Doctors with great bedside manner can also provide great clinical care

The New York Times recently published an article titled, Finding a Quality Doctor, Dr. Danielle Ofri an internist at NYU, laments how she was unable to perform as well as expected in the areas of patient care as it related to diabetes.  From a New England Journal of Medicine article, Dr. Ofri notes that her report card showed the following – 33% of patients with diabetes have glycated hemoglobin levels at goal, 44% have cholesterol levels at goal, and a measly 26% have blood pressure at goal.  She correctly notes that these measurements alone aren’t what makes a doctor a good quality one, but rather the areas of interpersonal skills, compassion, and empathy, which most of us would agree constitute a doctor’s bedside manner, should count as well.

Her article was simply to illustrate that “most doctors are genuinely doing their best to help their patients and that these report cards might not be accurate reflections of their care” yet when she offered this perspective, a contrary point of view, many viewed it as “evidence of arrogance.”

She comforted herself by noting that those who criticized her were “mostly [from] doctors who were not involved in direct patient care (medical administrators, pathologists, radiologists). None were in the trenches of primary care.”

From the original NEJM article, Dr. Ofri concluded when it related to the care of patients with diabetes and her report card,

I don’t even bother checking the results anymore. I just quietly push the reports under my pile of unread journals, phone messages, insurance forms, and prior authorizations. It’s too disheartening, and it chips away at whatever is left of my morale. Besides, there are already five charts in my box — real patients waiting to be seen — and I need my energy for them.

As a practicing primary care doctor, I’m afraid that Dr. Ofri and many other doctors are making a fundamental attribution error is assuming that somehow doctors can’t do both.  She is also wrong in thinking that the real patients waiting to be seen are somehow more important that those whose blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugars are poorly controlled and the disease literally eats them up from the inside which could result in end organ damage to the eyes (blindness), kidneys (renal failure resulting in dialysis), extremities (amputation), and heart (coronary artery disease) and possibly premature death.  They aren’t in the office and yet are suffering.

Until we as doctors begin to take responsibility for our performance in hard clinical and objective outcomes like glycated hemoglobin levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure, our patients will pay a price.  We should not pretend that bedside manner should trump clinical outcomes nor that clinical outcomes should override the humanistic part of medicine.

It is possible to do both today.  It isn’t theoretical.  I only serve as one example.

I’m a front-line primary care doctor who also takes care of patients. I like Dr. Ofri also get a report card on my performance in caring for patients with diabetes.

Based on the medical evidence, my goals are set similarly to hers. For 2010, my performance wasn’t perfect but was 88.6%, 80.8%, and 70% at goal respectively.

I suspect critics will immediately begin to make a lot of assumptions of how these scores were achieved, when Dr. Ofri, another primary care doctor had very different outcomes.  Is it that I am not a quality doctor? Perhaps I’m too driven by data and have no – “soft” attributes like attentiveness, curiosity, compassion, diligence, connection and communication.  Perhaps I “fire” those patients who are not able to achieve good outcomes.

I can tell you many patients wish to join my practice and rarely do people choose to leave it.  The organization I work for also takes the softer side of medicine, a doctor’s bedside manner, seriously.  My employer randomly surveys patients on their experience. Does your doctor listen and explain? Do they know your medical history? Do they partner with you in your health? Do you have confidence in the care they provided you?

For 2010, 92.8 percent rated me very good or excellent on these elements.

So what does this all mean?

We should not automatically assume that doctors with great bedside manner cannot also provide great clinical care.

I can achieve the goals, which patients would want, and still be a doctor with great bedside manner because I work in a functional system like Kaiser Permanente. Primary care doctors are blessed with a comprehensive electronic medical record, are partnered with staff who help patients get the care they need, and are surrounded by specialty colleagues equally as focused to keep patients healthy and well.

So if there is any area of agreement with Dr. Ofri it is that simply giving doctors report cards and telling them to try harder will simply achieve mediocre outcomes.  Until there is a fundamental restructuring on health care is delivered (and simply making appointments longer isn’t necessarily going to solve it either), then primary care doctors will continue to leave the specialty in droves.  Doctors need to lead change and use tools and skills honed in other industries, whether the Toyota Production model or lean process, which has been utilized by the Virginia Mason Hospital, or usage of protocols and checklists based on scientific evidence as demonstrated by Intermountain Healthcare and Dr. Brent James.

Until we as doctors lead, we cannot or should not expect improvement in patient outcomes.  We can no longer hide behind the reasons of our Herculean effort or bedside manner as what should really matter and account for something.  Patients expect these attributes intuitively.

With already so many examples of success in the country marrying the art, science, and humanistic part of medicine, the only thing stopping us to re-invent American medicine in the 21st century is simply ourselves.

Davis Liu is a family physician who blogs at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis and is the author of The Thrifty Patient – Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy and Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely.

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