By MIKE MAGEE, MD
As Robert Muller’s testimony before Congress made clear, we
owe President Trump a debt of gratitude on two counts. First, his unlawful and
predatory actions have clearly exposed the fault lines in our still young
Democracy. As the Founders well realized, the road would be rocky on our way to
“a more perfect union”, and checks and balances would, sooner or later, be
counter-checked and thrown out of balance.
On the second count, Trump has most effectively revealed
weaknesses that are neither structural nor easily repaired with the wave of the
wand. Those weaknesses are cultural and deeply embedded in a portion of our
citizenry. The weakness he has so easily exposed is within us. It is reflected
in our stubborn embrace of prejudice, our tolerance of family separations at
the border, our penchant for violence and romanticism of firearms, our
suspicion of “good government”, and –unlike any other developed nation – our
historic desire to withhold access to health services to our fellow Americans.
In the dust-up that followed the New York Times publication of Ross Douthat’s May 16, 2017 article, “The 25th Amendment Solution for Removing Trump”, Dahlia Lithwick wrote in SLATE, “Donald Trump isn’t the disease that plagues modern America, he’s the symptom. Let’s stop calling it a disability and call it what it is: What we are now.”
Recently a long-time health advocate from California told me
she did not believe that the majority of doctors would support a universal
health care system in some form due to their conservative bend. I disagreed.
It is true that, to become a physician involves significant
investment of time and effort, and deferring a decade worth of earnings to
pursue a training program that, at times, resembles war-zone conditions can
create an ultra-focus on future earnings. But it is also true that these
individuals, increasingly salaried and employed within organizations struggling
to improve their collective performance, deliver (most of the time) three
critical virtues in our society.
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.
It’s a seductive idea. We doctors possess knowledge and experience which can not only help people, but can save their lives. We get opportunities to be the right person at the right time to offer the right help that makes all of the difference. It’s one of the greatest things about our profession. It’s also one of its greatest traps.
I’ve heard many doctors refer to themselves as “healers,” as if we have some special power to bring about healing in our patients. This idea confers some sort of a higher status and originates, to some, from a “higher calling” to a more noble life. Again, this is a logical step, in that we have opportunities on a regular basis to help and even save the lives of people. It’s natural to believe that somehow the healing power comes from our touch, or even from our knowledge.
It doesn’t. I am not a healer.
Healing is what the patient does, not the doctor. As a physician, I am certainly one who can help the patient find a faster road to healing, but I don’t heal. I help.
Why am I taking the time to talk about this? Why get stressed out over whether I am a helper or a healer? I think that the belief in doctors as healers causes significant harm to both doctors and patients, and that getting a better perspective about the roles of each will greatly improve the care given. Here’s why I believe this is a topic that needs addressing:
1. Doctors Often Fail at Healing (And Will Always Ultimately Fail)
There are many patient problems that do not get better, despite my best efforts. There are countless pains I can’t remove, and many problems I do not solve. Even when I succeed, the success is always temporary, as a new problem will eventually come back. And if healing is our ultimate goal as physicians, we all are total failures, as all of our patients eventually die. If healing is held as our goal, we fight a losing battle. We are the soldiers in the Alamo, offering impotent resistance to an overwhelming force.
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.