When the eminent physician Dr Cliff Cleveland wrote his memoir about his years in medical practice, he entitled his book, “Sacred Space.” Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, but he pays rightful homage to the idea that that relationship between patients and their doctors and nurses is something exceedingly precious. Medical professionals appropriately go out of their way to keep that space neutral, private and nonjudgmental, because patients are often at their most vulnerable.
A patient of mine recently told me about a genital symptom that was bothering her. She’d had it for two years, but had been too embarrassed to bring it up. We had to build up our trust bit by bit, until she felt comfortable revealing it to me. Happily, it was something easily treatable. It’s situations like these that remind me how critical it is to protect this space.
Like most doctors and nurses, I try to keep the outside world firmly outside the exam room. I don’t talk about politics, religion, money, or sports. I don’t even gripe about the mayor. Most medical professonals avoid political activism for the same reason. But could that reticence be harmful to our patients?
I grappled with this over the past few weeks, as the House passed its American Health Care Act and then the Senate put forth its Better Care Reconciliation Act. As one detail after another was revealed, I began to worry about my patients. The cuts to Medicaid would do real damage to them. I had a number of fragile patients in mind who could die if their care was disrupted.
What would I do, I asked myself, if I started to notice a dangerous side effect of a medication that my patients were taking. The answer, of course, is easy. And it wouldn’t even be a question; it would be an obligation. If I see a threat to my patients’ health, it’s in my job description to speak up.
No one wants a hospital-acquired infection—a wound infection, a central line infection, or any other kind. But today, the level of concern in American hospitals about infection rates has reached a new peak—better termed paranoia than legitimate concern.
The fear of infection is leading to the arbitrary institution of brand new rules. These aren’t based on scientific research involving controlled studies. As far as I can tell, these new rules are made up by people who are under pressure to create the appearance that action is being taken.
Here’s an example. An edict just came down in one big-city hospital that all scrub tops must be tucked into scrub pants. The “Association of periOperative Registered Nurses” (AORN) apparently thinks that this is more hygienic because stray skin cells may be less likely to escape, though there is no data proving that surgical infection rates will decrease as a result. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, and OR nurses are confused, amused, and annoyed in varying degrees. Some are paying attention to the new rule, and many others are ignoring it. One OR supervisor stopped an experienced nurse and told to tuck in her scrub top while she was running to get supplies for an emergency aortic repair, raising (in my mind at least) a question of misplaced priorities.
I am a foreign born, foreign trained doctor, serving many patients from an ethnic minority, whose native language I never mastered.
So, perhaps I am in a position to reflect a little on the modern notion that healthcare is a standardized service, which can be equally well provided by anyone, from anywhere, with any kind of medical degree and postgraduate training.
1) Doctors are People
No matter what outsiders may want to think, medicine is a pretty personal business and the personalities of patients and doctors matter, possibly more in the long term relationships of Primary Care than in orthopedics or brain surgery. Before physicians came to be viewed as interchangeable provider-employees of large corporations, small groups of like-minded physicians used to form medical groups with shared values and treatment styles. The physicians personified the spirit of their voluntary associations. Some group practices I dealt with in those days were busy, informal and low-tech, while others exuded personal restraint, procedural precision and technical sophistication. Patients gravitated toward practices and doctors they resonated with.
It’s a provocative question, but it’s also the wrong one.
The question ought to be: When will healthcare fully embrace technology and all it has to offer?
It’s widely known that the $2.8 trillion US health system has significant waste and errors – between 25% and 30% of our health dollars go to services that do not improve health. Technology has the ability to put a big dent in that through standardization, real-time insights, convenient gadgets and complex data analysis the human brain simply cannot perform.
Consider some of the early innovators. There’s the heart monitor in the phone. The wristbands that count steps. And then there’s Oto, the cellphone attachment that snaps an image of the inner ear sparing frazzled parents one more trip to the doctor’s office for yet another infection.
Every workday morning I spend 30 minutes or so reviewing my Twitter feed.
By following a select group of top healthcare news observers and thought leaders, I find that Twitter works pretty well as a filter for the news events and topics that matter most to me. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been alerted to some articles about nurses and doctors who are, shall we say, quite frustrated with electronic medical records and what they perceive as a decline in the physician-patient relationship.
One of the articles that caught my attention was about a nurses’ union, National Nurses United, that has launched a national campaign to draw attention to what they say is “an unchecked proliferation of unproven medical technology and a sharp erosion of care standards” in today’s hospitals.
Of course, their agenda and real concern seems quite transparent. It is not so much about technology itself as it is a decline in the number of Registered Nurses directly involved in caring for patients at the bedside.
The nurses’ union campaign seems to resonate with another article I came across last week about the lost art of the physical exam. That article from Kaiser Health News and the Washington Post extols some very legitimate concerns about doctors who rely too much on lab tests and medical imaging to arrive at a diagnosis instead of talking to, touching, and examining the patient.
The progeny of the iPhone and the iPad will change the shape of your institution — and your balance sheet.
One of the more striking images, to me, out of the online spew in the last few months was from the inauguration. It was a wide view of an inaugural ball. There was the president waltzing with the first lady, and a crowd of several hundred watching them. What was striking about that image was that the several hundred people held several hundred small glowing rectangles in their hands. Practically every member of the crowd was carrying a smartphone and was photographing or videotaping the moment.
The scene was commonplace in its moment, remarkable only in the perspective of history — but such a short history. We could not have imagined so many people carrying smartphones at Obama’s first inaugural only four years ago. Four years before that, we could not have imagined any. The iPhone had not been invented.
There had been attempts at smartphones before the iPhone, and devices like tablets before the iPad. But the rampant success of iOS devices did far more than establish two profitable niche. It changed our relationship with the world.