Primary Care/Primarily Caring (II)

“Procedure skills are essential to the definition of a family physician,” announced the Group on Hospital Medicine and Procedural Training of the Society for Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) in a Group Consensus Statement published in 2009.  And what’s more, “Provision of procedural care in a local setting by a family physician can add value in continuity of care, accessibility, convenience, and cost-effectiveness without sacrificing quality” (Fam. Med., 398:403, 2009).  True enough.  But does this normative claim square with reality?

The fact is that primary care physicians (PCPs) of today, with rare exceptions, cannot be proceduralists in the manner of my father’s postwar generation, much less the generations that preceded it.  Residency training has to date failed to provide them with a set of common procedural skills.  As of 2006, the College of Family Physicians of Canada did not even evaluate procedural skills on the Certification Examination in Family Medicine (Can. Fam. Physician, 52:561, 2006).  Unsurprisingly, many family physicians, in Canada and elsewhere, do not find themselves competent  “in the skills that they themselves see as being essential for family practice training” (Can. Fam. Physician, 56:e300, 2010; Aust. Fam. Physician, 28:1211, 1999; BMC Fam. Practice, 7:18, 2006).

Nor is there an easy way of remedying the procedural lacunae in primary care medicine.  Efforts to infuse family medicine residency programs with procedural training run up against the reality, ceded by educators, that “Many privileging committees currently use specialty certification and/or a minimum number of procedures performed . . . to award privileges to perform procedures independently” (Fam. Med., 398:402, 2009).  In one recent study, Canadian family medicine residents who took “procedural skills workshops” during their residencies were found no more likely than other residents to employ these skills when they entered private practice (Can. Fam. Physician, 56:e296, 2010).  More than a decade earlier, a procedurally gifted family physician in rural south Georgia reported a case series of 751 colonoscopies out of a series of 1,048 performed over a nine-year period.  The practitioner, who acquired all his endoscopic training (including 80 supervised procedures) and experience while in solo practice, had results that were fully equal to those of experienced gastroenterologists; indeed, his results were exemplary.  Still, he experienced difficulty obtaining colonoscopic privileges at a small community hospital in his own town (J. Fam. Practice, 44:473, 1997).  My own family physician performed sigmoidoscopy on me in the early 90s.  A decade later I asked her if she was still doing the procedure.  “No,” she replied, because she was no longer covered for it by insurers.  “And it’s too bad,” she added, “because I liked doing them.”  I recently inspected a simple skin tag on the neck of one of my sons.  “Why don’t you have your family doctor whisk it off?” I asked.  “Actually,” he replied, “she referred me to a plastic surgeon.”

It is the same story almost everywhere.  The “almost” refers to rural training programs which, especially in Canada, produce family physicians with significantly greater procedural competence than their urban colleagues (Can. Fam. Physician, 52:623, 2006).  This tends to be true in the U.S. as well, especially in those rural areas where access to specialists is still limited.  But even rural family physicians here have been found to vary greatly in procedural know-how, with a discernible trend away from the use of diagnostic instruments.   In the mid-90s, a random sample of 403 rural FPs in eight midwestern and western states found that 57% performed sigmoidoscopy, but only 20% performed colposcopy (examination of vaginal and cervical tissue with a colposcope) and fewer than 5% performed nasopharyngoscopy (examination of the nasal passages and pharynx with a laryngoscope) (J. Fam. Practice, 38:479, 1994).  In his illuminating Afterword to The Last Family Doctor, my brother David Stepansky recounts the trend away from procedural competence during his internal medicine residency of the 70s:

“. . . internal medicine residents had traditionally received routine training in certain invasive procedures such as spinal taps, thoracenteses (to remove fluid from the chest cavity) and paracenteses (to remove fluid from the abdomen), and insertion of central intravenous catheters.  Although I was trained in these procedures and had some opportunity to perform them, my experience was limited, compared to the training of internal medicine residents who preceded me by only a few years.  There arose the general understanding that such technical procedures were best left to those who performed them frequently and well – a concept that is now broadly applied throughout healthcare.”

Efforts to upgrade the procedural competence of PCPs have an air of remediation about them.  After all, in the United States the residency-based “family practice” specialty came into being in 1969, but the development of a core list of procedures that all family medicine residents should be able to perform awaited the efforts of the STFM’s Group on Hospital Medicine and Procedural Training in 2007.  And this effort, in turn, followed a spate of research over the past decade from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and The Netherlands suggesting that “the procedural skill set expected of new family or general practice physicians is not being adequately taught in residency or registrar programs” (Can. Fam. Physician, 56:e298, 2010).  Finally, these efforts run up against the simple reality that the majority of overworked PCPs are content to refer their patients to specialists for procedures, and that the majority of patients expect to have procedures performed by specialists.  Implicitly if not explicitly, patients have come to embrace the difference between procedural training (and the experience that comes from applying a procedure occasionally in a generalist setting) and the mastery associated with routine use of a procedure in a specialty or hospital setting.  Exceptions to the rule, like the eminently competent FP colonoscopist mentioned above or the skilled FP proceduralists profiled in Howard Rabinowitz’s Caring for the Country: Family Doctors in Small Rural Towns (2004) or the dwindling number of FPs who simply make it their business to perform procedures, serve to underscore the rule.

“The history of medicine,” declaimed the internist W. R. Houston in 1937, “is a history of the dynamic power of the relationship between doctor and patient.” Houston’s address to the American College of Physicians, which, in published form, is the classic article “The Doctor Himself as a Therapeutic Agent” (Ann. Int. Med., 11:1416, 1938) left no doubt about the kind of interactions that powered the doctor’s agency.  “What the patient most imperatively demands from the doctor,” he wrote, “is, as it always was, action.”  And action, in Houston’s sense of the term, always referred back to “the line of procedure,” to the act of doing things to and for the patient.  The performance of a medical procedure, as Houston well knew, made the doctor the representative of modern scientific medicine.  It was the doctor’s calming scientific authority channeled through his or her sensory endowment, especially sight and touch.  We now know more:  That the laying on of hands, even if mediated by medical instruments, activates contact touch, an inborn biological pleasure that, through symbolic elaboration, may come to represent affection and strength (Arch. Int. Med., 153:929, 1993).   Psychoanalysts would say that a basic physiological pleasure is amplified by an idealizing transference.

Houston, of course, delivered his address before World War II and the growth of specialization that accompanied it and followed it.  In America of the 30s, patients might still expect their personal physicians to know and to implement the “line of procedure,” whatever the ailment.  What are we to make of his dictum in our own time?  Absent the kind of procedural glue that bonded GPs and patients of the past, how can today’s PCPs come to know their patients and provide physicianly caring that approximates the procedurally grounded caring of their forebears?  Contemporary PCPs not only manage their patients; they also care for them.  But, given the paucity of procedural interventions,  of actually doing things to their patients’ bodies, what more can they do to make these patients feel well cared for?  Educators have proposed different ways of reinvigorating doctor-patient relationships, and I will address them in future postings.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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