Recently, a friend of a friend had an accident and fell in her driveway. After two days of pain that did not improve, she went to an urgent care center where an x-ray was taken and the PA told her that there was no rib fracture and her lung had not collapsed, so she went home. The next day the urgent care center called back and said “whoops, there is a rib fracture and you do have a collapsed lung”. They said they’d call her primary care doctor, but didn’t. The patient tried to, but the doctor was on vacation. The covering physician refused to see her. So our mutual friend, who is a physician and surgeon who lives 1000 miles away, called someone who lived in the patient’s town to take her to the emergency room. There, they re-x-rayed her, and admitted her to the hospital, telling her that they would need to insert a small tube to remove the air (called a pneumothorax) from around her lung. The doctors said she refused the procedure, although she says she just asked some questions about it. She was admitted for “observation”, and given oxygen. In the morning, since the x-ray was no better, they said that they would have to keep her in the hospital, but this later was reversed on a visit from the resident on the hospitalist service, who said she could go home.
Our mutual friend called the resident, asked about it, was told that it was OK to discharge her (quoting the “resident’s best friend”, the medical information website UpToDate®) and would not put the friend in touch with the attending physician. However, the patient was terrified about going home, especially given her accident, that she lived alone, that she had had her bad experience with the urgent care center, and that her physician was out of town. I suggested that our mutual friend might try to contact a hospital administrator to see if the attending physician could be reached. Then I got a message that there was a new hospitalist over the weekend, who happened to be a family physician, and who tried a novel approach: she talked to the patient, examined her, and reviewed the chest x-rays. After this, she decided to call a pulmonary specialist, and it was decided to insert a chest tube. The patient, with the proper treatment, improved and should get better.
So probably the story will have a happy ending, at least from the point of view of ultimately getting the right treatment. The woman who was the patient may recover physically, but is unlikely to recover a lot of faith in what is amusingly called our health care “system”. The number of things done wrong were many, and most could be blamed on the individuals; the PA in urgent care who mistakenly thought that they could accurately read the chest x-ray, the provider in the emergency department who was apparently in too much of a rush to answer her questions and decided the fact that she had them meant she was refusing the recommended treatment, the hospitalist service who changed their mind about her need for hospitalization without explanation, the resident who would not contact the attending physician, and the attending physician who apparently did not want to be contacted.
But to blame just the individuals would be incorrect, although we can be very enthusiastic in lauding the weekend hospitalist who decided to actually care for the patient. The system is critical here. I do not know that hospital, but I imagine the doctors in both the emergency department and on the hospital floors are stressed an overworked, and that the way they responded to the patient in question, while unjustifiable, was probably caused in part by that overwork and stress. The resident may have been the “point person” in contact with the patient, but the service attending was ultimately the one making the decision. Poor role modeling by attending physicians and senior residents is common and leads to poor behaviors by residents, who are often more concerned with their own workload or pleasing their bosses than providing proper patient care. In such busy situations, patients are often assessed quickly, and judgements are made not just regarding their medical problem, but their personality. Are they going to be a “good patient” – meaning that they will quickly accede to doing what I am recommending -- or are they going to cause me “trouble” and cost me time? That trouble can be real if the patient is aggressive, intoxicated with alcohol or other substances, or has a serious mental health diagnosis, but it is sadly true that the label “troublesome” patient can even be applied to someone who asks perfectly appropriate and reasonable questions about the treatment being proposed for them.
Racism provides us with a bit of a metaphor, in the sense that there is both an individual and a structural (or institutional) component. Yes, behavior by individuals can be inappropriate and wrong and blameworthy. But if we leave it at that, if we do not understand the overall structure that encourages or facilitates such individual behavior, we will never solve the problem. We will never decrease or end racist behavior, and we will never ensure that patients get treated with the respect and concern that they should. Racism affects the medical system and medical education as it does the rest of society, but disrespect and self-centeredness can inhibit appropriate medical care even when race is not involved. Indeed, in this case the patient was a 70-ish middle-class white woman. One can imagine with what frequency, and to what degree, people are treated with disrespect – and poor medical care – when they are members of minority groups, poor, homeless, have a psychiatric diagnosis, are not clean and nice-smelling, are not coherent, are under the influence of a substance, etc. Of course, if one is a health care worker, one need not imagine it; one sees it all the time.
As a family doctor, I would like to take pride in the fact that the “hero” of our story also was one. In fact, I will. I actually believe that the training of family physicians, and the emphasis on caring for the patient rather than a particular problem, makes a difference, and enhances the caring characteristics of the individuals who choose to enter this specialty. That is, I think it is more than a coincidence. However, of course there are wonderful caring physicians, including resident physicians, in every other specialty, as well as family physicians who are jerks. I just think that it is a smaller percent.
Should there be any jerks in medicine? I have heard it argued that in some specialties, it is not necessary to have good “people skills”. In pathology, or diagnostic radiology, or even anesthesiology, where the doctor spends little or no time with living patients. Or in surgical and other procedural specialties, where technical skill, not “bedside manner”, is what matters. Sometimes I have acknowledged that this made some sense. Until I thought about the colleagues I have had in every specialty. And in every case the good ones cared about the patients they were involved with, whether or not they met them face-to-face.
The pathologist or radiologist knows it is also their patient, and the use of their skills in the performance of their jobs may make the difference in a person’s life, or death. They care. Caring may not be the same as “people skills”; we recognize that some people have greater difficulty connecting directly with others, and are certainly not trying to create a profession full of hucksters and snake-oil salesman with false charm. But we do want one whose practitioners can convey concern, and caring, and at the minimum not disparage the people who are in their care.
So, yes, I think that everyone admitted to medical school should care about people. And, yes, I think that we need to ensure that our medical education does not beat or role-model it out of them. Our residents need to have schedules and lives that are reasonable enough that, when they are tired or frustrated, they don’t act out. Our attending physicians need to be available.
Even when you are tired or overworked, it is not ok to be cruel or insensitive any more than to be racist or sexist. After all, there is a reason that this profession exists, and it is not to provide a good life for the practitioners. It is to try to maximize the health of the people for whom it cares.