I’ve got some bad news and some good news

That’s the old joke, right? “I’ve got good news and bad news-the bad news is that you have Alzheimer’s. That good news is that you’re going to meet lots of new people.” Unfortunately telling people bad news is no joke and I mused on the experience today as I read an oncologist letter to me regarding one of my patients with a terminal cancer. How do you do that day in and day out? This morning I had to tell a patient, a former smoker, that his chest xray was abnormal and he needs further tests. I’ve known this patient for years and am worried about him. Maybe it will turn out OK…maybe not.

The fact that it bothers me is a good thing. It reassures me that patients’ concerns remain foremost in my practice of medicine. I notice when it’s time for a vacation or at least a few days break from my office, that one of the first things I lose is empathy. When a patient comes in with a problem that seems simple and unnecessary for a doctor’s visit, if my first reaction is “this guy’s wasting my time” I have to stop and think “why do I feel that way?” Usually it has nothing to do with the patient and everything to do with me–worried about my daughter who is working in a third world country, worried about my mom’s forgetfulness and is it something more insidious, etc.

It is curious to see how individuals react to a life-threatening illness. Most of them have such dignity. Often it is the family members whose behaviors become difficult, which in turn makes the emotional turmoil to a patient worse. I remember memorizing Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief in medical school. I have been amazed at how much that optional course has enabled me to help patients and their families by better understanding what they are going through. Although things are improving immensely, with programs like Baptist East’s Cancer Resource Center and Friend4Life as well as specific coordinated care centers for certain cancers, the system is still difficult to navigate. ¬†

Often, once a patient begins the work of honing down the diagnosis and determining the treatment of their life-threatening illness, the primary-care physician loses contact with him/her. If my patient is constantly in other doctor’s offices, undergoing uncomfortable procedures and treatment, it is hard for me to add the burden of another doctor’s visit. This is where I see social media as an exciting place for improving care and remaining in contact with my patients. It would be easy to check-in with patients privately on a business Facebook page (which I don’t have yet) or send¬† private tweets on how they are doing (once all the HIPAA compliant rules are in place). Even now they can send me a secure email private message. These channels would help me to identify when I might need to step in, give advice or just more support. The future is here and I’d like to embrace it. Family physicians have been giving patients bad news for a couple of hundred years. But only in the recent past have we stopped walking their journey with them. I don’t think that’s good medicine, for the patient or for me.

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