik Kurtz, MD, completed her emergency medicine residency at UCSF Fresno in central California, where she and her co-chiefs started Real Talk — a storytelling experience that allows providers the opportunity to process the more human aspects of working in healthcare. Since then, she has traveled around the country training groups to use Real Talk to improve the provider experience at their sites. Dr. Kurtz has robust leadership experience, including serving on the board of directors and as President of the Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association (EMRA) from 2015–2018. She also completed Vituity’s Administrative Fellowship from 2017–2018. Dr. Kurtz currently serves as assistant medical director in the emergency department at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Sacramento. Outside of medicine, she loves travel adventures; trying new things; her amazingly supportive partner, Marco; yoga; and all things Trader Joe’s.