Clifton Meador

Q: “What is a well person?”
A: “A well person is a patient who has not been completely worked up.”

As I enter the exam room, a smiling 10-year-old boy greets me. Pete, my last patient of a long day, is here for his annual well visit. I chat with him about his life — home, school, nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc. — and I’m struck by something. Pete is really well. He’s well-fed (but not too much), active and well-rested, and, most importantly, he’s happy. He has not been to see me in an entire year, and only comes in for preventive health counseling. I think back on my entire day… and on my whole week. Pete is different from every other child I have seen this week. He is, in fact, the only truly “well” child I have seen in a long, long time. And I wonder — is he the last?

I’ve begun this post with a short riff on Dr. Clifton Meador’s satirical masterpiece, “The Last Well Person,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994. Meador profiles a 53-year-old man he imagines to be the last known truly “well” person in the U.S. in 1998. The patient is subjected to every known evaluation and found to be basically undiagnosable. I reflect on this story each day as I enter one examination room after another, visiting with patients (and their families) in my pediatric practice.

Sadly, the story of “Pete” is real. I no longer see many well kids even though I am a primary care pediatrician, dedicated to keeping kids healthy. Yes, I devote much of my time to counseling parents about lifestyle choices (e.g., nutrition, exercise, play, rest, sleep) to promote wellness and prevent disease. Still, each and every encounter must be “coded” with a numerical set of instructions based on diagnoses (associated with disease states) so that I can get reimbursed for the care I deliver. My ability to keep my office open (so that I can continue to try and help families keep their children healthy) is predicated on my skill in playing this diagnostic code game.

Continue reading “The Last Well Child”

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A few months ago, a young cardiologist told me that he rarely listens to hearts anymore. In a strange way, I was not surprised.

He went on to tell me that he gets all the information he needs from echocardiograms, EKGs, MRIs, and catherizations. In the ICU, he can even measure cardiac output within seconds. He told me that these devices tell him vastly more than listening to out-of-date sounds via a long rubber tube attached to his ear.

There was even an element of disdain. He said, “There is absolutely nothing that listening to hearts can tell me that I don’t already know from technology. I have no need to listen. So I don’t do it much anymore.”

I began to wonder. I called my longtime friend and colleague, also a cardiologist. I knew him to be one of the best heart listeners. I asked him if he still listens to hearts. He answered, “Of course I do. I could not practice medicine if I didn’t. But you know every week, several patients tell me when I listen to their hearts that I am the first doctor ever to do that. Can you imagine that?”

Playing the devil’s advocate, I challenged my friend to tell me what he learned from listening to hearts.

He answered, “How could anyone not want to hear those murmurs, sometimes ever so soft, like whispers? Murmurs from the heart, even very faint ones, are trying to tell us significant things. Some sounds are very localized, even hidden or obscured by layers of air. And then there is the rhythm and the beat and the cadence that you cannot hear on the paper strip of the EKG. Also, careful listening is the only way to appreciate the rubs of friction if there are any. The devices are important, but the heart has its own spoken and unspoken language if you know how to listen.

Continue reading “The Unheard Heart: A Metaphor For Medicine In the Digital Age”

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A young doctor and his wife had just moved to the mountains of eastern Kentucky, near the border of West Virginia. The small town was nestled among the coal mines of the region. Nearly all of his patients would be coal miners or family members of a miner. Bill would practice family medicine. His wife, a veterinarian, hoped to build a small-animal practice.

Liz McWherther, the forty-seven-year-old wife of a miner, came to see the young doctor. Over several weeks, she had developed a curious set of complaints. Each morning she woke with a dry mouth and slurred speech. She also noted blurred vision and difficulty urinating. Within a couple of hours of waking, she was completely free of any symptoms. These symptoms had been occurring each morning and going away by afternoon.

Liz had had a series of tests done by the previous physician, but none of these tests were abnormal. The physical examination by Dr. Hueston was entirely normal. She denied drinking alcoholic beverages or using illicit drugs. Hueston had briefly considered some unusual response to marijuana or other drugs that were prevalent in the area. Liz had not been down in the mines, nor did her husband bring back anything unusual into the house.

Continue reading “The Art of Diagnosis”

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