Last week’s ABIM Foundation Summer Forum focused on patient-centered care… and who could be against that? But is patient-centered care just a healthcare MacGuffin?
What’s a MacGuffin, you ask? In a spectacular talk at the Forum, Michael Richardson of Chicago’s Hines VA reminded us that the MacGuffin was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite directorial strategies. Hitchcock defined the term this way:
MacGuffin: a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise.
I loved Richardson’s analogy when I heard it, but its utter aptness became clear only as the conference proceeded. Let’s start with the areas of general agreement (thanks to Jim Naughton, Chair of the ABIM Foundation, for articulating these points):
- Patients’ preferences should be respected.
- We should attend to patients’ emotional needs, context, comfort and meaning.
- Patients should be engaged and empowered.
- There should be shared decision-making that promotes patient autonomy.
- Family and friends should be involved in care decisions where appropriate.
- Care should be coordinated within and across systems.
But then things became a bit fuzzier. The conference’s first talk was framed as an egregious example of what happens when care isn’t patient-centered. Margaret Murphy, a soft-spoken, matronly Irish woman who now serves on the Patient Steering Committee of the WHO’s World Alliance for Patient Safety, told the tragic, infuriating story of her 19-year-old son Kevin’s needless death. Somehow this young man with classic hyperparathyroidism (“stones, moans, bones, and abdominal groans” – a constellation of symptoms recognizable to any decent 3rd year medical student) was misdiagnosed for the better part of a year, in a tragedy of cognitive (he carried the presumptive diagnosis of leptospirosis for months) and logistical (his hypercalcemia was noted on a Post-it Note that got stuck to the back of a piece of his chart and went unseen for weeks) errors.
This isn’t a lack of patient-centered care. This is unconscionably bad doctoring, mixed with really awful systems, pure and simple.
(A number of us were struck by this mistaken diagnosis of leptospirosis, an unusual bacterial infection usually contracted through contact with water contaminated with the urine of infected animals. I’m pretty sure I know how this wrongheaded diagnosis was made. When I was a UCSF resident, one of the community-based physicians admitted a patient to me. This physician, may he rest in peace, had a well-deserved reputation for clinical incompetence. “Bob,” he said in his glad-handing way, “I think this guy has amyloidosis.” I was impressed: amyloid is an unusual disorder with a variety of fairly specific organ system derangements. Was it possible that Dr. X had analyzed the signs and symptoms and made this diagnosis? That seemed farfetched. “What makes you say that?” I asked, genuinely interested. “Well, I saw a guy a few months ago who was really, really sick, and he turned out to have amyloidosis.” I’m guessing that some hapless Irish doc saw one serious case of leptospirosis, and he’ll keep making that diagnosis until a new case happens along or he retires, whichever comes first.)
Anyway, back to the issue of patient-centered care. The keynote speaker at the Forum was Don Berwick, President of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. In what is getting to be a habit for me (see also here and here), I found Don’s speech to be powerful, poetic, and problematic. Entitled “Patient-Centered Care: Confessions of an Extremist,” Don argued persuasively that our healthcare system infantilizes patients, strips them of their dignity, and robs them of their choices. He told a compelling story of his friend who, as she was being wheeled into the cardiac cath lab, asked the docs and nurses to allow Don to accompany her inside. “I’m sorry,” said the cardiologist. “I am just not comfortable with that. We don’t do that here.”
“Of course they ‘can’ do that,” Berwick fumed. “They choose not to do that, and their choice trumps hers, period.”
He went on to propose a new working definition for patient-centered care:
The experience (to the extent the informed, individual patient desires it) of transparency, individualization, recognition, respect, dignity, and choice in all matters, without exception, related to one’s person, circumstances, and relationships in health care.
OK in the abstract, I guess. Where Don lost me, and I think many in the audience, is when he moved into the extreme view of medical consumerism: segueing from the mantra “Nothing About Me Without Me” to what might be interpreted as “Nothing About Me If Not By Me (after consultation with these so-called experts).” In taking this position, he soundly rejected the notion of a profession as a “work group that reserves to itself the authority to judge the quality of its own work” (in Freidson’s influential words) – which created in medicine the assumption of altruism, specialized expertise, and self-regulation.
…Let me drive my stake into the ground firmly at one end of the range between the professionally dominant view of quality of health care and the consumerist view. My stake is far from Freidson’s definition. Indeed, I think it wrong for the profession of medicine, or the profession of nursing, or any other health care profession, for that matter, to ‘reserve to itself the authority to judge the quality of its work.’… For better or worse, I have come to believe that we – patients, families, clinicians, and the health care system as a whole—would all be far better off if we recalibrated our work such that professionals behaved with patients and families not as hosts in the care system, but as guests in their lives.
Of course, there are lots of examples of self-interested behavior and cowardly self-regulation among my colleagues in the medical profession. But is the entire notion of Medicine as a Profession flawed, best replaced with unbounded consumerism?
As always, Harvey Fineberg, sage President of the IOM and former Harvard Provost, asked the central question. “Say I’m a middle aged man, nervous after hearing of Tim Russert’s death, and I want a cardiac CT to reassure me. Would you give it to me?”
Don hesitated before answering (“exceptional cases make bad rules,” he said – though few thought Fineberg’s hypothetical to be all that exceptional) and ultimately said, “Yes, I guess I would.” In other words, in the Berwick world of patient self-determination, patients have a right to demand non-evidence-based and expensive care, and we have an obligation to comply. Does this make sense?
People referred to Harvey’s question and Don’s answer for the rest of the confab, since it highlighted the problem when the consumerist model is taken to extremes. Don’t get me wrong: I find much to commend in the model: patient’s should get as much information as they can from providers and other sources, they should be able to bypass the traditional medical system for care if it suits them (including through Web 2.0-type sites and social networks), and they should always be treated with dignity and respect.
But they should not have the right to demand care that is harmful or non-evidence based. Why? Because the hospital is not a Starbucks. Starbucks is there to meet my wants for coffee, chocolate, and whipped cream, and they do a damn good job of it. And I make a private, independent decision that spending $3.25 of my own money to buy such a concoction is a good call.
As long as we have a system of health insurance, healthcare will be a shared resource: more for one is necessarily less for another. I know, much overuse isn’t patient-generated, it is doctor-generated and it can be readily explained by profit-seeking behavior among my professional breatheren. That is disgusting and needs to be addressed. But to say that patients have a right to any care they want – since they are indelibly in charge – can’t possibly work. Moreover, as I wrote a few months ago, placing the burden of decision-making on patients and families (particularly in decisions surrounding end of life care), as the autonomy movement would have us do, oftentimes places them in a wrenching position.
In a lively and useful dialogue, several other speakers at the Forum rebutted the extreme view of patient-centered care, at least in part. Ron Epstein, a Rochester professor and a national expert on patient-centered care, explicitly said that it is not “always giving patients what they request or feel that they want or need.” What is it, then? Epstein emphasizes that giving patients (or families) information that allows for shared deliberations and ultimately a “shared mind” is at the crux of the matter.
Even more compelling was the discussion by Amy Verstappen, an advocate for patients with congenital heart disease, who argued that the focus on satisfying every patient whim was frivolous and not what she and other patients really want. “Patient-centered care is a luxury I can’t afford,” she said. “I want you to not kill me, and to help me live longer. That’s it.”
Troy Brennan, the brilliant former Harvard professor who is now Aetna’s Chief Medical Officer, also scoffed at the extremist notion of patient-centeredness. “If I’m going into the cath lab,” he quipped, “I’d rather bring my dog. He’s very empathic.” He went on to second my argument about shared resources: It is one thing to try to attend to patient’s needs, he said, but quite another to try to meet all their wants in the name of patient-centeredness. After all, he observed, “there’s no new money coming into the system… except, of course, for the 10% annual healthcare inflation.”
Mark Smith, president of the California HealthCare Foundation and one of the most amusing and insightful people I know (and a strong supporter of consumerism and transparency), noted that sometimes patients just want to be patients. “The more horizontal you are, the more patient-like you are… Not every patient wants and needs to be a ‘consumer.’”
I guess that’s my take on this whole debate. Patient-centeredness is a reasonable aspiration, and it is highly appropriate for some patients in some situations. Because I tend to see mostly horizontal patients, I believe that my patients are more interested in care that is compassionate, open, safe, evidence-based, and – at times (gasp) – even a bit paternalistic.
Nearly three decades ago, Franz Ingelfinger, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, developed stomach cancer, an amazing irony since he was one of the world’s experts in this cancer. When he sought help from his physician colleagues at various Boston hospitals, everyone deferred to him, asking, “what do you think we should do?” This left him tied up in knots of indecision and anxiety.
Finally, one of his friends gave him wonderful advice, which he described in a NEJM article simply entitled “Arrogance.” “Franz,” he said, “what you really need is a doctor.”
Even as we embrace a more patient-centered model of care and accept – even welcome – far more empowered and knowledgeable patients, we can’t forget that sometimes patients really need a doctor. We don’t do them any favors when we duck that responsibility.
Even, perhaps especially, in the name of a MacGuffin.