Commentary

Are you as frustrated with medical care as we are?


 

How did the experience of office visits get to be so frustrating for both patients and doctors? Let’s put it under the microscope and examine it.

To medicine’s credit, it realized the value of looking for diseases before symptoms occurred, such as using mammograms to detect breast cancer and controlling blood pressure and blood sugar to avert comorbidities.

Today, a doctor looks at the computer screen and checks off when a mammogram was done and whether blood pressure and blood sugar are controlled. “Authorities” believe that good health is achieved by performing positive checkoffs to questions like this. This definition of quality care is, in reality, “quantity care” and can be tied to physician compensation. Physicians who did not adequately meet Physician Quality Reporting System requirements have received letters informing them that their Medicare Part B payments for 2018 will be reduced by 3%.

Many seasoned clinicians recognize that practicing good medicine involves more than following a computer printout of tests and treatments based on the patient’s symptoms, more than plugging into the diagnostic and prescription mills that are part of today’s managed care system. Making the correct diagnosis requires a carefully taken history, listening to the patients’ stories of their journeys into and through illness, and using a bio-psychosocial-spiritual approach.

Getting to know the patient as a person requires that the doctor and patient take a journey together. In that journey, when the doctor empathizes with the patient and understands what makes the patient tick, the doctor can empower the patient – giving the patient a fuller understanding of their medical conditions, greater participation in the diagnostic work-up and in treatments, and hope for success – all leading to better outcomes.

Doctors are frustrated with the current medical assembly-line system. A study has shown that physicians spend 2 hours on electronic health records and clerical work for every hour they provide direct patient care (Ann Intern Med. 2016;165[11]:753-60). Nearly half of physicians now report that they are “burned out” by the demand to achieve the quantitative requirements on the one hand and their inability to minister to the needs of their patients on the other hand. Patients are also frustrated by the system as they cope with health insurance and costs, with the short time allocated for office visits, and with a fragmented and impersonal medical system. Patients feel that they are little more than a source of information for boxes to be checked off by the physician whose eyes are forced to be on the computer and the clock.

How can we begin to integrate these measures of quality into “quantity medicine” and make the experience of medical visits less frustrating for doctors and patients? How can we reward the skills that recognize that the course of an illness is influenced by patients’ emotions and thoughts related to their problems, their supportive or stressful relationships with others, and the context within which they conceptualize their lives – particularly their religious and spiritual beliefs about life’s purpose and challenges and attitudes toward death?

Caring for patients requires a more sophisticated approach than seeing patients as computer checkoffs. Office visits need to focus on the patient who has the symptoms, not just the symptoms the patient has.

Isn’t it time to make patient-centered care a reality and not just a slogan? If this speaks to you, then what should you do? Even though solutions may not be simple, we should not be deterred from finding patient-centered systems since patients and doctors are unhappy with today’s system. Why not have patients grade their office visits?

While this approach has its shortcomings, and isn’t the only solution, it does place the patient at the center of the process, answering questions about whether the doctor listened to them, heard their concerns, and presented a reasonable plan to help them get better.

In addition, all those involved with medical care should be involved in the process to replace today’s deficient system. The nation’s main organizations representing physicians should propose solutions to support patient-centered care. Individual physicians should become involved, speaking up and sending articles and letters to medical journals and the lay press.

Patients should be empowered to open up a public discussion – in print and broadcast media – on how they want to improve their own medical experiences and the quality of their health care.

It’s worth it. It’s our health.

Dr. Banner is a practicing internist in Philadelphia and chair emeritus of the Albert Einstein Medical Center Medical Ethics Committee. Dr. Benor is a psychiatric psychotherapist in the United States and a wholistic psychotherapist in Canada. Dr. Reiser is adjunct professor, University of Texas School of Public Health, Austin, and the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program, and teaches medical history, medical ethics, and public policy. The authors are indebted to Benjamin Sharfman, PhD, and Jane Brown, PhD, for their important roles in creating this article.

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