A short piece in The Health Care Blog reveals (albeit unintentionally) why so many outside of healthcare think the medical establishment still doesn’t get it.
The post, written by a general internist and residency program director, asked why an increasing number of internal medicine doctors are failing their internal medicine board exams. The pass rate has reportedly declined over the last several years from 90% to 84%. (Disclosure: I passed this required test about a decade ago.)
His differential included two possibilities:
(1) The test is getting harder – The testing agency said this wasn’t the case.
(2) Millennials lack the study habits of their elders, and have become great “looker-upers.” – The author suggested this was a key factor, and several commentators enthusiastically agreed.
The basic thesis here that in the Days of Giants, doctors worked harder, learned more, and were better. Nowadays, doctors are relatively complacent, less invested, less informed, and are generally worse – which is what’s reflected on the board exams.
Let me suggest a third possibility – perhaps today’s doctors are providing better care to patients than their predecessors were a generation ago. Maybe today’s doctors have figured out that in our information age, your ability to regurgitate information is less important than your ability to access data and intelligently process it. Maybe what makes you a truly effective doctor isn’t your ability to assert dominance by the sheer number of facts you’ve amassed, but rather how well you are able to lead a care team, and ensure each patient receives the best care possible.
In other words, what if the problem isn’t the doctors, who are appropriately adapting, but rather the tests (and the medical establishment), which may not be?
In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault describes the “clinical gaze,” which is when the physician perceives the patient as a body experiencing symptoms, instead of as a person experiencing illness. Even in the era of the biopsyschosocial model, the physician’s perspective is largely through a biomedical lens where biology and behavior cause disease.
In contrast, what I hear from patients is that health and illness are not merely the end results of individual biology and behavior. What people believe and experience when they are ill is usually something far more complex, deeply interconnected with their daily lives. And research shows the way people think about health influences whether they are receptive to health information, willing to change health behaviors or take medications, and even whether or not their health improves. But how are physicians, who are able to spend less and less time with patients, supposed to expand their clinical gaze to include the patient’s health beliefs and perspectives?
Psychiatrist and anthropologist Arthur Kleinman’s theory of explanatory models (EMs) proposes that individuals and groups can have vastly different notions of health and disease. Kleinman proposed that instead of simply asking patients, “Where does it hurt,” the physicians should focus on eliciting the patient’s answers to “Why,” “When,” “How,” and “What Next.”
Kleinman suggests the following questions to learn how your patient sees his or her illness:
1. What do you think caused your problem?
2. Why do you think it started when it did?
3. What do you think your sickness does to you?
Yesterday at the faculty meeting, we learned that the first year residents in anesthesia will now have to take AND PASS a written exam at the end of their first year. They will have a certain number of tries and if a resident can’t pass it by the third try they’re either out of the program or held back in some way. Now, it used to be when I was a baby resident that the first year residents took the certification exam that the third years took, and it was graded on a curve based on year. You didn’t have to pass it or get a certain grade; it was sort of a reality check, to see how you were doing. I don’t know who’s brilliant idea this new test was, other than the people who administer and charge for the test. It might be a solution in search of a problem, I have no idea.
Here’s the thing. Testing freaks residents out. They have been taking high-stakes tests their whole entire lives. In high school they had to get As and score a 1400 on the SAT. In college they still had to get As, but also had to ace the MCAT. In med school the tests might have been pass/fail but USMLE Steps 1 and 2, both of which are taken during med school, certainly weren’t. Results of those had bearing on what residency you got into. The result of all this standardized testing is that every resident has PTSD about tests, and every resident has had years to figure out how he or she can most quickly cram in the amount of information necessary to do well on the test. Residents are masters of this. There is absolutely no reason to read the textbook, which is likely 8 years out of date anyway, when you can go straight to the review books and practice exams online. Especially if the threat of expulsion or repetition, both of which are disasters on multiple foreign and domestic fronts, is held over their heads.
Lost in the weeds of President Obama’s budget proposal is a 10-year, $11 billion reduction in Medicare funding for graduate medical education (GME). GME is the “residency” part of medical training, in which medical school graduates (newly minted MDs and DOs) spend 3-7 years learning the ropes of their specialties in teaching hospitals across the country.
Medicare currently spends almost $10 billion annually on GME. One-third of that is for “Direct Medical Education” (DME), which pays teaching hospitals so that they in turn can provide salaries and benefits to residents (current salaries average around $50,000/year, regardless of specialty; there are variances by region). No problem there.
The proposed cuts come from the Medicare portion known as “Indirect Medical Education” (IME) payments. Though IME accounts for two-thirds of the Medicare GME pie, it’s not easy for hospitals to itemize what exactly it is they provide for this significant amount of funding. Instead, hospitals bill Medicare based on a complex algorithm that includes the ‘resident-to-bed’ ratio, among other variables.
A 2009 Rand Corporation study commissioned by Medicare to evaluate aspects of residency training called on the government to tie IME payments directly to improvements in educational and hospital quality, lest the money be perceived to be going down a series of non-specific sinkholes. That idea has caught on, and legislators in both parties now see the healthy IME slice of Medicare education funding as a plum target for cost-cutting, as the direct benefits are difficult to enumerate, let alone quantify.
This has medical educators very worried that we will have to do more with much less (disclosure: I am one).
Recently, I was having a discussion with a colleague about being a doctor. She confided in me that if someone asked her about becoming a doctor, she would tell him or her to become a nurse practitioner. After reading the emotional open letter to our policymakers in Washington DC, it may sound like a reasonable suggestion. After all, why go into this much debt and spend so much time in training if your prospects are not much better? More recently, the New York Times article points out job prospects for radiology trainees are thinning, meaning the well known “ROAD” (Radiology, Ophthalmology, Anesthesiology, and Dermatology) to success may soon become a road to nowhere if there are no jobs.
There in lies the question, why become a doctor? If the answer is to make money or to have an easy life, then you probably need to look for a new profession. With healthcare payment reform, doctors can expect lower salaries as bundled payment and cost cutting measures are instituted. Moreover, the demand for healthcare will go up as more patients have insurance, leading to higher patient volumes and the expectation to see more patients with the same amount of time.
After the mayhem and jubilation of celebrating a successful match at the Pritzker School of Medicine with our students, I went onto Twitter to follow the #match2013 hashtag to understand what the reactions were. Most were positive, but one headline caught my attention ‘In Record-Setting ‘Match Day,’ 1,100 Medical Students Don’t Find Residencies.”
It is true this was the largest match because it was “All-in” – programs either were in the match for all their positions (including international medical graduates or IMGs) or they were not. Obviously, many programs put more positions up for grabs in the Match. After I reposted this article to Twitter, there were many theories and questions about who these unmatched students were and why – some of which I have tried to answer to the best of my ability below. I welcome your input as well.
Who are these unmatched students? Why didn’t they match?
-Are these IMGs? This number is US Senior medical students who have been admitted and graduated from US medical schools but now have no place to go to practice medicine.
-Does this include those that entered the “scramble” now called SOAP. Technically, those that entered SOAP and were successful would have been counted as “matched” on Friday. Last year, 815 Us seniors went unmatched after the SOAP.
Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the first reports of a cluster of cases of pneumocystis pneumonia in gay men in Los Angeles. While I’ve recently heard a number of reflections on these early years, I’ll focus on a topic that I haven’t seen covered: how AIDS transformed training – including my own – and what the emergence of AIDS taught me about innovation and, yes, opportunism.
In early 1982, I was a 3rd year student at Penn on my first medicine ward rotation. One night, my team admitted a young gay man with a bizarre story: progressive wasting, spiking fevers, profound dyspnea, and diffuse infiltrates on his chest x-ray. The next morning, I presented the case to my attending, David Goldmann. Having just read reports of a similar illness galloping through urban gay communities, at the end of my presentation David said gravely, “This thing” – the disease didn’t yet have a name – “is changing the way we practice medicine.”
When I arrived at UCSF in 1983 to begin my internal medicine residency, it didn’t cross my mind that this decision would guarantee that my training would be dominated by this new scourge. In 1985, as a third year resident, I jotted down some of my reflections in an essay. It began:
Like many of today’s interns and residents training in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, I have cared for many more patients with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia than pneumococcal pneumonia, more patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma than breast cancer, and more patients with cryptocococcal meninigitis than meningococcal meningitis… This realization has prompted me to consider the impact of AIDS on medical residency training.
I sent this paper, entitled “The Impact of AIDS on Medical Residency Training,” off to the New England Journal of Medicine. Of course, this was a naïve and hubristic thing for a resident to do, but I really didn’t know any better. A few weeks later, while on the wards at the VA, I received a page for an outside call. “Hi, this is Dr. Marcia Angell,” said the voice on the other end. “I’m an editor at the New England Journal. We really liked your article but we’ll need a few changes before we publish it.”