Americans tend to like fast things: instant coffee, sports cars, and speed dating. Many share a fascination with record holders, such as the world’s fastest runner or texter. And increasingly, the same goes for medicine. The number of minute clinics is exploding. Some emergency rooms now post their current wait times on roadside billboards. And increasingly, physicians and other health professionals are under pressure to increase the speed at which they see patients.
A friend of mine, a family physician, was recently advised by the new manager of his practice that he will be penalized if he doesn’t increase the number of patients he sees each day in clinic. A thorough and compassionate physician who is known for the quality of the relationships he builds, he asked the man, “How am I supposed to work faster and still provide good care?” The practice manager thought for a moment and responded, “Why don’t you stop asking open-ended questions?”Continue reading…
Have you ever wished that instead of choosing a single answer on a multiple choice exam you could write an essay instead to show how you are thinking about the question? It happened to me many times, particularly on my medical board exams, where the object seemed more to guess what the question writers were thinking than to get at the depth of my knowledge. And even though each question typically had a menu of 5 possible answers, the message was binary: right vs.wrong. There was never room for anything between these two extremes. Yet this middle ground is where most of our lives take place.
This “yes/no” is a digital philosophy, where strings of 0s and 1s act as switches for the information that runs our world. These answers are easily quantifiable because they are easily counted. But what are we quantifying? What are we counting? Has the proliferation of easily quantifiable standardized testing led us to more and deeper knowledge? I think we all know the answer to that question. Yet are heading in the same direction with electronic medical data? Let me explain what I mean.
There was an interesting discussion yesterday on a listserv I am a part of about structured vs. unstructured (narrative) clinical data. I don’t often jump into these discussions (believe it or not), but this time I had to make my views heard, because I believe they are similar to the views of many clinicians.
I can’t tell you exactly when it happened, but sometime in the past two decades, the practice of medicine was insidiously morphed into the delivery of health care. If you aren’t sure of the difference between the two, then “God’s Hotel” is the book for you. It’s an engaging book that chronicles this fin-de-siecle phenomenon from the perspective of San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, the last almshouse in the United States.
Dr. Victoria Sweet, a general internist, came to Laguna Honda for a two-month stint more than 20 years ago and ended up staying. Laguna Honda was home to the patients who had nowhere else to go, who were too sick, too poor, too disenfranchised to make it on their own. The vast open wards housed more than a thousand patients, some for years. Laguna Honda was off the grid, and this, Sweet discovered, was to the benefit of the patients.
Unencumbered by HMOs and insurance companies, the doctors and nurses practiced a very old-fashioned type of medicine, “slow medicine,” as Sweet terms it. There was ample time for doctors and nurses to get to know their patients, and ample time for patients to convalesce. Many a written-off patient recovered within the comforting, unhurried arms of Laguna Honda.
I have been thinking about the difference between slow medicine and UCLA medicine. It has made me realize how complex and difficult it is to transform American health care so that we lower per-capita cost and increase the quality of our lives. And yet we must achieve these two goals.
Slow medicine is practiced by a small, but growing subculture whose pioneer and spokesperson is Dr. Dennis McCullough, author of the book My Mother, Your Mother: Embracing “Slow Medicine,” The Compassionate Approach to Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones. Slow medicine is a philosophy and set of practices that believes in a conservative medical approach to both acute and chronic care.
McCullough describes slow medicine as “care that is more measured and reflective, and that actually stands back from rushed, in-hospital interventions and slows down to balance thoughtfully the separate, multiple and complex issues of late life.” Shared decision-making, community and family involvement, and sophisticated knowledge of the American health care system are some of the slow medicine practices that sharply contrast with UCLA medicine.
UCLA medicine is the status quo where the hospital is the center of the medical universe; where care is often uncoordinated and hurried, and where cure is the only acceptable outcome for both patient and physician. I call it UCLA medicine because the CEO of that well-regarded medical center was quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article as saying, “If you come into this hospital, we’re not going to let you die.” This is a statement that puzzles me as an old time anatomic pathologist.