Pruritus Emeritus

Practice During the Pandemic


The first installment of my new column was obsolete on arrival. It referred to walking abroad at midday, with no mention of masks and social distancing. The whole thing was so February 2020.

Dr. Alan Rockoff, now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years.

Dr. Alan Rockoff

My last day in the office was in mid-March. Friday the 13th.

For a few weeks, I’ve been seeing patients remotely. I pitched telemedicine to an HMO about 30 years ago. I was hardly an innovator. Researchers had already shown the practical use of remote dermatology by then, using stored and forwarded images.

What I had in mind was visits by patients in nursing homes or too sick at home to come in. It always bothered me to see very aged and infirm patients brought to the office at great inconvenience and expense for what often turned out to be problems like xerosis or eczema that could have been managed quite well remotely.

The HMO never got back to me, though. There were too many hurdles, mostly bureaucratic rather than medical. Would insurance pay? What about consent? Malpractice? It has been interesting to watch the current crisis sweep away the inertia of such obstacles, including licensure considerations (seeing patients across state lines for cutaneous purposes). People get around to fixing the roof when it pours. Perhaps next time there will be tests, masks, respirators. Perhaps.

Seeing patients remotely has acquainted me with all the technical headaches everyone stuck at home talks and jokes about: Balky transmission (What did you say after, “and then the blood ...”?); patients who can’t figure out how to log on, or start the video, or unmute themselves, and on and on. Picture resolution is not great, as anyone knows from watching TV newscasters interview talking heads stuck in their homes.

I was never all that image-conscious, but my beard has grown fuller and my hair unkempter. Even though I sit at my desk, I do take care to keep my trousers on. Not taking any chances.

Everyone agonizes over what the “new normal” may be. Will people come back to doctors’ offices? Will practices survive economically if many patients don’t return to the office? Stay tuned. For a long time.

Mostly, though, remote visits seem to work. Helped if needed by additional, better-resolution emailed photos, it’s possible to make useful decisions, including which lesions can wait for in-person evaluation, until ...

... Until what? In an effort to keep this column up-to-the-nanosecond, I am writing it as many countries tentatively “open up.” Careful analysis of the knowledge behind this world-wide project shows ... not much. It seems to come down to some educated guesswork about what might work and what the risks might be, which leads to advice that differs widely from state to state and country to country. It’s as if people everywhere just decided that locking everyone down is a real drag, is financially ruinous, has a duration both uncertain and longer than most people and governments think they can handle, so let’s get out there and “be careful,” whatever that is said to mean.

And the risks? Well, more people will get sick and some will die. How many “extra” deaths are ethically acceptable? Thoughtful people are working on that. They’ll get back sometime to those who are still around.

I don’t blame anyone for our staggering ignorance about this terrifying new reality. But absorbing the ignorance in real time is not reassuring.

I have nothing but sympathy for those who are not emeritus, who have practices to sustain and families to feed. I didn’t ask to be born 73 years ago, and take no credit for having done so. So much of what happens to us depends on when and where we were born – two factors for which we deserve absolutely no credit – that it’s a wonder we take such pride in praising ourselves for what we think we accomplish. Having no better choice, we do the best we can.

Meantime, I am in a “high-risk” category. If I were obese, I could try to lose weight. But my risk factor is age, which tends not to decline. Risk-wise, there is just one way to exit my group.

So I don’t expect to get back to the office anytime soon. To paraphrase a comedian who shall remain nameless: I don’t want to live on in the hearts of men. I want to live on in my house.

Dr. Rockoff, who wrote the Dermatology News column “Under My Skin,” is now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available online. Write to him at [email protected].

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