Thursday, March 10, 2011

Profile in Courage, Writ Small, But Still

Today was Grand Rounds at my academic medical center. The subject was diabetes and how we--"we" being the medical system as opposed to "we" the individual doctors--can improve outcomes in this disease, which is a killer, and which we (pick whichever "we" you like) stink at treating successfully. The view of the speakers, with which I'm sympathetic, is that we require less gee-whiz bioscience breakthroughs than we do a comprehensive, systematic plan for identifying, following, and ensuring affected patients stay on their meds. None of their suggestions were particularly sexy and didn't involve lots of fancy technology except for using a personal computer. I was persuaded by their assertion that sometimes it's simple but labor-intensive solutions in medicine that are the ones with the best chance of success.

Grand Rounds at my hospital always begins with a physician "presenting a case." Typically this involves a resident summarizing a bare-bones medical history of some patient who has some affliction related to the topic being discussed: gout, Wegener's granulomatosis, multiple myeloma, sepsis, a heart attack, you name it. Often the speaker will make some remark about the case in relation to his or her talk, and then it's on with the show. This kind of case presentation is de rigueur among physicians, and after one has lived & breathed medicine for long enough (i.e. survived the third year of medical school), one becomes so acclimated to the rhetorical form that one can get fairly desensitized to the reality that it's actual human beings that are being spoken of.

I don't mean to imply that physicians speak about patients in a de-humanizing way when a case is presented--that's never acceptable--only that the process of summary and discussion of history, physical exam, and laboratory findings in the dry, sterile, & detached form of the "case presentation" is second-nature to physicians, and must be creepy as hell to patients if they had to listen to themselves being discussed. Sometimes I try to teach residents and students at the bedside in the old-fashioned manner, but I always make sure to alert patients that such feelings might overtake them as I "do some doctor-talk with my colleagues." I do everything I can think of to make that moment as comfortable as possible for patients, but ultimately my suspicion is that all my efforts, at best, help blunt the sense of creepiness rather than remove it altogether.

So you can imagine what it must have felt like for the gal today to have her case of diabetes discussed in the amphitheater filled with well over 100 physicians in attendance, watching the medical facts of her life, neatly summarized into three Power Point slides, as she sat in the fifth row. I've been part of this community for more than ten years now and I still get nervous when facing the White Coat Army en banc; I can only imagine how intimidating that must have felt for her. Then, at the end of the presentation, the presenter noted to the crowd that the patient was in attendance, and asked her if she had any thoughts to add. Again, with what I would describe as remarkable poise, she eloquently explained some of the life circumstances that made her choose treatment options that, without that critical context, would puzzle and frustrate physicians.

She not only did this, but managed to deliver an observation with a small barb attached to the end of it: "I see that many of you here are eating really nice lunches here today, really healthy food. Well, my family has to live month-to-month because of our income, and I can tell you that a pound of pasta and some tomato sauce goes a lot further than some other food." It was a complex observation, but the sheer nerve & determination it took to march into what could very well have felt like a Lion's Den, and deliver that speech with such clarity, was quite a thing to watch. (Disclosure: lunches are not sponsored by anyone at our medical center. Mostly this woman was referring to tasty-but-modestly-sized deli sandwiches using fresh ingredients and a fruit salad.)

It's very unusual to invite patients to hear their own cases discussed in this kind of format, weirder still to give them a platform for a few minutes to speak about their challenges. Certainly in this setting it was a brilliant idea to include such a patient in the dialogue: my school gets an "A" not merely for effort but execution as well! Though at the end of the day, when the speaker concluded the lecture and the audience gave its polite applause per the cultural conventions of Grand Rounds, no one thought to give a special thanks for this woman. On that count, I think the organizers earned a D-minus.

1 comment:

  1. Low quality food is cheap and easy to cook. Yes one can get high quality food cheaply, but it takes time, organization and some knowledge to cook.

    Even if our poor patients had the knowledge and the willingness they are often so overwhelmed that they are focusing on one meal to the next, and don't have the ability to focus on the long range health goals. When you are up to your arse in alligators its tough to focus on draining the swamp. That is why they need the support and regular check-ins.