Interviewing celebrities can make you a celebrity yourself, and it can make you very rich. So there’s got to be something to it or it would be a commodity. The world of media certainly recognizes the special skill it takes to get people to reveal their true selves.
At the other end of the spectrum of human communication lies our ability to explain and also our ability to influence. These three aspects of what we do—elicit, explain and influence—are far from trivial, and in my opinion quite fundamental aspects of practicing medicine.
Eliciting an accurate patient history or administering standardized depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, smoking and alcohol screenings are commoditized activities in today’s healthcare. There is little time allotted and these tasks are usually delegated to non-clinicians.
A complicated patient’s clinical history seldom lends itself to straightforward, structured EHR formats. It can be more like a novel, where seemingly unrelated subplots converge and suddenly make complete sense in a surprising last chapter.
I walked into my exam room to see a patient I first met two decades ago. On presentation, his co-morbidities included poorly controlled DM-1, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and a substance abuse disorder. Over the years our healthcare system has served him well as he has remained free of diabetic complications and now leads a productive life. Watching this transformation has been both professionally rewarding, personally enjoyable, and I look forward to our periodic interactions.
At this visit, he was sporting a MAGA hat. I was confused. How can my patient, who has so clearly benefited from America’s healthcare system, support a politician who has tried to abolish the Affordable Care Act, used the bully pulpit to undermine America’s public health experts, refused to implement healthcare policies which would mitigate COVID-19’s morbidity and mortality, and who minimizes the severity of the coronavirus pandemic every day. Why does he support a politician whose healthcare policies are an immediate threat to his health and longevity?
My brain says, “You are the physician this patient trusts to take care of his medical problems. You must teach him that COVID-19 is a serious risk to his health and explain how the President’s public health policies threatens his health. You must engage in a political conversation.”
Meaningful Use was a vision for EMRs that in many ways turned out to be a joke. Consider my list of Meaningful U’s for medical providers instead.
When electronic medical records became mandatory, Federal monies were showered over the companies that make them by way of inexperienced, ill-prepared practices rushing to pick their system before the looming deadline for the subsidies.
The Fed tried to impose some minimum standards for what EMRs should be able to do and for what practices needed to use them for.
The collection of requirements was called Meaningful Use, and by many of us nicknamed “Meaningless Use”. Well-meaning bureaucrats with little understanding of medical practice wildly overestimated what software vendors, many of them startups, could deliver to such a well established sector as healthcare.
For example, the Fed thought these startups could produce or incorporate high quality patient information that we could generate via the EMR, when we have all built our own repositories over many years of practice from Harvard, the Mayo Clinic and the like or purchased expensive subscriptions like Uptodate for. As I have described before, I would print the hokey EMR handouts for the Meaningful Use credit and throw them in the trash and give my patients the real stuff from Uptodate, for example.
I’d like to introduce an alternative set of standards, borrowing the hackneyed phrase, with a twist. MEANINGFUL U’S for medical providers:
“The goal for me and for my clinical and research colleagues is to put ourselves out of a job as quickly as possible”. This is how Mikkael Sekeres ends his book “When Blood Breaks Down” based on true stories of patients with leukemia. I share Mikkael’s sentiments and have always stated that I’d be happy if I am out of a job caring for patients with cancer. To his and my disappointment, this wish is unlikely to ever come true, especially when dealing with leukemia.
With almost 15 years of experience, Sekeres possesses a wealth of knowledge and patient stories making him the ultimate storyteller taking us along an emotional journey that spanned hospital rooms, outpatient clinics, and even his car. We get to know Mikkael the person and the doctor and immediately recognize how difficult it is to separate these two from each other. With hundreds of patients he has cared for, Mikkael could choose which stories to share. He decides on 3 patients, each with a unique type of leukemia and a set of circumstances that makes their story distinct. While I don’t know for certain, his selection likely reflected his ultimate goal of writing this book. It was about sharing life lessons he had learned from his patients–lessons that we could similarly learn—but it was also about giving us a glimpse of history in medicine and the progress that has been made in treating leukemia.
We get to know the three main characters of the book very well. David is an older man with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Joan is surgical nurse who suddenly finds herself diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), and Mrs Badway is a pregnant woman who was in her 2nd trimester when she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). While learning about their illnesses and family dynamics, Sekeres educates us about the various types of leukemia and enlightens his readers about so much history that I found fascinating. I did not know that the Jamshidi needle that I have used on so many patients to aspirate their bone marrows was invented by an Iranian scientist. Maybe I should have known, but I didn’t, that FISH was developed at Yale in 1980 and the first description of leukemia has been attributed to a French surgical anatomist, Dr. Alfred Velpeau in 1827. Somehow, I always thought that Janet Rowley discovered the Philadelphia chromosome, but Sekeres corrects me when he pictured Peter Nowell and David Hungerford who discovered that chromosome in 1961. As a reader, you might be more drawn to the actual patient stories, but the geek in me enjoyed the history lessons, especially the ones I was unaware of. Sekeres inserts these pearls effortlessly and with perfect timing. He does that so seamlessly and naturally that you learn without realizing you are being taught.
There have been disturbing reports of hospitals firing doctors and nurses for speaking up about inadequate PPE. The most famous case was at the PeaceHealth St. Joseph hospital in Washington, where Dr. Ming Lin was let go from his position as an ER physician after he used social media to publicize suggestions for protecting patients and staff. At Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, a nurse, Lauri Mazurkiewicz warned colleagues that the hospital’s standard face masks were not safe and brought her own N95 mask. She was fired by the hospital. These examples violate a culture of safety and endanger the lives of both patients and staff. Measures that prevent healthcare workers from speaking out to protect themselves and their patients violate safety culture. Healthcare workers should be expected to voice their safety concerns, and hospital executives should be actively seeking feedback from frontline healthcare workers on how to improve their institution’s Covid-19 response.
Share power with frontline workers
According to the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, it is common for organizations facing a crisis to assume a power grab in order to maintain control. As such, it is not surprising that some hospitals are implementing draconian policies to prevent hospital staff from speaking out. While strong leadership is important in a crisis, it must be balanced by sharing and even ceding power to frontline workers. All hospitals want to provide a safe environment for their staff and high-quality care for their patients. However, in a public health emergency where resources are scarce and guidelines change daily, it’s important that hospitals have a systematic approach to keep up.
With the exceptions of pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology, women make up fewer than half of all medical specialists. Representation is lowest in orthopedics (8%), followed by my own specialty, urology (12%). I can testify that the numbers are changing in urology – women are up from just 8% in 2015, and the breakdown in our residency program here at Indiana University is now about 20% of the 5-year program.
One reason for the increase is likely the growth of women in medicine – 60% of doctors under 35 are women, as are more than half of medical school enrollees. I also credit a generational shift in attitudes. The female residents I work with do not anticipate hostility from men in the profession and they expect male patients to give them a fair shake. They may be right – their male contemporaries are more egalitarian than mine – but challenges still exist in our field.
Urologists see both men and women, but the majority of patients are male. Urology focuses on many conditions that only affect men such as enlarged prostate, prostate cancer, and penile cancer. Furthermore, stone disease is more common in men, as are many urologic cancers such as bladder cancer and kidney cancer. So the greatest challenge for young women in urology is to gain acceptance among older men who require examination of their genital region and often need surgery. I’m hopeful that women entering urology today can meet that challenge, largely because we have already made significant progress. For the barriers we still face, leading urologists have blazed a clear path to follow with these three guideposts.
Last month marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Graunt, commonly regarded as the father of epidemiology. His major published work, Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, called attention to the death statistics published weekly in London beginning in the late 16th century. Graunt was skeptical of how causes of death were ascribed, especially in times of plagues. Evidently, 400 years of scientific advances have done little to lessen his doubts!
A few days ago, Fox News reported that Colorado governor Jared Polis had “pushed back against recent coronavirus death counts, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The Centennial State had previously reported a COVID death count of 1,150 but then revised that number down to 878. That is but one of many reports raising questions about what counts as a COVID case or a COVID death. Beyond the raw numbers, many controversies also rage about derivative statistics such as “case fatality rates” and “infection fatality rates,” not just among the general public but between academics as well.
Of course, a large part of the wrangling is due not only to our unfamiliarity with this new disease but also to profound disagreements about how epidemics should be confronted. I don’t want to get into the weeds of those disputes here. Instead, I’d like to call attention to another problem, namely, the somewhat confused way in which we think about medical diagnosis in general, not just COVID diagnoses.
The way I see it, there are two concepts at play in how physicians view diagnoses and think about them in relation to medical practice. These two concepts—one more in line with the traditional role of the physician, the other adapted to modern healthcare demands—are at odds with one another even though they both shape the cognitive framework of doctors.
From the vantage point of our self-quarantined shrunken universes, we cannot see even the immediate future, let alone what our personal and professional lives will look like some years from now.
Factories are closed, luxury department stores are in bankruptcy, hospitals have stopped performing elective procedures and patients are having their heart attacks at home, unattended by medical professionals. New York office workers may continue to work from home while skyscrapers stand empty and city tax revenues evaporate.
Quarantined and furloughed families are planting gardens and cooking at home. Affluent families are doing their own house cleaning and older retirees are turning their future planning away from aggregated senior housing and assisted living facilities.
In healthcare, procedure performing providers who were at the pinnacle of the pecking order sit idle while previously less-valued cognitive clinicians are continuing to serve their patients remotely, bringing in revenues that prop up hospitals and group practices.
A number of politically tinged narratives have
divided physicians during the pandemic. It would be unfortunate if politics
obscured the major problem brought into stark relief by the pandemic: a system
that marginalizes physicians and strips them of agency.
In practices big and small, hospital-employed
or private practice, nursing homes or hospitals, there are serious issues
raising their heads for doctors and their patients.
No masks for you
When I walked into my office Thursday, March 12th, I assembled the office staff for the first time to talk about COVID. The prior weekend had been awash with scenes of mayhem in Italy, and I had come away with the dawning realization that my wishful thinking on the virus from Wuhan skipping us was dead wrong. The US focus had been on travel from China and other Far East hotspots. There was no such limitation on travel from Europe. The virus had clearly seeded Italy and possibly other parts of Europe heavily, and now the US was faced with the very real possibility that there was significant community spread that had occurred from travelers from Europe and Italy over the last month. I had assumed that seeing no cases in our hospitals and ICUs by early March meant the virus had been contained in China. That was clearly not the case.
Our testing apparatus had also largely been limited in the US to symptomatic patients who had been to high-risk countries. If Europe was seeded, this meant we had not been screening nearly enough people. When I heard the first few cases pop up in my county, it was clear the jig was up. It was pandemic panic mode time. There was a chance that there were thousands of cases in the community we didn’t know about and that we were weeks away from the die-off happening in hospitals in China and Italy. So what I told the staff the morning of March 12th was that we needed to start acting now as if there was significant spread of COVID in the community. This meant canceling clinic visits for all but urgent patients, wearing masks, trying to buy masks, attention to hand hygiene, cleaning rooms between patients, screening everyone for flu-like symptoms before coming to the office, and moving to a skeleton staff in the office. I left the office that day wearing a mask as I headed to the ER.
One harsh Chicago winter, I remember calling a patient to cancel his appointment because we had deemed it too risky for patients to come in for routine visits—a major snowstorm made us rethink all non-essential appointments. Mr. Z was scheduled for his 3-month follow-up for an aggressive brain lymphoma that was diagnosed the prior year, during which he endured several rounds of intense chemotherapy. His discontent in hearing that his appointment was canceled was palpable; he confessed that he was very much looking forward to the visit so that he could greet the nurses, front-desk staff, and ask me how I was doing. My carefully crafted script explaining that his visit was “non-essential” and “postponable” fell on deaf ears. I was unprepared to hear Mr. Z question: if this is his care, shouldn’t he be the one to decide what’s essential and what’s not?
This is a question we are all grappling with in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The healthcare industry is struggling to decide how to handle patient visits to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and imaging centers, among others. Elective surgeries are being canceled and advocates are arguing that non-essential outpatient and ER visits should be stopped. Ideas are flying left and right on how best to triage patients in need. Everyone has an opinion, including those who ironically consider themselves non-opinionated.
an oncologist, these various views, sentiments, tweets, and posts give me
pause. I understand the rationale to minimize patients’ exposure and thus prevent
transmission. However, reconsidering what we should deem “essential” has made
me reflect broadly on our method of providing care. Suddenly, physicians are
becoming less concerned about (and constrained by) guidelines and requirements.
Learning how to practice “essential oncology” may leave lasting changes in our