Doctors inevitably come into spotlight, being at the front end of health care delivery. Sometimes seen as guardian angels restoring health and life, other times, greedy minds sucking resources while they carelessly harm and kill patients to fill their wallets. After experiencing, observing, and hearing from others like me, I wonder if doctors are given more responsibility than they can handle, often attributed more aura than they deserve and frequently accused of more corruption than they are liable for.
This is my attempt to redeem them from their “divineness” and their “evil” and make expectations, speculations and skepticisms a bit more realistic. When I say doctors, I mean, a typical one in the community, having a clinical job or practice, who doesn’t do research, but reads them, member of medical societies, attends CME conferences regularly. In short, a doctor who is a consumer within the healthcare industry, which form the majority.
Doctors are trained for their skills and are not magicians. Medicine is artfully delivered science. Patients get better not because of anyone’s angelic touch or some celestial mediation, but because of treatments and interventions that are tested, tried and known to work. However, the art of delivering leaves a long lasting impression in patients’ minds. These minor details are the major differences between top and mediocre hospitals. This ends my argument about the supernatural powers that doctors are supposed or expected to have.
It is an inescapable fact that healthcare industry is more similar to other non-medical fields than it is different. However doctors are expected to play a superior role while everything else in the industry isn’t necessarily so. Healthcare is a business where workers have to be paid, professional relationships have to be maintained, the patients have to be satisfied, the corporation should run successfully. There are lots of limitations that doctors work under, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to meet all of the expectations. Held responsible for the fallacies of the healthcare system, doctors see themselves more as victims of it. There are lot of judgmental attitudes and actions that occur based on isolated events. They feel this tug and pull as they try to strike a balance between cost- cutting, defensive medicine, patient satisfaction while remaining in control of their practice and avoid an unsustainable situation personally and professionally. One patient’s angel may be another’s devil. An awesome doctor for a patient may be a colleagues nightmare and with time, it can all be reversed within no time. It just takes one bad moment to damage the reputation that has been built over years. For a doctor it is devastating, even if the factual consequences for everyone else are hardly so.
Doctors get overworked (sometimes voluntarily when they have independent practices), become victims of abuse and overuse by hospitals, employers and administrators (when employed). As a result they too become irritable, annoyed, annoying, depressed. They walk on the proverbial tight rope on each side of which are the hot oil of litigation and the fire of cost cutting that is flaring up, with the heat almost singeing their hairs. Professional competition, conflicts of interest shake and wiggle the rope, while the balancing stick has to be held on to tightly. The stick consists of professional ethics, competence, compassion and empathy to patients without getting attached to them, business and communication etiquette, time management, family, personal growth. It is indeed challenging to become a doctor who is loved by everyone around including patients, colleagues, staff, community and family especially all through their career. But if they do make it to the other end of the rope, there is a well deserved applause waiting. Mostly from self as no one else would be watching.
When it comes to business of health care, doctors are again stuck between a rock and hard place.
An integral part of the health care industry, in patients’ eyes, doctors also represent it. They are seen as accountable for any flaws in the health care system, including but not limited by the flaws in pharmaceutical industries, medico-legal system and the health insurance system. Doctors find themselves being measured with a different scale while the rest of the components that ideally have to function in parallel and in sync with doctors, go by the general rule of the industry. The medical profession requires us to empathize but not get attached to patients. It requires us to treat equally, while the insurance companies are allowed to be discriminatory in their payment. In other words, the system rewards you differently for the same treatment delivered. Doctors do not fix the price for their services, the system does. The cost of physician services vary by specialty and by procedures. Physicians cannot sell themselves to drug companies, but the companies have a strong grip on the whole health care system be it through funding research or sponsoring activities of medical societies.
In a typical private practice, overhead costs are prohibitively high (includes space, computers, electronic medical records, staffing, housekeeping, power and water supply), 70% in one place I interviewed! Moreover, the insurance companies & medicare decide the reimbursement. Again doctors are not as powerful as they appear.
Taking care of people who are suffering and making them feel better is an extremely rewarding job by itself. But there is just not enough time to do that rewarding job. If you are scheduled to see 30-40 patients in a clinic, how is it humanly possible to listen to every patient’s complete story? When our job is to care, where and when does it end?
Nagarathna Manjappa is a nephrologist who blogs at Kidneys, Inc.
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