In the early 1600s, the French playwright Molière wrote one of the great satires of all time, “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” In that play the main character, Sganarelle, is a woodcutter who wastes all his money on alcohol, so his wife Martine decides she will teach him a lesson. As she is plotting her revenge, Martine overhears two peasants discussing how they have been trying to find a doctor for their rich employer’s daughter, who has become suddenly mute. Martine seizes the opportunity to tell the peasants that her husband is a brilliant – though eccentric – doctor who usually hides his identity. Learning this, the peasants find Sganarelle and beg him to see their master’s daughter. Though he initially refuses, they berate him until he can take it no more, and he finally says that he is a doctor and agrees to assess the ill young woman.
Sganarelle does his best to impersonate a doctor while examining the young woman, and as he is doing so it becomes apparent even to him that she is not truly ill. She is pretending to be mute because she’s being forced to marry a wealthy man she does not love. Sganarelle discusses the diagnosis with her father, stating, “this impediment to the action of the tongue is caused by certain humors.” He goes on to say that her muteness was triggered by, “the vapors that pass from the left side, where the liver resides, to the right side, where the heart dwells.” The rich aristocrat listens intently and accepts the diagnosis, though he seems puzzled about one thing. “Isn’t the heart on the left side of the chest?” he asks. To this insightful and obvious question Sganarelle replies, “Yes, that used to be true; but we’ve changed all that, and we practice medicine now according to a whole new method.”
It is astonishing that Molière, in a farcical comedy written in the 1600s, could have anticipated the dizzying rate of change in modern medicine. While the heart and liver have not changed sides, the ways we are practicing medicine have undergone landmark shifts over the past 10 years. Just look at the new ways in which we record documentation, learn new information, send in prescriptions, manage populations in addition to individual patients, and so many other aspects of care. At times this evolution has its own satirical feel to it. For example, the notion that refusing to refill an opioid prescription for a patient that broke their opioid contract could lead to a bad review on Yelp or points off on a Press Ganey satisfaction survey does not seem reasonable, but it is real.
When we started this column about 10 years ago, we regularly received emails (and even letters written in fine penmanship and mailed in envelopes) from physicians who felt that the EHR was ruining their practice and their lives. Many of the letters talked about early retirement. Some physicians ended up retiring early. Many of these physicians were smart, able people who we believe took great care of patients. But as Leon C. Megginson, interpreting the work of Darwin, observed, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Adaptability favors the young; the young have fewer habits to break, few preconceived ideas of how things should be, and perhaps more energy to give to new tasks.
We believe we have now reached the inflection point – a time in the history of an industry where an event (in this case the advent of the EHR) so fundamentally impacts the industry that the industry is changed from that point forward. The industry, and more importantly those who work in the industry, must adopt new approaches and attitudes in order to survive in the changed environment. Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, talked about Strategic Inflection Points in a keynote address to the Academy of Management: “…what is common to [inflection points] and what is key is that they require a fundamental change in business strategy.” Grove also said, “That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”
Up until recently, the introduction of the EHR lead to discussions about what was good and what was bad about the advent of EHRs. That time is past. We no longer receive letters from physicians expressing their concerns about the EHR, as many of those physicians have taken the change as a signal of the end of their careers, and chosen to retire. The rest have adapted to a new world. And in this new world we are certainly rising to new heights. We are forward-focused and looking at the multi-fold ways that our new technologies can accomplish their many missions – to improve the health of the population, to serve as a source of data to assess the real-world effectiveness of novel therapies, to evaluate and affect the quality of care given by practices and individual physicians, and to take excellent personalized care of individual patients. While we are physicians, not wood cutters as in Molière’s play, it remains incumbent upon us never to stop listening to our patients’ hearts, and to interpret their symptoms and signs with common sense, empathy and even humor when appropriate, all the while embracing approaches that move the health care of our patients forward to new heights.