Pretty in Pink (Rethinking Pink)

“Isn’t she…isn’t she pretty in pink?” – Psychedelic Furs, Pretty in Pink

IMG_1829October in New England. The sky is a brilliant blue, the leaves on the trees are turning impossible shades of orange, yellow, and red.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so in addition to the brilliant fall colors all around, people are wearing pink clothing and pink ribbons, and products on store shelves has been packaged in pink wrappers. Professional sports teams wear pink. Hospital, civic, and community organizations sponsor special Breast Cancer programs and often have pink treats and pink giveaways to reinforce the message.

One’s inner cynic can easily rise to the surface, and it’s easy to unleash a bit of snark at this pink-splashed world every October. From the little annoyances like markups and surcharges on items because they are repackaged in pink, to the big scandals and exposes on breast cancer organizations who support exorbitant CEO salaries or only spend pennies-on-the-dollar on research, support, prevention, or treatment. And really, who isn’t aware of breast cancer already? (Final person has been made aware of Breast Cancer, from this recent satiric post). I’m really not a “pink” kind of girl, studiously avoiding it for most of my life, so I appreciate those who find pink cringe-worthy.

Not that long ago as a young surgeon in-training and later as a young attending, when I wore my pink ribbon pin people would ask me what it meant. Specifically, doctors asked me about it, and more specifically, other surgeons asked about it.  Mostly male surgeons, but then, surgeons were and are still mostly men. Women patients, women physicians, and women surgeons had started to wear the ribbons to raise awareness and show support, but it was relatively small number of people. Breast Cancer was felt to be a women’s disease (although it affects men too), and there were not a lot of options or even challenges to the surgery or for the treatment. Surgeries were deforming, medications made patients quite ill, and outcomes could be depressing and disheartening.

How times have changed. Continue reading

The Ultimate Patient Advocate

Posting my piece written for Sermo, as a guest blogger on the Sermo Blog, April 13, 2015. Click on the link here (The Ultimate Patient Advocate)to see the original post. 

Adding the quotes to set the tone, though, as I usually do. The graphic is also my own photography, as with all of the pictures on this blog. Enjoy!

 

“Only one rule in medical ethics need concern you — that action on your part which best conserves the interests of your patient.”Dr. Martin H. Fischer, German-American Physician and Author

“A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount.”Principles of Medical Ethics, American Medical Association

“I pledge to pursue the practice of surgery with honesty and to place the welfare and the rights of my patient above all else.”Fellowship Pledge, The American College of Surgeons

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Laurel, North Andover, MA

Advocating for patients is a core value in medicine, in patient care. Our legacy as patient advocates dates back to Hippocrates in 500 B.C.E., codified in the oath and teachings that have provided the moral and ethical foundation on which the profession has been built. Even the Code of Conduct for the American College of Surgeons includes as its first principle, “Serve as effective advocates of our patients’ needs.”

Physicians fundamentally care for patients, their families, our communities. We advocate on the small, individual scale for each patient, and we advocate on the large scale for the entire population of patients and society.

The physician is the ultimate patient advocate.

The entire purpose of my profession is to learn about humans—their biology and chemistry, their function in health, and dysfunction in illness and injury. We strive to understand the impact of health or illness and injury on the psyche and on social interactions. To learn about and discover treatments and interventions, and to provide compassion and comfort in applying them. To educate both patients and our society in order to prevent illness and injury, promote health. We are called to speak truth to power in order to accomplish these goals.

The foundation of all this is the relationship and trust between the physician and the patient. Central to this relationship, that trust is the role of the physicians as advocates for their patients.

But now the position of “Patient Advocate” has become ubiquitous among hospitals, insurance companies, and health systems. A Patient Advocate is a (lay) person/entity whose primary role is to protect the patient and their interests, but also to field complaints, advocate on behalf of the patient/family, and even go so far as to assist in decision-making regarding the treatment plan or course of care. They are supposed to help navigate the often complex and confusing healthcare system, and the interactions with doctors, hospitals and insurance companies.

Patient advocacy seems a noble pursuit, and often much needed. Patients and their families are distressed and vulnerable, even in good health; add illness, and the ability to navigate the system and the decision-making can be daunting if not impossible.

All well and good, but I wonder why there is this pressing need for an entire different profession, an additional layer, another buffer between the patient and the physician? Has the core principle of advocacy changed in my profession? Have we abdicated our responsibility, or is it something else? If it has not changed, if we have not abandoned our principles, what is it perceived as lacking?

As Voltaire (or Peter Parker/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The powerful responsibility physicians have for the care of their patients remains, but the trust on which it is based has eroded. The bond between physician and patient — and between the medical profession and society — has become strained.

Individual patients, the general public, and the government have all become increasingly wary of physicians. Considerable effort and expense is employed to rein in the perceived power and control wielded by physicians, implying that there is little trust in the ethics, oaths, and codes that we have set for ourselves. Hospitals, healthcare organizations, insurance companies, and various branches of government and regulatory agencies, as well as licensing boards and health departments (not to mention lawyers) have bit by bit surrounded physicians and buried them under mountains of law and regulation, benchmarks and measures and protocols.

Health systems and insurance companies increasingly dehumanize physicians, treating the highly skilled and highly trained professionals like pawns on a chess board, faceless and interchangeable. Physicians drop on and off of “preferred provider” lists in arbitrary and capricious fashion, destroying any relationship and continuity built with the patient. Doctors are presented as interchangeable.

Worse, at times it seems that these groups are driving a wedge in the physician-patient relationship. As a consequence, patient trust and confidence is shaken. It is not much of a leap for the relationship to be framed then as adversarial rather than cooperative. If a doctor is no longer seen as the patient advocate, then of course the void must be filled.

But Patient Advocates generally haven’t the medical training or expertise. They may be also beholden to the system or entity that employs them. The most common and available advocates are generally working for a hospital or insurance company, whose priorities may not entirely align with patient and physician. This is problematic, of course, because it is often the hospital or insurance company the physician must stand up to on behalf of her patient.

It is imperative that physicians continue to shape our evolving healthcare system and promote that which preserves and protects our relationship with our patients. We must insist that we not only take a seat at the table among “stakeholders” in the healthcare system, but show that we are the best and more uniquely qualified to lead the efforts. We must again claim that space between patient and physician and remind not just our patients, but all others that indeed we are their advocates. The physician who fails to serve as an advocate for their patient also fails to serve as a physician to that patient. We must fight for the time we need, fight against the distractions, shore up the trust that has been strained so mightily.

There is nothing in the description of a patient advocate that isn’t already part of what we as physicians commit to do for our patients. We are, therefore, the first and the last patient advocate, their most effective advocate, the ultimate patient advocate.

I advocate for physicians to continue to claim the time and space to be effective advocates for our patients; and to embrace this responsibility, and not abdicate it to others. Taking the lead to work with, but not be replaced by patient advocates.

Muted

Smitty greets Sully as they meet to head to work, “Hey there, Sully! How’s your wife?” Sully answers, “Oh, geez. She’s up in bed with laryngitis.” Then Smitty says, “Laryngitis?! That damned Greek!”

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First cone of the season, West Boxford, MA

As you may have guessed, I am nursing a case of laryngitis, my voice muted and strained. This time, it has not stopped me from attending to my work responsibilities or other activities. It has required some adjustments though, as I squeak and growl and cough and sputter, my voice robbed of inflection and tone, and even volume control. It is an irony to have to strain my voice to repeat myself because of my strained voice.

I have had more severe laryngitis twice, one time a couple of months ago, another time several years ago. These were so bad, my voice so completely silenced, that I had to change both my operative and office schedules, not just to recover, but because it made my job impossible. We wear masks in the operating room which obscure our expressions and hide our mouths, muffling our voices just a bit; it can be difficult to hear and be heard even with functioning vocal cords. It is impossible if you can’t even manage a whisper.

It is true that learning to (or being forced to) mute your own words and listen more to patients — and colleagues and staff — is not a bad exercise in attention and communication. But in day-to-day practice, there is an expectation of bi-directional conversation, two-way discourse. The doctor is expected to voice opinion, advice, orders. That cannot happen while mute.

In medicine and healthcare we often think about, and talk about, physician-patient communication, but in the abstract. We consider principles and philosophies, we argue the the importance and the need to protect and enhance physician-patient communication. We frame it as a component of the physician-patient relationship, or patient empowerment, or patient-centered care, or patient education, or even informed consent. It will probably be an important piece of the new precision, personalized medicine buzz. Physician-patient communication is the foundation for much in healthcare, whether new hot topics and ideas, or old traditions and approaches.

There are lots of little things we tend to overlook though, in these lofty discussions, that turn out to be no less important when considering the big picture of physician-patient communication, and the big important overarching principles and approaches. Think for a minute about the old saying about trying to sleep with a mosquito in the room, and you will start to understand about small things having great importance, great impact.

These are the small, day-to-day, practical and concrete challenges and barriers to communication, to care. The little things that will tank the most cutting edge and sophisticated solutions and approaches. They could be episodic, like a surgeon with laryngitis, a power failure, downed cell tower or phone line, crashed computer network or server. Or they could be more insidious, lurking continuously in the background, like scheduling protocols that cut time short, technology mismatch when the patient may only have an analog phone, or no phone at all, outdated computer software or no computer at all, no car or transportation, no family. Even language itself may be a barrier rather than a bridge, whether a function of nationality, education, or med-speak jargon.

These little things are potent, despite being small; they are common, nearly ubiquitous. If not accounted for, and certainly if not acknowledged, they may well allow our new solutions to enhance rather than alleviate the disparities and vulnerabilities among those who are most susceptible. We must keep them in mind as we debate our philosophies and principles, as we race towards new technologies and systems.

Disrupting and hacking the systems are popular concepts that are catching our attention and imagination. But if we aren’t careful, the disruption we seek will not be the disruption we get. Remember unintended consequences. Remember that if we aren’t mindful to craft solutions that will include and work for the most challenged and vulnerable among us, the solutions will not likely work well for any of us, and the whole enterprise crashes down, grinds to a halt.

Just like my schedule on the day I am mute from laryngitis.

A Matter of Faith

“Have a little Faith in Me” – Have a Little Faith in Me, John Hiatt

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Russian painted wooden Easter eggs

Spring ushers in major holidays in many faiths and religions. Western Easter has just passed, we are in the midst of Passover, and coming to the close of Holy Week with Good Friday for Eastern Orthodox Christians, making final preparations for their own Easter celebration.

The rites of spring and the vernal equinox, new life and rebirth are springtime themes and touchstones across many cultures. Faith is important to many people and across many cultures and religions. I would assert faith is even important to atheists and agnostics, and those without a formal religious tradition.

Faith is important in medicine, too. Continue reading

Thoughts on Doctor’s Day

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you!” – Stuck in the Middle with You, Steeler’s Wheel

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Daffodil between the rocks, Spring 2014, North Andover, MA

Today is Doctor’s Day, established to take a moment to recognize and honor the work and contributions of doctors.

The first thing I read today was a message from current Massachusetts Medical Society President, Dr. Richard Pieters, who in speaking about Doctor’s Day reminds us all that the focus of the day is not just physicians, but the physician-patient relationship. The physicians of the Massachusetts Medical Society have declared that this Doctor’s Day we recognize “the basic principles that the doctor-patient relationship is confidential and sacrosanct.”

In his piece, which discusses this in the context of gag laws preventing physicians from asking about gun ownership and gun safety in the home, he emphasizes the efforts of physicians to focus on the patients and have unencumbered and protected conversations. It is impotent to protect both directions of these conversations—patient to physician as well as physician to patient. He further stresses the importance, and danger, of government laws, rules, and regulations that would insert themselves between physician and patient, silencing physicians or compelling them to include specific proscribed content.

I could not agree more. I would in fact go even further. Continue reading

Friday Afternoon Rituals—Here Comes the Weekend!

Party Weekend” – Joe “King” Carrasco

Fight for Your Right (To Party)!” – Beastie Boys

“We Just Wanna Dance” – The Flirts

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Mom & Dad’s dog Sophia, too pooped to party…

My favorite radio station, WHFS, had a ritual every Friday afternoon to start off the weekend, back in the day. DJs Weasel and Bob Here would exchange pleasantries as they exchanged shifts, and would launch in to the same set of songs at the same time every Friday (with occasional additions). The songs above, as a matter of fact. These were selected to get your spirits up and blood pumping as the work week morphed into the weekend. It was a ritual which became a tradition for ‘HFS and loyal listeners, fondly recalled to this day, even though the radio station itself is long gone and the DJs dispersed. Every Friday I seemed to be in my car at just the right time, cranking up the volume, celebrating the end of my week and the coming weekend.

Doctors also prepare for Friday afternoons, bracing for a ritual of sorts. Any time after 3:00 it starts, lasting until well after the offices close and the weekday schedule transitions to the after-hours weekend routine. It is observed by most physicians, regardless of specialty, whether they practice in the hospital or in an outpatient office.

Suddenly on Friday afternoons, it occurs to people that the weekend will be starting, and the availability of the doctors and their offices, labs, imaging, testing and what-have-you will be limited. So all of the problems languishing in and out of the hospital take on a renewed sense of urgency, and must be taken care of Right Now, before the weekend hits. Nothing can wait another hour or day, and certainly not until Next Week (Monday)! Continue reading

Is There a Provider in the House?

“I said Doctor, Doctor, Mr. M.D. – Can you tell me what’s ailing me?” – Good Lovin’, The Grateful Dead

“I’m a doctor, not a mechanic.” – Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, “Star Trek”

“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. ” – Chris Robinson/Dr. Rick Webber of  “General Hospital”

 

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Ceiling, Bellagio Hotel Lobby

I enjoyed an email exchange with a couple of long-distance friends the other day, Gina (an author and journalist) and Eric (a computer/IT professional), prompted by the follow-up questionnaire Gina received after her recent doctor visit and procedure. Throughout the form, it asked her to evaluate the various aspects of her interaction with her provider. 

This struck her as odd and funny, and we engaged in a generally humorous exchange. A couple of really serious points were made as well.

First, though, it made me think of a new game, playing around with words. Take any fictional character from books, film, television; any famous poetry, literary passage, or song lyric; any famous person or historical figure that contains or references the title “doctor” or “physician”, and substitute “practitioner” or “provider.” Dr. Who, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Zhivago. Christ the Physician. Dr. Spock (both of them), Dr. Koop. Dr. Gawande. “Doctor, my eyes…”, “Doctor, Doctor, tell me the news…” , “Is there a doctor in the house?” You get the idea. Stilted, clumsy, and the result is often strange if not creepy. We can play the same game with references to the word “patient”, substituting “customer” or “client”.

But wait, we already play that game, it is a daily interaction, and we are getting shockingly accustomed to it. Continue reading

Running Late: Confessions of the Late Doctor

“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye! I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!” – The White Rabbit, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland 

“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” – The White Rabbit, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

“Which form of proverb do you prefer Better late than never, or Better never than late?” – Lewis Carroll

“And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late, though we really did try to make it.” – Carol King, It’s Too Late, Tapestry

Clock Tower, Mary Lyon Hall Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA

Clock Tower, Mary Lyon Hall
Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA

It is in the very words, running late. It is not walking late, or strolling late, or even meandering late. It is always running late, the phrase itself active, implying urgency and speed, rush and anxiety. The distress, just like the White Rabbit. The dash to the next appointment in a crammed tight, overfilled schedule.

Running late. It is the bane of doctors everywhere. I can’t stand it, I don’t think any doctor is happy when it happens. It is distressing, and feels unavoidable. I feel as if I can’t stop it, can’t prevent it.

It is almost to the point that I am amazed if I am ever actually on time. Office schedules overbooked to compensate for no-shows and to accommodate urgent patients, and operations are scheduled with an optimistic slant on the time needed. All of it collapsing with the first surprise, the extra problem, the emergency. The schedule so carefully crafted, like a house of cards, and just as vulnerable to come crashing down at the slightest perturbation, the tiniest shift. These shifts and adjustments snowball throughout the rest of the day, bigger and bigger, later and later, sweeping me along the avalanche path.

Run, run, run. Rush, rush, rush. Office to hospital, hospital to office. Continue reading

Context is Everything: Communicating Meaning in Medicine

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.” -Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”

“Stick to Facts, sir! … In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir: nothing but Facts!” Charles Dickens, Hard Times

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Snowy shrubs, Massachusetts Winter

“Information without context isn’t transparency” flashed across my Twitter feed. So now I am thinking about context, and communicating context, in medical care.

This quote, from Heather Pierce, JD, MPH, Director of Science Policy and Regulatory Counsel for the Association of American Medical Colleges, was made in the context of a discussion of  The Sunshine Act. The Sunshine Act refers to the law and regulation mandating public disclosure of financial payments from for-profit companies to physicians. These payments are published without context regarding the relationship of the physician to the company or industry, if there is conflict-of-interest, or if they exert any influence. Payments or items/services valued above $50 are all included, to my understanding. They may be for a textbook, lunch for the office, a junket or meeting, or research. None of this context is specified.

The concept of information without context is itself extraordinarily important, aside from the controversy and opinions swirling around the Sunshine Act. Transparency is the buzzword in many aspects of life these days, from politics and policy, to commerce, to medicine. I will focus on some aspects of context in medicine.

It is ironic, then, that I am taking a quote about context out of context, to write about the importance of context.

 There are to me two main areas in medical care where context is important, and both are contained in the exchange between patient and physician. There is the context the patient provides to us, and there is the context we physicians provide back to the patient. All of this context depends on communication.

 The communication from patient to physician is crucial, even critical, in sorting out the details of symptoms and complaints. This history provides the context and framework for appropriate testing, and accurate diagnosis. Too often too many forces work against revealing this context. Time constraints on the patient visit, the crush and chaos of an emergency setting, the limitations of documentation (especially electronic) stripping nuance and detail from the record. Without context, the testing (labs, imaging) are no longer accurately aimed like a bullet, but becomes instead a shotgun blast, a scattered approach. The patient needs the time and space, and our interest and attention, to understand this context.

 Likewise, physicians provide context back to the patients. The context for the tests and results, the diagnosis, what it means. The meaning as it stands alone, and as it fits in the patient’s own context, which we mirror back to them. The transparency of sharing results with patients is important, but here, too, the context is important. Stakes are too high, miscommunication too easy a trap, misunderstanding and denial too common. Lab test, x-ray report, biopsy result all need to be communicated with attention to context. They are not stand-alone, black and white. It is my role as physician to help the patient understand, help formulate a plan, and that also means providing an interpretation (context again) for the results, helping the pieces of the puzzle fall together.

I am therefore not a fan of systems, whether laboratory reports or radiology results, providing results directly to patients, bypassing the ordering physician. The Skeptical Scalpel outlines the issue well, as he ponders, “Should radiologists tell patients their test results?” It is like the whole direct-to-consumer advertising mentality. And again, I believe it  all boils down to context. If we need to expedite getting the results to patients, then improve the communication between providers, between specialists, between departments. Permit the context to be shared and clarified in this space, too. Modify, alter, fix the system so that it facilitates rather than hinders these communications; transform the system so that it permits a place and space for the timely communication back to patients with room for context, and plan.

This is the space where healing and compassion dwell, where trust is built, where the bond between physician and patient is forged. There are too many forces inserting themselves into this space, where they do not belong. This is the space where meaningful and open communication happens. Where the patient and the physician become the team, not opponents. This is context. Most importantly, this is transparency. Isn’t this what we were after all along?

In a Blink: ‘The Diagnosis Is Cancer’

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” -Joan Didion

“Maybe that’s what life is…a wink of the eye and winking stars.” -Jack Kerouac

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Sunrise, Plum Island/Newbury, Massachusetts (November 2011)

Life changes in a blink. A misstep, an accident, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The seconds and even microseconds seem an eternity. Nothing will ever be the same from that moment. Everything that happens in that instant, flash, blink,  changes the whole world, your whole world, and you can never go back.

A few weeks ago I was in an automobile accident, my friend was driving. It was on a highway, at speed, involving two other cars besides ours. Amazingly, no one was hurt (I assume this, since the culprit who caused the wreck kept right on going and never stopped). The cars were damaged, my friend’s car took the worst of it. It is in the shop so that it can be fixed up, as good as new. All of this happened in a blink, an instant. Too fast to even register what was happening. Our plans for the day were shattered. My friend will be dealing with this for months, by the time all the repairs are done, bills paid, insurance adjusted. But cars can be fixed, as good as new. This is what got me thinking.

Injury, accidents and trauma, illness represent a nearly universal experience. No one is spared, Continue reading