We live in a world where patience is a diminishing commodity. We want each day to wrap up neatly like an episode of a TV show. We want to end all arguments by having the perfectly worded Facebook post. We want to figure out the solution to our problems, meet our soul-mate, elect the perfect candidate, and live the rest of our lives happy and contented. But every story has many pages, every timeline has many data points, and every life is made up of many days, many decisions.
One of the big unfortunate things about the medical system is that it turns listening into a rarity. "You are the only doctor who has ever listened to me," I often get told. Really? That's like being told that I am the only chef who has ever cooked food for someone. Isn't listening the essence of care? How could so many people go through our system feeling like they never get listened to? Yet they do. It is incredibly sad. It causes a huge amount of pain. It probably kills a fair number of people.
But if we are rewarding doctors for spending less time with people, what do we expect? If we are making computer time more profitable than patient time, ICD more important than bowel sounds, Medicare compliance more important than the emotional state of the person in the room with you, then it's hard to blame clinicians for ignoring patients. They are just doing what they are told.
But in our practice we live on this little island of sanity in a world where that is scarce. We work in an place where "you're welcome" is said far more than "I'm sorry." Patient wait times only go up when people have the nerve to show up early -- otherwise, we still have an average of around 30 seconds. I still spend an hour with new patients, for them to get to know me and me to get to know them; and they still generally walk away with an amazed expression on their face, having never experienced a good experience at a doctor's office. We still have a steady stream of new patients without doing much at all in the way of marketing. So all's well in Robsville.
This insecurity is the biggest challenge in my practice: getting people to change their behavior. Somehow I have to somehow get people to pay attention to their health when they'd rather ignore it, to be taking medications when they'd rather not, to be exercising when they don't want to, to lose weight when they love cheeseburgers, and to be checking their blood sugars when they'd rather not know how high they are. After trying lots of things over the past 20+ years, the one thing I find almost never works is what is usually done: lecturing the patient.
My hope is that somehow we are able to return to care that is patient-centered. People want their narrative to be a good one, and doctors need to be able to enter that narrative and become a positive influence. Our goal needs to push people out of the medical realm and back to living the rest of their narratives with as little contact with the healthcare system as possible. That's what patient-centered care really is.
If you look up the word "compliance" in a thesaurus, the first synonym (at least in my thesaurus) is "obedience to." This implies that non-compliant patients are, at least to some degree, equivalent to disobedient patients. This is borne out by the reaction many patients seem to expect of me when they "confess" they haven't taken prescribed medications: they look guilty — like they are expecting to be scolded.
The real question I am asking here is not if this care is good or bad (the answer to that is, yes, it is good and bad), but whether it is patient-centered.
This should be a silly question, like asking if car-repair is car-centered. But it is clear that much of the high cost of care in our country is due to the huge number of unnecessary procedures, medications, hospitalizations, and services given to/done on people. Unnecessary care is, almost always, not patient-centered.
The vast majority of people truly want a doctor they respect and actually like. This may come as a shock to many of my jaded colleagues who routinely face the ire of people stuck in waiting room purgatory, ignored or disbelieved by doctors, and treated as objects instead of people. They think that people are angry because they don't like doctors. They view the people on their schedule as, at best, the hungry masses they must placate and, at worst, as their adversaries they must conquer. Then they wonder why their patients are so unhappy?
The past three years has taught me otherwise. People want to like their doctors. We just haven't given them any reason to do so.
Rather than dwelling on the malfunction of the system, however, I want to turn my eyes toward what most people don't see: what real patient-centered care could and should be. It's not that I am suddenly wiser than my colleagues in the sick-care system. Despite 18 years in practice, I was not able to see what true patient-centered care looked like until I left the system.