Last week, I shared two interesting articles on this blog, one of which was the transcript of an interview with Dr. Eric Topol, author of the book, ‘The Creative Destruction of Medicine’. Buried in this article was a very interesting question posed by the interviewer :
Is there a possible irony that in using all this technology to “personalize” medicine you “depersonalize” it instead ?
A valid concern indeed! While the advances in science and technology make it possible to treat every individual’s physiology as unique and we now often have the means to tell apart conditions that are symptomatically similar but in fact are different diseases altogether, in all the exhilaration about the advances in medical science we tend to forget that there’s a person-to-person connect that we humans yearn for – especially when faced with bad news, and this seems to be slowly reducing.
A few years ago, a friend’s father developed an eye problem that needed surgery. It was complicated and he was referred to a surgeon well-known for his expertise in the field. The surgeon examined him, confirmed the diagnosis, scheduled the surgery and then – undoubtedly with the best intentions – blandly told him to be prepared for the worst as the operation had a high failure rate. As luck (and the surgeon’s skill) would have it, the operation was successful and the gentleman is fine now. However, his children still remember their father’s distress at hearing the news and wish it could have been presented in a gentler, more humane fashion; at that time I remember that they bubbled over in anger and resentment at the “cold, heartless” surgeon.
I’ve heard similar versions of this story from multiple people that met a thoroughly competent but not-empathetic-enough doctor/ surgeon/ other clinician. Not just those suffering from an ailment of some sort, even pregnant women that visit their gynaecologist voice a similar desire for time, information, and most of all, reassurance.
Partly, our frustration and distress stem from the fact that as patients or friends and relatives of patients, we want the Doctor to be everything, Superman almost. We hanker for the simple comforting relationship and degree of involvement of earlier times, but with all the benefits of better diagnoses and effective medicines that are available today; we want the caring demeanour, the reassurance, the generosity of time that an old-fashioned family doctor gave; yet we also want this person to have the skills and knowledge of a specialist, to have invested the time to be up-to-date with all technological and medical advances and to have the latest scientific facts at his fingertips. Occasionally, we meet such people, but they are rare. It’s a very fine line between doctors telling the patient as it is and being positive about the outcome to keep the patient cheerful and positive. Unfortunately our medical system does not train well for this ‘fuzzy’ part of medical care, and hence it is up to individual doctors how they deal with it.
One that does it very well is an orthopaedist called Dr. Niranjan Deshmukh at Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai. Multiple people that I know have been to see him for various back, shoulder and leg injuries and have given glowing reports of their experience. Apart from a calm reassuring manner, this Doctor also spends time with patients explaining to them why they are in pain, the cure needed, how long it will take etc. He uses 3-D images of our skeleton with the network of muscles and nerves over it to give detailed explanations of the reason for the pain, how it can be mitigated and means of preventing a recurrence.
I think it is time to acknowledge that such Doctors are the exceptions and build a system for the norm; one that is built around our needs as patients for more information to help us feel a bit more in control, for reassurance, and of course, for guidance and treatment. As Dr. Gawande says in his article, we need pit crews.
In some ways, hospitals are beginning to respond to these needs. Some hospitals address this through talk sessions that all their patients and their families can attend. Sometimes, for metabolic ailments, a doctor and a dietician work as a relay team for diagnosis and then ailment management. Additionally, one member of the pit crew could also be a trained medical counsellor, contributing the ‘time to care’ component of ‘quality of care’; someone who would help patients and their family members traverse from denial and anger to acceptance and solution-seeking, giving them all the information they need so that they can make sense of the situation – explain what’s happening, understand treatments available, sort through options etc.
Of course, one key question is that of the payer for these services and to what extent they can be rolled out in a country such as India where large swathes of underserved or un-served populace lack access to even basic medical care. Nevertheless, I think we need to push ahead on both fronts, improving quality of medical care and the overall experience and increasing access.
- Zenobia Driver