Insight at 10,000 Feet

IMG_7742Flying home from the first HIMSS Patient Engagement summit, I finished Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. I found myself aggregating my thoughts on the conference and the book. They both highlighted how slowly medicine embraces change as we struggle to put patients at the center of the healthcare stage. My reflections revealed that as far as I’ve come, I’m still not there in many interactions with patients.  It’s still difficult for me to be more than “Dr. Informative”, which is Dr. Gawande’s accurate portrayal of physicians who are uncomfortable with medicine’s previous paternalism but unsure how to unravel the patient’s goals. During the conference patient panel, Kym Martin, a patient experience expert and four-time cancer survivor, commented that health is not just about the disease process. Physicians, indeed healthcare as a system, must consider a holistic picture that includes financial status, relationships, family support, work issues, etc. Present provider and hospital goals seem to concentrate efforts on what what we, the system, identify as the patients’ goals. Those “should bes” in our eyes are often not the reality of a patient’s existence if all circumstances are taken into account. Dr. Gawande struggles to remember to ask the following of his patients: “What is your understanding of the situation and its outcome? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?” And while his book is concentrated on end of life decisions, isn’t this true for all our patient interactions? Then at 10,000 feet over Chicago it occurred to me–wait, this was what I was taught a million years ago in Family Practice residency–to understand the patient and all that individual has to deal with, not just the disease AND to guide that person through the tangle of the healthcare system. Now if someone will just tell me how to do that in the seven minutes I have with them…

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