Role Play

Physicians play many roles in patients’ health care and lives in general.

In one encounter we may be the only one encouraging a hesitant or discouraged person to look inside and outside themselves for the strength to move forward with a difficult decision.

In the very next appointment we may be taking charge as a patient develops chest pain and shortness of breath in front of our eyes.

We sometimes find ourselves in a position where we are uniquely able to challenge our patients by saying things they wouldn’t even let their own families tell them, just because we are their doctors, because of the authority they consciously or subconsciously are willing to give us.

Again and again I find myself in situations where I, the person, might hesitate about what to say or do, but I, the doctor, sense what my archetypal role is for that patient in that moment.

I regularly find myself filled with a sense of peaceful warmth, a sense of quiet certainty that changes my demeanor, posture, voice and words, as if I am carried by a greater force. I don’t have enough religious conviction to state for sure that I am at that moment under any kind of divine influence, but I certainly know that I, the doctor, handle all kinds of difficult situations better than I, the graying and nearsighted Swede.

I believe very firmly that I am carrying on the legacy of millennia of healers, the masters of modern medicine and the mentors of my own education. I am aware of my split second reflections about what my old eye doctor, my family practice residency director or the specialists I have observed and tried to emulate would have done in a given situation.

The role I play is bigger than the person I am. It gives me the ability to rise above my own shortcomings, to enlist whatever the source of my abilities is as I move through my daily list of patient encounters.

In this era of social media, lack of privacy and challenging of authorities, doctors sometimes sabotage themselves by revealing too much of themselves. This can detract from the important roles they are called to play.

Sir William Osler once said “look wise, say nothing and grunt”. I am sure it was tongue-in-cheek and for effect, but it was a warning not to speak mindlessly. He also spoke and wrote a great deal about pursuing equanimity, defined as mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.

Both pieces of advice encourage physicians to remain a little bit removed or apart, in order to effectively carry out the roles we are called to play in ministering to the sick. They also serve to enhance our abilities of observation and listening, the foundation of medical diagnosis.

Playing the different roles of a physician is not a frivolous game or charade. It is more like being a musician in a well tuned orchestra. Our demeanor, our voice and our words are our instruments. We use them, not to shine or stand out for ourselves, but to express and deliver our measured parts in a great symphony that touches both listener and player profoundly, albeit each one of us differently.

A Country Doctor, Duped

A woman in her mid thirties with a terrible limp and a past surgical history in the dozens became my patient two years ago. Her prosthetic left leg served her well, but her right leg was moving awkwardly because of advanced hip arthritis and a formerly shattered ankle.

She was on long acting morphine and short acting oxycodone. Her Social Security disability insurance didn’t cover the long acting form of oxycodone.

She told me several times how much she hated being on narcotics, but they kept her functioning. She was able to do her own housework and she was taking classes in medical coding and billing.

Her pill counts were always correct and her urine drug screens always showed morphine and oxycodone – never anything else.

A year ago, an anonymous caller told Autumn that my patient was injecting her morphine. I saw a couple of scratches on her arms, and she told me she had this nervous habit of picking at her skin. I said that habit could keep her from receiving future prescriptions for pain medications, and I never again saw any marks on her arms or legs.

Last summer, we got an emergency room report from Massachusetts that documented how my patient had presented with symptoms of opiate withdrawal. The story she had told there was that she had lost all her pain medication when her car was broken into at a highway rest area several days earlier. She was dehydrated and needed intravenous fluids.

When I saw her back, she was still shaky, and she asked me not to represcribe her long acting morphine. She said, tearfully, that she was determined to get off her narcotics. Just some oxycodone to take the edge off her pain, but she didn’t want to have these drugs in her system all the time, she told me.

Her next drug screen only showed oxycodone and its metabolite, oxymorphone, just as expected.

A few months later, she ended up missing her followup appointment because her mother fell ill and needed emergency surgery. “I stretched my oxycodones”, she said, “and I did all right”.

“Let me do another drug screen, to prove that you didn’t take anything else”, I said.

She tensed up, but didn’t say anything, except “will the results go up on the new patient portal?”

“As soon as I’ve signed off on them, yes.”

A few days later, the opiate confirmation test came in. Her oxycodone level was medium high, but there was no oxymorphone, suggesting only recent oxycodone intake, but not proving continuous use. That was reasonable as she had been taking her prescription less regularly. But, confusing at first, her morphine level was higher than the assay could measure. There was also a high level of codeine.

I had in front of me a test result that suggested probable heroin use.

I had to check my facts, but needed some extra time to do my research. Meanwhile, she called to inquire about her results. Autumn told her that they probably hadn’t come in yet, if they weren’t on the portal.

Heroin, also called diacetylmorphine, is rapidly metabolized to 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM), which is six times more potent. Within a few hours, 6-MAM is transformed to morphine and no longer detectable in urine or other body fluids. Street heroin often has some acetylcodeine in it, which is metabolized into codeine.

I checked with the reference lab. They could run a test for 6-MAM, but because it is present only for a few hours, it might still be negative even if my patient was using heroin. The turnaround time for the analysis could be up to a week.

I picked up the phone.

“I’ve got your opiate confirmation test”, I started.

She was silent.

“It shows your oxycodone, but also more morphine than I’ve ever seen, and some codeine.”

She said nothing.

“That is the pattern we see with heroin use. And, in any case, you wouldn’t be expected to have that much morphine in your system when you are no longer prescribed morphine, and I never prescribed codeine for you. I have a confirmation test pending for 6-MAM, which is a breakdown product that we see in the body before heroin becomes morphine. But this disappears quickly from the system, so we don’t always see it in heroin users”, I explained, based on my recent homework.

She still said nothing, except “can you put the result up on the portal so I can look at it?”

That was it. She hung up. I never heard from her again.

A few days later, her 6-MAM report came back. It was positive. I signed off on it, and it went up on the portal.

A Transformative Visit

Dustin Ouellete grew up a bit the other day.

I had known Dustin as an infant, and his mother before that. Several years ago, the Ouellete family moved away to the big city, but last summer they came back.

Dustin came in a few times with his father, and his main concern was migraines. Dustin’s father, a quiet man who seldom smiles, was concerned that the headaches were keeping his son from excelling in sports, and Dustin seemed overwhelmed with the idea of taking daily medication.

It seemed clear that physical exertion beyond a certain intensity was a trigger for Dustin’s s migraines, and at first, he thought he might be able to treat them as they came along and just be careful about learning his limits. Ibuprofen, taken early during a migraine, seemed to work three quarters of the time. The sumatriptan I had prescribed worked once and seemed ineffective another time, his father reported on the phone a few weeks after Dustin’s first visit.

I saw them in followup, and he agreed to try topiramate. During the titration period, he still had a few migraines, so I got a phone call that they were stopping it.

A short while ago. Dustin came in with his mother, an exuberant woman who used to have migraines as a teenager.

Dustin had tried out for another sport and had started to have migraines again. He had restarted the topiramate, but at 50 mg twice a day it wasn’t holding him. He was considering dropping that sport and choosing something less strenuous. His mother said “it’s up to you, Dustin”. He looked glum and overwhelmed.

I thought for a minute, then leaned back and started:

“Well, Dustin, you have a choice here. You can spend the rest of your life tiptoeing around the triggers you have for these migraines and turn away from this sport or that, or you can invest some more time and effort in finding the right dose of the medication we have started, or another one, and figure out once and for all what it’s going to take to beat this problem so you can do anything you want, maybe not this season but for the future.”

I could see his mind working.

I continued, “it’s like my right shoulder. I have dislocated it many times, but now I know exactly what I have to avoid in order for that not to happen – I can’t put my jacket on while sitting down, I can’t reach for something in the back seat while I’m driving, and so on. I decided not to have surgery, so I have to live by my limitations. That was the right decision for me, but someone with a different job might have made the opposite decision.”

Dustin sat motionless for what felt like two full minutes. Suddenly his posture changed, from a semi-slouch to bolt upright, and his eyes came alive.

“I think I’ll drop out off track this year, work my way up on the topiramate dose, see how the beginning of the summer goes just doing some informal stuff, and then be ready for soccer season.”

“You claimed it!” I made a “yes” gesture with my hand. “You stopped being a victim, you are taking charge, and not letting your migraines run your life”, I said.

Dustin almost squirmed with enthusiasm in his seat, and his mother beamed in her corner of the room.

I continued, “you can up it by 25 mg every week, I’ll send a new prescription for some 50’s, take sumatriptan if you get a migraine, and you call me when you get to 100 mg twice a day, oaky?”

“You got it!”

Dustin stood up, and his mother followed. He was taking charge.

Don’t Squeeze, Tie, Slap or Bite the Hand that Feeds You

Dear Health Care Business Leader,

I am writing to you in a spirit of cooperation, because the way health care works today, it is too complex a business to manage “on the side” while also taking care of patients. And I hope you don’t have any illusions about medicine being so simple that non-physicians like yourself can manage patients’ health care without trained professionals who understand medical science and can adapt the science and “guidelines” of medicine to individual patients with multiple interwoven problems with disease presentations that seldom match their textbook descriptions.

We need each other, at least under the current “system”. So I ask you to view us as allies, because we actually do the work that ultimately pays your wage or your profit, and is the basis for your own performance metrics. We are in this together, like it or not, so let me ask that you don’t do some of the things that several of your colleagues are doing:

Don’t squeeze us too hard.

When you do, the quality of our work, the health of those we serve, is in jeopardy. Instead of just imposing productivity targets, quality thresholds or pay-for performance schemes, listen to what we need in order to keep our patients healthy. Invite us to the table; we actually know a lot about how to work smarter, faster and better, so don’t be afraid of our participation. If we feel squeezed and abused, you will get perfunctory performance, but if you partner with us, we can, together, make patient care much better.

Don’t tie our hands.

I know you mean well, but when you pick or design tools and workflows for us to use, you often make it harder for us to do the work that patients need us to do well.

Don’t give us EMRs that cut our productivity in half, when computers have streamlined work in other sectors; don’t make assumptions about how doctors think and how we process information. For example, let me read CT scan reports and other test results, without scrolling, right when I see my patient in follow-up, import them into today’s office note, and “sign off” on them right then and there, not after my office hours when I should be spending time with my family. And, also, when I am in today’s patient note, let me see all recent results, consultations, calls and refills WITHOUT clicking on several “tabs” that may not have any results under them. Data is meaningless without context, and a good computer system should enhance the context behind the data.

Don’t slap our hands.

Doctors are highly motivated individuals, who generally work harder than anyone asks them to. If we don’t seem to do what you want us to do, it is either because we think you are asking us to do the wrong thing or because you haven’t given us the tools to do the right thing. We don’t need to be prodded along like cattle, and we don’t respond to being slapped.

Don’t bite.

Don’t inflict pain and don’t threaten us with it. Our first inclination will likely be to take care of our patients and ignore you, but we will ultimately respond if threatened or attacked enough. You may think of health care entrepreneurs from the business community as introducers of disruptive change, but consider the possibility that physicians, if pushed too far, could be the ultimate disruptive force in health care.

A Day of Real Doctoring

Back in my first year of blogging, I wrote a post, titled “A Day Without a Diagnosis“, about the way we now spend most of our time “managing” chronic diseases, some of which weren’t even considered diseases when I went to medical school.

That’s not how all my days go nowadays: A week ago I had a day of some very real doctoring.

My first patient of the day was a woman in her mid thirties. She told me she had been suffering from hives almost every day for two years. She was taking a once a day antihistamine, loratadine, faithfully and sometimes also some diphenhydramine when the itching got too bad. She had seen a dermatologist and an allergist early on with no resolution.

She also had problem with chronic abdominal cramps and diarrhea. That had also started about two years ago. She had already tries lactose and gluten free diets without relief.

Her hives seemed to erupt when she felt warm, and in her work, she was often exposed to temperature variations. At home, she slept in an upstairs bedroom with poor heating, and wore flannel pajamas under a down comforter. Her hives were terrible at night, but after sleeping on the couch in the living room for a couple of nights, she thought her hives had diminished.

I explained that she has cholinergic urticaria, triggered by heat. I e-prescribed famotidine, 40 mg twice daily and advised her to continue her loratadine every morning, but to also take cetirizine at night and to avoid bundling up at night, which she had already discovered to be helpful. She listened attentively to my mini-lecture on histamine 1 and histamine 2 receptors, their blockers and the overlap between them.

When I moved on to tell her that it sounded like she had irritable bowel syndrome, she seemed to think that was interesting, but when I got to my recommendation of taking Metamucil or a similar psyllium powder to help regulate her bowels, she seemed a little skeptical. “I thought that was for old people”, she said, I explained my rationale, and she said she’d give it a try.

My second patient of the day was a young man who had come to establish care two weeks before. In that first visit it became evident that he was bothered by a high pulse rate of several years’ duration, performance anxiety, elevated blood pressure and erectile dysfunction. His thyroid test had come back normal, and his outside blood pressure readings were all elevated.

I told him I felt a beta blocker would help all four of his problems. I shared with him that in the past, when he was just a baby, we used to choose blood pressure medications according to the overall clinical appearance of each patient, but that in recent years we had been encouraged to choose the same initial medications for all hypertensive patients, based on outcomes data in large groups of patients. I shared that with today’s new DNA profiling aiding in medication selection, we seem to be right back were we were thirty years ago, and that I thought the less common first choice, metoprolol, would fit his clinical presentation better than lisinopril or hydrochlorothiazide.

The same day I saw an elderly woman with terrible pain in her shoulders and thigh pain with walking. She also had carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. She had seen a general orthopedic surgeon twice, and had some temporary relief after a cortisone shot to her most arthritic shoulder, but her symptoms came back in full force.

I knew in my bones she had polymyalgia rheumatica. I prescribed 10 mg of prednisone twice daily and ordered lab work including a sedimentation rate. Later that day it came back at 96, almost pathognomatic for PMR.

Today I saw all three of them back in follow-up.

The young woman was beaming. “I can’t believe it. Two years of hives every day, and in two minutes you tell me what I have and what to do about it. I haven’t had a single hive in ten days!”

“Great”, I said, “and how’s your gut?”

“Like clockwork, and no cramps. I’m amazed.”

“It’s very gratifying when simple remedies work so well”, I said.

“Well, I am certainly grateful”, she proclaimed as I renewed her prescriptions for a year.

My blood pressure patient had a pulse rate well under 100 and his blood pressure was almost down in the normal range. He could feel how the medicine helped him deal with stressful situations, and, he smiled, his girlfriend sent me her thanks.

My elderly PMR patient had regained all her movement in her better shoulder and had gone shopping in the Mall over the weekend. Her son suggested she might have had a touch of mania on her steroids, but she seemed mellow enough today.

As I wrapped up my work for the day, I thought about the reasons I wanted to be a doctor ever since I was four years old. I always wanted to help sick people feel better and I have come to find great satisfaction in the teaching aspect of medicine.

But not every patient that takes a seat in my exam room is looking for me to do either of those things. Some don’t really want to be there, and some come in hopes that I will fix them without any effort on their part.

The times I can make a diagnosis that brings relief to a fellow traveler are precious, and some days I am blessed with many such opportunities.

From Learned Professionals to Skilled Workers: The Dangerous De-professionalization of Medicine

Physicians today are increasingly viewed and treated as skilled workers instead of professionals. The difference is fundamental, and lies at the root of today’s epidemic of physician burnout.

Historically, there have been three Learned Professions: Law, Medicine and Theology. These were occupations associated with extensive learning, regulation by associations of their peers, and adherence to strong ethical principles, providing objective counsel and service for others.

Learned Professionals have, over many centuries, worked independently in applying their knowledge of Law, Theology or Medicine to the unique situations presented by those who seek their services. They have done this work with a significant freedom that has been balanced by their commitment to the fundamentals of their disciplines and responsibility to their professional corps. They have answered to their clients, their profession and to the legal system of their countries, perhaps with the exception of where the Church has defied or resisted Government.

Skilled workers are different from Learned Professionals in that they, although their work may be highly complex, don’t independently interpret the theories behind what they do, but instead follow strict protocols and orders from supervisors. Examples of skilled workers are nuclear reactor operators, commercial jet pilots and Certified Public Accountants. No matter how much skill we require from nuclear reactor operators, for example, everybody sleeps better at night if they always follow their protocols and we assume that there are protocols for every imaginable scenario.

This is how many people, and particularly those who are now in roles of administration and finance in Government and the healthcare “industry”, have come to view Medicine; they think it is too important a job to trust individual providers to do well in without lots of supervision and protocols even more detailed than those in the nuclear or airline industries.

A few, narrow, specialties in Medicine and probably also in Law and Theology, might lend themselves to closer comparison with running a nuclear plant or flying passenger jets, but the definition of the Learned Professions is that they deal with not only complexity of but also with the uncertainty caused by the infinite human variation in expression of their science.

The narrower areas of Medicine, like joint replacement surgery, have tempted many to compare Medicine with manufacturing, for example. But even joint replacement surgery requires a level of judgement that goes far beyond the manufacturing paradigm, beginning with making the assessment, in collaboration with the patient, whether joint replacement is even indicated and safe for the individual in the first place.

The management of everyday conditions like diabetes, hypertension, depression and abdominal pain requires solid scientific knowledge, yet also involves high degrees of uncertainty and complex decision-making with infinite variables to consider. In other words, to think these conditions can safely be managed by protocols is naive; “guidelines” in Medicine are only broad brush strokes of the general principles we follow or at least consider, but would be detrimental to countless patients if actually followed as if they were protocols.

The argument has been made that Medical Science has grown so exponentially that individual doctors can never stay informed enough to make independent judgments about patient care. Logic dictates that this explosion requires even more independent judgments, because it is simply not possible to develop “protocols” for everything. Anyone can see that a patient with four or five conditions will have issues where what is done for one condition has a negative impact on another, for example. We face this issue in almost every patient encounter.

The other day, I had to prescribe an antibiotic for a patient with a serious blood clotting problem. The antibiotic I thought of using could interfere with my patient’s blood thinner, and the ones that don’t interfere are less effective. There are no protocols for that.

The same day I talked with a student about the risk of serotonin syndrome when you co-administer certain medications. For example, modern antidepressants and common migraine medications could theoretically cause this syndrome. My student had read it in a textbook and our computerized databases warn us every time that prescribing them both may not be a good idea. The literature reports this interaction to be rare enough that major headache societies support using the combination with common sense precautions when both medications are indicated. Making that judgment in individual cases requires knowledge of the drugs, understanding of the patient’s condition, and awareness of the current literature, because textbooks quickly become outdated.

I also talked with my student about the new study that suggests that more aggressive blood pressure targets for treatment of hypertension than the JNC 8 “guideline” are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular events. Which number should one strive for – in a high risk middle aged patient, and in a frail, elderly, patient?

This is why Medicine should still be classified as a Learned Profession. And this is why doctors must hone and honor their scientific knowledge and critical thinking. And this is also why patients, who can get any isolated piece of fact they would ever want from the Internet, still need us as trusted guides, whose understanding of Medicine runs deeper than sound bytes, blog posts, news flashes – and “guidelines”.

35 Years of Burnout

One of the most prominent definitions describes burnout “as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity“. (Maslach, Jackson & Leiter, 1996)

In 1974, the year I started medical school back in Sweden, the German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger published a journal article titled “Staff burn-out”. In it, he wrote about the physical and emotional symptoms of burnout, and he described how cognition, judgment and emotions are affected.

In 1980, while I was working in Sweden’s socialized health care system, Freudenberger wrote his book “Burn Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. What it is and how to survive it”.

In 1981, the year I landed on these shores, Christine Maslach published “The measurement of experienced burnout”, with the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which seems to be the standard tool for quantifying this condition, which was first associated with high stress positions in the service sector. It was seen as related to serving the needs of very needy or complex clients with limited resources at one’s disposal.

Early literature on burnout among physicians focused on physicians in pediatric intensive care units, and later on emergency physicians. Today, burnout is discussed in every specialty. It is described as an epidemic that is threatening the continued contribution to our health care system by half of all practicing physicians.

I never heard much about burnout as a resident, young family doctor or even in my early middle age. Now, there is even an ICD-10 diagnostic code for burnout – Z73.0!

The other day, I listened to a podcast by Richard Swenson, MD. He makes the argument that burnout is linked to having too little margin in life. As I listened and tried to imagine which doctors I knew who may have risked burnout from lack of margin, I could only think of a half dozen private practice doctors I knew when I was a resident. The margin theory seems to me to apply mostly to Marcus Welby’s generation of physicians, who did what they loved to do, and although they were in nearly full control of their day, they allowed their professional sense of duty to infringe on their margins, in Swenson’s words, to stretch their physical and perhaps sometimes also their emotional energy to or even beyond their limit.

I believe today’s epidemic of physician burnout is often unrelated to our margins, but in many cases the result of not being in quite the right position or career situation:

I have written before about the “counterintuitive concept of burnout skills” – the “talents” we possess that often draw us into vicious cycles of self-sacrificing heroics to overcome the unfixable limitations of our individual jobs or of the healthcare systems we work within.

In that context, the antidote to burnout is developing and using the talents that bring us the greatest personal satisfaction. When we use those talents, we become energized, and our work becomes fulfilling and rewarding.

In medicine, that switch to what energizes us might be focusing more on mentoring or education, developing a niche of deeper knowledge and greater expertise in an area that we can feel passionate about, or perhaps serving a special needs population of patients, like deaf, immigrant or mentally challenged patients.

But, sadly, burnout in medicine today is increasingly caused by the relentless shift in the demands of physicians’ time, attention and and energy away from serving patients to also, and with no extra time alotted, fulfilling an increasing number of official mandates.

This dichotomy between what we trained for, treating the sick, and what we never imagined doing, inputting data for only remotely patient-centered purposes, is making physicians feel powerless, and that is the driver of today’s epidemic of burnout.

This burnout is different from the other two kinds in that it is unrelated to individual choices or character traits. It is not a “condition” among physicians as much as it is a consequence of the “working conditions” in today’s American health care. It is a direct consequence of what I call the de-professionalization of medicine.

With every passing year, it drives employed physicians in greater and greater numbers toward a desire to quit medicine altogether. Short of becoming self-employed entrepreneurs in their mid- or late career, they see no escape from the shift in emphasis away from patient-focused and to toward data-driven care. All practices, except cash-only ones, must devote increasing resources to collecting data and documenting compliance with mechanistic actions that often seem irrelevant to patients, who all have their own priorities for their fifteen minutes with their doctor.

The solution to, or cure of, physician burnout is obvious and easy, but not on anyone’s political agenda.

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