Tag Archives: doctor patient relationships

Sharing Bad News or Keeping Secrets—How Physician Communication Impacts Patients and Families

Doctors and Patients bond over time. Information exchange, education and sharing of expertise are critical activities that add to the effective practice of medicine. Delivering bad news is unfortunately an unpleasant part of a physician’s job. Honesty, empathy and clear communication are essential to delivering news to patients and their families—even when the news is unpleasant or unexpected. While communication is an integral part of the practice of medicine, not all healthcare providers are able to relay information or test results in a way that is easily digested and processed by patients. Some physicians may avoid delivering bad news altogether—often keeping patients in the dark. While a paternalistic approach to medicine was accepted as the status quo for physician behavior in the 1950s, patients now expect to play a more active role in their own care. Patients have a right to demand data and understand why their healthcare providers make particular diagnostic and treatment decisions.

Recently, a disturbing report indicated that in a database of Medicare patients who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, only 45% were informed of their diagnosis by their physician. While shocking, these statistics mirror the way in which cancer diagnoses were handled in the 1950s with many doctors choosing not to tell patients about a devastating health problem. With the advent of better cancer therapies and improved outcomes, now we see than nearly 95% of all patients are informed of their cancer diagnosis by their physician.


How can this be? Why would a physician NOT tell a patient about a potentially life changing diagnosis?

I think that there are many reasons for this finding in Alzheimer’s disease and that we must address these issues in order to provide ethical and timely care to our patients.

  1. Time constraints: Electronic documentation requirements and non-clinical duties allow for less time spent with each patient. In order to deliver bad news such as a terminal diagnosis, a responsible physician must not only spend time carefully delivering a clear message but must also be available to handle the reaction and questions that will inevitably follow. Many physicians may avoid discussing difficult issues due to the lack of time available to help the patient and family process a diagnosis. We must create ways to diminish the administrative burden on physicians and free them up to do more of what they do best—care for patients. More reasonable and meaningful documentation requirements must be brought forward. Currently, many physicians spend far more time typing on a computer rather than interacting in a meaningful way with patients during their office visits. Eye contact, human interaction and empathy are becoming more of a rarity in the exam room. This certainly limits the effective delivery of bad (or good) news to patients. Priority MUST be placed on actual care rather than the computer mandated documentation of said “care”.
  2. Dwindling Long-Term Doctor Patient Relationships: Networks of hospitals, providers and healthcare systems have significantly disrupted traditional referral patterns and long-term care plans. Many patients who have been enrolled in the ACA exchanges are now being told that they cannot see their previous providers. Many physicians (even in states such as California) are opting out of the Obamacare insurances due to extremely low reimbursement rates. Patients may be diagnosed with a significant life changing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease early in their relationship with a brand new healthcare provider. When a new physician provides a patient with bad news—of a life-changing diagnosis that will severely limit their life expectancy as well as quality of life—patients often have difficulty interpreting these results. Healthcare providers that have no relationship with a patient or family are at an extreme disadvantage when delivering negative healthcare news. Long-term doctor patient relationships allow physicians to have a better understanding of the patient, their values and their family dynamics. This “insider knowledge” can help facilitate difficult discussions in the exam room.
  3. Lack of effective therapies to treat the disease: No physician likes to deliver bad news. No doctor wants to admit “defeat” at the hands of disease. It is often the case where some healthcare providers will not disclose some aspects of a diagnosis if there are no effective treatments. I firmly disagree with this practice of withholding relevant information as I believe that every patient has the right to know what they may be facing—many will make significant life choices if they know they have a progressively debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. In the 1950s, many patients were not told about terminal cancer diagnoses due to the lack of effective treatments. However, medicine is no longer paternalistic—we must engage and involve our patients in every decision.
  4. Lack of Physician communication education: As Medical Students we are often overwhelmed with facts to memorize and little attention is given to teaching students how to effectively interact with patients as well as colleagues. Mock interviews with post interview feedback should be a part of pre clinical training for physicians. We must incorporate lectures on grief and the grieving process into the first year of medical school. Making connections with patients must be a priority for physicians in the future—we must equip trainees with the tools they need for success.  Leaders distinguish themselves by the way in which they share bad news.  According to Forbes magazine the critical components of sharing bad news include–accuracy of communication, taking responsibility for the situation, listening, and telling people what you will do next.

What’s next?

As with most things in medicine, change often occurs “around” healthcare providers without direct physician input. Physicians are appropriately focused on providing excellent care and connecting with patients while politicians and economists craft the future of medicine. The issues with lack of communication of negative findings with patients MUST be addressed. Patients have a right to their own data and have a right to know both significant and insignificant findings. In order to avoid situations where patients are not fully informed about their medical condition, we must continue to remain focused on the patient—even if it means that other clerical obligations are left unattended.


Communication in Medicine: Lessons Learned By Wearing A Gown

Communication is critical to success in medicine.  Our patients depend on us to help them understand their disease and the risks that it may pose.  In previous blogs I have commented on how vital effective communication can be in determining outcome–much of my writing has focused on the success associated with outpatient doctor-patient relationships.  We now know that when doctors and patients engage, patients become invested in their own healthcare and are more likely to comply with lifestyle modifications and take medications as prescribed.  However, when a patient is ill and hospitalized, a entirely new level of complexity is added to the communication mix. The role of patient places one in a difficult position–you lose control, you lose your individuality and you may often become frightened due to the uncertainty of the clinical outcome.  The dynamic of communication in the acute hospital setting may be quite different in that the patient may be interacting with a new team of healthcare providers that they have no previous relationship with.  In addition, disease related factors such as pain, fever, and sedation may play a role in a patient’s ability to comprehend what is being said to them at any given moment in the hospital setting.  I can now speak to this from personal experience–this last week I became an unexpected patient.  I spent several days navigating illness and a complex yet compassionate hospital system.  My experience as a patient has inspired this particular blog–and has inspired me to become a more effective communicator in my practice.

This month in the New York Times, two articles were published that discussed different aspects of physician communication with patients.  Both pieces are important and should be read and carefully digested by both patients and physicians (as well as any other healthcare provider). In the first article, author Theresa Brown discusses the discussions that physicians and other healthcare providers commonly have with patients during a time of illness.  Particularly in the hospital, teams of providers at all levels enter a patient’s room and discuss all aspects of the case (Both with the patient and amongst one another).  It is interesting to realize just how much of what is said during these encounters is “lost in translation.”  During periods of illness, even the most educated and medically sophisticated patient can have difficulty comprehending exactly what the medical team is trying to convey.  Pain, worry, and emotional fatigue may all play a role in a patient’s inability to comprehend the clinical situation, the possible diagnoses, the testing required and the treatment plan.  In a separate article, authors Gilligan and Sekeres explore whether or not there are effective ways in which we may be able to teach better communication skills to physicians in training.  Several studies have demonstrated that no amount of training will convert an introvert to an extrovert communicator–however, communication training may open a healthcare provider’s eyes to the profound impact that their interaction with patients may have on outcome.  Once a provider is aware of the impact communication may have, they are more likely to be able to better engage patients and engage in a more effective way.

During my unexpected role as a patient this week, I often did not understand what to expect–even with my years of medical training and experience–I could only focus on my symptoms and my fear of the worst possible outcome scenarios.  During my patient experience, I interacted with many physicians, nurses and other team members–ER doctors, specialists, imaging technicians, transporters, etc.  My particular providers were very compassionate and spent a great deal of time attending to my needs and explaining their thought processes, differential diagnosis and treatment plans.  However, I was unable to process most of what was said.  I was often distracted by pain and my ability to assimilate and comprehend information was limited by the sedation I had been appropriately given.  Ultimately, emotion and fear would come to the forefront and dominate my thoughts, further limiting my ability to actively and effectively communicate with the medical team managing my hospital care.  My caregivers were dedicated and wanted only the best outcome for me and my family.  However, I was often confronted with large amounts of clinical information and I began to hear only pieces–I would latch on to particular words such as surgery and potential complications and would lose focus–no longer able to follow the conversation.  My ability to think rationally and effectively process clinical information (as I would as a physician)  was severely impaired.  I can only imagine what the experience would have been like for a non medically sophisticated person.

Fortunately, as the week progressed, my condition improved and I was ultimately discharged from the hospital.  My physicians and nurses spent time later in the week making sure that I understood what had happened to me and what the next steps would be.  My hospital stay and treatment provided me with new insights into the patient experience.   I now am able to envision ways in which I can improve my own interpersonal skills with my hospitalized patients–by actively taking time to make sure that each patient understands and truly hears what is being said to them.  From my experience, one of the keys to promoting  understanding is to provide time for questions–from both patient and family–during the inpatient hospital visit.  My caregivers did this often and it did provide comfort and some semblance of control.  (as much as one can have in an ill fitting hospital gown).  In addition, providing small, easily digestible bits of clinical information at several points throughout the day seemed to improve a patient’s ability to process and comprehend their condition, treatment and prognosis (at least it did in my case).  Although is is not practical for the physician to make multiple stops to the patient room throughout the day, phone calls for updates by the treating physician and visits by other providers such as nurses, PAs and NPs can make a difference in patient understanding and comprehension.  As Ms. Brown rightly states in her New York Times piece, hospitals and medical care are well focused machines–most providing efficient, quality life saving care.  We must remember, however, that we are treating patients–human beings with emotion and fear that can certainly impact a disease process.  We must take time to ensure that we not only provide the high quality efficient care but we also are able to care for the human being lying in the bed in the awkwardly draped hospital gown.

I am glad to be home from the hospital.  I am grateful for the wonderful care and compassion that me (and my family) received from many over the last week.  I am happy to be sitting outside in the sun writing this blog today.  I am excited about the opportunity my experience as a patient has afforded me.  I will take what I have learned and apply it to my practice–I hope to work every day to improve my communication with all of my ill and hospitalized patients.  Most of all, my experience has reminded me that although medicine is the application of science to the treatment of ailments suffered by human organisms, it is the human that really matters.  Our patients are people–they are often alone, frightened, emotionally exhausted and suffering.  We must all engage them in a way that best facilitates their understanding of their situation and focus equally on both treating a disease AND treating a frightened person lying in the bed before us.

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The Advantages to Team Approaches to Patient Care: Extending NOT Replacing Physician Care

Let me start by stating that I am a supporter of team approaches to medical care.  Data from numerous observational trials has shown that patient outcomes are improved when a diverse group of healthcare providers work together to coordinate overall patient care.  In my practice, we rely heavily on the excellent care provided by both Physician Assistants as well as Nurse Practitioners both in the hospital and in the clinics.  These physician extenders are essential to coordinating admissions, evaluations testing and treatments.

Last week in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Laura Landro discusses the new push for team based care in today’s healthcare market.  As Ms Landro states, there are numerous advantages to the team based approach.  Patients benefit from the more intensive one on one time that they are afforded with nutritionists, pharmacists, nurses and other advanced practitioners.  In previous decades, most of this work was solely the responsibility of the physician.  However, increasing demands for documentation and electronic paperwork have begun to consume physician time.  While the ACA promises to flood primary care offices with even more patients, physicians are scrambling to perform all of the duties that are currently required of them (with more government mandates on the horizon).   Most of my colleagues prefer to focus on patient care (rather than administrative paperwork and government mandates) but are often frustrated by how little time they have to interact with their patients.  Managing chronic disease is a process and requires numerous “touch points” with the patient in order to be successful.  In reality, as a cardiologist, I am able to see most of my stable patients only once a quarter–unless they have an acute event or decompensation.

It is clear that patients now are living with more complex diseases and that we have far more advanced therapies to treat them with.  Many of these therapies rely on strict patient compliance and on patients having a thorough understanding of their disease process and its management.  For instance, a patient with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) may need to be able to interpret daily weights and adjust diuretic dosing accordingly in order to prevent hospitalization from a more serious CHF exacerbation.   Now, rather than see a physician for medication discussions every three months, a patient can make an appointment with a Pharmacist in our office and see them on a more frequent basis to discuss concerns over efficacy or side effects of their medical regimen.  In our experience, this has improved patient compliance and improved metrics such as blood pressure control and time spent in the therapeutic range for chronic anticoagulation patients.  Other primary care physicians report similar results when managing diabetes via frequent nurse educator or NP visits–patients seem to have more consistent control and better HbA1C results when they have more frequent touch points.

While a team approach is quite effective, each team must have a leader.  The team leader must be experienced and well trained.  While physician extenders do receive extensive training in a 2 to 4 year program, nothing replaces the years of experience that MDs obtain during residency.  In order to maintain a high standard of patient care, these teams must still be led by physicians.  With the cost cutting efforts and the changes that are occurring in healthcare due to the Affordable Healthcare Act, I am concerned that hospital administrators and government bureaucrats will ultimately attempt to replace physicians with other healthcare providers in the interest of curtailing costs.  Physicians are trained in real life patient care scenarios over a period of years–many residencies last from three to ten years depending on specialty.  The experiences of call nights and handling real time emergencies over a period of years (under the supervision of more experienced attending physicians) cannot be undervalued.  My experiences during my 7 years of post-graduate training at both the University of Virginia and Duke University Medical Center certainly shaped my clinical judgement and certainly sharpened my diagnostic abilities–I call on these experiences even today when faced with complex cases.  Efforts to replace physicians with other healthcare professionals with less intensive training may ultimately harm patient care.

Patient care comes first–I believe that a team based approach is essential to optimizing outcomes.  We must all work together–Nurses, NPs, PAs, Pharmacists, Nutritionists, and MDs–in order to provide the best possible patient centered care.  However, we must not attempt to replace physicians and the experience that they bring to the clinical arena in the interest of cost containment.  While balancing cost and optimal care is a slippery slope, we must always focus on the patient–nothing can or should replace the Doctor-Patient relationship–we must all work together to preserve the core principles of our noble profession and put our patients first.


The Power of the Pronoun (and Perception): Impacting Patients Through Building Effective Teams

Have you ever taken note of how much you or a colleague says “I” versus other pronouns?  The pronoun that you choose in conversation may very well provide insight into your psyche and may determine your effectiveness as a leader.  Current research has indicated that the frequency at which an individual uses the pronoun “I” speaks volumes about their self confidence, level of empathy and perceived status within an organization or group.  As physicians and members of teams of providers we function in groups in order to provide care to our patients on a daily basis.  How effectively we interact with patients, nurses, technicians and other providers may significantly impact the outcomes for our patients.  This research, which was published in Journal of Language and Social Psychology in the last month may provide important insight into how we can better function as physicians, team members and leaders in medicine.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Elizabeth Bernstein explored the potential impact of the newly published studies on pronoun use in her column just this week.  Researchers tested subjects in five separate studies and examined the way in which status or relative rank was reflected in the frequency at which subjects used the pronoun “I”.  The findings were quite interesting—those who used the pronoun “I” often felt subordinate or less sure of themselves.  In addition, those that used frequent “I’s” were more introspective, self conscious or in emotional or physical pain.  Surprisingly, those that were “full of themselves” and even narcissistic did not use “I” nearly as much.  In contrast, those that were more self assured, and possessed higher job status used the word “I” with much less frequency.  In a separate study, the use of the word “I” was also associated with those who were telling the truth–those who avoided the using it were found to be less genuine and were often hiding something.  When resolving conflict, psychologists have often encouraged those in group therapy to use the pronoun “I” when discussing conflicts and feelings.  For years, marriage counselors have advocated the use of the word “I” rather than the word “you” during feedback sessions as “you” is often perceived as more accusatory.

Confusing?  “I” think so.  But, as study author Dr James Pennebaker mentions there is an enormous misconception about the use of “I”– those in power or positions of authority do not use it more.  In fact, those that are in power were found to use it less because they seem to be more interested in looking out at the world and figuring out their next strategic move– while those in more subordinate positions were found to be  simply looking inward and trying to please others.

In today’s medical world, the focus on care is on the team (the “We”) rather than the “I.”  A major shift in approach to patient care has occurred in the last decade –individual disease states are managed by teams of caregivers composed of varying job titles, provider roles, and medical specialties.  Even physicians from varying specialties such as radiology and cardiology are working together to provide multidisciplinary approaches to disease management.  Discussions of best practice and hybrid approaches across specialities are now commonplace and are resulting in improved outcomes.  For example, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we have created a Heart and Vascular Center where radiologists, cardiologists, vascular surgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons and heart failure specialists see patients together and develop care plans in concert–no longer are different specialties competing for cases and arguing over alternative approaches to management.  In our institution, care is becoming more streamlined and through cooperation and academic discussions amongst providers,  patients are receiving the best treatment options available essentially tailored to their particular clinical situation.

So, what exactly do we as healthcare providers do with this information from the pronoun study?  Admittedly, much of it is confusing (except to the Psychologists) but the bottom line is that we must pay careful attention to the pronouns that we use and how we may be perceived by both those we lead and those whom we follow.  As leaders and as team members, how we are perceived by others may be a critical factor in our ability to function most effectively and care for our patients at the highest levels.  High level, effective communication with patients, nurses and other healthcare providers is essential.  In addition, we must also take note of the ways in which others communicate in order to maximize everyone’s contribution.

What is the  bottom line?  Dr Pennebaker recommends that we all try to use “I” a bit more.  According to his work, it makes you appear more humble as well as more genuine and more engaged.  Using “I” allows others on the team to see humanness and vulnerability in their respected leader–this fact alone may provide more connection and more inspiration among those with whom you work.


Nurses Show Us the Way: The Simple Beauty of Connecting in Healthcare

In today’s healthcare environment, we are all driven to see more patients in less time and do more with less support.  Obviously most of this is financially motivated–the delivery of medical care had unfortunately become more of a business than an art.  As more physician groups are now owned by hospital systems, the “bean counters” and administrators are now crafting the rules of engagement.  Physicians no longer have the luxury of time for a leisurely patient visit.  No longer do we have the time to routinely ask about the grandkids and the most recent trip that our favorite patients have taken in their retirement.  Ultimately, it is the patient who suffers.  Those who are ill and those who love them often need more than pills, blood tests, IV fluids and heart monitors–they need support and genuine caring.  These patients and families need a doctor or other healthcare provider  to sit on the edge of the bed and unhurriedly listen to their concerns –to simply chat for a bit.  Unfortunately, this is no longer the norm.  Luckily, we have dedicated caregivers on the front lines in our hospitals who can often fill the gap–nurses.

I was moved last week as I read a wonderful article in the New York Times by Sarah Horstmann.  In the essay, Ms Horstmann (a practicing Registered Nurse) describes her special connection to a few patients and their families on the orthopedic unit in which she works.  Ms Horstman chronicles her struggle with remaining objective and professional in her role as nurse when she becomes emotionally invested in her patients.  She paints a picture of an engaged and caring nurse who is able to put everything on the line for her patients.  Her internal struggles with “crossing the line” in her care for the patient is one that we all as healthcare providers have faced at one time or another.  However, she handles her feelings and her patients with absolute grace.  We can ALL learn a great deal from Ms Horstmann.  We should all strive to feel and care as deeply as she does.  Our patients and the care we will provide them will certainly benefit greatly.

In my experience in medicine, it is the nurses that often lead the way for all of us. I have particular poignant memories from my training of nurses on the hospice care unit at University of Virginia hospital   These nurses set a remarkable example of compassion and connection.  I have been forever impacted by witnessing true caring–crying, grieving and comforting dying patients and their families.

As a whole I have found that many nurses go beyond what the physician is able to do in short encounters.  Nurses spend the time required to get to know the patient–their fears, their thoughts about disease, their thoughts about their own mortality.  Nurses understand family dynamics and can help in managing difficult family situations.  Nurses make sure that above all, the patient comes first–no matter what the consequences.  The very best nurses that I have worked with over the years are ADVOCATES for those who are too scared or too debilitated to advocate for themselves.  Many times early in my career, I did not pay attention or listen to the lessons that were all around me on the hospital wards.  However, as I approach mid-career I am much more attune to these very same lessons that I may have missed earlier.  There is much gained when we watch and listen to others who are caring for the same patient–maybe in a different role–but caring for our common patient nonetheless.  I now realize that nurses have “shown me the way” many times and for that I am truly grateful.

In my opinion, emotional investment and developing patient connections can improve care and assist patients and families with acceptance and with eventual grieving and loss.  I believe developing bonds with patients is a wonderful expression of love for another human being and is completely acceptable in medicine–as long as we are able to remain objective when critical clinical decision making is required. In medicine we strive to provide excellent care for all patients but every now and again there are special patients that we develop emotional bonds with.  Just as in everyday life, there are certain people that you are able to connect with in a spiritual way–whether they are co-workers, colleagues, friends or significant others.  We must stop and appreciate the way in which nurses provide care–we can learn a great deal from them and ultimately provide more “connected” care for our patients.  So, next time you are in the hospital, find a nurse.  He or she will likely be haggard from running from room to room, and it is likely that they have not stopped to eat lunch.  Thank them for caring for our patients.  Thank them for showing us all how to provide better care for our patients.  Then, stop in and say hello to your patient–sit on the edge of the bed and take time to simply just chat.


Improving Health Status in the US Today: An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure…

As Americans we spend more money on healthcare per capita than any other nation in the world.  We have the latest medical innovations and for decades have been able to provide cutting edge therapy without regard to cost.  However, as a profession, doctors are not doing nearly enough when it comes to prevention of disease.  Certainly, costs will be reduced if we are able to prevent chronic illness and associated complications.  By focusing on better health on the front end, we may be able to significantly impact cost on the back end.

An article this week in the New York Times highlights the issue with the American lifestyle and the widespread lack of individual responsibility when it comes to health and wellness.  In the article, author Sabrina Tavernise explores the change that immigrants experience in their health status after living in the US for an extended period of time.  Research has shown that the longer immigrants live in the US, the higher their rates of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes becomes.  Scientists have looked at these data and have postulated that much of the change in health status for immigrants is related to the adoption of common American habits such as smoking, drinking, high calorie/low nutrient diets and sedentary lifestyles.  In addition, areas where large populations of immigrants reside often contain large numbers of fast food restaurants–providing easy access to poor food choices.

I believe much can be learned about preventative health from lifestyle research.  Most importantly, studies such as the ones discussed in the New York Times emphasize the significant impact lifestyle choices can have on the overall health of a populations.  As a nation, we must work diligently to reinvent our healthcare system and contain costs.  It is readily apparent that physicians must spend more time providing preventative counselling and promoting better health choices.  Here are my Top Five Points of emphasis for prevention:

1. Education:  It is imperative that we educate patients on risk factors for illness and how they may go about modifying risk.  Patients need to understand the consequences of poor health choices and how these choices may negatively impact them and their families

2. Assessment:  Physicians must spend time in the office with each patient and carefully assess their individual risk.  Diagnostic testing and screening for disease in high risk individuals is warranted. Once testing and assessment is completed, a frank discussion with patient and family is required in order to promote positive lifestyle changes.

3. Empowerment:  Healthcare providers must empower patients to take control of their own healthcare.  Patients must become active engaged participants in the journey to better health in order to impact outcome.  Patients must understand that they MUST take individual responsibility for poor lifestyle choices and work to effect individual change.

4. Encouragement:  Changing lifelong habits can be incredibly difficult.  Patients may resist change and deny risk.  However, physicians must help patients to set reasonable goals, cheer them along their journey and celebrate victories–no matter how big or small.  We must work hard to promote a positive attitude along the way.

5. Reassessment:  Certainly, once lifestyle changes have been made and goals met, it is important to reassess risk.  This may require follow up testing and may result in new goals and other potential therapeutic changes.  However, it is essential to communicate with the patient and continue to motivate them to make positive lifestyle choices.

It is clear that as a nation, we make poor lifestyle choices that may significantly contribute to the development of chronic diseases and increase healthcare costs.  Studies such as the one discussed in the New York Times demonstrate the powerful effects of culture and lifestyle on one’s health and susceptibility to disease.  When citizens from other countries or cultures move to the US, it appears that our lifestyle has a negative impact on their health.  Individual responsibility and patient engagement are critical to prevention of disease.  It is essential that we begin to focus more on prevention in order to gain control of healthcare costs and ensure that all Americans have access to care.


Suffering in Silence: When Doctors Fail to Ask The Right Questions

Let me start by saying that I am by no means an expert in Medical Oncology and I have great respect for what my colleagues in this field are able to do for their patients and their families.  From my earliest days of Internal Medicine training at the University of Virginia, I can remember the oncologists as being some of the most caring and compassionate physicians around.  However, recently I came across a remarkable article in the New York Times that gave me great pause.  Author Suleika Jaouad has been chronicling her battle with cancer in a regular blog.  In this particular entry, she describes her experience with dealing with the sexual and reproductive side effects of her cancer and its therapy.  Ms Jaouad brings to light the fact that often physicians fail to ask the right questions at the right time of the patient in their care.  It is not for lack of attention or concern but more often due to a laser-like focus on the task at hand–battling the disease.  In addition, in medicine today, most physicians (other than urologists and gynecologists) do a poor job of discussing sexuality and sexual side effects of diseases or treatments.  In her blog, Ms Jaouad remarks that she found it very difficult to discuss sexuality related issues with her doctors or staff–the subject never really came up.  Thankfully, she had a support group of peers to turn to.

As a specialty physician, I often find myself focused on one disease or one aspect of my patients’ health.  Sometimes, patients are crying out for help and we do not even hear them because we are wearing “blinders” as if we are thoroughbreds in the Kentucky derby. Too many times, we see the finish line of the race and forget to provide the necessary encouragement (and support) to the patient along the way.  Certainly there are guidelines and proven therapies for specific diseases–we all strive to provide the very best care.  But, as evidenced by Ms Jaouad’s blog, we sometimes fall short simply because we “forget to ask”. Or worse, we fail to pause and provide an environment conducive to TWO WAY communication when interacting with our patients.

So, what is the lesson here?  I think that for starters, it is imperative to LISTEN to our patients.  I have blogged many times about the importance of developing a positive and productive doctor patient relationship.  As we all know from our personal lives, one of the most important aspects of a relationship is effective two way communication.  This is not always easy–patients may be intimidated by their disease or by their doctor–Doctors may be so preoccupied with their agenda for the day that they forget to pause for questions.  Either way, the opportunity for questions and attending to the needs that are important at the moment to the patient are lost.  A patient with a chronic or debilitating illness may have concerns that may not seem relevant to the overall treatment plan or disease battle to us as caregivers.  However,  addressing these concerns may make an enormous difference in the long run to the human being suffering with the disease.  As physicians, we are now under increased pressures for productivity and are asked to do more with less time–But we must remember to take a deep breath, and focus on what really matters.  More than anything, our patients need our care, compassion and concern.

I think that as healthcare professionals we must make it part of our routine to spend some time each visit making sure that the patient feels comfortable asking questions.  In order to facilitate this type of interaction AND ensure that our treatment goals are also met for the visit, we must make a real effort to incorporate time for questions into every visit.  In addition, we must remember that sexuality and sexual side effects of diseases and the treatments we prescribe are real and can have significant negative impacts.  We must do a better job of educating ourselves about these side effects and make a concerted effort to discuss them with our patients during routine office visits.  Although initial discussions may be a bit awkward for doctor or patient, it is important to open the door and invite communication to improve the lives of our patients who suffer with chronic disease.


Interpreting Physician Rating Websites: Garbage IN Equals Garbage OUT

In the past, learning about a good doctor or a pleasant hospital experience was a “word of mouth” phenomenon.  Today, more and more patients are going online for information about potential healthcare providers and hospital systems.  But exactly how accurate is the information they are accessing?  Recently, multiple surveys and research investigations have been published about the validity of online physician review sites.  Like most things that we find on the internet, the best advice is to take what you see there “with a grain of salt”.

A recent survey performed by the Pew Research Center asked participants a simple question.  “What percentage of adult internet users have consulted or posted online health reviews?”  The results are quite startling.  The minority of users actually post–but a fair number of users read and consult these reviews.

Source:  Pew Research Center “Health Online 2013”

So, as consumers of healthcare, how in the world do we interpret this data.  The fact that only 3% of the folks surveyed actually posted reviews suggests that the reviews are somehow biased–either good or bad.  This can certainly lead to misleading comments and ratings and can drastically change how a provider is perceived.  We must remember that these MD ratings sites are unregulated and not very well controlled or policed.  Typically, in any customer service industry, we find that most comments come from dissatisfied customers–it is rare in corporate America that someone takes the time to leave a positive comment.  There have been many published studies in the literature have shown that negative events are much more likely to elicit comments.

An article published in the New York Times in March 2012, discusses the neuropsychiatric basis for this very fact.  In the article, Stanford researcher Dr Clifford Nass states that the brain handles positive and negative events differently and in these events are even processed in separate locations within the cortex.  His research has demonstrated that we tend to process negative experiences more thoroughly and tend to ruminate about negative more than positive–in other words it takes many many positive experiences to overcome one negative interaction.  A recent study in the Journal of Urology evaluated the ratings of common sites such as Vitals.com, Healthgrades.com and RateMDs.com and found that from a random sample of 500 Urologists whose ratings were examined, the average number of evaluations for each was 2.4 ratings.  Many of the reviews focused more on the office experience (decor, wait times, etc) rather than the interaction with the physician or the providers knowledge or ability.  Obviously with very few respondents the results can be significantly skewed by either a remarkably high or a remarkably low rating.  The results suggest that physician rating sites are probably not the most effective way to evaluate your next  potential healthcare provider

What are some possible sources of bias in MD ratings?  The internet allows for anonymity and promotes the ability to say things that we normally may not say in a face to face interaction.  Disgruntled employees, angry family members or patients frustrated by their disease may provide unwarranted negative ratings to healthcare providers.  Conversely, family members and friends may also provide unwarranted high praise.  Altogether, these types of bias limit the utility of physician ratings sites.  Other options for choosing a provider include social media sites such as twitter.  There are disease specific tweet chats that promote interaction among patients.  Patients in the chat often recommend certain therapies, physicians and hospital systems.  These groups tend to be very well informed and the information is fairly reliable.  Ultimately, as an article on the NPR website last week suggests–we  may just have to go back to the prehistoric pre-digital era when it comes to rating and choosing physicians–we might just have to talk to one another!

dinosaur computer

Carpe Diem: The Importance of Routine Office Visits

As I have written many times in my previous blogs, it is essential that patients and physicians partner in the management of disease.  Outcomes are improved when patients are actively engaged in their own healthcare.  Part of engagement involves forming a relationship with a physician through regular follow up visits.  Relationships with doctors, just as with friends and spouses, evolve over time.  Trust and communication skills are built through recurrent contact and interaction.  Recently, a large meta analysis performed by the Cochrane group was published and concluded that routine office visits with a primary care physician had no impact on patient outcomes.  Although there was an expected “buzz” in the national press concerning these findings, a closer look at the analysis demonstrates why these conclusions may not be entirely valid.  As a cardiologist, I struggle to increase compliance in my patients.  One of the most successful ways to improve my patient’s health and prevent cardiovascular events is through routine office visits.  I can only imagine what it must be like for internists, family physicians and other primary care doctors–office visits not only allow for treatment of chronic known disorders but also provide opportunities to screen and prevent other diseases from occurring.  I would argue, in contrast to the Cochrane analysis, that the routine office visit may in fact be the most cost effective therapy in medicine today.

This week, in response to the Cochrane publication, an article was published in the New York Times on the importance of primary  care office visits.  Author Dr. Danielle Ofri points out that each and every office encounter is an opportunity to make a difference with her patients.  Often, a patient will come in with one complaint and leave having had another diagnosis made.  Sometimes these diagnoses can be minor and other times diseases that could ultimately be life threatening are made.  The point is, through an office interaction, patients are screened and examined.  “Silent” killers such as hypertension are discovered and treatments are provided.  Moreover, a relationship is built and patients and physicians can become partners and friends.  Office visits create opportunity.  If there are no routine opportunities then the only time that patients are seen is when disease is present and manifested.  There is also a real benefit to developing a doctor-patient relationship before the patient gets sick.  Difficult decisions sometimes have to be made when one is critically ill–it is nice to be able to make those decisions with someone you trust and have known for a long time rather than with a complete stranger in a white coat.  

Now, more than ever, we must be good stewards of heatlhcare dollars.  We must carefully decide when to test, and what treatment to use.  We must avoid unnecessary testing and we must use proven therapies that have lots of evidence to back up their effectiveness.  However, eliminating routine interaction between doctor and patient is NOT the way to cut costs.  I would argue that this maneuver, while it may save money in the short term, will ultimately drive costs even higher.  Medicine is built on relationships.  A gentle touch of the hand, a smile, a nod.  Like old friends meeting for coffee, an office visit is a good time to ask about family, children, and grandchildren.  Many of us go into medicine because we like to interact with other people.  A keen observation or a comment made as an aside may provide clues for an astute physician to ask more pointed questions and make a potential life changing diagnosis.  Taking these interactions away and using pooled data derived from database dredging to minimize their impact cheapens the art of medical practice.

So, office visits are essential to providing quality care.  It provides opportunity for impact.  As a physician, a patient encounter is a chance to make a difference. Use each encounter to its fullest potential.  Seize the Day.