Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 95

William Cheng, Hospitalist and Singer

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Show notes

William Cheng has been working in the Silicon Valley area since 2000. He graduated from Harvard as a bio concentrator and later attended UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. He completed residency training in internal medicine at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, a county hospital affiliated with Stanford Hospital System. He then joined the Palo Alto Medical Foundation as a hospitalist, focusing on acutely ill patients.


Working as a Hospitalist

William’s understanding of the world has changed over the two decades as a hospitalist. He now understands the importance of non-hard science aspects, such as interactions, communication skills, and bedside manners. He also learned logistical skills, such as navigating the healthcare system and getting patients in and out of the hospital efficiently. William talks about the need for continuous learning in his field, including navigating insurance and bureaucracy. He shares how the recent pandemic had a significant impact on the Bay Area, and how the hospital environment has evolved over time, with new challenges and opportunities for growth. William shares tips for being a smart patient in the hospital, such as asking questions, double-checking medication, and understanding the importance of being a smart consumer of hospital care. He emphasizes the importance of clear communication and respecting the intelligence of patients and families. William explains what makes a good doctor, and the various demands that come with the job, including intellectual demands, emotional demands, physical demands, and long hours on the feet. 

Challenges Faced by Hospitalists

Hospitalists interact with patients and families more frequently during the day, especially in difficult situations such as difficult medical diagnoses, potentially life-threatening diagnoses, and end of life care. These discussions can be gratifying and stressful, but they also involve complex social interactions and relationships.

He talks about the challenges of discussing severe conditions with patients, determining the appropriate treatment options, and navigating complex social discussions. Another challenge is reviewing charts quickly, understanding the patient’s condition, and formulating a plan of action. In the initial admission orders, physical therapy and occupational therapy are often put in, but if the patient is too weak, additional help may be needed. Social workers or nursing case managers can then discuss these recommendations with the patient or family early on. They can teach the patient or family about the process of getting them home and ensuring they understand the process. William talks about the admission process and mentions that there are different types of patients, such as good teaching patients and non-teaching patients. 


A Professional Point of Pride

From a professional standpoint, William is most proud of his early involvement in scheduling for his group. Scheduling is one of the main pain points or stress factors for hospitalists, as they have to be on call for certain periods of time. The traditional seven-on-seven off schedule is not ideal for patients, as it can lead to stress and dread of work. William developed a good system that has led to very little turnover in his group and accommodates everyone’s time off requests. His scheduling is essentially a giant logic puzzle, and he does it all by hand within a spreadsheet for over 20 years. He continues to do this to this day to ensure that everyone is happy with their work.


Influential Professors and Courses at Harvard

William mentions his love for the Glee Club Harvard Glee Club, where he sang in junior and senior year. William found that there was no experience after college that matched the quality of his time at Harvard. He has been involved in an alumni chorus, which he started in the late 2000s, which has been performing in Japan and the US. They have performed three times so far and are planning to perform at SEMA this year, focusing on peace and harmony among the world.



02:56 Medical education, hospital care, and COVID-19 experiences

08:25 Hospital care and communication between doctors and patients

13:35 Medical work-life balance and emotional stress

18:27 Challenges and skills of a hospitalist

25:01 Streamlining hospital discharge process for elderly patients

27:35 Medical education and patient care

31:50 End-of-life care and scheduling for hospitalists

37:13 Work-life balance, scheduling, and singing experiences

43:46 Singing, harmony, and endorphins with a Harvard Glee Club alumnus

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  1. William Cheng has been working in the Silicon Valley area since 2000. He graduated from Harvard as a bio concentrator and later attended UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. He completed residency training in internal medicine at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, a county hospital affiliated with Stanford Hospital System. He then joined the Palo Alto Medical Foundation as a hospitalist, focusing on acutely ill patients.



Will Bachman  39:47

All right. Well, I’d love to hear about turning back to Harvard, any courses or professors or activities that you were involved in that continue to resonate with you and and why?


William Cheng  40:01

Well, definitely for me, it was a Glee Club Harvard Glee Club. I sang junior and senior year wasn’t quite good enough to get in my sophomore year. So I spent that year singing with the heartbreak, of course, in the that helped me improve enough to get in and junior year. And so, you know, was directed by James and Marvin Marvin, who was a, he’s a great director. And it was just a great experience. You know, I love the singing I love the camaraderie with with the the other singers. And the app continued. So, you know, a lot of times people say, Oh, what are you seeing now? It’s like, well, you know, the problem is, that had such a great experience with the Glee Club and Jim Marfan did such a great job with, with our rehearsals and molding all of all of us to become a great singing group. Because the thing about the Glee Club in a lot of the courses, at least back then was that there were very few music majors, very few voice majors. And so we were all just a bunch of, you know, schlubs We were like, you know, pre med, we were whenever gov and you know, et cetera. Some of us never really had much singing experience before, but he would take us and he would recognize the strengths and us and he would be able to get us to sing as a choral group. In a sound, you know, really good. And so afterwards, you know, I look for other opportunities. And it’s just, it was never quite the same. If that sort of, you know, it’s a blessing and a curse, right? It’s like you have it was great experience, but I can’t seem to find an experience after college that matches the level of quality that the type of experience that I really loved back at Harvard. So what I’ve actually been able to do is that there’s actually a group of Harvard Glee Club alumni who set up we have, we have an alumni chorus. And we have a special relation with the alumni of the Kyoto University Glee Club. And starting this started back in the 90s, I started doing this in the late 2000s, where every few years, we get together, either in Japan or in the US. And we get together for about a week, and we rehearse. And we sing a joint concert. And so I’ve been been fortunate enough to do that three times so far. And then to do it a fourth time this year, past concerts, we’re in San Francisco, Honolulu, and in Japan, the one time I was able to go to Japan for this, it was in Kobe, and takamasa, which is just a great experience. And then this coming year, we’re going to sing it here at SEMA. And there’s, there’s going to be a lot of real reps and powerful pieces, we’ll be able to sing jointly. And obviously, the location, we’re going to be focusing on, you know, peace and harmony among in the world, we’re going to be able to visit the some of the memorials there. So I’m really looking forward to that. But it’s, it’s great, because it’s more we’re singing with alumni, who were trained in very much the same way that I was either through from Jim Marvin or some or either its predecessors or successors. But there’s still always that same sort of Glee Club sound, sort of like Glee Club way that we do things. And it just comes back very, very quickly. So it’s really been a great experience,


Will Bachman  43:34

like an extraordinary week to be part of, tell me about, you’ve done it three times, what’s the week look like? You wake up at eight in the morning and sing from nine to five? Or do you do activities together? What’s that week look like? It sounds incredible,


William Cheng  43:47

right? So you know, what happens is that usually about a couple months, ahead of time, we go to Cambridge for just one weekend rehearsal. So we all fly into as much as many of us as we can, for flying to Cambridge, we go to Holden chapel, where, where we used to always rehearse, and we meet up with the director for the group. And we just, you know, we start to go through the, the repertoire. That’s, we usually get the hang of most of the pieces. And then when we go home, from that, we’re tasked with just sort of, you know, going over the pieces on our own listening to the, to the recordings and try to, you know, get more familiar with it. And then when we finally go on the trip, the first five days typically is fairly intensive rehearsals where it’s like, typically like nine in the morning to maybe 4pm with a break for lunch was just a lot of intensive rehearsals, one of those days, we might have like a half day where we can go sightseeing and all that kind of stuff. But some of these days, we’re doing rehearsing joint rehearsals with the Kyoto guys, and we’re, you know, socializing with them as well and just kind of like getting to know them better. And then the last couple of days are typically taken up with the with the actual performances. This year, we’re going to be performing at a fairly big concert hall associated with a school there. And then also another performance at a church service. The last time we were in Japan, we were at a pretty big hall seat about 3000, which is the biggest group I’ve ever sat in front of. I mean, that was I was only ever used to seeing like it Sanders, Sanders Theater in that group there. So but that was a, that was a great experience. But certainly, there’s, you know, there’s plenty of time to go out and sample the local restaurants and see off sites. So I’m really looking forward to seeing some of them. The places they’re like, there’s a Mishima Island. That’s the weather’s giant torii gate, you know, out in the water. tourist shops everywhere, so I’ll be excited to see that as well. Now,


Will Bachman  46:03

I’ve seen some research, I can quote it, about how there’s something very special about singing together in a group and how it activates something like a runner’s high. But you know, but humans singing together all in harmony, that there’s something that is very, you know, activates some kind of endorphins or something like that. Could you could you talk about that experience? What’s that? You know, is that true? And do you experience and tell us a little bit about that, what it feels like to be seeing in a group as opposed to just say, singing by yourself?


William Cheng  46:41

Right, right. Yeah, I don’t doubt that. I mean, I don’t know that, you know, I don’t know, the technical, the scientific aspects behind it that much. But certainly, you know, when you’re singing and blending, and getting all the harmonies in, you know, certainly when you’re kind of when you’re nailing it, and if you’re getting all the harmonies and just being part of this group of, of people singing as one is, is an amazing experience. I mean, it’s there’s a lot of sort of, you know, it’s a very communal feeling. It’s almost it can be it can feel transcendent. And, you know, I think there’s, there are also times when when, when we sing, you know, a lot of times Jim Marvin, back in the day with the Glee Club, if we were in a really good sound Hall, you know, we even if we weren’t in the very sound Hall, but, you know, if we sang, right, we could hear overtones, you know, so there were, we’d be hearing overtones in the Hall of, you know, a note that no one was actually singing, but because we were singing in such, you know, in the right harmony, you have these overtones were coming out. And so we’d be singing, like, it’d be almost like, you know, there were other voices joining us. And that was, you know, that was a, that can be an amazing experience. So, and then, you know, this, there’s, I have seen data about when people sing the chorus there. I think was it, I think their hearts if they’ve shown that heartbeats can synchronize? You know, I think there’ll be it has to do with sort of the breathing and all that kind of stuff. But it’s, it’s an apt metaphor, I think. So, yeah. But it’s a great experience. And, you know, for, for folks who, for folks who say that they you know, that they’ve wanted to sing the chorus, but they, Oh, I can’t sing. It’s like, you know, that you can sing, you just just haven’t tried or you haven’t, you’re afraid, but there’s so many folks, I think it’s like in the right hands, they can be they can, they can develop it pretty easily. So it’s a great, it’s a great experience.


Will Bachman  48:44

And saying, Bill, thank you so much for joining today, for listeners that want to follow up with you or track what you’re doing. Where can they find you online?


William Cheng  48:56

Well, I don’t really have much of a social media presence. I mean, I’ve got a Facebook Facebook page, but I don’t really check it that much. Because it’s primarily just, you know, email and I mean, I don’t, I don’t tweet, I don’t really do much of that.


Will Bachman  49:15

So I guess a lot of doctors are like that. They just want to keep it a little bit lower profile. So if you want to keep get in touch with Bill, you probably already have those contact info, or you can find it in the Red Book. All right. Bill, thank you so much for joining us a lot of fun. Thanks for talking about your journey since since Harvard.


William Cheng  49:37

It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much. Well,