Letters from Maine

The power of an odd couple


The time has come for good men and women to unite and rise up against a common foe. For too long nurses and doctors have labored under the tyranny of a dictator who claimed to help them provide high-quality care for their patients while at the same time cutting their paperwork to nil. But like most autocrats he failed to engage his subjects in a meaningful dialogue as each new version of his promised improvements rolled off the drawing board. When the caregivers were slow to adopt these new nonsystems he offered them financial incentives and issued threats to their survival. Although they were warned that there might be uncomfortable adjustment periods, the caregivers were promised that the steep learning curves would level out and their professional lives would again be valued and productive.

Of course, the dictator is not a single person but a motley and disorganized conglomerate of user- and patient-unfriendly electronic health record nonsystems. Ask almost any nurse or physician for her feelings about computer-based medical record systems, and you will hear tales of long hours, disengagement, and frustration. Caregivers are unhappy at all levels, and patients have grown tired of their nurses and physicians spending most of their time looking at computer screens.

You certainly have heard this all before. But you are hearing it in hospital hallways and grocery store checkout lines as a low rumble of discontent emerging from separate individuals, not as a well-articulated and widely distributed voice of physicians as a group. To some extent this relative silence is because there is no such group, at least not in same mold as a labor union. The term “labor union” may make you uncomfortable. But given the current climate in medicine, unionizing may be the best and only way to effect change.

But organizing to effect change in the workplace isn’t part of the physician genome. In the 1960s, a group of house officers in Boston engaged in a heal-in to successfully improve their salaries and working conditions. But over the ensuing half century physicians have remained tragically silent in the face of a changing workplace landscape in which they have gone from being independent owner operators in control of their destinies to becoming employees feeling powerless to improve their working conditions. This perceived impotence has escalated in the face of the challenge posed by the introduction of dysfunctional EHRs.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Ironically, a solution is at almost every physician’s elbow. In a recent New York Times opinion piece Theresa Brown and Stephen Bergman acknowledge that physicians don’t seem prepared to mount a meaningful response to the challenge to the failed promise of EHRs (“Doctors, Nurses and the Paperwork Crisis That Could Unite Them,” Dec. 31, 2019). They point out that, over the last half century, physicians have remained isolated on the sidelines, finding just enough voice to grumble. Nurses have in a variety of situations organized to effect change in their working conditions – in some cases by forming labor unions.

The authors of this op-ed piece, a physician and a nurse, make a strong argument that the time has come for nurses and doctors shake off the shackles of their stereotypic roles and join in creating a loud, forceful, and effective voice to demand a working environment in which the computer functions as an asset and no longer as the terrible burden it has become. Neither group has the power to do it alone, but together they may be able to turn the tide. For physicians it will probably mean venturing several steps outside of their comfort zone. But working shoulder to shoulder with nurses may provide the courage to speak out.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

Next Article: