Monday, May 18, 2009

Doctors as patients, part 1

It has often been said that the doctor's working in the hospital are the unhealthiest people within the whole hospital. I think I already made a reference to this in a previous post about doctors exercising. I think I can expand this thought and say that in general, doctors are horrible about taking care of their own health and make horrible patients.

I'm reminded of something that happened while I was in med school - one of the most respected surgeons at my hospital suddenly was diagnosed with lung cancer. He never smoked, it was just bad luck. He had been ignoring his symptoms for years and years, and even though he went through surgery and chemotherapy and his colleagues did everything possible to save him, he was dead within something like 4 months, which is very short, even for lung cancer.

I think there are a few reasons why doctors take such bad care of their own health. One is simply a time factor. When you work 80 hours a week, even if you only work 60 hours a week, it's hard to find time to go to a doctor or dentist appointment. Often, even the time you have off from work is spent catching up on the latest medical news or journal articles, which is necessary to stay current. Moreover, since most doctors have daytime working hours, it's nearly impossible to take time off during the day to make it to an appointment - you have to either cancel your own appointments, or arrange for coverage, both of which are costly, time-consuming and extremely inconvenient for you, your patients, and your colleagues.

Secondly, I think it's the medical culture. Even when doctors are deathly ill, they try to come into work unless it's a risk for their patients. This is partly because calling in sick means that you have to inconvenience your colleagues and your patients, and since doctors don't really get sick days, you have to make up the work at some later date, usually on a day off. Additionally, doctors like to be tough, and seem tough, and illness, even for doctors, is a sign of weakness. As a result, many doctors become trained to ignore their own symptoms, even when they are persistent or become serious.

Finally, many doctors feel that they can treat and diagnose themselves, and don't need to go in for an appointment, even though this is often not the case. By treating themselves, doctors again often ignore or miss important symptoms and miss out on getting valuable input or a second opinion from a colleague. Doctors tend to treat themselves very differently from their patients.

In the end, my point is that doctors need to take care of themselves as they tell their patients to do so. They need to go for their yearly checkups, screening tests, etc and not try to manage it all on their own, for their own sakes as well as to be good role models for their patients.

In a very different way, doctors can be bad patients even when they do seek medical advice... I think I'll leave that for another post...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Doctor Shortage

People have been reporting about this for quite a while, but a friend just recently forwarded me this NY Times article about how there will be a severe shortage in doctors in the future, especially in the primary care field. It seems many people, including the current Obama administration are becoming increasingly worried about this problem. While some steps are being taken to try and delay this crisis, there are many many roadblocks.

Of the ideas that have been proposed or already instituted to try and solve this problem, one includes increasing the sizes and numbers of medical schools. Medical schools may have to admit more students that don't have science backgrounds - while some worry that this may decrease the quality of medical students and eventual doctors, I don't think this is a problem and may even be of benefit. Medical schools already admit plenty of students with non-scientific backgrounds and as long as they can build up a significant fund of knowledge either in medical school or in a year of study before entering, I think it's not a problem. In fact, it may even build diversity and bring new ideas and perspectives to the table, which is definitely a good thing.

Another idea is to increase the use of non-MD sources of health care, including nurses and other health care professionals, which I think is a great idea. However, there is also a nation-wide shortage of nurses, so this avenue may be limited as well. Finally, it has been suggested that we use more minority as well as international doctors as there are many MDs from other countries who would like to practice in the U.S. Obviously this presents many problems as training in other countries can be vastly different than training in the U.S. and currently, depending on the country they come from, international doctors often have to retake licensing exams, as well as complete full residencies (after having already completed residencies or full training programs in another country) in the U.S. This is a huge deterrent for MDs coming from other countries to try and become MDs in the U.S. - I don't know how many international MDs I know who have instead become lab technicians or Ph.D. students or post doctoral students because the requirements for them to practice medicine in the U.S. are so overwhelming. However, I don't have a great solution for this as I do believe the training is different from country to country and that international MDs should practice in the custom of U.S. training, for legal purposes as well as medical.

Despite these efforts, I see a lot of hurdles for which there are no easy answers or solutions. One is that even though medical schools may be increasing their enrollment, there are a limited number of residency training spots available. These are being increased as well, but they cannot be increased as easily or at the same rate as medical school spots. Residencies are much more complex to set up, and must go through a thorough accreditation process every couple of years, which is not only cumbersome, but can be difficult to arrange and maintain.

Moreover, there is heavy competition for competent people by other professions, the major competitors being business and law. Now, with the economy being the way it is, business has been less attractive the last few years, and perhaps the medical pathway is getting a boost from the decrease in business school applicants or business jobs. However, law and business careers can be much more attractive than medical careers - the training is much shorter. School takes half as long, and after school you start earning a relatively good salary right away whereas in medical school, it can take 4-6 years, with 3-5 year of low-paying residency afterwards, sometimes followed by 1-2 years of low-paying fellowship. Once you finally get out of all this training, doctors (especially primary care) often still make lower salaries than lawyers and businessmen, and have to contend with other headaches and costs associated with malpractice insurance, insurance paperwork and red tape, etc. Until there is good health care reform, or salaries become more equalized (either doctors' salaries have to come up or other salaries should be lowered - probably the latter is better for various reasons), there's not much that can be done about this problem.

Finally, even with the increase in medical school admissions and residency spots, many people are still attracted to practicing in medical specialties rather than primary care, in which the doctor shortage is the most severe. Again, this likely is due to a salary differential as primary care doctors make much less than doctors in medical specialties. As with competition with business and law degress, not much can be done about this problem until the salaries equalize - in this case, I think primary care doctors should be valued more highly and their salaries increased.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bruce's Asia Travels Blog

Bruce (my brother) is traveling in southeast Asia for about 2 months, and he'll be keeping a blog about it. I'm so jealous. :)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sympathy vs. Empathy

I remember in medical school being taught the difference between sympathy and empathy - a lot of people tend to use them as synonyms. In my line of work, when you empathize with someone, it means that you can feel what they are feeling. For example, if they have some type of cancer, and you've had that exact type of cancer, you can feel something similar to what they must be going through and you "empathize." If you feel sympathy for someone, then it's more that you understand, or try to understand as best you can, what the person is going through but you may not feel or have not felt that way yourself. In my opinion, it's very difficult to empathize with someone unless you've gone through a very similar process or situation that they're going through.

Having said all this, I highly empathize right now with all the 9 month pregnant ladies out there who like to deliver soon. :)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Doctors in training

A family member sent this article to me, and there's a link within the article to another related column.

They basically talk about the culture of negative reinforcement for medical interns and residents. It's fairly common for residents to get yelled at or chewed out by attending doctors for various things in the hospital. Moreover, these episodes can often be about relatively unimportant things, or things that are in no way the fault of the intern or resident, and the attending if often venting their anger and frustration on those that are beneath them. As the article points out, I think most people can agree that such public displays of anger and criticism are not useful or constructive in any way. As the second article explains, positive reinforcement and constructive criticism is much more useful. However, this doesn't stop certain attendings from taking out their anger on their subordinates, which clearly isn't right and can often drive interns and residents out of the medical field altogether.

Being an intern, I've definitely seen plenty of things like this first-hand, although thankfully I've very rarely been on the receiving side. I think the best way to deal with people like this is to simply provide the best medical care you can, and, to be perfectly honest, ignore the attending for the time being! Obviously, if something should have been done differently, either medically or otherwise, you take that lesson with you, but if someone is yelling at you unnecessarily and unhelpfully, you would probably make the situation worse if you speak up about it at that time. It can be a very difficult position as the attending has a lot more power and influence than you and it can be very intimidating. If you feel very strongly about it, there are usually avenues you can follow (such as taking the issue to a program director or an ombudsman) to address it later. I think the best lesson to learn from an episode like that is how you do not want to be an attending like that in the future, knowing how it made you feel as an intern or resident. I think also, that interns and residents should have a thick skin and be prepared to shrug things like that off as long as the abuse was truly unwarranted.

For what it's worth, I think certain specialties are more prone to this type of abuse by attendings, and I also think the incidence is declining as programs and doctors become more aware of it and interns and residents are more outspoken about it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mira Loma High School and the Science Bowl

I just have to post something unrelated. I went to Mira Loma High School, and (shockingly) I was pretty nerdy - I competed in all the science and math competitions, including Mathletes, Science Olympiad, Science Bowl, etc. There were a few others that I can't remember off the top of my head right now, but our crowning achievement was winning third place in the National Science Bowl competition under our chemistry teacher, Mr. Torgeson, wayyyy back in 1994. This won us a week-long all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. Needless to say, for a bunch of high school students, we were ecstatic!

Well, it seems we've been outdone, as this year's team took first place, getting them a trip to Australia! See the link below for the article in the Sacramento Bee:

Congrats!! I'm glad to see the legacy continuing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Keeping fit as an intern

It's impossible. Especially now that I'm pregnant. But even when I was really busy before, I still was able to get some exercise in, sometimes at the gym, and sometimes playing ultimate frisbee, which has basically been my most enjoyable form of exercise for the last 6-7 years. It's well-known that interns often gain 10-15 pounds during their intern year, and in general eat a lot unhealthier and get a lot less exercise. They say (jokingly) that the doctors are often the least healthy people in the hospital... obviously it's important to stay healthy, for their own sakes as well as to set a good example for their patients, but it can be extremely difficult.

I think the best way to combat it is to try and get into something active you really enjoy - for me, that's ultimate frisbee. To be honest, this post is really just a plug for my sport. :) I guess since I'm a woman, and play ultimate frisbee (not to mention captained a women's club team and multiple league teams in the past), many people have forwarded this New York Times article to me. It's mostly about women and ultimate frisbee, and I think it's great that the sport is finally getting mainstream attention.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kaiser and their electronic system

This is an interesting article about how Kaiser instituted their electronic medical record system.

I had written a previous post about this subject and still think it's a great idea, although possibly prohibitively expensive. However, one argument is that electronic records could eventually lead to cost -savings- as medical tests and studies are not unnecessarily repeated. Interestingly enough, the article says that the costs savings aren't really there as people are living longer with better care, and thus require more health care resources in the end, which off-set the potential savings in medical costs. Nevertheless, the article does point out that shared electronic medical records lead to better care and for that reason, it's still worth it to attempt implementation of these systems in all hospitals. Hopefully they will all eventually even be compatible with each other, if not already part of a common universal electronic medical record keeping system.