Where, Oh Where, Has Patient-Focused Healthcare Gone?

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: October 14, 2017

Okay, so I have been a frequent flyer of the healthcare system for pretty much my entire life. Besides having met with my diabetic specialist every 3-6 months for the last 29 years, I have had at least 45 different surgeries/procedures during that same time frame (the majority of which having occurred between 2010 and 2014), have undergone countless MRIs, CT scans, X-rays and/or mammograms, and have visited most specialists more times than I care to admit.

My diabetes has led to my body attacking several of my body parts, including my eyes, my hands, my wrists and elbows, my breasts, and the nerves in all four limbs. My eyes suffered from diabetic retinopathy, which basically means that the blood vessels in the eyes were leaking.

Between 2010 and 2014, while undergoing 24 separate laser eye surgeries (each involving the ophthalmologist shooting 600 laser points into my eye while I am awake and screaming), I was visiting the doctor and his support staff about once every two months, if not more often. It was like Cheers – everybody there knew my name! I would often joke that my punch card must entitle me to a free surgery after all the previous purchases I had made! (Ok, so I never said it was a good joke….)

And for most of my 33+ years being a professional patient, I have been very fortunate to have had some wonderful doctors. But as I started seeing more and more specialists (you know, rheumatologists, breast surgeons, general surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, neurologists, pain specialists, urologists, gastroenterologists…basically anyone with an -ist or a surgeon in their title), I started noticing how some of these doctors ran their practices somewhat akin to puppy mills. There was no getting to know the patient or their concerns. There was no getting to know the patient’s history, beyond what you can cram into the 2-4 paged patient intake forms that have become the bane of my existence. In fact, there was almost no speaking between the doctor and patient at all. And if I had a particular question or had the nerve to ask about alternate treatments or potential side effects to a new medication (especially considering how it may interact with the multiple other medications I am already on), I was repeatedly dismissed or downright ignored.

After I had my 24 laser eye surgeries, and after also having had two vitrectomies to remove blood from my eyes after they both hemorrhaged, two cataract surgeries, two surgeries to remove scar tissue from the new cataract lenses, and about a half-dozen Avastin injections into my eyes, my ophthalmologist in Rhode Island explained to me that there were no more laser surgeries to be done. My eyes had developed so much scar tissue from all of the previous surgeries, there was no way to get visualization of my leaking blood vessels. All that was left was to keep monitoring my vision and hope that I did not become blind.

Once I moved to Texas, I made an appointment to meet with a new ophthalmologist in the area. I filled out those godforsaken patient intake forms, was taken in for some initial tests, and then went in to see the doctor. He quickly did a visual scan of my intake forms and then said: “You haven’t had any eye surgeries in the past, have you?” …. Not off to a great start. I then explained my vast surgical history, and told him that it had been over two years since my last laser surgery.

Knowing nothing else about me (other than the fact that I was an insulin-dependent diabetic and had an extensive history of diabetic retinopathy), this doctor decided to then ask/accuse me of the following: “Why has it been over two years since your last laser surgery? Is it because you’re neglecting your diabetes?”

Excuse me. Had you asked me politely (and allowed me to actually respond), I would have told you that my prior specialist was unable to do any more surgeries because of the excess amount of scar tissue in the eyes.

After hearing my explanation, the lovely doctor then conducted a visual exam of my eyes and concurred with my previous doctor’s analysis.

I was actually astounded by this man’s judgment of a patient he had met only moments before! Could he not help himself but to speak condescendingly towards a patient who had been suffering from Type I diabetes for almost thirty years? As if this patient wanted to be at risk of going blind, and had chosen to do nothing about it?

I have so many more horror stories I could share with you, but I’ll spare you the pain and go on to finally make a point.

I understand that medical professionals are overworked. I understand that they have to deal with insurance companies and with federal regulations regarding online patient records. I understand that some patients are a handful, and are doing little-to-nothing to help themselves have better health.

Indeed, as a criminal defense attorney who ran her own practice for 5 years, I have certainly experienced being overworked, underpaid, overloaded with paperwork and unappreciated by the most time-consuming and frustrating clients imaginable.

But as a professional who has advanced knowledge and/or training in his or her area of expertise, you have an obligation to your patients/clients to help them in their hour of need. Now, I may be a bit biased in this regard. I always tried to follow a holistic, client-focused method of practice, even if it was at my own expense (health- or time-wise). I tried to empathize with the fear a client faces when arrested or incarcerated for the first time, or with the despair an appellate client starts to feel when he is facing a lifetime in prison if his appellate remedies are exhausted. I have taken the time to consider how a client feels when people are picketing outside of his family’s home, or how alone a client with mental health issues feels as he spins ‘round and ‘round the revolving door of imprisonment because he is homeless and doesn’t have the mental capacity or wherewithal to obtain the proper medication to quiet the voices in his head.

I know that there are patient-focused doctors out there, just as I know that there are an excessive number of careless or profit-obsessed attorneys. But there seems to be more and more medical professionals who are angry at the current status of the health care and insurance systems in America, and are taking it out on their patients.

Remember to find the humanity in each and every one of your patients. You are treating a human being, not a medical cadaver. Each person’s body is unique and carries with it its own set of medical issues and bodily limitations. Therefore, not every patient’s body is going to respond the same to the same treatment protocol. You are no longer in med school, being quizzed on a hypothetical set of facts presented for your diagnosis. Your patient is likely to be afraid, maybe even terrified. They are counting on you to help them understand what is going on; whether they have a clean bill of health or have 3-6 months to live. The very last thing he or she needs is to feel judged.

So maybe you can take a few more minutes out of your busy schedule, look up from your laptop and have a face-to-face conversation with your patient. If my own history as both a lifelong patient and a former owner of a professional services practice is of any indication, your practice (and your soul) will never suffer from treating your patients with even just a bit more empathy. And it will make all the difference in your patients’ lives.

To read more of my thoughts on this subject and more, please keep an eye out for my upcoming book, and feel free to follow me on Twitter at @katherine_itacy

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