Monday, February 14, 2011

What Doctors Wish Their Patients Knew - Critique of the March 2011 Consumer Reports article

First, I'm a big fan of Consumer Reports and even listed their Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs website in my book, Stay Healthy, Live Longer, Spend Wisely - Making Intelligent Choices in America's Healthcare System, because of its accurate, unbiased, and money saving information in getting the right treatments for the best price.

So naturally when I saw this month's issues cover story - What Doctors Wish Their Patients Knew, I had to read it.  Overall, it was excellent and made a lot of sense.   Their conclusions were obvious to me, however, might not be as intuitive to the public (after all it is titled what doctors wish their patients knew!).

In summary, primary care doctors matter and having a long-term relationship with one can save time and money.  Respect and being courteous still matter to both doctors and patients.  Thoughtful use of the internet might overcome the resistance doctors have to patients researching information.  Generic medications, which are inexpensive and very effective for many conditions, are excellent and should be used.

A more in depth analysis reveals the following.  Primary care doctors are vitally important.  As Dr. Kevin Grumbach, professor and chair of the department of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco noted, "a primary-care doctor should be your partner in your overall health, not just someone you go to for minor problems or a referral to specialty care."  Indeed, that is why I went into primary care.  I prevent problems.  I diagnose problems.  On the occasion I can't solve your problem, then I need the assistance of my specialty colleagues.

I'm not a gatekeeper.  I'm not simply a referral center or an obstacle in getting you the right care.  In fact, I'm the first logical place to always get care and be your partner in keeping you healthy and well.

A long-term relationship with a primary care doctor is also important according to three-quarters of the 660 primary care doctors surveyed.  Consumer Reports found some evidence that patients who frequently switch doctors have more health problems and spend more on care.  This seems to make sense.  Having someone you know and trust to get care over a long period of time can keep you healthy and save you money.  The challenge for many Americans is trying to keep the same doctor.  Employers often switch insurance carriers to save money.  Doctors drop out of health plans.  Patients change jobs and have a different health plan or no health insurance coverage.  In other words, a primary care doctor isn't simply a commodity, but rather a vitally important relationship.  Unfortunately the health care system and the general public don't view them that way.  Practicing primary care doctors are leaving the specialty and medical students are not interested in a primary care field even though it is has potential to be one of the best choices in the future.

Respect and being courteous are two traits still valued by doctors and patients.  The majority of doctors polled felt that being respectful and courteous would help get better care.  Patients equated respect and courteousness as professionalism.  Doctors who treated them respectfully, listened to them with understanding, and spent time with them scored high.  Though professionalism scores increased more when patients felt that their doctor seemed technically competent, I find it hard to believe that patients can honestly determine who is skilled clinically.  I think my car mechanic is skilled, but I really don't truly know as I'm not a mechanic.

I'm sure patients believe I'm technically competent as I explain everything I'm doing.  For a knee examination, patients will hear me say -  I'm palpating the meniscus both the medial and lateral aspects to check for arthritis or a meniscus tear.  I'm examining the medial and lateral collateral ligaments of your knee and making sure they are intact and not strained or torn.  I'm looking for fluid in the knee and mechanics of the knee with the range of motion.  I'm checking the health and integrity of the ACL and PCL.  Instead of wondering if I'm simply waving my hands like a magician, the description of the examination demonstrates my value as a doctor.  Patients, and some doctors, have forgotten the value of taking a detailed history and a good physical examination.  There was a time doctors didn't have the imaging tests of xray, CT, or MRI.  Once I explain what I'm doing, then they understand why these tests are often unnecessary, which of course saves money and time. If showing and verbalizing our examination and thought process is professionalism, then we need to do more of it.

Although the article suggested that 80 percent of doctors felt taking a friend or relative to an office visit would be helpful, I believe this expectation to be a little unrealistic.  Unless a family member or relative is particularly worried or if the visit is very important, say a consultation with a surgeon or an oncologist, it isn't necessary to have someone else tag along.  People are incredibly busy.  Taking time out of the day to accompany someone for an appointment isn't going to happen.  The reason for this suggestion is that doctors discover patients don't typically remember everything that occurred in the office.  This point really is about providing patients a strategy to recall important information (using the mneumonic D.A.T.E. can be helpful).  

Suggestions on how to thoughtfully research information on the internet was a plus.  Besides MedlinePlus and the Mayo Clinic, one should also consider, which has a preventive app, my health finder, that gives personalized specific age and gender information on what tests are needed and appropriate (it's under the Learn About Prevention tab).  Not surprisingly due to the ease of looking information on the internet, 61 percent of patients have researched their condition.  Sadly doctors were not as enthusiastic.  Half of doctors said that online research was not helpful at all.

Physician wariness to the plethora of online information is due to the lack of respect from some patients who demand certain treatments, medications, or interventions, without understanding the nuance of a diagnosis.  It isn't as simple, though it seems like it, as putting in a bunch of diagnoses and then just then hitting Google search (or worse I'm feeling lucky).  I don't mind patients emailing me links to articles or suggest diagnoses.  In fact, I learn a lot from patients.  I do however find it difficult to treat patients who are insistent on their way or the highway and in those cases will suggest they find another doctor.  It's about a trusting partnership not just about patients who are empowered with small pieces of information.

Finally, the best part of the issue was he Best Buy Drugs section which notes that many conditions, like high cholesterol, diabetes, heartburn, allergies, and depression have very good generic prescription medications that are inexpensive and very effective.  Consumer Reports uses evidence based research to back up the claims.  The vast majority of patients I care for do fine with generic medications.  That's what I buy.  You should do fine with generic medicationas as well.  They left out my favorite online pharmacy, which often has pricing better than Wal-mart and Costco for many medications.

What else do doctors wish patients knew?  Vaccines are safe and underutilized.  Body scans and life line screenings really aren't worth your money.  The fountain of youth really is eating less, moving more, and not smoking, and plenty of servings of fruits and vegetables.  Cancer screening tests are for everyone, not those with family histories as the majority of people who develop cancer are the first in their family.

But of course, that might take more than just a blog post, but an entire book.

1 comment:

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

A very nice post. For reasons well known to you, many primary care physicians are serving as triage centers forwarding patients to other consultants and to radiology departments. Of course, this is not how is should be, but this is how it is.


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