Medicine in Denial

“Any system of care that depends on the personal knowledge and analytic capabilities of physicians cannot be trusted.”

Finally, I’ve come across a really spot-on analysis of what ails healthcare, and some proposals that have serious potential to improve healthcare for people like my patients. Come to think of it, implementing these proposals would surely improve care for all patients.

The analysis, and the proposed fixes, are detailed by Dr. Lawrence Weed and his son Lincoln Weed, in their book “Medicine in Denial.” (The quote above is from this book.)

The book is a little long, but for those who are interested in leveraging technology to make healthcare more consistent and more patient-centered, I’d say it’s a must-read and must-discuss. (I’m a bit surprised that this book doesn’t seem to have many reviews, and that Dr. Weed’s ideas are not more often cited by those advocating for digital health and patient empowerment.) In particular, the Weeds’ book provides:

  1. An excellent description and analysis of two huge fundamental problems in healthcare. One is the way we persist in relying on fallible physician minds to manage the process of evaluating, diagnosing, and managing medical problems. The other is our lack of standards for consistently documenting and organizing information related to our evaluation and management of patients. Both lead to idiosyncratic, disorganized healthcare that generally serves patients poorly, especially those who are medically complex or have multiple chronic conditions.
  2. A proposed method of using computers and technology to consistently connect patient data to medical knowledge, leading to better diagnosis and medical management.
  3. A proposed method of reorganizing of medical records and clinical data. This “problem-oriented medical record” would provide a fundamental level of organization and transparency to the practice of medicine, and would allow better management of multiple problems over time.
  4. A vision of healthcare focused on empowering patients, and on enabling healthcare to be tailored to each patient’s needs, rather than driven by provider idiosyncracy or the blunt tools of evidence-based (aka population-based) medicine.

The book also covers several other topics, such as related problems in medical education and credentialing, and redefining competence in medicine. But the points above are the ones that resonated most deeply with me and my frustrations with the healthcare system.

“The concept of a physician as we know it is not viable”

The Weeds point out the obvious: there exists far too much medical information for the human brain to keep it all in mind, and apply it in a consistent and thorough fashion during a medical encounter.

This creates serious problems when it comes to the core medical work of diagnosis and providing treatment recommendations. To being with, when a patient comes to a physician with a complaint, the physician invariably does not collect enough data. (Just take a look at any UpToDate topic – or JAMA clinical review article — on evaluating a common complaint, and ask yourself if clinicians usually inquire about everything they should. We don’t.) Instead, clinicians ask questions somewhat idiosyncratically, depending on factors such as their initial hunch, their specialty habits, etc.

Next, physicians do a highly imperfect job of matching the patient’s data – i.e. the positive and negative findings – with medical knowledge. This results in a diagnostic conclusion that is often wrong, or in a differential which is incomplete.

As the Weeds point out, a patient with a medical concern can go see three different doctors and emerge with three different diagnoses. And of course, just as clinicians are idiosyncratic in their diagnostic processes, they are also idiosyncratic in how they recommend further evaluation, or in prescribing a management plan.

Doctors will call this “clinical judgement,” but the Weeds consider this unacceptable human-generated variation in medical practice, and I have to say that I agree with them.

To make matters even worse, not only are clinicians applying idiosyncratic human processes to diagnosis and management, but they then go on to document their findings and thought-processes in spotty idiosyncratic ways. This leaves the patient without a good record of his or her medical findings, and makes it difficult for subsequent clinicians – or the patient, for that matter — to reliably build upon the efforts of the initial clinician.

In short, the Weeds argue that medicine is plagued by a culture of severe, pervasive disorder. We are not orderly in how we evaluate patients, we are not orderly in how we match their data to our existing knowledge base, and we are not orderly in how we document our clinical processes and data.

The Weeds attribute much of this to medicine’s habit of valorizing the individual physician’s intellect and autonomy. Because of this, we persist in organizing healthcare around the efforts of fallible physician minds. The authors declare that the profession of medicine is in terrible denial.

I found myself agreeing, yet again, with them.

The computer-assisted alternative

To counter the existing sorry state of affairs, the Weeds propose a “standardization of inputs,” and argue that clinical judgement should be applied after we use computers and technology to complete two key tasks. The first task is to reliably identify and collect the necessary information from patients, via standardized questionnaires that are tailored to the complaint in question. The second is to use a “knowledge coupler” to analyze the patient’s responses and propose a list of diagnostic possibilities.

Only then should clinical judgement really enter the picture, and according to the Weeds, this should be applied in order to tailor the next clinical steps to the patient’s preferences and individual circumstances. (Hear hear! I like it.)

Presumably the reflexive response of many physicians will be to decry this as cookbook medicine.

Is it? Having been dismayed by the spotty clinical work that many physicians produce under today’s usual rushed outpatient conditions, I’m not sure a little cookbook structure is such a bad thing. As the Weeds point out, the purpose is to start with a solid, consistent foundation, and *then* proceed to individualizing:

“Decision-making must begin with a simple, mechanical process of association between data and knowledge, conducted without reliance on the practitioner’s mind. Thereafter, the processes of care must remain highly organized and explicit. Care would become highly standardized at the front end, and medical decisions at the back end would become highly individualized – precisely the opposite of the status quo, where physicians have broad discretion during the intial patient encounter but are expected to conform to standardized, “evidence-based” guidelines in their ultimate decisions.”

Being a junkie for order and completeness, I found myself quite attracted to the concept of standardizing inputs and applying a knowledge coupler before bringing in a physician’s clinical judgement. (The Weeds call this the “combinatorial” approach, as compared to the now predominant “judgemental” approach, which relies almost entirely on clinical judgment.)

How fantastic would it be if my elderly patients complaining of falls could have worked through a nice thorough questionnaire and computer-assisted differential, all before I even sat down to hold their hand. And it would be even better if such digital assistance would enable the non-geriatricians to identify orthostasis and medication side-effects as source of falls in the elderly.

But is it actually feasible to apply questionnaires and knowledge coupling to most older patients? I couldn’t help thinking that it would take my patients a long time to go through the questionnaires, and that they would probably need someone’s assistance.

The Weeds do address likely objections to the combinatorial approach. They point out that “comprehensive does not mean exhaustive” (but actually it does, when it comes to geriatrics). They also note that even if a standardized initial data collection is time-consuming, this should be considered time well-spent if it leads to better quality diagnosis and management. (On this I agree.)

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if detailed data collection might not be more overwhelming for patients and providers than they admit. It certainly would’ve helped if the Weeds had provided an actual example of a sample questionnaire for one or more common complaints in an older adult.

For example, for shortness of breath, I presume an older person with history of CHF, CAD and COPD will require a more detailed questionnaire than a young adult with no significant past medical history. What would such a questionnaire actually look like? And how long would it take to complete?

In short, I found myself easily persuaded by the theoretical case for a technology-assisted combinatorial approach, rather than today’s terribly error-prone judgmental approach. But I was left uncertain as to how feasible it actually would be to implement in the case of complex elderly patients.

[Part Two of this commentary will be published next week, and will address some of the other key concepts discussed in “Medicine in Denial.” In the meantime, comments and reactions to the ideas described are very welcome.]

Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH, has been practicing geriatrics since 2006, and is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Geriatric Medicine. She blogs at GeriTech.