Tag Archives: physician attitudes

Death By A Thousand Cuts – Physicians’ Surprising Response To My Wife’s Lung Cancer Recurrence

This is a true story….

My wife was about to celebrate her 10th anniversary as a Stage IV Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer survivor (a pretty remarkable feat) when it happened.

It started out as a cough.  We had just returned from a family trip and assumed she had picked up a “bug” from one of the boys. It also “lite up” on her semiannual PET/CT scan down at MD Anderson as small dark masses where there weren’t supposed to be any. We all hoped the cough and the PET/Ct results was the result of a cold or allergy….it had happened before. Her medical oncologist, one of the top thoracic oncologists in the world, doubted a recurrence after 10 years.  But if it was a recurrence, he told us he would put my wife back on Tarceva, the oral chemo that had worked so well for her before.

But we were all wrong. Her lung cancer was back and appeared to have spread.  The cough escalated into a 24/7 serious hack-a-thon.  She couldn’t finish a sentence without coughing.  We avoided being around other people as the coughing got worse. My wife didn’t want “bother” people.  Nor did we want our family and friends to get the wrong impression….that my wife was dying. She had beaten the odds once and she would do it again we told ourselves.  Turns out we were the only ones that believed it.

Within the space of 2 months, my wife saw a local pulmonologist (we live in Northern California not Houston, Texas where MD Anderson is) to rule out any other causes for the cough.  She also kept two long-scheduled appointments with an endocrinologist and a cardiologist for issues unrelated to the cough or cancer.

That’s When I Noticed It – Every Physician My Wife Saw Acted As If She Would Be Dead Soon

To be sure none of my wife’s physicians ever said she was dying. But knowing something about the nuances of how physicians “communicate” with patients I could tell that’s what they were thinking.  After attending every one of her doctor’s appointments over the last 10 years you recognize the tell tale signs.   Neither the endocrinologist or cardiologist were familiar with my wife or her condition as these were our first visit to both.  But they clearly could not get past her coughing.  They politely cut short the initial appointment and told my wife to contact them after the lung cancer had been dealt with.  You have bigger problems than a thyroid nodule or a rapid heartbeat they told us.

Mind you my wife was concerned enough (let’s say she was engaged) about her thyroid nodule and heart health that she 1) made the appointment to be seen and 2) actually kept the appointment because she/we believed that she would be around long enough to have to deal with these problems sometime.

The pulmonologist, after ruling out allergies or infectious disease as the cause of my wife’s cough, threw up his hands in apparent defeat and said “your cancer’s back and there’s nothing more I can do for you. “ He referred us to a local a local thoracic surgeon in order to get her cancer re-biopsied before starting chemo.

The thoracic surgeon, like the other doctors, couldn’t deal with my wife’s coughing and shortness of breath which was pretty bad by now.  Rather than come up with a definitive plan of action regarding the biopsy, the surgeon hemmed and hawed about the different approaches to doing the lung biopsy – one more invasive than the other.  The surgeon gave me the distinct impression that the biopsy in the long run wouldn’t matter given the apparent seriousness of my wife’s condition.  He promised to discuss the biopsy options with my wife’s oncologist the next day and call us with the “game plan.”  The doctor never called us back.

By this time it was 5:00 pm on a Friday afternoon.  We felt we had already wasted too much time between the pulmonologist and the thoracic surgeon and my wife started her oral chemo at 5:01 pm.  We immediately felt better because at least we were finally doing something positive to address my wife’s problem.  Anything is preferable to watching sympathetic physicians, nurses, office staff, radiology techs, etc.  shake their heads saying to themselves “poor woman” doesn’t have long to live.

Post Script

Within 10 days of starting her oral chemo, my wife’s cough and shortness of breath completely disappeared.  After 2 months of being on Tarceva the first follow up the first PET/CT scan revealed what the radiologists called a significant response to the treatment.

Not bad for someone whom so many clinicians had written off!

The Take Away

Physicians need to be aware of the fact that they both bring pre-existing attitudes and biases to the office visit…and check them at the door.  These attitudes and beliefs color the decisions clinicians make.  The extent to which clinicians inform patients of all their diagnosis and treatment options, engage patients in shared decision making, or decisions as to how aggressively treat the patient’s condition are all influenced by physician’s beliefs and attitudes.

Lung cancer that presents as a bad cough is like a red flag to a bull. It invokes a whole set of assumptions about 1) how the person got the disease (you must have been a smoker) and 2) the person’s odds of survival – slim to none.

You have to wonder how many people’s lives are cut short or whose care is not what it should be simply because their doctor jumped to the wrong conclusions.

That’s what I think. What’s your opinion?

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Is The CEO Of The Cleveland Clinic Serious When He Says “No More Passive Patients”?

If a recent blog post by the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic is representative of how health care executives (and physicians) really think about patients – aka consumers –aka people like you and me…we are all in big trouble.  In it Delos Cosgrove, MD, talks about how under health care reform there will be “No more passive patients.”

Here’s my a quote from the post by Delos Cosgrove, MD:

“For too long, healthcare has been something that was done to you. Now it’s going to be something you do for yourself in partnership with your doctor and care giving team. You’ll need to monitor your food input, get exercise, and avoid tobacco. ”

Let’s examine what’s disturbing about comments like this particularly when made by high-profile leaders like Dr. Cosgrove.

First, this statement is factually inaccurate.  Here’s why.  82% of US adults visit their PCP every year at least once a year (often more) for their health.   Think about the trip to the doctor’s office from the patient’s perspective… 1) chances are they have discussed their health problem or concern with family members or friends, 2) they may well have looked up information on their condition to see if it merits a doctor’s visit, 3) they make the appointment, 4) they show up for the appointment and 5) wait in the waiting and exam room thinking about the questions they want to ask their physician.

What about any of this suggests patient passivity?

Second, this statement misrepresents the true nature of the patient passivity of which Dr. Cosgrove speaks.  You see patients (aka people) are socialized by physicians beginning in childhood visits with Mom to the pediatrician to assume a passive sick role.  We are supposed to be passive! Otherwise the doctors gets irritated and ignores or dismisses what we have to say.  While it’s true that patients (even the most empowered among us) ask very few important questions during the typical office exam…the reason isn’t that we are passive.  Rather it’s because we don’t want to be too assertive, confrontational, and argumentative or are simply afraid.

Rather that blaming patients for not being more engaged…why don’t doctors try and become more engaging (e.g., patient-centered) to patients?

Third, patient non-adherence is often not the patients fault…but rather the result of poor communications on the clinician’s part. One recent study found that 20% of medication non-adherence is the direct result of poor physician communication with patients. Poor patient communication skills top the list of complaints people have with their doctor. Poor patient communication is also the leading cause of medical errors, non-adherence and poor patient experiences.

AdoptOneBigButtonFourth, how exactly are patients going to learn all the skills necessary to “do everything” for themselves?  The work of Lorig et al. has shown that simply providing patients with information – the “what” of self care – is not enough to change patient health behavior.  Patients also need and want to develop the skills and self efficacy for self care management – the “how” of self care.   Right now for example clinicians spend on average <50 seconds teaching patients how to take a new medication…and we wonder why patients are non-adherent.

Given the poor patient communication skills of physicians today how exactly are patients supposed to learn how to do it all themselves?

Finally, the Dr. Cosgrove reminds us of the kind of paternalistic, physician-directed thinking and communications which has gotten the health care industry into the mess it’s in.

The following statement says it all:

“If your doctor prescribes a medication, preventive strategy, or course of treatment, you’ll want to follow it.”

What if I don’t want the medication or don’t believe it will help me? Why should I be forced to do something I don’t want to do? Will you drop me as a patient?
What happened to the IHI’s Triple Aims?  What about the need to be more patient-centered as called for in Crossing the Quality Chasm and the ACA reform legislation?

I am sorry if I seem to come down hard on Dr. Cosgrove. But my original point remains…too many health care leaders still think and talk like this.  While they may “talk the talk”…employees, patients and physicians all see how such leaders “walk the talk.“  And as Cosgorove’s comments suggest we have a long, long way to go.

I would like to extend an invitation to Dr. Cosgrove and the physicians at the Cleveland Clinic to see just how “patient-centered” their communication skills really are by participating in the Adopt One! Challenge.   You will not only be able to assess the quality of your team’s patient communication skills but also see how their skills compare to industry best practices.

All physicians are invited to participate in the Adopt One! Challenge.

That’s my opinion…what’s yours?

Shared Decision Making – Not Ready For Prime Time – Nor Evidently Is Patient-Centered Care

When it comes to delivering truly patient-centered care…how are providers supposed to know when they have “arrived”?   According to Michael Berry, MD, President of the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, providers will know they have achieved the “pinnacle of patient-centered care” when they routinely engage their patients in shared decision-making (SDM).

Pinnicle of patient-centered communications

In theory, shared decision-making (aka collaborative decision-making) is what is supposed to happen between patients and their doctors when faced with a difficult choice.  Clinicians engaging in shared decision-making would provide patients with information pertaining to the need for the treatment, the available options, as well as the benefits and risks.  But patient-centered clinicians would also do something else. They would attempt to work with patients to arrive at a decision they could both live with.  A kind of “shared mind” that takes into consideration their clinical perspective as well as the patient’s perspective – their preferences, needs, and values (which ideally have been captured over the course of the patient-provider relationship).

The Problem Is That Most Physicians Don’t Really Engage Patients In Either Shared Decision Making  

 A 2003 study surveyed U.S. physicians (N=1,217) preferences and actual practices regarding shared decision-making.  Table 1 presents a summary of findings from this study.

Table 1

Decision Making Style

What Physicians Preferred

What Physicians Actually Do

Shared decision-making

58%

37%

Physician-dominant decision-making

28%

43%

No patient involvement

9%

13%

Patient dominant decision-making

5%

7%

While most physicians in the study may philosophically believe in and prefer shared decision-making…as this data indicates that is not what most physicians in the study reported actually doing.  In fact, 56% of physicians reported that they actually engaged in decision-making that was physician-dominated (with some patient involvement) or totally physician-dominated decision-making behavior (absent any patient involvement).

The Barriers To Shared Decision Making?

The barriers to SDM include the usual suspects:

  •  Lack of time during the visit
  • Not having access to the right decision support aids tools and training their use
  • Physician attitudes about patient’s willingness to engage in shared decision-making
  • Provider reliance upon a physician-directed (versus patient-centered) style of communicating with patients

AdoptOneBigButtonThe Take Away – Why Shared Decision Making Matters

  •  SDM is the right thing to do – the benefits associated with SDM include better outcomes, lower utilization and cost, lower malpractice risk and enhanced patient trust and satisfaction
  •  SDM is a great way to be engaging to patients – it is a way to get patients involved in their care in a meaningful way they can relate to.
  • To be eligible to participate in Medicare’s Shared Savings Program, Accountable Care Organizations must implement processes to promote patient engagement, including shared decision-making.

As readers of Mind the Gap know, I am a proponent of the adoption of patient-centered communication by providers, beginning with primary care.   Shared decision-making has rightly been identified as a leading indicator when it comes to assessing the “patient-centeredness’ of a physician practice.   So before you go around telling everyone how patient-centered your provider teams are first do a reality check.  Because if you aren’t regularly engaging your patients in shared decision making you are not there yet.

That’s my opinion…what’s your?

Sources:

Heisler, M. et al. Physicians’ participatory decision-making and quality of diabetes care processes and outcomes: results from the triad study. Chronic Illness. 2009 Sep;5(3):165-76

Street, R. et al  The importance of communication in collaborative decision making: facilitating shared mind and the management of uncertainty. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 17 (2011) 579–584.

Frosch, D., et al. An Effort To Spread Decision Aids In Five California Primary Care Practices Yielded Low Distribution, Highlighting Hurdles. Health Affairs. 32, no.2 (2013):311-320.

Would Increased Reimbursement And Longer Visits Improve Physician-Patient Communications?

In a word…no.

It has been said that a physician’s patient communication skills are just as important as their clinical knowledge.   After all, it is only by “talking to and listening patients” that physicians are able to accurately diagnose and treat their conditions.   I have yet to meet a physician who did not agree with the importance of effective physician-patient communication…in principle.

In practice, a surprising number of physicians tell me that they “lack the time” and “don’t get paid” to communicate with patients.  Physicians euphemistically explain to me how current reimbursement schemes fail to incentivise physicians  to spend time talking to patients.

At face value, these objections appear to make sense.  After all we know that physicians, particularly primary care physicians, are already overextended.  We also know that the traditional fee for service model, which pays physicians on a kind of piece work basis, is not well-suited to managing “episodes of care” for a burgeoning chronic disease population.   In other words, today’s reimbursement is not properly aligned with the realities of care delivery.

The conclusion one draws from these two objections is that doctors would communicate better with patients if they simply had more time and were paid more.   But is that what would happen?

I don’t think so…and here’s why.

Many physicians, until recently, were never taught (in medical school) how to be good patient or person-centered communicators (the gold standard for physician-patient communications).   Studies show that the majority of primary care physicians today employ a physician-directed, paternalistic style when talking with patients.   This is the same style of communication practiced by physicians for the last 80 years.  This style is characterized by the physician control of the medical interview by asking the questions, focusing patient input, and providing pertinent information.  Some physicians now limit patients to asking one question per visit.  Over the course of their career, the typical physician will employ these same “conversational habits” in 120,000 to 160,000 medical interviews.

Patients, for their part are trained as well – socialized from childhood to assume the “sick role” wherein the doctor does all the talking and their job is to passively respond to questions when asked.  The average 60 year old for example will have experienced 180+ visits in which they were likely expected to assume the sick role.   Even the most engaged and empowered patient finds it difficult to avoid reverting back to this passive role.

What’s My Point?

The “communication habits” developed by and employed by physicians and patients took years to develop.   Simply increasing the length of the office visit (more time) and increasing reimbursement alone will not compensate for nor change the way physicians and patients communicate with one another.   Physicians will continue to be physician-directed and patients will continue to play the passive sick role.  Absent interventions aimed at breaking this cycle of unproductive communication by promoting more patient-centered communications, longer visits and more reimbursement will mean that physicians have more time for and get paid more for perpetuating the same physician-directed communications challenges we face now.

Patient-Centered Communication Can Lead To More Productive Visits

Physicians are concerned that patient-centered communications will increase the length of office visits.  Initially it probably will.  But imaging how much more productive office visits could be over time if patients came in focused and prepared, i.e., with a prioritized agenda, clearly articulated expectations, realistic requests for referrals, tests and medications, understanding of time limitations, and so on.  The average patient makes 3 visits to the doctor a year.  Patients with chronic conditions see the doctor up to 7 times a year.   Research shows that the adoption of specific patient-centered communication techniques in your practice could “reset” the physician-patient dynamic in ways that could increase visit productivity as well as patient outcomes and satisfaction within the course of a few consecutive visits.

That what I think…what’s your opinion?

Source:

Frankel, R. et al. Getting the Most out of the Clinical Encounter: The Four Habits Model . The Permenante Journal. 1999.

The Traditional Patient “Sick Role” Is A Major Barrier To High Quality Health Care

Each of us wears many different “hats” throughout the course of the day.  We are an employee, a wife, a father, a club member, a consumer and so on.   It comes as no surprise that our thinking, what we say, and how we say it at any particular time coincides with the hat we are wearing at that moment.   The thing about these “hats” or roles is that they come with their own set of social conventions, particularly when it comes to how we communicate.   When I was a kid for example “children were to be seen and not heard” when out in public.

So it is when we put on our patient hat – something we all do from time to time, particularly as we get older.

Unfortunately few of the roles we play come with a book of instructions.  Rather we learn them from experience or by watching others.

Think back to your first visits to the doctor – when your Mom took you to the pediatrician.  If your experiences were like mine you learned very early on that the doctor did all the talking (aka physician-directed style of communication). That’s because the doctor’s role was that of “respected expert” and my Mom’s role (and by default mine) was to play the sick role.   Much was required or expected of the person playing “sick role”…you just were there to listen and then do as told.  My Mom never was one to be passive or  quiet in most social situations but when it came to being a patient (surrogate) or a real patient in later years…she would have won an Academy Award for playing the sick role to perfection.

Believe it or not, when I have to put my patient hat on…I am no different.  In another post, I described waiting 2 hours to see a new Retinal Surgeon who was said to be very good.   The longer I waited the fewer the questions I decided to ask him…he appear too busy to spend time with little ole me answering my questions.   I couldn’t believe how easily I slipped into the sick role!  I suspect that, contrary to all the talk in the literature about how empowered everyone is…we patients basically all behave the same way when the exam room door closes.

This point was driven home for me in a recent Health Affairs article that talked about “Patient’s Fear of Being Labeled Difficult.”  The basis for the article was a series of patient focus groups conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area – the heart of Silicon Valley and all things involving digital health.   One finding stuck me – that most participants in the study talked about how they actively tried to avoid challenging their physicians during office visits.   

Deference to authority instead of genuine partnership appeared to be the participants’ mode of working.

Mind you the participants in the research were “wealthy, highly educated people from an affluent suburb in California, generally thought to be in a position of considerable social privilege and therefore more likely than others to be able to assert themselves.”  These patients were recruited from Palo Alto Medical Foundation physician practices … one of the most wired health populations in the US!

But.. But.. Everyone Is Supposed To Be Empowered and Activated?  

Baloney.  The patients in the study were socialized into the same sick role as the rest of us.  Deference and passivity, at least while in the exam room with the physician, are dead giveaway signs of sick role behavior.   Too be sure these people did go online after they left the doctor’s office to do what they should have done with their doctor – ask important questions.   Did you know that during the average primary care office visit patients ask very few “important” questions?

The Finding Should Be Concerning To All Of Us

Talking (and listening) is how physicians diagnose and treat patients.  If patients are deferential (due to fear , concern about taking up too much time, etc.) to  their physician to the point that they don’t share valuable information, don’t ask challenging questions and don’t engage in collaborative decision-making  then something is very wrong.   The net result is sub-optimal outcomes, medical errors, preventable ER visits and hospital readmits and poor patient experiences.

The Take Away

The first step is for providers to recognize the scope of the problem and the need to fix it.  The second step is for providers to examine their own attitudes and skills with respect to helping patients break out of the sick role into a more collaborative role.  Third, providers and their hospital partners need to acquire the tools, training, and resources needed to help patients as well as themselves design and adapt to their new hats, roles, and social conventions.

That’s What I Think…What’s Your Opinion?

Source:

Frosch, D. et al.   Authoritarian Physicians And Patients’ Fear Of Being Labeled ‘Difficult’ Among Key Obstacles To Shared Decision Making. Health Affairs.  No. 5 (2012): 10301038