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.

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

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

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?

The Entourage: Between Surgeon and Patient

“Two’s company, Three’s a crowd.”  -popular saying

“But I always say:  One’s company, Two’s a crowd, and Three’s a party!”  –Andy Warhol

 

100_3568 - Version 2As a surgeon, my patients generally know they are seeing me for a problem, and that problem may require surgery. I am sensitive to the fact that this is a very big deal to them, often the first time they have ever seen a surgeon. Even if they have had surgery before, that only means that they may have some idea as to what the process may entail. Patients are nervous, perhaps frightened, they have questions. They know they will have more questions and concerns as the visit and process moves on. There are big and important decisions to be made.

Many patients therefore arrive to their first visit with an entourage, one or more family members or friends, companions who are there to lend emotional support for this stressful visit. The additional ears to make sure the explanations and descriptions are heard correctly and understood, the extra minds to pose questions the patient may have forgotten or not thought pertinent to ask. This is laudable, advisable. I encourage patients to have someone with them for just these things, to help the patient.

So here is why the first thing I do when I meet a new patient is to excuse the entourage, and send them right back to the waiting room. Continue reading