Hail the House Call

It is now 35 years since George Engel, an internist at the University of Rochester Medical School, formulated his biopsychosocial model of medicine (Science, 196:129, 1977).  Concerned with the reductionism and fragmentation inherent in scientifically guided specialist care, Engel called on his colleagues to locate biomedical interventions on a larger biopsychosocial canvas.  Drawing on the version of general systems theory popular in the 1970s, Engel argued that clinical assessment properly embraced a hierarchy of discrete biological, personal, and transpersonal levels, any combination of which might enter into the meaning of illness, whether acute or chronic.  Even in ostensibly biomedical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, Engel held, it was not simply deranged cells and dysfunctional organs that accounted for pathophysiology.  His model made a strong knowledge-related (i.e., epistemic) claim:  that hierarchically ordered layers of intra- and interpersonal stressors were causal factors in disease as it expressed itself  in this or that person.  It followed for Engel that personality structure; adaptive resources and “ego strength”; psychodynamic conflicts; two-person conflicts; family-related conflicts; conflicts in the workplace – these factors, in various combinations, entered into the scientific understanding of disease.

In devising the biopsychosocial model, Engels was influenced by the psychoanalysis of his day.  It is for this reason that biopsychosocial medicine is typically, and, I believe, erroneously, identified with the kind of “psychosomatic medicine” that analysis gave birth to in the quarter century following World War II (Psychosom. Med., 63:335, 2001). More generally still, it is conflated with psychosocial skills, especially as they enter into doctor-patient communication.  Because Engel’s model is not an algorithm for determining which levels of the patient “system” are implicated in this or that instance of illness, it has been criticized over the years for failing to guide clinical action, including the ordering of therapeutic goals (Comp. Psychiatry, 31:185, 1990).  Self-evidently, the model has proven very difficult to teach (Acad. Psychiatry, 28:88, 2004) and equally difficult to integrate into the conventional medical school curriculum (Psychosom. Med., 63:335, 2001).

These findings are hardly surprising.  It is difficult to teach doctors-in-training how to apply a biopsychosocial model when real-world doctoring rarely places them in regular contact with the transmedical “systems” invoked by the model.  This was not always the case.  Consider the house call, that site of biopsychosocial consciousness-raising throughout the 19th  and well into the 20th century.  It was in the home of the patient, after all, that the physician could actually experience the psychosocial “systems” that entered into the patient’s illness:  the patient’s personality, but also the patient as spouse, parent, sibling, son or daughter, all apprehended within the dynamics of a living family system.  And of course there was the home environment itself, a psychosocial container of medically salient information.  Wise clinicians of the early 20th century did not need the assistance of a biopsychosocial model to understand the role of the house call in cultivating the physician’s biopsychosocial sensibility.  Here is Harvard’s Francis Peabody in “The Care of the Patient” (1927):

“When the general practitioner goes into the home of a patient, he may know the whole background of the family life from past experience; but even when he comes as a stranger he has every opportunity to find out what manner of man his patient is, and what kind of circumstances make his life.  He gets a hint of financial anxiety or of domestic incompatibility; he may find himself confronted by a querulous, exacting, self-centered patient, or by a gentle invalid overawed by a dominating family; and as he appreciates how these circumstances are reacting on the patient he dispenses sympathy, encouragement or discipline.  What is spoken of as a ‘clinical picture’ is not just a photograph of a man sick in bed; it is an impressionistic painting of the patient surrounded by his home, his work, his relations, his friends, his joys, sorrows, hopes and fears” [JAMA, 88:877, 1927].

Three decades after Peabody’s lecture, I began riding shotgun when my father, William Stepansky, made his daily round of house calls in rural southeastern Pennsylvania.  Sometimes, especially with the older patients he visited regularly, I came into the house with him, where I was warmly welcomed, often with a glass of milk and home baked treats, as the doctor’s son and travelling companion.  From my time on the road, I learned how my father’s clinical gaze met and absorbed the anxious gazes of family members.  It became clear, over time, that his medical obligation was not only to the patient, but to the patient-as-member-of-a-family and to the family-as-medically-relevant-part-of-the-patient.  In a lecture to the junior class of his alma mater, Jefferson Medical college, in 1965, he made this very point in differentiating the scope of the family physician’s clinical gaze from that of the pediatrician and internist.  Unlike the latter, he observed, the family physician’s interventions occurred “within the special domain of the family,” and his treatment of the patient had to be continuously attentive to the “needs of family as an entity.”  It was for this reason, he added, that “family medicine must teach more than the arithmetic sum of the contents of specialties” (my father’s emphasis).  Here, in the mid-60s, my father posited a medical-interventional substratum to what would emerge a decade or so later, in the realm of psychotherapy, as family systems theory and “structural family therapy.” And then, 12 years before Engels came on the scene, he offered his conception of  “a solid intellectual approach to medicine”:

“To me this means relating the effects of the body systems one upon the other in health and disease through knowledge of the basic sciences – i.e., biochemistry and physiology – through some understanding of the social and environmental stresses on the patient, and finally through insight into the psychological influences of personality structure as it affects health and disease.”

Of course, physicians long before my father and long before Francis Peabody understood that medical treatment of the individual might entail interventions with transpersonal “systems.”  Witness the Victorian physicians of well-off American families of the 1870s and 1880s described by the historian Nancy Theriot (Amer. Studies, 26:69, 1990; Signs, 19:1, 1993; J. Hist. Behav. Sci., 37:349, 2001).  Making home visits to overwrought postpartum women in the throes of what was then termed “puerperal insanity” – we have only the far less evocative “postpartum depression” – these knowing family physicians dissuaded their patients from the drastic surgical interventions available to them (such as ovariotomy).  They recommended instead a change in the family “system” to accommodate the parturient’s urgent need for “time out” from the burdens of household management, childrearing, and husband-pleasing, to which care of a newborn was now superadded.  Is it any wonder that the matrons of these well-run Victorian households became “insane,” and that their insanity took the form, inter alia, of vile language, refusal to dress appropriately, refusal to resume housework, indifference to their children’s daily needs, and even – horribile dictu –  refusal to hold their newborns?  And yet these same women, flouting Victorian conventions with postpartum abandon, often returned to bourgeois sanity after the family physician, with the weight of medical authority, simply prescribed a daily period of solitude when the new mother, perhaps sitting alone in the family garden, was not to be disturbed – not by anyone.  Biopsychosocial intervention aimed at the family “system” was never so elegantly simple.

Interventions of this sort are hardly unknown among contemporary providers, some small percentage of whom continue to visit their patients in their homes.   Further, as one of my correspondents has reminded me, all family medicine residencies employ full-time behaviorists, usually psychologists, who help trainees develop a biopsychosocial model of care. But outside of these programs the biopsychosocial model remains where it has always been – on the fringe of a medical world of fragmented and technology-driven specialist care.  In this sense, it is no different than the house call, which lives on among some 4,000 physicians in the U.S. and through a very few university hospital-based “house call programs.”  But let there be no mistake:  these physicians and these programs are at the far margins of primary care.  When the American Academy of Family Physicians polled its active members in 2008 on the settings in which they saw patients, respondents from urban and rural regions alike reported an average of 0.6 house calls a week.  (My father, in the 50s and 60s, averaged 3-4 a day.)  If this figure represents the rate at which house call-making doctors make house calls, then it is fair to say that the house call has long since ceased to be an intrinsic – and intrinsically humanizing – dimension of primary care.  This is why I pay tribute to the Great American House Call.  It is a relic of an era when biopsychosocial medicine suffused general practice without the aid of a biopsychosocial model.

Addendum

Unbeknown to many, the healthcare reform bill passed by Congress in March, 2010 contains an “Independence at Home Act” that provides physicians with financial incentives to treat their oldest and sickest patients in their homes.  To wit, house call-making doctors will share in cost saving if they can “prove” their in-home care reduced hospital use and left their patients satisfied.   So much for the scientific bona fides of biopsychosocial medicine.  It’s about the money, stupid.

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

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One response to “Hail the House Call

  1. Great article! Of course, the wisdom of the house calls lives on, albeit in slightly changed forms. You are absolutely correct in stating that “it’s all about the money. stupid”, but let us be clear that this mostly relates to the governmental interventions in medicine. Personally, I own and operate a local house call service in Dallas, Texas. I am on call and available to my patients 24/7. Obviously, I would not be able to afford to operate such service were I relying on the government to reimburse me for my work. The solution? I do not accept any insurance or health plan, and this is not just economically feasible, but also truly liberating. I can say truthfully that I work only for my patients. Besides, my prices turn out to be very reasonable. I trust the highly valuable house calls are here to stay, but there will have to be a clear shift in thinking paradigm on the part of both physicians and patients to make this model work.

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