As an incurable compulsive introspect, I tend to brood, ponder, contemplate, and (of course) muse on “big ideas,” such as:
• What makes people choose things which cause themselves harm?
• Are some people better people than others, or are they just more skilled at hiding their problems?
• Is pain really a bad thing, or is our aversion to it a sign of human weakness?
• Does God ever wear a hat?
• Do dogs watch Oprah?
• Why did I put “big ideas” in quotes?
Lately I’ve been contemplating the nature of human awareness:
• Is self-awareness (the ability to think of ourselves in the third person) a uniquely human trait, and is lack of self-awareness the essence of mental illness?
• Is empathy, or other-awareness the highest of human traits? Is this what the biblical idea of being “made in the image of God” really means?
Yeah, that’s a lot deeper than about dogs watching Oprah. The second of these questions seems to be a very important dividing point in people’s ability to have good relationships with others. Our ability to put ourselves into the place of others, pondering their motives, thoughts, and emotions, goes a very long way in helping us develop deep relationships and avoiding causing inadvertent pain.
It also seems to be a trait that is in short supply in our health care system. I am amazed and deeply disturbed by how callously many of my patients have been treated by some of my colleagues. Patients are seemingly treated as a commodity, a necessary evil required for billing of services.
I do understand that doctors and nurses are drained of their ability to show compassion by a system that puts them in an adversarial relationship with patients, hospital administrators, insurance companies, lawyers, and their fellow doctors and nurses. That feeling of burn-out in me was one of the big reasons I left my old practice. Either I had to change my compassion, or my situation.
“I want you to get me a new doctor,” she told me, a bit of disgust coming out in the sharp tone in her voice.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He asked me if I was nauseated, and I told him no, I was just vomiting. Then he asked if I was feeling pain in my stomach, and again I told him no, it was just vomiting. He then told his nurse to write down nausea and abdominal pain. When I objected, he just gave me a bad expression and walked out of the room.”
I tried to come up with a plausible explanation for his action, but there was none. ”I’m sorry,” I said. ”There are a lot of people who come back from him feeling really happy and listened-to. It’s obvious that you saw none of that from him.”
“I asked his nurses if he aways acted this way,” she continued, “and they just shrugged and told me that he sometimes did.”
“I’m happy to send you to a different doctor,” I said, shaking my head.
I hate it when this happens.
I send people to specialists for two main reasons:
- I am not qualified to offer the treatment or procedures the specialist can give.
- The specialist has far more experience with the problem, and so can offer better care.
I was talking with a few friends not long ago. Our conversation somehow got to the issue of authority, and what exactly respect for authority looks like. One of them, trying to make a point, turned to me and asked: “So you surely deal with people who don’t listen to what you have to say. What do you do when your patients don’t take the medications you prescribe?”
I totally wrecked his point, which made me glad because I didn’t agree with it anyhow.
Since I am in the midst of a series of posts on patient-centeredness in healthcare, I need to take a quick (1,200’ish word) detour to an important related question: what happens when the patient doesn’t cooperate? What does patient-centered care look like with non-compliant patients?
If you look up the word “compliance” in a thesaurus, the first synonym (at least in my thesaurus) is “obedience to.” This implies that non-compliant patients are, at least to some degree, equivalent to disobedient patients. This is borne out by the reaction many patients seem to expect of me when they “confess” they haven’t taken prescribed medications: they look guilty — like they are expecting to be scolded. I guess scolding is what they’ve had in the past. Certainly hearing my colleagues complain about “those non-compliant patients,” I am not shocked that they scold their patients. It’s as if the patient is not taking their medication with the express intent of irritating their doctor.
But this is a very doctor-centered view of things, not patient-centered. It assumes the doctor is the one who should be in control, and the patient’s job is to “obey” what they’ve been told. It is a “prescriptive” type of healthcare, telling people what they should do. Doctors, after all, give “orders” for things, and the Rx on our prescriptions translates to “take thou.” We are the captains of the HMS healthcare, aren’t we?
American healthcare has a customer service problem. No, customer service in the US is terrible when it comes to healthcare. No, the customer service in the US healthcare system is horrendous. No, healthcare has the worst customer service of any industry in the US.
There. That seems about right.
What makes me utter such a bold statement? Experience. I regularly hear the following from people when they come to my practice:
- “You are the first doctor who has listened to me.”
- “This office makes me feel comfortable.”
- “I didn’t have to wait!”
- “Where’s all the paperwork?”
- “Your office staff is so helpful. They really care about my needs.”
- “This is the first time I’ve been happy to come to the doctor.”
- “It’s amazing to have a doctor who cares about how much things cost.”
- “You explain things to me.”
- “You actually return my calls.”
2015 was a hard year for my father. He’s a remarkably healthy 89 year-old, with no diabetes, no hypertension, and (most importantly) he’s got a sharper mind than I do on most days. Perhaps that’s a low bar to cross, but it’s pretty good for him. I think this is from all the crossword puzzles he’s done over the years.
Dad’s troubles started around the middle of the year when he started having low back pain. This pain progressed from mild pain to being so severe that he required a wheelchair to get around the house. This is the man who, a year after breaking a hip, was impossible to keep off of a stepladder to fix something on his roof. It was a big change. After trials of conservative treatment, he was eventually diagnosed with a compression fracture of his lumbar spine (presumably from steroids he took for an inflammatory problem).
Given the severity of his pain, he ended up going to a back specialist to get a procedure to fix the compression fractures and, presumably, reduce his pain. Unfortunately, his pain increased and changed after the procedure. It got so bad, in fact, that he ended up being hospitalized in November for pain control.
The hospitalization was confusing for both him and me. It wasn’t clear if his pain was from a problem in his back, as it had moved to his leg. Yet while in the hospital he didn’t get any radiological study to determine the source. Plus, he’s quite resistant to the effects of narcotic pain medications. I really don’t like to intervene on behalf of family members unless it’s absolutely necessary, but I finally ended up talking to the hospitalist who was quite nice, but not much help. Dad was being discharged to rehab the next day and I still wasn’t clear on what was wrong after a week in the hospital.
“You don’t charge enough.”
I’ve heard this from a lot of folks. I’ve heard it from my accountant (of course), other doctors, consultants, and even some of my patients. I’ve had some patients who are especially complex offer to pay me more because of the difficulty of their care. I think they feel guilty and worry I’m upset that they are being “too demanding” for what they are paying. I don’t ever take extra money.
When I recently told an elderly patient’s family that I was willing to do house calls if/when the woman needed it, their question was: “how much extra does it cost?” No extra charge, actually. They were delighted at how “old fashioned” I am. Yep, Dr. Smartphone is certainly old fashioned.
“I’ve been getting winded lately.”
He’s a middle-aged man with diabetes. This kind of thing is a “red flag” on certain patients. He’s one of those patients.
“When does it happen?” I ask.
“Just when I do things. If I rest for a few minutes, I feel better.”
Now the red flag is waving vigorously. It sounds like it could be exertional angina. In a diabetic, the symptoms of ischemia (the heart not getting enough blood) are atypical. It’s the pattern of symptoms that is the most important, and to have exertional shortness of breath which goes away with rest is a pattern I don’t like to hear.
What he needs is a stress test – more specifically in his case, a nuclear stress test (because his baseline EKG is abnormal). But there’s a problem: he has no insurance. A nuclear stress test will cost thousands of dollars.
I can refer him to the hospital, but I know the financial situation he and his wife face. They have no money because of a chronic pain problem he has. He hasn’t worked in several years, but hasn’t ever been able to get disability either (“I tried, but was denied three times”). Without insurance he’s not able to get his problem fixed, so he’s disabled. But he can’t get disability, so he can’t get insurance to get his problem fixed and no longer be disabled.
But the problem on hand is this: he needs a test he can’t afford.
There are many folks out there in this same situation. It may not just be the people with no insurance, and it may not even be people who don’t have money. In fact, my own family is facing this same problem. Multiple family members (myself included) need dental work done. Some need it done badly, yet we don’t yet have the money to pay for it. So we wait for the money to show up while the problems gets worse.
Dear ACO General Hospital:
Thanks for contacting me about my most recent blog post. I’m sorry to scare your administration about HIPAA information, but I am equally concerned about that and will always do my best to respect the privacy of my patients. At your request I hid even more of that information.
I know it’s kind of embarrassing to have that kind of thing made public, and I am overall grateful that you did not take it personally that I put the “transition of care” documents for all to see. My goal was not to embarrass or ridicule, it was to point out what our healthcare system is driving us all toward: replacing patient care with documentation. You are being encouraged by the system to produce those ridiculous documents, as they are part of the deal you accepted when you became “ACO General” in the first place.
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.