Saturday, December 22, 2012

Doctors and Guns

When I saw patients for routine exams, I would ask them, among other prevention issues, if they wore seat belts, had functioning smoke alarms  and whether or not they owned firearms.

The great majority wore seat belts and seemed to accept research showing a marked reduction in injuries and fatalities in those who buckled up.  When it became illegal to not wear them, most of the remaining stragglers appeared to sign on.

Patients were oftentimes puzzled at why I asked about smoke alarms.  They caught on when I suggested that it would be a shame to have corralled  their cholesterol and blood pressure with diet, medicines and exercise, only to go up in flames.  On returning one year later, many informed me, with great gusto, that they had installed fire alarms and regularly checked the batteries.

Asking about guns was another matter.  Most patients openly wondered at what gun ownership had to do with medicine.  While not comprehending the reason for the question, most listened politely to my concerns.  At least two individuals, however, became quite hostile about being asked  and told me it was none of my business.  I wondered if they possibly thought me an undercover agent for the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF).

With as much diplomacy as I could muster, I explained to all my patients that my concern was not over whether they owned guns but whether or not they were safely maintained.

That meant that the guns should be locked up so that children and intruders would not have access to them.  The ammunition should be stored separately from the guns and also locked up.

Why?  It is not unusual to read of children who kill themselves or their friends when playing with loaded guns which they have come across in explorations around their homes.  It's thought that about 2,800 children and teenagers die a year from gun related deaths.  This includes an appalling number of teen suicides.  Moreover, it is very common for intruders to disarm gun users and then turn the weapons against the owners.

Additionally, I recommended that those who kept guns loaded by the bedside (not at all unusual among patients living in high crime areas)  separate the gun from the ammunition, explaining that loaded weapons in the home resulted in more deaths of family members than criminal intruders (read: husband's night flight is cancelled and he comes home, unannounced at 1:00 AM, to a hail of bullets, set off by a terrified wife.) 

Over the years, it seemed that at least half of my patients had firearms, mostly rifles.  It was not at all unusual for a patient to say he had a rifle but hadn't seen it for twenty years and couldn't say exactly where it is.  This is where the kids and bad guys come in.  They have a nose for missing weapons.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Finally,  if I thought a patient suicidal, and learned that they owned a gun, I did what I could to get them and/or their families to disarm the individual.  This was especially urgent as guns are both a gateway and final destination for the majority of people determined to kill themselves.  

My efforts were not in vain as many patients would tell me they had locked up their guns and kept them unloaded as a result of our discussions.  

While I sometimes felt like  the nanny (nag?)-in-chief, I firmly believe that a discussion of gun safety issues belongs in the routine medical exam. Management of violence and mayhem is unarguably a health issue.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Guns And Can Openers

The events in Newtown have many of us thinking about the horrors of gun violence.

That’s when the NRA springs into action, trotting out its ballistic mantra, one of the most egregious dodges of our time: it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.  

Hmm.  So it must be equally true that it’s not can openers that open cans, it’s people who open cans.

Go try opening a can without a can opener.

And go try killing someone without  a gun, the weapon of choice for murderers, who like to keep their hands clean and value the savage efficiency of rapid fire guns and exploding bullets. 

Indeed, guns are, at the very least, guilty by association.  If we do not contain them, it will not be going over the budgetary cliff that will ruin us so much as a firearms induced state of poisonous incivilty.

Let’s talk to each other and our political representatives as much as possible about new gun laws, including reliable background checks, a ban on assault rifles and large bullet clips as well as more attention and resources for mental health issues.

If not now, then when?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Holding On

Leaves finally give way to gravity, painting the ground with a riot of color, dancing all the way to their deaths.
Still a few stalwarts, going dry, pale and cracked, refuse to let go, suggesting that we just might be able to hold on too till the next wave of leaves, popping out audaciously, full of themselves, ride in on the next season and its green destiny.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Word Pouncing

We pounce on words and somehow red turns blue
We pounce on words and they pile up into books, literature, not literature, mortgages, advertisements, curfews, claims of love, claims of hate, report cards, the price of bananas, instructions for an electric toothbrush, speed limits, a history of Atwater Beach
Which of these words deserves coronation and which the guillotine?
Words, rolling around in the stream of understandings and mis-understandings, which they forge, makes it hard to know 
But isn’t that the game?

Saturday, September 8, 2012


We are holocaust  survivors
The sun lays a late afternoon table of luminous shapes
Our children read the script and always graduated with honors
Desultory  and panicked walks in the forest became the stuff of legend
School children push and shove to breathe in the ether of bravery which perfumes us  
And yet we are still holocaust survivors, nothing more or less, leaving us in mourning, wondering who we are, and who we might  have been, hoping to find at least a trace of our remains.   

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sex Talk

With the arrival of drugs like Viagra and Cialis, designed to treat erectile dysfunction (read erectile collapse), men stampeded to their doctor's offices.

These medications are oftentimes effective, generally well tolerated and a far cry better than previous ones which tended to be  gothic
(anyone for a round of intra-penile injections?) in nature.  

But not everyone was a candidate for medicines.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I remember an illustrative case, a mid thirties man, who typically had six orgasms in a night of love making with his partner.  Recently, he fell off to four orgasms and feared he was in decline,perhaps on the cusp of old age.  All the same, his erections were steadfast and they never took a powder.

This man was not a candidate for medications because he did not have, by any stretch of the imagination, erectile dysfunction.  What he really needed was a cold shower and reassurance.

Another grouping of men (thirties and up) seemed to redefine their idea of good sexual health based on the extravagant promises of drug company advertisements.  In this pharmaceutical world there is little tolerance for normal (perhaps the man is sleep deprived or loaded with alcohol) lapses in erections, and climaxing seems to be all but guaranteed. The sense of inadequacy that the ads create in men, who functioned normally most of the time, ise powerful.

Some of these men were then keen to begin medications immediately, hoping I could be persuaded to skip the performance anxiety lecture, along with a recommendation that they purchase a copy of the Kama Sutra as soon as possible.

These individuals seemed to see their sexuality through a narrower lens, where sex was strictly defined as penetration with orgasm.  In their view the major goal was getting the ball, as it were, into the end zone, running up the score whenever possible. After reassurance, many men abandoned their search for medications.

The remaining men were similarly anxious about their sexuality.  They tended to engage more, however, in hugging, kissing, massaging, touching and oral sex, giving them a much broader view of love-making. 

They were told that these expressions were normal and healthy and they were encouraged to collaborate with their partners in creating, with or without penetration, creative forms of climaxing of their own invention.  For a number of these individuals the playfulness and openness of this approach trumped medicines which became a second line of defense.

So while ED drugs are valuable for many men, many others are actually sexually intact and should not be bullied by the drug companies into thinking otherwise.

Medicines have their place; so does a loving embrace.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Devil Is In The Details

The US Institute of Medicine estimates that somewhere between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths in hospitals annually are due to medical errors Rachel Giese.  Most of these errors are preventable. 

But the modern hospital confronts elements that make it a veritable breeding ground for poor outcomes.  

Poor judgement on the part of doctors is an issue that requires attention but it is not pivotal.  The most pressing problems have much more to do with faulty operation systems, poor communication and the complexity and severity of today's hospital admissions.

For example, rather than being cared for by his/her family doctor, in this era of 'shift medicine', a patient is cared for by a number of hospital based physicians, who devote their time solely to outpatient care.

The personal physician's deeper Insights into the medical and social aspects of their patients' lives are more or less lost in the fracas of acute hospital care.  The communication between the hospital doctors is often done on the run causing changes, distortions and misinterpretations of the original message. Misunderstandings abound.  

Operational breakdowns abound too.  Just consider the number of departments (nursing, nutrition, mental health, speech pathology, social services, pharmacy) and consultants who regularly interact with patients and each other.  These caregivers appear not to have a lingua franca  and, as a result, frequently trip over each other. 

While team care has its merits it oftentimes looks like a bee hive without a queen bee. 

A queen bee is critical in medical care because she assures the kind of order, and ritual, necessary for safe outcomes.

Good care is not sexy, it is methodical.

The airline industry has famously recognized this and has reduced its fatality rate to nearly zero.  They didn't accomplish this with better pilots. They did it with check lists.  

On all flights it is required that the pilot and co-pilot evaluate together a list of safety questions.  It's the same form and the same questions every time.  Are the flaps up ( should they be)?  Is there ice on the wings?  Is the landing gear ready to go? 

The US Institute of Medicine and progressive hospitals have embraced  the checklist idea with many thousands of errors and deaths reduced annually.  The operating room list asks the team to review, among other things, the patient's identity, the nature of the operation, confirming, for example, that it is the correct kidney to be removed, skating clear of an intolerable 'oops'.

Another beneficial list deals with the placement of central venous lines, a major source of hospital infection, morbidity and deaths.  When they are placed willy nilly, going on instinct, based mostly on personal experience (often limited), errors soar.  Following the proven and battle tested lists technique can bring the error and complication rate to near zero. 

It seems inevitable that many more lists will be brought into hospitals and clinics.  Ones to eliminate errors in medication dosing at discharge are especially needed.

Doctors generally take a dim view of lists, at first blush, regarding them as an assault on their clinical hegemony.  Most are converted, however, by superior outcomes and a realization that clinical judgement remains an indispensable element of medical practice.

But clinical judgement will increasingly be sharing the spotlight with computers in what should be a promising relationship. 

Airlines have once again led the way, demonstrating that aircraft facing dire circumstances are sometimes more likely to escape disaster when following the dictates of the inflight computers rather than the most experienced pilots.

How could this be?    

The pilot may be sleepy, or hungover, or depressed.  The computer is not.  The pilot may be seasoned but unable to match the computer's storehouse of information dealing with successful or failed maneuvers in historically similar circumstances.

Going on automatic pilot then, checking the details and following repetitious patient care plans on the medical wards and operating rooms may not be scintillating, but doing so adds greatly to safety, reducing  both errors and mortality.  And not to worry, the importance of clinical judgement, wisdom and compassion will remain the most valuable coins of the realm.

So looking for a hospital?  If they have central line and operating room lists they are probably committed to safety and deserve your confidence as the days of do it my way, swashbuckling medicine are increasingly numbered.

In short, the devil remains in the details.

Monday, July 9, 2012

On Retirement

When it was announced that  I was retiring from medical practice (almost a year ago), well wishers came to congratulate me.  I thoroughly appreciated the good wishes, but didn't fully understand the congratulations part.

I was confused, thinking congratulations were generally reserved for individual feats such as winning the clinic hot dog eating contest or, say, reaching twenty years of sobriety, an act of courage.

Retirement didn't strike me as a feat but an inevitability, a kind of door closing.  So why all the back slapping?

In time,  I began to understand.  The congratulations were for going the distance,  for coming out of medical practice largely intact with an arsenal of cherished patients, colleagues and friends.

Good wishes were almost always followed by the same three questions:  what will you do with your time, where will you live and what travel plans did you have?   

When I smart-assly (I am one) responded that we had neither exciting travel plans nor any intention of moving, the predictable response was a mixture of sympathy and disappointment.

My standard response to the first question was that I planned to write a blog, take college courses and just knock around.  Nearly everyone seemed pleased and supportive until I got to the knocking around part, when smiles went missing, replaced by looks of incredulity and worry.   Lectures on the perils of inactivity and the rewards of a bulging calendar were numerous and mostly out of the same play book, leading me to want  to dive, head first, into the first available couch.

The message was clear - you are not living in an age of relaxation (notwithstanding the stampede of commercials for languorous cruises), you are  part of an age of competition and a technological culture of rapid fire updates, in which you spend considerably more time loading your musical files than listening to them. 

While the lectures and questions were indeed well intentioned they were so repetitive and predictable that I decided it was time for me to orchestrate a game changer.

So, resorting to fiction and whimsy, I emerged as Special Agent Blogspeak.

My shtick was to tell questioners, who wondered what I would do in retirement,  that  I was being heavily recruited by the FBI for a senior management position.  To my utter astonishment more than a few people seemed to believe it  possible that the FBI might want my services.  I was flattered and unrepentant.

Now well into my retirement, the special agent ruse  has come back to haunt me. The problem arises out of my college classes where  I have had almost no success in connecting with my classmates.  For example, no one has invited me to the Thursday night bar hopping nor was  I  invited on any of the spring break trips.  No one talks to me during class breaks.

My classmates apparently don't trust me, believing,  I suspect,  that I  must be an undercover agent for the Drug, Tobacco and Alcohol Bureau.  Why else, they might reason, would a gray haired, senior citizen come back to the classroom other than to snoop and snitch?

Determined to be accepted, I have thought about getting a tattoo, which just might win me some trust.  I'm told by experts that a neck location billboards best.  The inscription could be decisive.  For now, a catchy and convincing one might be 'anarchy now and forever'. 

If this works, I can confidently say my retirement is going well.  Among other things, I take walks, plunder the library for books, have hot chocolate dates with friends and have successfully deflected suggestions by family and friends that I get a personal trainer.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Too Good To Be True

Cliches get a bad rap for being worn out and unserviceable. Upon reflection, however, they are oftentimes brimming with common sense and wisdom. For example,"If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

This cliche came to mind recently when I was reading an article published in The Lancet, a prestigious English medical journal, which suggested that even patients at low risk for cardiovascular disease would benefit from taking statins (a class of cholesterol lowering medicines), resulting in lives saved, and a significant reduction in heart attacks and strokes. 

Until this report, a risk of 20% or higher, defined by a standard measuring device, was the point at which statins, with ringing endorsements from the cognoscenti, were recommended. 

Now, the Lancet research suggests that anyone with a risk of 10% or greater is likely to benefit too.

What the authors of the paper are telling us is that individuals previously thought to be low risk are now thought to be candidates for statins.

With a wave of the wand, the total number of high risk, vulnerable individuals greatly increases, making it appear that cardiovascular disease is more rampant than ever.

Enter the treat everyone, 'put it in the water' school, trumpeting a message that thrives on the simple (and misguided) notion that we are all the same and benefit from the same management and treatments. 

Not too many years ago, followers of this same 'school' informed us that all women on estrogens needed to be on progesterones too. That idea turned out to be categorically false and based on flawed research.

They also issued warnings of late about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency, which they unassailably believed to be a big factor in everything from diabetes to depression to cancer to multiple sclerosis. As a result, no visit to the doctor was complete without a prescription for vitamin D.  Game on.

Enthusiasm for vitamin D supplementation,this latest edition of the fountain of youth, turned out to be uncontainable once the genie was let out of the bottle. Not surprisingly, the lower limits of normal have progressively decreased, drawing more and more people into the vitamin deficient category. 

And thanks to the idea that you can't get too much of a good thing dosages began to rise steadily.

As it turns out, the entire vitamin D epoch was the result of belief masquerading as fact, overlooking a fundamental quality of biology - its variability.  

Variability is the coin of the realm, promoting strength and sustainability in both plants and animals.

For example it's preferable that a garden have multiple strains of plants since a single strain would be much more vulnerable to blight, mutations and even extinction. That's why nature abhors sameness.

Humans are vulnerable to sameness too.  What happens, for example, if an unexpected, and severe, toxicity to, say, statins develops among a population where the drug is unnecessarily used by  large numbers of people? 

So when experts joke about placing a drug (not fluorides)in the drinking water, you can
be pretty sure that canonization of the treatment along with a pharmaceutical jihad are afoot,  unwisely exhorting everyone to dance to the same tune.

It is almost never the case (with the exception of toothbrushing) that everyone should do the same thing.

When a single approach is universally promoted, know that the idea defies common sense and the variability of nature.

Above all, dust off and brandish that trusty cliche - if something appears too good to be true, it probably is.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Selecting A Physician

Finding a new doctor can be a daunting experience, especially with hospitals and clinics going all out with media campaigns to corral new patients. So, if you are unable to find a doctor, it's more than likely that one will find you. 

A favorite method to capture patients is to circulate filmed interviews of doctors that can be widely seen on television, the internet and DVDs.

The clinicians are asked in the filming to reveal their values, interests and style of practice; giving the patient a brief look under the hood.  

Somehow, most of the interviewed seem to say more or less the same things: they like to take walks (by a lake is best),  read books, drink fine wines, bicycle and play with their Labradoodles.  None have yet referenced pub crawling or pick pocketing as forms of recreation and fulfillment.  Their style of practice is relentlessly collaborative - a partnership, whether you want to be a partner or not. 

Altogether a picture of sameness and similarity emerges from the interviews, right out of the Big Mac playbook, which seems to make choosing a new doctor less burdensome, less of  a choice.

The interviews suggest clinical competence which should be true for the vast majority of doctors.

Still, sniffing out a good doctor from advertisements can be perilous, especially at a time   when medicine has evolved from craft, to profession, and now to commodity.

So what strategies exist as an alternative to the media blitz?

One tried and true method is word of mouth recommendations, which generally expose the fakers (uncommon) and bloviators (not so uncommon).

Nurses, moreover, are excellent referral sources as they, more than most, get to see physicians with the mask off.  Most doctors I know are flattered when a patient is referred to them by a nurse.

Furthermore, don't hesitate to take the measure of the doctor yourself by scheduling a getting to know you appointment.  Your intuitions and observations can be telling.

And don't forget the medical assistant.  If they are bruised, the doctor probably is and you, by fallout, might be too.  If the assistant cares about whether your dog recovered from his accident, the doctor probably does too.  If the assistant seems out of control, the doctor might well be out of control too.

The point is that the assistant's manner and style often reflects the doctors, giving a sense of how the doctor's practice is run, a key variable in picking a doctor (read does it take four days for the doctor to return phone calls).

Finally, advice from George Bernard Shaw, who counseled patients to acquire a doctor whose father was rich, believing such a caregiver would order tests and procedures in a more measured way and might be able to spend more time with patients.

Outrageous, of course.

Worth a thought, of course.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Not So Fast

Dear Reader -

The link which follows is to an important and welcome article in the New York Times.  Nine premier medical societies have joined forces and endorsed frugality in the ordering of forty-five commonplace tests, scans and medications.

For example, sinusitis is rarely improved with antibiotics and MRIs of the back are much overused.

Some of us, brought up in the more is better school, might want the targeted tests regardless, believing they are an unmitigated good, especially attractive for individuals with health insurance.

Misguided use of monies is a big concern, but an even bigger one is that inappropriate testing can lead to errors of thought and judgement which can cause significant harm.

What you will read in the article has been known by the majority of physicians.  The issues have remained under the radar for a number of reasons, none more compelling than the staggering profitability of testing.

So here is the link Link NYT Article.

Your opinions and comments are hoped for.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On Starving and Smuggling

At the beginning of my years of practice, I noticed that there was a certain number of patients hospitalized for heart failure, who remained resistant to treatments, especially to diuretics, the main weapon at that time. Rigorously low sodium diets were standard as even tiny amounts of salt will oftentimes sabatoge the effectiveness of diuretics.  Nonetheless patients who seemed like they should respond did not.  It was a puzzlement.
It was while interning at a predominantly Jewish hopsital that the explanation for this became apparent. One day I walked into a room to find heart patient Irv, surrounded by his loving family, with his oxygen mask off, wolfing down a bagel with lox and cream cheese.  With the normal heart this is one of life’s great pleasures, with a weak heart lox, suffused with salt, is toxic.
Irv and his family turned out to be the tip of the iceberg, many families, upon investigation, were smuggling in salt laden food, a mainstay of Jewish cuisine.  The contraband poured into the hospital despite regular alerts to families regarding the dangers of salt for failing hearts.
Given the ubiquity of tasteless and ropey hospital cuisine it is therefore not  at all surprising that food came into the hospital, under the radar, giving pleasure where it was otherwise in short supply, while hopefully harnessing the magical healing powers of mother’s chicken soup.
In some cases where there was marginal heart function this trafficking in salt was tantamount to “killing with love” and shows that dietary retrictions can be very important.
But not always.  Sometimes they are so Orwellian as to make compliance nearly impossible.  Consider the low sodium, low potassium diet, commonly deployed in  hospitals for cardiovascular and or renal patients.  For some of these patients the restrictions are key.  More often the dietary bans amount to painting by the numbers, producing dietary decisions that lack common sense and balanced thought.
Sometimes caregivers will bend, but there are a good many who strictly follow the rules.  The result is that a number of patients find their diets so objectionable that they choose not to eat.  After drawing on, and depleting, sugar and starch stores, protein is marshalled by the breakdown of muscle, leading to profound weakness, which compromises healing, decisively at times, along many fronts.
So there are times where we, despite the best of intentions, starve patients by not allowing them foods they enjoy or can tolerate.  When it comes to this, smuggling pastrami, raisins, bananas and avocados into the hospital just might be life-sustaining and certainly humane.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Professor Motherbleeper

The setting for this blog posting is a neighboring university where, in my retirement from medical practice, I am auditing classes.  Names, places and scenes have occasionally been fictionalized.  This piece is dedicated to my classmates who have unwittingly provided most of the material for this essay.  They treat me well though more than a few seem to think I just might be a senior undercover agent for the drug and alcohol bureau.
My professor was droning on about a political figure prominent during the Civil War, and I felt myself slipping into what promised to be a satisfying nap.  But as the shades were just about to be closed down around me, I bolted up in my seat hearing my teacher say, "and he was a motherbleeper."  I quickly scanned the lecture hall and discovered, to my amazement, that his word selection seemed to have gone unnoticed by everyone but me.
I attended college in the early 1960s where we freely used the expression everywhere on campus with the exception of the library and the classroom.  The faculty never deployed the word in the classroom, or we imagined, anywhere else.  If they did, especially in front of students, they almost certainly would have been censured, or worse, by the Dean, because motherbleeper did not mix well with veritas and similarly high-minded words commonly carved into the facade of university libraries across the country.
Upon reflection, I felt that the professor had conveyed, with clarity, just what kind of guy this politician was.  The meaning of the expression was unambiguous, a linguistic victory.  While a teacher and practitioner of bleeping words might be asked to tone it down by their Dean (who would snitch other than someone like me?), my lecturer's word choice is arguably covered by principles of academic freedom and even freedom of expression as guaranteed in the first amendment.
But if racy language has gained a seat in the classroom, then it should be called upon judiciously, a light garnish rather than the main course.  
One might intuit whether or not a word is obscene by its purpose.  If it is meant to injure or diminish someone then it is probably obscene and should remain locked up. Motherbleeper did not injure the long dead politiican, but did paint him as a rather unsavory character.  Mission accomplished.
Altogether, the motherbleeper episode reminded me of just how much the college experience has changed since my graduation in 1965.  Salty language is just one element.
For one thing, students seem to talk to each other as little as possible so as not to interfere with text messaging and other social media chores, such as making sure that everyone of your nearly fifteen hundred facebook friends (of whom they personally know, say, two hundred) hear about the new shoe polish you discovered that decreases scuffing by at least twenty percent.
Walk into the typical university building and you will likely find lines of students, waiting for their next classes to begin, silent, with necks flexed, eyes locked on tiny screens, thumbs galloping, gathering information on movies, celebrity news and shopping tips.  During lectures some students continue text messaging with their smartphones strategically placed below the table, again with the neck in a tell-tale flexed (bent forward) position, feigning headaches, exhaustion or perhaps a spiritual awakening. 
It is this flexion of the neck which worries most as, who knows, it might just lead to a permanent flexion in adulthood, opening the possibility that  today's college students will lose the capacity to see far, even when standing on the shoulder of giants.
While conversation is increasingly rare so is visual contact.  Mired in  tiny smartphone screens, students seem not to see one another.  While this  ironically provides relief for many women who resent  being objectified by up and down staring, it is curious that young men seem uninterested in looking at, or innocently flirting with, young women.  Why is this?  Could it be that students of both sexes have such easy sexual access to each other, that the mystery and magic of sexuality becomes hobbled and looking is subverted by texting?
On another front, there is a growing sense that more and more people are developing romantic and sexual ties to their computers and social media devices, rife with pornography, well suited for people with many time constraints, who favor efficiency over intimacy, and prefer, as it were, to fly solo.
So college life has indeed changed greatly in the past half-century, as have  our cultural norms, charged and fueled by a ubiquitous technological revolution in which the internet and social media define our times. These changes make colleges more fascinating places to be in than ever.  The challenge for today's college students is to find ways to stay connected, both digitally and personally.  
Either or falls woefully short of the mark. 


Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Being Late

In an increasingly consumer minded era more and more patients, understandably upset with long office waits,  express the belief that their time is as valuable as the doctors and deeply resent having to, now running late themselves,  sprint out of the clinic to meet other needs, obligations or appointments.  When they are late for subsequent meetings or responsibilities a pile up, a chain reaction of tardiness,  can occur.

In addition to physicians chronically falling behind their appointment schedule, patient tardiness is a major factor, especially if despite arriving late  (beyond ten minutes), patients are immediately seen, pushing back appointment times for those who follow.

This is especially galling to patients who rightly feel a sense of ownership of their appointment times and believe their scheduled visit with the doctor should not be usurped, especially without their permission. (Mr. Jones may we delay your appointment fifteen minutes?)

There are numerous reasons why someone might show up late for their appointment.  The time on their appointment card was recorded incorrectly.  They are so sick or confused that they initially went to the wrong place.

For these reasons an accommodation needs to be made regardless of its effect on the schedule.  In my experience, these kind of reasons for being late are not as common as one might think.  But when they occurred, these patients were brought to the head of the  line.  I cannot recall a single objection raised to my either seeing an acutely ill patient immediately or spending a prolonged amount of time with them.  

Much more common are reasons falling into the categories of either late by choice or chance.  The patient was, for example, winning at cards and couldn't pull himself away while he had a hot hand.  After avidly exploring a frozen metal lamp post,  the families Doberman Pinscher, now mystified and irate, found himself tethered to the post by his tongue.  A group of firemen, were called in to defrost the post, carefully and slowly, hoping that when the tongue sprung loose the Doberman would show only gratitude.  The drama resulted in the patient arriving one hour late. 

Early in my career I began, after satisfying myself that there was no urgent problem afoot, to ask those late by choice or chance to either make a new appointment or take a later appointment that day should one be open, explaining that I could not, in good faith, give another persons appointment time away.  Moreover, I indicated that  I was not at my best when rushed and I believed they would have  a much more satisfying visit when I was not galloping to make up time.

These conversations generally did not go down very well with many patients who seemed to regard me as a small time dictator.  They reasoned, I feel certain, that since doctors were notoriously late, it was a  minor blemish to be, say, thirty minutes  late.

But when the vast majority understood that I meant to run on schedule, and that they could almost always count on being seen when scheduled, they warmed to my style and were rarely late.  A number of new patients came to me because they heard that I ran on time.  Over the years,  not a few patients thanked me for being prompt and guarding their appointment slots. 

Lesson?  Run like a Danish train (relentlessly on time) and doctors and patients get home less bruised and angry.  The occasionally clever and imaginative explanations for being late are sometimes hard to deflect, but making an earnest effort to keep on schedule is respectful of patient's time.  Moreover, it makes it far less likely that patients and doctors will feel as if they have been on a cattle drive.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Foppery

Our personal style of dressing broadcasts to others how we see ourselves and how we would like to be seen by them.  It's quite amazing how effective the strategy is. 

For example, wearing striped ties to class from middle school through college might accomplish your longstanding desire to become president of the local golf club. Wear three piece pin striped suits in your law practice and clients just might begin to believe you are actually worth eight hundred dollars per hour.  After all, clothes, as it is said, makes the man - and woman.

Without saying so we want people to know if we are gentle or rough,  liberal or conservative, heterosexual or homosexual, playful or serious.  Our clothes billboard the answers with laser accuracy.

Clothing also permits us to indulge ourselves in various fantasies.   That's why we drive our Ford pick-up wearing leather racing gloves or take to coming to the office decked out in a Stetson hat.    

Even the survival of the species benefits from a Darwinian fashion show of clothing.  While other animals attract each other and preserve their species utilizing color markings, we depend heavily on clothing to propagate ours.

So it was a big shock to me when I commenced my internship and discovered that my wardrobe was to go in storage and be replaced by a uniform which would do very little to either preserve the species or promote the persona I hoped to cultivate.

The uniform consisted of a short white jacket, white pants and white shirt.  They were all starched to a point that one had more of a  feeling of breaking into them rather than putting them on.  This cold, stiff, white landscape was relieved only by our neckties.  While it was mandatory to wear them, we were given free rein in buying them, leading to a cacophony of colors and patterns, which gave us a modicum of individual expression.

So we held on to our neckties as if they were lifeboats.  Most of us packed as much individuality as we could into our very limited haberdashery.  I favored ties with interesting color combinations hoping, I suppose, to be seen as 
artistic and sensitive. 

But selecting my own ties did not dispel for me the feeling of anonymity and enforced conformity.

So why were we exiled to this fashion Siberia?  What message was our hospital attire supposed to convey?   

The relentless white was possibly to project a pure and sanitary image despite our regular tramping around in gobs of purulence.  

It was widely believed at the time that germs (any bacteria, almost all friendly) were public enemy number one and television ads were awash in pitches for toilet bowl cleaners (Mr. Clean was an icon) and kitchen sanitizers.  The sparkling white color of our hospital clothes must have, as a result, been very reassuring.

The stiffness of our outfits might have subconsciously suggested moral rectitude though it is equally possible that the hospital laundry got a sweet deal on starch and felt free to starch the daylights out of our uniforms.  Which ever the case, my cohort  and I had, by common consensus, more starch than rectitude.

So when I finally entered practice, escaping three years of a deflating dress code (and two years in the army where I came to detest the color olive nearly as much as white), I vowed to never wear anything white.  This included white shirts and lab coats, long or short.  It surprised me how commonplace it was for practitioners to wear long white lab coats and I was grateful that the group I joined did not.

Long white lab coats on internists seems to  me like over - egging the omelet.  They give the impression of  a doctor who not only talks to you and takes your blood pressure, but also conducts animal studies in the basement and is regularly splashed with blood and an assortment of nasty discharges.  In fact, these contingencies are pretty far-fetched.

Moreover, the lab coats suggest priestly robes, giving them an air of authority which is disturbing.  While studies have shown that a majority of patients find doctors who wear the lab coats more professional and trustworthy, donning of the robes can create a divide which does not accommodate  open discussion.  After all, who will challenge or question a man or woman wearing priestly robes?

There are of course many internists in lab coats who encourage and successfully create open dialogues with their patients, but the coats are in many ways institutional props that, under the radar, stifle communication, and thereby deserve to be mothballed.

My second vow on entering practice was to not wear neckties.  In part I saw them as superfluous and uncomfortable and in part I admit to playing the gadfly.  But my chief aim was to cultivate a persona that painted me as open, flexible and somewhat unconventional.  Tossing off my ties was a metaphor for these qualities.

My seniors were scandalized by my open collar look which they regarded as subversive and unprofessional.  On the other hand, my  patients barely noticed and I doubt that I lost any patients as a result.

Today, at least thirty-five years later, the open collar is the rage among politicians, celebrities,  doctors, pundits, even lawyers. 

Furthermore, the tie is now regarded as a pariah in the medical world by some researchers who have shown them to be a breeding ground for pathogens and a rich source of hospital acquired infections.  Some hospitals in the UK have banned them and many others, here and abroad, discourage them.  

In some ways then, clothes indeed can make the man or woman.  At the very least, their presence or absence (my long gone ties) are vehicles for how we see ourselves and hope to be seen by others.  Whichever style we might adopt, it should feel natural or else it flops. Otherwise, most fashion sorties hit the target as long as there is not even a hint of sloppiness. 

Perhaps the best advice  I ever received about clothing was from my father who exhorted my brother and I to dress British and think Yiddish.  Its pretty good advice for anyone: create an image but remember where you come from.

Dress British, think Indian; dress British, think Polish; dress British, think Mexican and so on works equally well.