The Optimized Doctor

Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood


 

“I’ve been watching YouTube videos on how to set a ventilator,” said one of our dermatologists. The absurdity, levity, and gravity of that statement captures in a single sentence where we are today.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

None of us alive have experience with such a crisis. It is as if our planet passed through a wormhole and we’ve been transported to the late medieval period: We doctors fighting the Black Death donned in beaked masks filled with juniper berries, mint, and clove to protect us from the miasma. Now, though, we spray store-bought lavender disinfectant on surgical masks.

“A crisis shows you a person’s soul,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, adding: “It shows you what they’re made of, the weaknesses explode and the strengths ... emboldened.” Most of us have traveled through life with no experience of peril. Such mortal danger explodes and emboldens us, dividing us in two, the fearful or the phlegmatic.

When President Trump proclaimed that plaquenil was a promising treatment for the virus, prescriptions for the drug soared so quickly that four of eight manufacturers reported being in shortage by the end of the day. Many of those prescriptions were written by physicians for themselves and their families. Private Facebook physician groups shared insider tips for how to get around constraints and find the drug – as hoardable as toilet paper. As a department chief and fellow human being, I understand why some of us might behave this way. We doctors have declared war on this coronavirus, but we are not soldiers. We are not warriors. We didn’t sign up to be dermatologists or nephrologists or surgeons or pulmonologists agreeing that, to do so, we might die. We are all afraid.

The track of this epic storm became clear last week and now, terrifyingly, it appears it will be a direct hit. I braced for an onslaught of anxiety from our doctors and staff. But as the forecast became more grim, the courage began to well up and creativity climbed. Doctors went to local stores and bought all the masks and shields on their own. Rolls of toilet paper and diapers began magically appearing in our mom-doctors’ offices, delivered by angels in scrubs. I’ve practically had to install a velvet rope at my door to organize the queue of people wanting to talk to me about their ideas to help – keep 6 feet apart please! Stories like this abound. Even at the EvergreenHealth hospital in Washington they’ve not had shortages of staff. Rather than calling out sick, they called in: “If you need me, I’m available.”

Doctors are afraid and frustrated. Some of the things we will do in the coming weeks will first do no good, perhaps even harm. But I believe it’s because we’ve yet to embolden our strengths. It’s our job as leaders, attendings, administrators to inform and enable them.

When Marianne fell deathly ill in “Sense and Sensibility,” Colonel Branden wrung his hands and paced the floor. “Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.” Doctors are running, mad. And, just in case, some dermatologists are relearning how to intubate, waiting for that occupation to be given.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. He has no relevant conflicts of interest related to this column. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at [email protected].

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