One Doctor Speaks Out: How to Be a Proactive Patient, the Decline of Family Medicine, and ER’s Friday Night Curse

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Doctor-Patient_300By Dr. Brendan Reilly
Author of One Doctor

The modern “business model” of American medicine has become increasingly specialized and impersonal. A major theme of my book is that every American needs, and deserves to have, at least one doctor who knows them well (not just as a patient but as a person, too). Every day, patients face complex decisions when interacting with specialist doctors whose expertise (and interest) often is limited to one bodily organ, or one disease, or one type of surgical procedure. These decisions are more difficult–and often less wise–when patients lack a personal doctor-advocate to oversee and coordinate their care, to help them make decisions that are right for them.

At the same time, however, one doctor is never enough; modern medicine is far too complicated for any one doctor to master it all. But, just as a symphony orchestra needs a conductor who knows the score and coordinates its many players, so do patients deserve a maestro who can do this for them. The biggest misperception patients have today is that such medical maestros are no longer available–and, worse, that they are no longer necessary. One Doctor was written to show that this kind of doctor still exists (but soon may become extinct) and is more necessary than ever before.

I set out to tell a story about doctoring, just one part of the health care system. I wrote this story because most people don’t know what doctors do or how we do it and, given the fact that everyone sooner or later must deal with doctors, we would all do well to know more about them. One important reason why the U.S. health care system rates so poorly–by most measures, it ranks dead last among the world’s 17 wealthiest nations–is that it systematically undervalues doctor-patient communication and undermines patient-centered care. For this reason, I occasionally interrupt the narrative in One Doctor to comment about aspects of the U.S. health care system that are relevant to doctoring in general and to my own patients’ stories in particular. Taken together, these stories and commentaries illustrate how doctoring (and our health care system) has changed over the past generation, for the better and the worse.

One Doctor

One Doctor

by Brendan Reilly

Tips on Healthy Living: Your book is based on what happened in your doctoring life during the winter of 2010. What was special about that time?

Dr. Brendan Reilly: During those two weeks, while caring for many sick, complex patients at New York Presbyterian Hospital, I also had to manage the life-threatening illnesses of both of my parents, 90-year-old Americans who don’t have a doctor. The confluence of these experiences made me think hard, and eventually write this book, about the challenges doctors and patients face today, and how those challenges have changed during the course of my own 40-year career in medicine.

One Doctor Author Brendan Reilly

TOHL: What impact are lobbyists and special interest groups having on health care today?

They are accomplishing very successfully what they are paid handsomely to do: maintain the status quo–and their own vested interests–in a health care system better designed to churn patients through its turnstiles (and maximize providers’ profits) than to care for individual patients (or improve the health of the U.S. population). Remarkably, the special interests of insurers, hospitals, physicians, drug and medical device manufacturers, nursing homes and other health care providers are special because, all too frequently, they conflict with the best interests of patients. In any other industry this business plan would fail: how can a business hope to succeed if it doesn’t satisfy its customers? But health care, astoundingly, is the exception to this rule. That’s one of the reasons I wrote One Doctor: in our fragmented, commoditized health care system, patients need to learn more about how to achieve their own best interests.

TOHL: Why has there been such a decline in medical school students pursuing family medicine?

Because, when compared to the lucrative medical subspecialties, careers in family medicine and other primary care specialties (pediatrics and internal medicine) don’t pay. This may seem crass until one realizes that most medical students amass enormous educational debts before they can even begin their careers; not surprisingly, most of them follow the money and spurn careers in primary care. Insurers have always valued subspecialists more highly than primary care doctors–as does, increasingly, the medical profession itself–but these discrepancies in reimbursement and prestige have grown in recent years. (Most patients don’t know that these discrepancies are often unwarranted and sometimes counterproductive to cost-effective medical care.) The result is an “inverted pyramid,” the metaphor often used to describe our inefficient, lopsided physician work force: too few primary care doctors at the base of our health care system and too many subspecialists at the top. In contrast, every high-performing health care system around the world has a strong primary care base as its foundation.

TOHL: Your book is filled with stories of patients and your journey to find correct diagnosis for them. Does one story stand out?

For internists like me–who are, first and foremost, diagnosticians–the stories that stick out are the ones that got away, the patients whose diagnosis we missed. In One Doctor, readers meet several of my own diagnostic misses, most notably a tragic cold case from long ago that haunts me still. In a very real sense, diagnosticians seek the “truth” about patients–constantly questioning, reexamining and second-guessing the facts (and ourselves). In the process, we learn even more from our failures than our successes, one reason we remember them so well. Diagnosticians (low-tech “cognitive” doctors who use their heads) tend to get less credit–notwithstanding TV shows like House–than proceduralists (high-tech doctors who use their hands and machines). But, regardless of who gets the credit, the reality is that surgeons or other proceduralists can’t help a patient unless a diagnostician first discovers that patient’s “truth.” In the end, this is the biggest reason why diagnosticians don’t forget their “misses”: when we miss, the patient loses.

TOHL: The chapters where you look back at your time in the ‘80s spent in New Hampshire would make a great television show–filled with a lot of local characters, some brutal winters, and a special kind of doctoring on your part. What was so influential about this time in your career?

That was when I became a “real” doctor, when I learned to love being there for patients whenever, wherever, and however they needed my help. It was also a time when I, previously a lifelong New Yorker, expanded my horizons and learned that life looks different when viewed from other places or others’ eyes. But, at the same time, getting to know and care for those fine, colorful, salt-of-the-earth New England folks taught me that good doctoring is, fundamentally, the same everywhere. This helped me not only at Dartmouth but also when my career took me to other places, different patients and new challenges–and then, eventually, back home to New York.

TOHL: Why are Friday nights “cursed” in big city hospital ERs?

The death rate for patients admitted to hospitals on weekends tends to be higher than for patients admitted on weekdays. (The precise causes of this “Friday night curse,” a well-known problem in the U.S. and other countries, are uncertain.) This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go to the hospital on a Friday or Saturday night if you’re very sick. But you should know that hospitals often schedule less experienced staff to work weekends; many also reduce staffing on weekends to cut costs. In addition, you should know that many doctors “hand off” their patients on weekends to “on-call” doctors who, as a rule, cannot know these patients well. As One Doctor illustrates, weekends are just one of many holes in the “Swiss cheese” fabric of U.S. health care.

TOHL: Emergency rooms today account for 11% of all outpatient visits in the U.S., 28% of all acute care visits and 50% of all hospital admissions. What explains this phenomenon?

If you build it, they will come–not only the “real” emergencies (which constitute only a small minority of all ER visits) but also the uninsured, the homeless and mentally ill, the Medicaid patients spurned by other doctors, and, finally, all those patients with “good” insurance who can’t reach their doctors, or don’t want to wait for them, or know they can get more high-tech attention in an ER than in a doctor’s office (whether they really need such attention or not). In other words, excessive use of ERs in the U.S. is a multifactorial problem, the symptom of an uncoordinated, dysfunctional health care system where insurance coverage is spotty and inequitable, doctors often inaccessible, and many patients’ demands ill-informed and imprudent. Our ER problem won’t go away until the system that spawned it gets fixed.

TOHL: You write that 20% of the 12.5 million people aged 65 years or older who are hospitalized annually in the U.S. develop delirium. What exactly is this and is it preventable?

In many studies of hospitalized patients, the incidence of delirium – an acute change in mental status (characterized by confusion, disorientation, inattention and agitation) – is even higher than 20%. This fact is remarkable not only because delirium causes much suffering for patients (and their families)–and, sometimes, serious harm–but also because, in many cases, it is entirely preventable. The key to its successful management is twofold: 1) The doctor must know the patient (otherwise, how can a doctor recognize change in a patient’s mentation?); and, 2) The doctor must find and eliminate the precipitating cause of delirium, most commonly a drug (or combination of drugs) prescribed to treat the patient’s medical conditions. Unfortunately, worsening fragmentation in the U.S. health care system–where patients are handed off frequently from one doctor to another (any one of whom may have prescribed the offending drug)–has increased both the incidence and the danger of this very serious problem.

TOHL: From hypochondriacs to patients with panic attacks, you cover a lot of stories having to do with psychological issues. In fact, you had one patient who would inject herself with a bacteria filled syringe just to get attention. How common are cases like this and as a doctor are you trained to deal with them?

Patients with factitious illness–people who purposely hurt themselves or make themselves sick (sometimes, deathly sick)–are uncommon. But patients who suffer from physical symptoms caused entirely by psychosocial distress–anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, frustration–are ubiquitous, frequent fliers in every doctor’s practice. In fact, some estimates suggest that one-quarter to one-half of all patient visits to primary care doctors in the U.S. are prompted by such “psychosomatic” symptoms. Most doctors in the U.S. today have been inadequately trained to recognize and help these patients, many of whom get worse while their doctors (clueless about the patient’s underlying psychosocial distress) pursue useless diagnostic tests and referrals to subspecialists.

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