Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist
June 6, 2018
Seeing physician burnout articles every page you swipe on social media, on physician online media groups, and in editorials of national syndicates are becoming the norm. Not to minimize it, it can become fairly discouraging reading about the fate of well-educated healers with only the noblest intentions becoming victims of the healthcare climate that is medicine today. Reading about these issues, one can become disengaged when you are in the throes of working. It is when one becomes completely removed from the situation when you realize the extent of the dysfunctional system. Yes, the system is terrible, yes, there are too many regulations, too many middlemen, too many people getting in the way of the genuine whole-hearted connection between patient and physician. Where does that leave us and how can we rectify the situation?
Patient-physician relationship: the sacred relationship
It used to be that the relationship was between patient and physician. Patient and physician. There was no such thing as health insurances, no such thing as MOC, no such thing as EMR, no such thing as healthcare professionals. It was patient and physician. Physician and patient. Doctor and patient. Patient and doctor.
There was nothing to separate the physician from caring for his patients. Doctors used to travel with their doctor’s bags to their patient’s home, making house calls, being paid with services or what little the family had on their farms. Doctors took out their trusty stethoscopes and gave a healing balm, sometimes they helped their patients sometimes not, since the remedy was beyond the technology at the time. There was no such thing as malpractice insurance. No such thing as deductibles, no such thing as premiums, no such thing as clicking little boxes that sums up a human’s suffering. The relationship between a doctor and his patient was at its best and humblest-to care for the sick. Not to cure, not to treat but to comfort always. Absolutely nothing stood in the way between doctor and patient. That relationship was pure and untouched.
Going back to your roots, back to the patient-physician relationship
How does one go back to this very sacred traditional relationship? If doctors do not realize this is a crisis situation where this very symbolic connection is being threatened by a huge number of many outside forces, they must be hiding under a rock. When one sees hundreds of articles on physician burnout, how to end the patient interview, courses on coding to get the most out of a visit, you know there is something utterly amiss with the system. There will be the business end of the situation, you do have to pay for staff salaries, paper supplies etc, after all. But the physician-patient relationship is one of the most paramount human connections that cannot and should not be replaced. To heal and to comfort someone during their last few days, to determine if someone no longer has meaningful recovery after suffering from a massive myocardial infarct, to tell a patient they have a glioblastoma multiforme and there is very little chance of recovery, these are sensitive dealings that should not lay on an artificial robot, a medical substitute or a paramedical person. Important discussions like these should be with the physician. In order to have these important discussions, one must first have a relationship. One must never forget why we have entered medicine, to serve our patients. The human connection between a patient and physician is one of trust and hope. But how do we get back there when there are so many compelling factors threatening its very existence?
Acknowledge there is a problem
A basic tenet of remedying a situation is to acknowledge that there is a problem. When one realizes the way one operates is not sustainable, your psyche will address the situation and make changes. If one stays in the limbo, the system can consume you and spit you out. Such are the sad cases of colleagues ruthlessly cut to be replaced with cheap labor by the upper business echelons. Difficulties coping with this new unsatisfying overburdensome system leads to disillusioned physicians, who previously took pride in their work now reduced to electric circuits, cogs in a machine. And because physicians are perfectionists we feel like failures if we cannot cope. This leads to the worst case scenario which is to take your own life.
We should find pride and satisfaction in what we do. Instead, there are now wellness programs which are a slap in the face placing the blame entirely on the physicians’ shoulders because we are unable to cope. Patients cannot fathom the extent of this medical crisis. All they know is that their physicians keep getting changed because of rapid turnover or a whole encounter is all of 10 minutes to summarize 10 complex problems. The answer lies within ourselves. Nobody can turnaround the situation except ourselves. If we want change we change our whole outlook, whole way of thinking and whole way of practice, it begins within ourselves.
Get rid of the middleman
I used to have a wonderful medical assistant, she did all the pre-questionnaires for me and dutifully entered it into the computer database. As the patient entered my office, I am guilty of saying,”hold on, let me read what my assistant typed” while the patient is seated, gob-smacked, looking at me silently. Looking back I can only shake my head and wonder,”wow, what was I thinking I sound like a cold robot,” which I was. All the boxes were checked perfectly, I did my neurological exam, whipped out my pad, scribbling 5 medications for 5 different symptoms, filled out MRI forms, went over the plan speaking as quickly as possible. Off my patient went on his merry old way, disillusioned and somehow left unfulfilled. Imagine this occurring 20 times a day. I was fried by the end of the day, my patients left dissatisfied and staff went through the office like hotel guests through revolving doors because of the tediousness that is medicine today. When I used to work in hospitals, residents did the pre-work-up as was part of their training, relationships were fleeting, care was in teams and rotations.
Now, I see new patients for 1 hour, they are now eloquent, unique stories again, not templates that you copy and paste and change with a few details according to the patient. I let them expound until they have nothing left to say. I ask my part, perform my examination which is where the healing touch occurs that every patient subconsciously craves and we go over the plan. I answer all questions until there are no more. It is not uncommon for a patient to shake my hand heartfelt looking me in the eye thanking me. Other times, I receive a warm hug. It is not just as a courtesy gesture but a real expression of appreciation. While I did not cure them I provided so much more, the therapeutic healing relationship that exists between a patient and a doctor that no matter what happens I am now there for them. My heart warms and I modestly reply I didn’t do anything. But deep down I can feel the palpable difference. I have returned to the roots of medicine. I finally understand that this is what it is all about. I now listen to them. I listen to their own unique stories. I make eye contact and take in everything they have to say, the furrowing of their brows, the tone of their voices and I hear what they are saying. I now get comments how they are happy they found me their last doctor only took 5 minutes, while I muse to myself, I used to be that doctor. I remain neutral and non-judgmental, but I am now aware there is a simply better way of practicing now.
How does one return to your roots
Going back to the basics of communication, human connection, one remembers the reason why you entered medicine. We are slowly replaced by parallel industries where practitioners of dubious training are hailed new miracle healers. Everybody is calling themselves doctors. They spend more time listening and are less regulated. We have lost the art of listening. It has gotten lost in the world of electronic recording, the need to generate copious amounts of data on one patient encounter, in the new team service approach. The unique relationship between doctor and patient is subsequently insidiously altered-soon to be extinct as doctors are slowly being replaced and encroached by other forces. But the solution is very simple, we must return to the country doctor model. Within the very listening provides great comfort. When comfort is achieved we have done our job. We may not cure or treat, but we always comfort. The paradigm shifts back to doctor and patient.
One more time cut out the middleman
I cannot emphasize it enough, cut out the middleman. Anything that keeps you apart from your patient widens the chasm and becomes a barrier, an impediment. Assistants, insurances, computers, physician extenders, these were never around before. When you strip it back down to the bare bones, you return to the rawest, purest form of medicine-the relationship between doctor and patient. Patient and doctor. We should go back to the country doctor model.
It is only then you will realize the depth that is medicine. Only then can we practice medicine the way it is supposed to be…between physician and patient. Patient and physician.
Dr. Virginia Thornley is a Board-Certified Neurologist subspecializing in Epilepsy and Clinical Neurophysiology in private practice. You can follow her on @VThornleyMD. To read more of her writings, visit https://neurologybuzz.com/