Tag Archives: doctor/patient relationship

US healthcare: Atul Gawande has some good news

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Back in June of 2009, when Congress was just beginning to formulate and debate the Affordable Care Act, Atul Gawande wrote an article on the rising (and exorbitant) cost of US health care. He focused on how waste contributes to cost — not just the usual fraud, high prices, and administrative fees, but unnecessary care: Drugs that are not helpful, operations that do not make patients any better, scans and tests that not only have no benefit, but often lead to harm. Waste accounts for a third of health-care spending. More disturbingly, it can cost people their lives.

Gawande used the town of McAllen, Texas to illustrate his case. McAllen had one of the highest costs in the nation for Medicare — twice as high as El Paso, another Texas border town with similar demographics. And it’s not as if patients in McAllen were receiving better care. Compared to El Paso, patient care was similar or worse.

It turned out that many specialists in McAllen had financial stakes in home-health-care agencies, surgery and imaging centers, and the local for-profit hospital. One local doctor told Gawande: “Medicine has become a pig trough here. … We took a wrong turn when doctors stopped being doctors and became businessmen.” Read more

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The patient with a list of questions

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When I want to know more about a medical condition, my first Internet destination is the Mayo Clinic’s website. It seems both reputable and decidedly non-alarmist.

Each condition is organized into a series of information packets: definitions, symptoms, causes, risks. There’s invariably a section called “Preparing for your appointment.” Without fail, it recommends that you make a list of your symptoms. Here’s an example:

Before your appointment, make a list that includes:

  • Detailed descriptions of your symptoms
  • Information about medical problems you’ve had in the past
  • Information about the medical problems of your parents or siblings
  • All the medications and dietary supplements you take
  • Questions you want to ask the doctor

Once you’ve begun interacting with your doctor, it can be easy to forget something you’d intended to ask.

I was somewhat surprised, then, to learn that some doctors are decidedly irritated when a patient brings a list to an appointment. Dr. Suzanne Koven discusses this in a Perspective piece in NEJM: The Disease of the Little Paper. Read more

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Reading Notes #1: Health care inequities. Overdiagnosis. The Doctor/Patient Relationship

benefits-harms-annual-mammography-screening

What follows are items I found interesting in magazines I’ve recently read. Normally I would have tweeted these links, but since I was on vacation from Twitter (see My Twitter vacation), I decided to create a type of blog post called Reading Notes (see Blogging and my Twitter vacation).

The bulleted titles below link to the specific item. There’s more detail on the articles I mention under References. OA indicates open access. $ indicates a pay wall. Note that emphasis in quotations has been added by me. Read more

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Electronic medical records, for-profit medicine, and the doctor-patient relationship

emr-for-profit-medicine-doctor-patient-relationship

A complaint one often hears about electronic medical records (EMRs) is that the doctor pays more attention to the computer than the patient during an office visit. Among nations using EMR, is this a characteristically American problem?

I read an illuminating letter to the editor recently that compares the doctor/patient/EMR experience in the US and Canada. The letter was from Dr. Alan B. Astrow, a hematologist/oncologist who practices in Brooklyn, NY. He writes: (emphasis added)

Many American physicians agree that recording patient data electronically has interfered with “a deeply human, partly intuitive and empathetic process,” and has led to inefficient care. Since no one wants to revive illegible paper charts, however, the indictment encourages us to ascribe these harms to the price of progress.

A Canadian physician friend, though, says he uses an electronic record that does not disturb his rapport with patients. He also sees more patients hourly than American counterparts without compromising quality.

Why the difference? American physicians must choose from five levels of service when submitting bills. Of necessity, we tend to include extraneous information to justify higher levels and satisfy potential insurance company audits. Canada has only two levels, so doctors’ notes are short and succinct. Read more

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For U.S. health care, some are more equal than others

death-rate-after-surgeryThe Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare) will expand insurance coverage to millions of Americans (for example, to individuals with pre-existing conditions). Having insurance, however, does not mean a primary care physician will be willing to take you on as a new patient. There are multiple reasons for this, as discussed in a recent article in JAMA, Implications of new insurance coverage for access to care, cost-sharing, and reimbursement (paywall).

We no longer live in the Marcus Welby days of a medical practice that has only one or two doctors. The “vast majority” of primary care practices, however, have only 11 or fewer physicians (according to JAMA). Many of these practices are already at or near capacity, which means that adding new patients may require additional expenses (staff, office space, equipment). For small practices, the decision to add new patients is first and foremost a business decision: Will the increased income cover my increased expense? Here are some of the things the “vast majority” of providers will be thinking about:

  • The ACA lowers the cost of health insurance for many individuals, in particular, for people with relatively low incomes. These patients, however, will pay more for health care itself due to higher co-pays (that part of the cost not covered by insurance) and higher deductibles (the maximum annual out-of-pocket expense). In the past, the main burden of collecting fees was on insurance companies. Under the ACA, it may be health care providers who are faced with a “collection burden.”
  • Read more

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The general health checkup: Its origins, its future

What is a general health checkup? It’s when you visit a doctor not because of an ongoing chronic condition or because you’re concerned about new, unexplained physical or mental symptoms, but because you want a general evaluation of your health. The assumption behind such a visit is that if you do this regularly, you may prevent a future illness.

general-health-checkups

A recent issue of JAMA had two articles on general health checkups. One of them asked the question: What are the benefits and harms of general health checks for adult populations? It summarized a 2012 Cochrane review that addresses this question (it was written by three of the four authors of that review). The review concluded that health checkups were not correlated with fewer deaths (reduced mortality), neither deaths from all causes nor from cancer or cardiovascular disease in particular. Health checkups were associated with more diagnoses, more drug treatments, and possible (but probably infrequent) harm from unnecessary testing, treatment, and labeling. Read more

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Profit-driven medicine: Satisfying patients at the expense of their health

Why would patients who report greater satisfaction with their health care be worse off medically? This JAMA article, Patient Satisfaction & Patient-Centered Care: Necessary but Not Equal, offers an explanation that makes sense. It points to the commercialization of health care – treating the patient as a consumer – as the villain. (All quotations in what follows are from this article.)

The patient (consumer) satisfaction survey

In the US, many doctors are evaluated and rewarded based on patient satisfaction surveys. Motivated to produce high patient satisfaction scores, doctors are inclined to order more diagnostic tests. Why? It’s more than a simple desire to please the patient.

When physicians’ performance evaluations and incomes are tied to patient satisfaction, the situation becomes ripe for overuse and misuse of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures because it allows the physician to rationalize decision making in terms of patient satisfaction.

Pleasing a patient is a conscious, individualized choice. Rationalized decision making can easily become an automatic habit that requires no additional thought. Read more

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On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (4) The abnormal part

Abnormal psychologyContinued from parts one, two, and three.

A year ago, when I decided to call my declining rate of blogging a ‘sabbatical,’ I wrote down some questions to explore while I took time off to read.

How did we find our way into the dissatisfactions of the present – the commercialization of medicine, the corporatization of health care, the commodification of health? Does understanding the path we followed offer any insight into finding a better direction? Was the increasingly impersonal nature of the doctor-patient relationship inevitable once medicine became a science? Or was it only inevitable once health care emphasized profits over patients and the common good?

At the time I thought I would read primarily in the history of medicine, and that was how I started. Appreciating the historical context of medicine is important for understanding both how medicine ended up where it is today and what medicine could become. “The texture and context of the medical past provide perspective, allowing us to formulate questions about what we can realistically and ideally expect from medicine in our own time,” I wrote.

Now that I’ve become more familiar with the social determinants of health, I’m less optimistic about the future. The problem is not simply that the corporatization of health care has increased dissatisfaction among both doctors and patients. The problem is that our focus is so narrowly limited to health care systems that we fail to see the larger issue. As one metaphor puts it, doctors are so busy pulling diseased patients out of the river, there’s no time to look upstream and ask who’s throwing the bodies into the water. Read more

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On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (3) Connections

Continued from parts one and two, where I defined the terms used in the following diagram of my blogging interests. Click on the graphic for a larger image.

Blog topics and their connections

If I had written the previous two posts a year ago, I would have realized how much my interests were intertwined. I guess I wasn’t ready to do that. Anyway, in this post I catalog some of the connections.

Healthism

~ Healthism and psychological and physical conformity: Healthy lifestyle campaigns promote an ideal way of life that encourages individuals to alter their behavior and appearance. Although it’s true that we would all be better off if we didn’t smoke, that doesn’t make anti-smoking laws any less authoritarian, i.e., requiring conformity (see the section on anti-authority healthism in this post). The fitness aspect of healthy lifestyles promotes the desirability for both men and women of acquiring (i.e., conforming to) specific body images.

“Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism.” That’s a slogan I made up. I’m not sure yet if it will stand up to scrutiny. Certainly the self-help industry encourages self-criticism, which leads to a preoccupation with those aspects of personality currently considered undesirable. Read more

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On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (2) Economics & the socio-political

Continued from part one, where I discussed the first three of my six interests: healthism, medicalization, and psychological and physical conformity. Click on the graphic below to see a larger image.

Blog topics and their connections

The social determinants of health

Social determinants of health (often abbreviated SDOH) refers to unequally distributed social and economic conditions that correlate with unequal and inequitable distributions of health and disease. Presumably there is a causal relationship between the two, not merely a correlation. Definitively identifying the causal mechanisms, however, is difficult. A great many things influence our health (including things we’re not even aware of yet), and it can be difficult to isolate and scientifically study some of the ones we strongly suspect, like poverty, isolation, or a sense of being socially inferior.

The medical model is the preferred framework in modern westernized societies for explaining the distribution of health and disease. It emphasizes risk behavior (smoking, diet), clinical risk factors (blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels), genetics, health care access and quality, behavioral change, and patient education. One common characteristic of the medical model’s explanation of health and disease is that causes are located in the individual (behavior, genes), not in the individual’s economic and social environment. Read more

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On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (1) Bodies, minds & medicine

It’s always hard to be sure about these things, but I think the reason I decided to take a ‘sabbatical’ from blogging last July was that I was interested in too many seemingly unrelated topics. Writing about all of them left me feeling like I never got to the ‘meat’ of any one of them. And I couldn’t convince myself to focus on just one or two things, since that would mean abandoning the others, which I was unwilling to do.

Now that I’ve taken the past year to read and reflect, I find – duh! – that my interests are not as unrelated as I’d assumed. In hindsight, I should have realized this long ago, but, alas, I did not. I’m writing this post to clarify to myself what I now see as the common threads that connect my interests.

Here is a diagram that groups my interests into six categories. (Click on the graphic to see a larger image.)

Blog topics and their connections

Four of the six categories relate to all five of the others. The two outliers (neoliberalism and medicalization) are not as directly related as I feel the others are. Read more

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Recommended (online) reading

Woman reading computerI’m still on “sabbatical.” Mostly reading. Thinking about what I most want to write about. I know what my interests are — the problem is, I have too many. Meanwhile, here are some blogs I enjoy reading.

Thought Broadcast by Dr. Steve Balt

Psychiatry is a controversial topic these days. We (speaking for myself, anyway) love to criticize the overprescription of psychopharmaceuticals, the medicalization of the slightest deviation from “normal,” and those psychiatrists who are eager to take “gifts” from the drug companies whose products they subsequently prescribe and promote.

I suspect people relate to psychiatry more readily than to the science of medicine. We’ve all known moments of slippage along the spectrum of mental health. We’d all like to understand ourselves better, something psychiatry used to promise before it tried to reduce us to the chemical interactions inside our brains.

Dr. Balt writes about all of this. What I especially like about his blog is his compassion for patients and his honest assessment of the psychiatric profession. His writing has a quality like Gawande’s: He maintains a strong personal presence without straying too far into the overtly personal.

To get a sense of Thought Broadcast, read Dr. Balt’s My Philosophy page. A recent post I’d recommend: How to Retire at Age 27. It’s on psychiatric qualification for disability. His point is that labeling (and medicating) someone as disabled does nothing to solve underlying social problems. It concludes:

Psychiatry should not be a tool for social justice. … Using psychiatric labels to help patients obtain taxpayers’ money, unless absolutely necessary and legitimate, is wasteful and dishonest. More importantly, it harms the very souls we have pledged an oath to protect.

Read more

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On sabbatical

Self-reflectionI’m taking a break from frequent blogging – want to take time to read, do some research, reflect, and think about what I most want to write about next. At the moment, my inclination is to concentrate on the history of medicine, starting with the Enlightenment, followed by the transformation of medicine into a science in the 19th century. I want to consider what the past might be able to tell us about the present.

How did we find our way into the dissatisfactions of the present – the commercialization of medicine, the corporatization of health care, the commodification of health? Does understanding the path we followed offer any insight into finding a better direction? Was the increasingly impersonal nature of the doctor-patient relationship inevitable once medicine became a science? Or was it only inevitable once health care emphasized profits over patients and the common good?

Medicine is not an abstract science, like quantum physics or mathematics. Scientific biomedicine may have its foundations in the research laboratory, but the practice of medicine takes place in the real, everyday world of doctors, patients, nurses, lab techs, clinics, hospitals, professional associations, patient advocacy groups, drug firms, insurance companies, politicians, the Internet, and the health advice columns of the Sunday papers. It takes place in a particular place at a particular time, and in a social, economic, political, and historical context.

To understand our dissatisfactions with and hopes for medicine – both as patients and practitioners – it helps to examine that context. And the context is easier to see if we step back from the immediacy of the current situation and consider the recent history of medicine. The texture and context of the medical past provide perspective, allowing us to formulate questions about what we can realistically and ideally expect from medicine in our own time.

“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.” (Cicero) Or, to expand on that a bit: “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.” (Goethe)

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The Dreams of the Founders of Family Medicine

Marcus Welby MD on the phoneLaurence Bauer has been an ardent, longtime advocate of family medicine. Among other things, he is Chief Executive Officer of the Family Medicine Education Consortium, a not-for-profit corporation that encourages and supports collaboration among Family Medicine Residency Programs and Departments of Family Medicine.

Larry and I met thanks to our mutual interest in Marcus Welby, MD. The practice of medicine has changed dramatically since Dr. Welby inspired doctors to become practitioners of family medicine. Yet each time I talk to Larry, I’m reminded of today’s dedicated students and physicians who want to practice comprehensive care with the same concern for the whole person that Welby expressed for his patients. This remains a timeless value of the medical profession, and for Larry, it’s important to keep that value alive in an age of narrow subspecialties and corporate medicine.

Family Medicine as a specialty (a three-year residency after medical school that includes the study of internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology, psychiatry, and geriatrics) emerged in the late 1960s. Those who initially endorsed family medicine wanted to change the direction of medical culture and influence its future. In the words that follow, Larry addresses those early visionaries. I’d like to thank him for allowing me to share his thoughts.

The Dreams of the Founders of Family Medicine

When poetry strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from dance, it atrophies – Ezra Pound

As Family Practice emerged from the field of General Practice, it is important to realize that many in and out of medicine told the founders they would not succeed. The cynics believed that the dominant forces in medicine were too entrenched and there were too many societal forces working against the idea of a generalist renaissance in medicine. “Real” medicine of the future aspired to something more worthy. Real medicine involved care of hospitalized patients and was informed by the scientific and technological advances associated with sub-specialty medicine. Anyone could care for the people “out there”. But the founders dreamed big, bold dreams; they were a determined and visionary group. Read more

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Pascal Bruckner on doctors and patients

Doctor patient relationshipA concise summary of the history of the doctor-patient relationship: It began with reverence and respect for the physician, changed dramatically in the 20th century, is in an unhappy state today, but may aspire to something more satisfying in the future. (emphasis added)

There is no figure more ambivalent than the doctor, who is simultaneously a preacher, a magician, and a healer, the master of both life and death. For a long time the image of him oscillated between two extremes: that of an arrogant practitioner intoxicated by his power and endowed with all the attributes of knowledge; and that of the family doctor, the tutelary divinity of French society who knew how to combine sound, precise diagnosis with friendly advice about what to do. …

Everything changed when medicine became specialized and liberalized. In the hands of a specialist, not only is the human body fragmented, but each part of it is subject to competing authorities. The result of this new status is that in dealing with a physician we oscillate between faith and absolute suspicion. Since he is supposed to know everything, a doctor has no right to be mistaken. … The contemporary patient is a skeptic who does not believe in any treatment but tries them all, combining homeopathy, acupuncture, sophrology, and allopathy, a little like new converts who embrace several religions to increase their chances. Read more

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The emotional burdens of patient care

The emotional pain of doctorsIn a recent issue of JAMA, Dr. Michael Stillman writes about the emotional pain of delivering bad news to a patient he has known through the best and worst of times.

Earlier in my career, delivering bad news seemed like a technical challenge. I would methodically seat patients and their family members facing one another, pause for a moment after reporting that there was an “unexpected finding” on a scan, and search for an opportunity to say that I “wish things were different” and that I would be there to help until the very end. This routine, though slightly stiff, helped anchor me in whatever emotional swell was to come.

Now, however, these conversations just make me sad. …

Patients suffer and die, and a physician must find the balance being feeling her own humanity and maintaining the professional stance that allows her to move on. There are no simple guidelines, although Dr. Stillman suggests remembering the good times his patients have had and focusing on those moments.

Emotional hazards of practicing medicine

I wonder just how aware patients are of the psychological burden of being a doctor. Dr. Stillman writes:

I love practicing medicine. Unequivocally. Yet it sometimes seems as much a burden as a privilege. We begin our careers in the anatomy room, a ghoulish lab in which many “civilians” would faint. We cut our teeth in bloody operating rooms and intensive care units from which few people leave intact. We spend our lives bearing witness to the sufferings and diseases of troubled souls. We are well paid, intellectually stimulated, and, if we are lucky, trusted and maybe even loved by our patients. Yet on certain days, when our patients do not do well, the trade-off seems untenable.

How are we to protect ourselves from the emotional hazards of the practice of medicine? How are we to stand with our patients through the very worst while avoiding depression, significant stress reactions, and even substance abuse or addiction? …

There is simply no way to be a good but distant physician.

Read more

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Doctors eliminate the middle man: Insurance

Doctors practice outside insurance systemIn Seattle, Washington, a group of 12 physicians and nurse practitioners see patients at a clinic that doesn’t accept insurance. Instead, patients pay roughly $65 a month, every month. In return they get unlimited office visits (including evening and weekend office hours), e-mail and phone access to practitioners, and – my favorite part – appointments that last up to an hour.

There are some additional charges, such as for lab work and other outside services, but these are billed at or near cost, and many medications are available at a discount. Even if you add in the cost of catastrophic medical coverage – say, $225 a month – this is still a reasonable price to pay for health care, especially compared to the premiums charged these days by major health insurance companies.

The real beauty of the plan, however, is not only that it’s attractive to patients. It can be a way for struggling primary care physicians to maintain a financially viable practice. The average patient pays $700 to $800 a year for membership. According to a report from Kaiser Health News, this is three times more than a doctor makes for each patient in an insurance-based practice. Not to mention the extra time and the absence of aggravation that comes when doctors eliminate insurance companies.

Norm Wu, president and chief executive of Qliance Medical Management, the direct-pay practice in Seattle, comments:

“So we can have a third the number of patients and get the same revenue per clinician, but with much less overhead.” … The approach, he says, allows Qliance to funnel more money into the care itself — through longer office hours, for example, or better diagnostic equipment.

A patient at Qliance comments: “The doctors will sit there with you as long as you need them to. … They don’t rush in and out.”

Lower costs and no complaints

Direct-pay primary care was encouraged in Washington by a new state law in 2007. The law permits direct patient practices – also called retainer health care – to operate without some of the legal and financial requirements typically imposed on entities such as insurance companies and HMOs. The goal of the legislation was to provide more affordable care for patients, improve access to primary care, and reduce the use of emergency rooms for primary care purposes. Read more

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From MD to MBA: The business of primary care

Business of primary care physicianYou could argue that medicine was never meant to become a for-profit business the way selling cars, cosmetics, and fast food are businesses. Among the differences between being a patient and being a consumer of non-medical goods and services:

  • There’s an asymmetry in the knowledge available to patients and doctors – a patient can’t possibly be as informed as a doctor about what’s wrong and what’s needed.
  • Patients can’t predict when they’ll need medical care and often seek care when their health is threatened and when decisions must be made quickly.
  • It’s the supplier – the doctor – who determines what the patient needs.
  • There’s an ethic that assumes doctors will not sacrifice the medical needs of a patient to make a profit.
  • There’s a very steep entry cost to becoming a doctor.
  • The health care market is basically not price competitive – a patient contemplating brain surgery is not going to be tempted by a surgeon offering a deep discount.
  • What’s at stake in health care – the consequences of making a mistake – is death and disability, not simply a case of buyer’s remorse.

And yet, in the United States, health care has become a for-profit business. The story of how this happened is complex, but decisive elements include the advent of Medicaid and Medicare in 1966 and the widespread availability of employer-sponsored health insurance, which got a boost during the wage freeze of World War II. Once patients no longer needed to know the true cost of health care, business interests were free to create what Dr. Arnold Relman called the “medical-industrial complex.”

Regardless of how and why it happened, we now accept that medicine in the US is a profit-generating business, where many segments of the “industry” aim to reward investors, not patients. As a result, health care has become too expensive for many patients, for employers, and for the government. Everyone agrees that costs are out of control, but – with so many competing economic interests — the solution is extremely elusive.

Doctors caught in the middle

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History of patient modesty part 2: Convincing patients to disrobe

Pelvic exam patient modestyIn part one of this post I explained how a new anatomical understanding of disease in the 19th century changed the practice of medicine. Prior to this insight, there was no need to expose the naked body to observation or to touch parts of the body that were normally clothed. In order to apply the anatomical theory of disease, doctors needed to discover what was happening inside the body. This required a new type of physical exam, with much greater exposure and invasion of the body. The new exam was an abrupt and significant change in the tradition of patient privacy and modesty.

Making patients blush

Doctors welcomed both the new understanding of disease and new techniques, such as the stethoscope, that gave them useful information about the interior of the body. Understanding and technique alone did nothing to improve the ability to treat disease, by the way. That came much later. What doctors could do was provide a better prognosis, thus avoiding futile and painful treatment of the terminally ill.

How did patients react to this change in medical practice? Unfortunately, we have very little direct information. Most of the evidence we have comes from doctors, not patients. Doctors tend not to record the routine and taken-for-granted nature of a patient encounter. The private diaries of patients undoubtedly recorded reactions to the more invasive physical exam, but historians of medicine have typically been more interested in uncovering evidence of new medical discoveries than in noting patient experiences.

There is every reason to believe that women found the new physical exam deeply embarrassing. For example, a woman’s diary entry from 1803 reads: “Doctor Williams called and made me undergo a blushing examination.” In 1881, Conan Doyle recorded that a female patient would not let him examine her chest. “Young doctors take such liberties, you know my dear,” she told him.

The indirect evidence we have comes from efforts of the medical profession to convince patients that the new physical exam was necessary and proper. This took two forms: Emphasizing the professionalism of doctors and arguing for the scientific nature of medicine. These 19th century changes in the image of medicine contain the seeds of a new relationship between doctor and patient. They led to a style of medical practice today that increases rather than eases patient concerns about privacy and modesty. Read more

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History of patient modesty part 1: How bodily exposure went from unacceptable to required

Patient in open-back gownEven doctors can be embarrassed when it comes time to expose their private parts to medical personnel. In an essay that appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association, a doctor describes her discomfort as she arrives for a colonoscopy appointment.

[A]s a person not exactly looking forward to the morning’s adventure, I found the receptionist’s demeanor and lack of eye contact wrapped me tight within a cold, impersonal cocoon. I was a subject. Though I hadn’t shared my sentiments with anyone, I felt both vulnerable and completely sheepish about having a very human reaction to such a common procedure. But this was my bottom and I was not happy to share it with others. Here to be exposed and invaded, in truth I was embarrassed and sought compassion. As anyone else would, I wanted to know that my discomfort, self-consciousness, and loss of control were understood. Instead, she exuded efficiency and delivered transparent quality assurance and poise.

The need to reveal private and intimate parts of our bodies is a routine occurrence in medical practice today. Though it may offend our modesty, we take it for granted that the embarrassing moments of a colonoscopy, a Pap test, or a prostate exam are necessary for our health.

Has it always been so? Have doctors always expected patients to disrobe? Have young male technicians always exposed the chests of female patients in need of a routine EKG? Have patients always been willing to allow doctors and their staff to view parts of the body normally seen by only the most intimate of partners? Read more

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Out of Practice: The demise of the primary care practitioner

Out of Practice Frederick M BarkenThe business of practicing medicine has not been good for doctors over the last 30 years. A post of mine called “Are doctors tired of practicing medicine,” on a site for primary care physicians, elicited the following complaints.

  • Doctors are no longer doctors, but poorly paid employees of the health insurance industry.
  • Without changes in how we treat doctors, more will retire early and med students won’t opt for primary care.
  • Everyone in the system is unhappy, obnoxious, or unsupportive, not just the doctors.
  • Maintaining electronic health records has a higher priority than caring for patients, and the effect on morale is disastrous.
  • The work doctors once did has been taken over by nurses, NPs, PAs, and hospitalists. We saw it coming, so we have only ourselves to blame.
  • No time for patients and too little reimbursement is extremely stressful.
  • Students these days prefer “lifestyle” specialties that pay well and give them nights and weekends off.
  • Even though you may love what you do, paying off med school loans lasts way too long, and that’s frustrating.
  • Despite modest financial ambitions and a strong motivation to help people, “managed care medicine really killed the doctor in me.”
  • This is not what doctors signed up for.
  • Interruptions, time pressure, low pay, high overhead, unrealistic expectations – who needs this?
  • We are not tired of practicing medicine … WE ARE EXHAUSTED.

There was not one response from a happy and satisfied physician. Read more

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The physical exam and society’s regard for physicians: A history

Laennec examines patient with stethoscopeThe physical exam – looking into the eyes and throat, taking the blood pressure, sounding the chest – is part of the process of medical diagnosis. It’s one way a physician attempts to determine the cause of a patient’s complaint.

In recent times, doctors have asked themselves whether the physical exam is becoming a lost art. It’s been replaced by an array of laboratory tests and high tech machines that presumably provide greater accuracy than the eyes, ears, and touch of a mere human being. (Smell, of course, also provides clues, and device makers are inventing medical gadgets that detect scents. Doctors no longer taste urine for sugar, as they did from antiquity into the 19th century, nor do they taste perspiration to see if it’s sweet, salty, or acrid.)

The reasons for the current decline of the physical exam are many. Hospital stays used to be much longer, so students had more time to learn from patients. The modern resident’s work week is officially limited, so there’s less time to spend at the bedside. Office visits are now much shorter, and a hands-on exam uses precious time. Read more

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Candid comments from the medical profession

Doctors are sometimes held to impossibly high standards. They’re only human, yet they’re not allowed to make mistakes.

Reader’s Digest ran an article earlier this year in which doctors revealed their human side – something patients rarely get to see. Here’s a sample of what they shared.

On intimidating the patient:

I was told in school to put a patient in a gown when he isn’t listening or cooperating. It casts him in a position of subservience. –Chiropractor, Atlanta

Ageism:

In most branches of medicine, we deal more commonly with old people. So we become much more enthusiastic when a young person comes along. We have more in common with and are more attracted to him or her. Doctors have a limited amount of time, so the younger and more attractive you are, the more likely you are to get more of our time. –Family physician, Washington, D.C.

On listening to patients:

I used to have my secretary page me after I had spent five minutes in the room with a difficult or overly chatty patient. Then I’d run out, saying, “Oh, I have an emergency.” –Oncologist, Santa Cruz, California

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Marcus Welby vs. the specialists

Marcus Welby MD with young patientIn the very first episode of the TV series Marcus Welby, MD, our hero delivers an after dinner speech to a group of young interns. As he’s introduced, he hastily scribbles the title of his talk and hands it to the hospital director: “The future of the general practice of medicine, if any.” The year was 1969.

In his introduction, the director somewhat tactlessly remarks that many “eminent specialists” have addressed the group in the past, but tonight they have a general practitioner. After acknowledging this, Welby continues:

Don’t apologize, You’re right. That’s what everyone thinks. Tell me, doctors, are you a specialist or a GP? Or sometimes they say “or just a GP?” But of course we are specialists. And our specialty, like any other, has certain advantages and certain disadvantages. The money is good, but you have to work three times as hard for it. But you people know all about that.

Since you’re about to choose your specialty, you’ve been amassing information about each. Psychiatry, we know, is practiced sitting down. Dermatologists don’t make house calls.

General Practice is performed standing up, sitting down, outdoors, indoors, wherever there’s illness. And that means everywhere. Because, gentlemen, we don’t treat fingers or skin or bones or skulls or lungs. We treat people. Entire human people. … Read more

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Physician as lone practitioner

Marcus Welby in scrubsPart two of the interview with me at Inside Surgery appeared today.

There are questions on the writings of Atul Gawande, physicians who tell-all about their patients on their blogs, and how the practice of medical care has come to seem more like shift-work than the venerable profession it once was. Here’s an excerpt from that last topic.

In 20th century America, business and industry became bureaucratized and were subjected to outside control. The medical profession held out against this change for a very long time. It argued that the doctor/patient relationship was special and unique among professions and should be under the control of doctors and patients, not outside bureaucracies.

The medical profession may have also been concerned about loss of prestige and income, but the sanctity of the doctor/patient relationship was central to resisting external control. This more or less committed the practice of medicine to the model of the solo practitioner.

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Are some diseases more prestigious than others?

Among medical specialties, some are more prestigious than others. You can generally tell which ones are more prestigious by how well they pay. Surgery and cardiology, for example, rank at the top of the prestige scale. Psychiatry and dermatology are near the bottom. One can also ask if some diseases are considered more prestigious than… Read more

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Health Culture Daily Dose #18

Source: Wunderground When did we start calling the whole day before Christmas “Christmas Eve?” I thought Christmas Eve was the evening before Christmas. But no. Senators voted on health care reform at 1:00 AM on Thursday December 24th. To me, that’s still Wednesday night, but it was widely reported as happening on Christmas Eve. Perhaps… Read more

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Giving "alternative" a bad name

I’m generally sympathetic to the benefits of alternative therapies. That’s not surprising given I’ve studied, practiced, and taught alternative therapies, in addition to having a PhD in the History of Science and Medicine. There are times, however, when I totally understand why some members of the medical profession are so vehement in their condemnation of… Read more

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Were "death panels" a teachable moment for palliative care?

Source: Palliative Care Foundation This past summer, thanks in large part to Sarah Palin, we were inundated with sound bites about death panels, pulling the plug on grandma, and saving the government money by dying a little sooner. Palin’s emotionally manipulative Facebook post appeared on August 7. “The America I know and love is not… Read more

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Are women doctors safer?

Nearly half of students in US medical schools are female. Studies show that, compared to their male counterparts, women doctors are friendlier, spend more time with their patients, and are less likely to be sued. According to Jorge Girotti of the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School, women doctors are more empathetic, compassionate, and… Read more

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