Category Archives: Family Doctors, Then & Now

My Father’s Empathy

My late father, William Stepansky, was the most empathic caregiver I have ever known.  Until recently, however, I never thought of him that way.  Indeed, I never had the sense that he “practiced” medicine one way or another, simply that he lived out his medical calling.  I thought nothing of having a father who taped the Hippocratic Oath to his dresser and read it every morning.

My father’s “empathy” did not grow out of medical training; it was the stuff of life experience. His family’s emigration from Russia followed the Hitler-like savagery of the Ukrainian Pogroms that followed World War I.  Anti-Semite thugs murdered his grandfather on his own doorstep several years before his father, Pincus, mother, Vittie (then pregnant with him), and older sister, Enta began their uncertain journey to America in 1921.  Pincus, a highly decorated Russian war veteran, a member of the 118th (Shuiskii) Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, was the recipient of what my father termed the Russian equivalent of our own Congressional Medal of Honor.  “He was a sergeant,” he would tell me, “but a colonel had to salute him first.” On the battlefield he was wounded three times in the chest and once left for dead.  Stripped of his decorations by the bandits who raided his native village of Stavishche, he arrived in the new world penurious and crippled with chest pain.

My father, who was born in Kishinev, Rumania during the first leg of his family’s 1,900-mile journey across continental Europe, was six-months old when they arrived in Boston Harbor.  A year later, they left Boston and made their home in the densely Jewish enclave in South Philadelphia.  Throughout my life, my father shared two memories of his own father; they attest, respectively, to the positive and negative poles of the wounded soldier-tailor’s dedication to high culture. The first is of Pincus gamely limping across long city blocks with his young son in tow; he was taking his young son, my father, to his weekly violin lesson with his first teacher, the local postman.  Pincus never left the music room, and when the lesson was over, he took his son’s violin and lovingly wiped it down with a special cloth brought solely for that purpose.

The second memory is of Pincus imperiously ordering his son to bring his violin and perform whenever neighbors, friends, or relations gathered in the family’s small apartment.  A shy, retiring child, my father urgently wanted not to play. But his father’s directives were issued from on high with military-like peremptoriness that brooked neither contradiction nor delay.  And so my father got his violin and he played, perhaps through tears, perhaps through rage.

My father, at age 15, watched his father die of heart disease. In February, 1943, having completed his third-year of pharmacy training, he was called up by the army and served as a surgical technician in a medical battalion attached to the 80th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army.  In France, Belgium, and Germany, he worked alongside battlefield surgeons who fought to keep wounded GIs alive in a surgical clearing company only a short remove from the front line.  I learned a bit about the visceral reality of wound management in the European Theatre during his final years, when I interviewed him and several of his surviving comrades for The Last Family Doctor.  The prosaic summary of his duties in his army  discharge of January, 1946 – “Removed uncomplicated cases of shrapnel wounds, administered oxygen and plasma, sterilized instruments, bandages, clothing, etc.  Gave hypodermic injections and performed general first aid duties” – only hints at this reality.

My father, so I learned, held down wounded GIs for anesthesia-less suturing, assisted with frontline battlefield surgery, much of which involved amputation, and then, after the day’s work, went outside to bury severed arms and legs. He experienced close fighting in the woods of Bastogne during the freezing winter of 1945, when the techs worked 20-hour shifts to keep up with the inflow of casualties.  One can only wonder at the impact of such things on the constitution of a gentle and soft-spoken 22-year-old pharmacy student whose passion, before and after the war, was the violin, and who carried Tolstoy’s War and Peace in his backpack throughout his European tour.

A different man might have emerged from my father’s childhood and wartime experience emotionally constricted, withdrawn, intimidated by authority figures or, obversely (or concurrently) enraged by them.  In my father’s case, a lifelong performance anxiety – the legacy of a militaristic father repeatedly ordering him to play violin before visitors — was vastly counterbalanced by an enlarged empathic sensibility that enabled him to understand and contain his patients’ anxieties about their health, their relationships, their ability to love and to work.  Wrestling as he did with his own anxieties and memories of the war, which included the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald, he became a physician who accepted utterly his patients’ prerogative to share their anxieties with him, even to project their anxieties into him.  He was, after all, their doctor.

My father was not only an astute diagnostician but also a gifted psychotherapist, and the amalgam of these twin talents was an ability to titrate his disclosures, to tell patients what they needed to know, certainly, but in a manner he thought they could bear.  His psychologically attuned approach to patient care is now associated with the paternalism of a different era.  But it was also an aspect of his ability, rare among physicians, to diagnose suffering and to discern the limits of this or that patient’s ability to cope with it.[1]  This style of practice was wonderfully appreciated by his patients, some of whom, after leaving the area, travelled a distance for yearly appointments with him.  No doubt they wanted to experience the “holding environment” of his person.

Premed students who grind away at biology and chemistry have no idea what my father and his cohort of war-tested physicians, many first- and second-generation immigrants, overcame for the privilege of studying medicine.  I would not wish his life story – of which I relate only a few particulars here – on any of them.  And yet, we might ponder the desirability of subjecting premed students to some muted version of his experience in order to nurture whatever elements of empathic temperament they possess.  Specifically, medical educators can take steps to ensure that premeds are not subverted by medicine’s  “hidden curriculum” – its institutional pull away from patient-centered values and practices – while they are still in college, especially when they complete their med school applications and present for their interviews.  And they can work harder to find clinical teachers who do not endorse shame, humiliation, and intimidation as credible educational strategies for acculturating young doctors into the profession.[2]

If we wish to steer contemporary medical students toward compassionate, or at least adequately sensitive, care-giving – and here I echo what others have said[3] – then we need to provide them with clinical teachers who are dissatisfied with a passive conception of role modeling and actually model discrete and specifiable behaviors in their interactions with patients.[4]  Sadly, the literature continues to provide examples of clinical training during medical school and residency that is denigrating, demoralizing, and ultimately desensitizing.  We end up with clinical teachers (not all, by any means, but no doubt a good many) who long ago capitulated to the hidden curriculum and devote themselves to readying the next generation of trainees for a like-minded (or better, a survival-minded) capitulation.  With this intergenerational dynamic in place, we are at the point of Marshall Marinker’s devastating “Myth, Paradox and the Hidden Curriculum” (1997), which begins:  “The ultimate indignity teachers inflict upon students is that, in time, they become us.”[5]

My father and his cohort of med students who trained during and shortly after WWII were resistant to shaming and intimidation.  They had experienced too much to be diverted from a calling to practice medicine.  But then their teachers too had experienced a great deal, many working alongside their future students – the pharmacists, medics, techs, and GIs – in casualty clearing stations, field hospitals, VA hospitals, and rehab facilities in Europe and America.  Teachers emerging from the war years encountered a generation of mature students whose wartime experience primed them to embrace medicine as patient care.  And the students, for their part, encountered teachers whose own wartime experience and nascent cold war anxieties tempered budding Napoleonic complexes.  High tech medicine, bioethics, and patient rights all lay in the future. Generalists like my father were trained to provide care that was caring; their ministrations were largely “medicinal, manual, and mentalistic, which is to say, psychological.”[6]  In the kind of training they received, the notion of  castigating as “unprofessional” med students whose patient-centered concerns and queries slowed down the breakneck pace of team rounds – a documented reality these days[7] – would literally have been non-sensical.

But that was then and this is now.  Today medical culture has in key respects become subversive of the ideals that drew my father and his cohort to medicine.  And this culture, which revolves around the sacrosanctity of an academic hierarchy that, inter alia, insists on perfection, denigrates uncertainty, privileges outcome over process, and, in the clinical years, engages students adversarially, is far too entrenched to be dislodged with manifestos, position papers, and curricular reforms.  What educators can do is seek out medical students whose empowerment derives less from high grades and artfully constructed admissions essays and more from life experience in the trenches – in any trenches. We don’t need to send premeds off to war to make them resistant to the hidden curriculum, but we should encourage premed experience robust enough to deflect its pull and let those of caring temperament develop into caring physicians.

Perhaps we need students who are drawn less to biochemistry than to the vagaries of human chemistry, students who have already undertaken experiential journeys that bring into focus the humanistic skyline of their medical horizons.  What Coulehan[8] terms “socially relevant service-oriented learning” should not be confined to residency training.  We need more students who come to medicine after doing volunteer work in developing nations; fighting for medical civil rights; staffing rural and urban health clinics; and serving public health internships.[9]  And if this suggestion is quixotic, let’s at least have premed students spend the summer before senior year in the trenches, as I proposed in “The Hunt for Caring Med Students.”  Such strategies will not create empathic caregivers de novo, but they will nurture the empathic temperament of those so endowed and, one hopes, fortify them a little better against the careerist blandishments of the hidden curriculum.  It would be nice if, a generation hence, other sons (and daughters) could write about their fathers’ (and mothers’) special kind of therapeutic empathy.


[1] E. J. Cassell, “Diagnosing suffering: a perspective,” Ann. Intern. Med., 131:531-534, 1999.

[2] J. White, et al., “’What do they want me To say?’: the hidden curriculum at work in the medical school selection process: a qualitative study,” BMC Med. Educ., 12:1-9, 2012; U. H. Lindström, et al., “Medical students’ experiences of shame in professional enculturation,” Med. Educ., 45:1016-1024, 2011; A. H. Brainard & H. C. Brislen, “Learning professionalism: a view from the trenches,” Acad. Med., 82:1010-1014, 2007; P. Haidet & H. F. Stein, “The role of the student-teacher relationship in the formation of physicians,” J. Gen. Intern. Med., 21:S16-20, 2006; Mary Seabrook, “Intimidation in medical education: students’ and teachers’ perspectives,” Stud. Higher Educ., 29:59-74, 2004.

[3] Haidet & Stein, “Role of the student-teacher relationship”; N. Ratanawongsa, et al., “Residents’ perceptions of professionalism in training and practice: barriers, promoters, and duty hour requirements,” J. Gen Intern. Med., 21:758-763, 2006; J. Coulehan, “Today’s professionalism: engaging the mind but not the heart,” Acad. Med., 80:892-898, 2005; B. Maheux, et al., “Medical faculty as humanistic physicians and teachers: the perceptions of students at innovative and traditional medical schools, Med. Educ., 34:630-634, 2000; J. H. Burack, et al., Teaching compassion and respect: attending physicians’ responses to problematic behaviors,” J. Gen. Intern. Med., 14:49-55, 1999.

[4] See further Burack, “Teaching compassion and respect,” p. 54.

[5] M. Marinker, “Myth, paradox and the hidden curriculum,” Med. Educ., 31:293-298, 1997, quoted at p. 293; cf. Haidet & Stein, “Role of student-teacher relationship,” p. 3: “The relational processes of the hidden curriculum assure the perpetuation of its content” (authors’ emphasis).

[6] P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor: Remembering My Father’s Medicine (Keynote, 2011), p. 114.

[7] Brainard & Brislen, “Learning professionalism,” p. 1011.

[8] Coulehan, “Today’s professionalism,” p. 896.

[9] For examples of such physicians and their role in the revitalization of primary care medicine in the 1970s, see Stepansky, Last Family Doctor, pp. 130-133.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Empathy, Psychotherapy, Medicine

What passes for psychoanalysis in America these days is a far cry from the psychoanalysis Freud devised in the early years of the last century.  A sea change began in the 1970s, when Heinz Kohut, a Vienna-born and Chicago-based psychoanalyst, developed what he termed “psychoanalytic self psychology.”  At the core of Kohut’s theorizing was the replacement of one kind of psychoanalytic method with another.   Freud’s method – which Freud himself employed imperfectly at best – revolved around the coolly self-possessed analyst, who, with surgeon-like detachment, processed the patient’s free associations with “evenly hovering attention” and offered back pearls of interpretive wisdom.  The analyst’s neutrality – his unwillingness to become a “real” person who related to the patient in conventionally sympathetic and supportive ways – rendered him a “blank screen” that elicited the same feelings of love and desire – and also of fear, envy, resentment, and hatred – as the mother and father of the patient’s early life.  These feelings clustered into what Freud termed the positive and negative transferences.

Kohut, however, found this traditional psychoanalytic method fraught with peril for patients burdened less with Freudian-type neurotic conflicts than with psychological deficits of a preoedipal nature.  These deficits gained expression in more primitive types of psychopathology, especially in what he famously termed  “narcissistic personality disorder.”  For these patients – and eventually, in Kohut’s mind, for all patients – the detached, emotionally unresponsive analyst simply compounded the feelings of rejection and lack of self-worth that brought the patient to treatment.  He proffered in its place a kinder, gentler psychoanalytic method in which the analyst was content to listen to the patient for extended periods of time, to affirm and mirror back what the patient was saying and feeling, and over time to forge an empathic bond from which interpretations would arise.

Following Kohut, empathy has been widely construed as an aspect, or at least  a precondition, of talking therapy.  For self psychologists and others who draw on Kohut’s insights, the ability to sympathize with the patient has given way to a higher-order ability to feel what the patient is feeling, to “feel with” the patient from the inside out.  And this process of empathic immersion, in turn, permits the therapist to “observe” the patient’s psychological interior and to comprehend the patient’s “complex mental states.”  For Kohut, the core of psychoanalysis, indeed of depth-psychology in general, was employment of this “empathic mode of observation,” an evocative but semantically questionable turn of phrase, given the visual referent of “observe,” which comes from the Latin observare (to watch over, to guard).   More counterintuitively still, he sought to cloak the empathic listening posture in scientific objectivism.  His writings refer over and over to the “data” that analysts acquire through their deployment of “scientific” empathy, i.e., through their empathic listening instrument.

I was Heinz Kohut’s personal editor from 1978 until his death in the fall of 1981.  Shortly after his death, I was given a dictated transcript from which I prepared his final book, How Does Analysis Cure?, for posthumous publication.  Throughout the 80s and into the 90s, I served as editor to many senior self psychologists, helping them frame their arguments about empathy and psychoanalytic method  and write their papers and books.  I grasped then, as I do now, the heuristic value of a stress on therapeutic empathy as a counterpoise to traditional notions of analytic neutrality, which gained expression, especially in the decades following World War II, in popular stereotypes of the tranquilly “analytic” analyst whose caring instincts were no match for his or her devotion to Freud’s rigid method.

The comparative perspective tempers bemusement at what would otherwise be a colossal conceit:  that psychoanalytic psychotherapists alone, by virtue of their training and work, acquire the ability to empathize with their patients.  I have yet to read an article or book that persuaded me that  empathy can be taught, or that the yield of therapeutic empathy is the apprehension of “complex psychological states” that are analogous to the “data” gathered and analyzed by bench scientists (Kohut’s own analogy).

I do believe that empathy can be cultivated, but only in those who are adequately empathic to begin with.  In medical, psychiatric, and psychotherapy training, one can present students with instances of patients clinically misunderstood and then suggest how one might have understood them better, i.e., more empathically.  Being exhorted by teachers to bracket one’s personal biases and predispositions in order to “hear” the patient with less adulterated ears is no doubt a good thing.  But it  assumes trainees can develop a psychological sensibility through force of injunction, which runs something like:  “Stop listening through the filter of your personal biases and theoretical preconceptions!  Listen to what the patient herself  is saying in her voice!  Utilize what you understand of yourself, viz., the hard-won fruits of your own psychotherapy (or training analysis), to put yourself in her place!  Make trial identifications so that her story and her predicament resonate with aspects of your story and your predicament; this will help you feel your way into her inner world.”

At a less hortatory level, one can provide trainees with teachers and supervisors who are sensitive, receptive listeners themselves and thus “skilled” at what self psychologists like to refer to as “empathic attunement.”  When students listen to such instructors and perhaps observe them working with patients, they may learn to appreciate the importance of empathic listening and then, in their own work, reflect more ongoingly on what their patients are saying and on how they are hearing them say it.  They acquire the ability for “reflection-in-action,” which Donald Schön, in two underappreciated books of the 1980s, made central to the work of “reflective professionals” in a number of fields, psychotherapy among them.[1]  To a certain extent, systematic reflection in the service of empathy may help therapists be more empathic in general.

But then the same may be said of any person who undergoes a transformative life experience (even, say, a successful therapy) in which he learns to understand differently – and less tendentiously – parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, colleagues, and the like.  Life-changing events  — fighting in  wars, losing loved ones, being victimized by natural disasters, living in third-world countries, providing aid to trauma victims – cause some people to recalibrate values and priorities and adopt new goals.  Such decentering can mobilize an empathic sensibility, so that individuals return to their everyday worlds with less self-centered ways of perceiving and being with others.

There is nothing privileged about psychotherapy training in acquiring an empathic sensibility.  I once asked a senior self psychologist what exactly differentiated psychoanalytic empathy from empathy in its everyday sense.  He thought for a moment and replied that in psychoanalysis, one deploys “sustained” empathy.  What, pray tell, does this mean, beyond denoting the fact that psychoanalysts, whether or not empathic, listen to patients for a living, and the units of such listening are typically 45-minute sessions.  Maybe he simply meant that, in the nature of things, analysts must try to listen empathically for longer periods of time, and prolongation  conduces to empathic competence.

Well, anything’s possible, I suppose.  But the fact remains that some people are born empathizers and others not.  Over the course of a 27-year career in psychoanalytic and psychiatric publishing, I worked with a great many analysts and therapists who struck me as unempathic, sometimes stunningly unempathic.  And those who struck me as empathic were not aligned with any particular school of thought, certainly not one that, like self psychology, privileges empathy.

Nor is it self-evident  that the empathy-promoting circumstances of psychotherapy are greater than the circumstances faced day-in and day-out by any number of physicians. Consider adult and pediatric oncologists, transplant surgeons, and internists and gerontologists who specialize in palliative care.  These physicians deal with patients (and their parents and children) in extremis; surely their work should elicit “sustained empathy,” assuming they begin with an empathic endowment strong enough to cordon off the miasma of uncertainty, dread, and imminent loss that envelops them on daily rounds.  Consider at the other end of the medical spectrum those remaining family doctors  who, typically in rural settings, provide intergenerational, multispecialty care and continue to treat patients in their homes .  The nature of their work makes it difficult for them not to observe and comprehend their patients’ complex biopsychosocial states; there are extraordinary empathizers among them.

When it comes to techniques for heightening empathy, physicians have certain advantages over psychotherapists, since their patients present with bodily symptoms and receive bodily (often procedural) interventions, both of which have a mimetic potential beyond “listening” one’s way into another’s inner world.  There is more to say about the grounds of medical empathy, but let me close here with a concrete illustration of such empathy in the making.

William Stevenson Baer graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical College in 1898 and stayed on at Hopkins as an intern and then assistant resident in William Halsted’s dauntingly rigorous surgical training program.  In June, 1900, at the suggestion of Baer’s immediate supervisor, Harvey Cushing, Halsted asked Baer to establish an orthopedic outpatient clinic at Hopkins the following fall.  With no grounding in the specialty, Baer readied himself for his new task by spending the ensuing summer at the orthopedic services of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Children’s Hospital.  At both institutions, many children in the orthopedic ward had to wear plaster casts throughout the hot summer months.  On arrival, Baer’s first order of business was to alter his life circumstances in order to promote empathy with, and win the trust of, these young patients.  To wit, he had himself fitted for a body cast that he wore the entire summer.  His sole object, according to his Hopkins colleague Samuel Crowe, was “to gain the children’s confidence by showing them that he too was enduring the same discomfort.”[2]

Psychotherapists are generally satisfied that empathy can be acquired in the manner of a thought experiment.  “Bracket your biases and assumptions,” they admonish, “empty yourself of ‘content,’ and then, through a process of imaginative identification, you will be able to hear what your patient is saying and feel what she is feeling.”  Baer’s example reminds us that illness and treatment are first and foremost bodily experiences, and that “feeling into another” – the literal meaning of the German Einfühlung, which we translate as “empathy” – does not begin and end with concordant memories amplified by psychological imagination.[3]  In medicine, there is an irremediably visceral dimension to empathy, and we shall consider it further in the next posting.


[1] Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (NY: Basic Books, 1983); Donald A. Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

[2] Samuel James Crowe, Halsted of Johns Hopkins: The Man and His Men (Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1957), pp. 130-31.

[3] The imaginative  component of empathy, which is more relevant to its function in psychotherapy than in medicine, is especially stressed by Alfred Margulies, “Toward Empathy: The Uses of Wonder,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 141:1025-1033, 1984.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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.  Photo copyright © 2011  by Michael D. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (IV)

If it is little known in medical circles that World War II “made” American psychiatry, it is even less well known that the war made psychiatry an integral part of general medicine in the postwar decades.  Under the leadership of the psychoanalyst (and as of the war, Brigadier General) William Menninger, Director of Neuropsychiatry in the Office of the Surgeon General, psychoanalytic psychiatry guided the armed forces in tending to soldiers who succumbed to combat fatigue, aka war neuroses, and getting some 60% of them back to their units in record time.   But it did so less because of the relatively small number of trained psychiatrists available to the armed forces than through the efforts of the General Medical Officers (GMOs), the psychiatric foot soldiers of the war.  These GPs, with at most three months of psychiatric training under military auspices, made up 1,600 of the Army’s  2,400-member neuropsychiatry service (Am. J. Psychiatry., 103:580, 1946).

The GPs carried the psychiatric load, and by all accounts they did a remarkable job.  Of course, it was the psychoanalytic brass – William and Karl Menninger, Roy Grinker, John Appel, Henry Brosin, Franklin Ebaugh, and others – who wrote the papers and books celebrating psychiatry’s service to the nation at war.  But they all knew that the GPs were the real heroes.  John Milne Murray, the Army Air Force’s chief neuropsychiatrist, lauded them as the “junior psychiatrists” whose training had been entirely “on the job” and whose ranks were destined to swell under the VA program of postwar psychiatric care (Am. J. Psychiatry, 103:594, 1947).

The splendid work of the GMOs encouraged expectations that they would help shoulder the nation’s psychiatric burden after the war. The psychiatrist-psychoanalyst Roy Grinker, coauthor with John Spiegel of the war’s enduring  contribution to military psychiatry, Men Under Stress (1945), was under no illusion about the ability of trained psychiatrists to cope with the influx of returning GIs, a great many “angry, regressed, anxiety-ridden, dependent men” among them (Men Under Stress, p. 450).  “We shall never have enough psychiatrists to treat all the psychosomatic problems,” he remarked in 1946, when the American Psychiatric Association boasted all of 4,000 members.  And he continued:  “Until sufficient psychiatrists are produced and more internists and practitioners make time available for the treatment of psychosomatic syndromes, we must use heroic shortcuts in therapy which can be applied by all medical men with little special training” (Psychosom. Med., 9:100-101, 1947).

Grinker was seconded by none other than William Menninger, who remarked after the war that “the majority of minor psychiatry will be practiced by the general physician and the specialists in other fields” (Am. J. Psychiatry, 103:584, 1947).  As to the ability of stateside GPs to manage the “neurotic” veterans, Lauren Smith, Psychiatrist-in-Chief to the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital prior to assuming his wartime duties, offered a vote of confidence two years earlier.  The majority of returning veterans would “present” with psychoneuroses rather than major psychiatric illness, and most of them “can be treated successfully by the physician in general practice if he is practical in being sympathetic and understanding, especially if his knowledge of psychiatric concepts is improved and formalized by even a minimum of reading in today’s psychiatric literature”  (JAMA, 129:192, 1945).

These appraisals, enlarged by the Freudian sensibility that saturated popular American culture in the postwar years, led to the psychiatrization of American general practice in the 1950s and 60s.  Just as the GMOs had been the foot soldiers in the campaign to manage combat stress, so GPs of the postwar years were expected to lead the charge against the ever growing number of “functional illnesses” presented by their patients (JAMA, 152:1192, 1953; JAMA, 156:585, 1954).  Surely these patients were not all destined for the analyst’s couch.  And in truth they were usually better off in the hands of their GPs, a point underscored by Robert Needles in his address to the AMA’s Section on General Practice in June of 1954.  When it came to functional and nervous illnesses, Needles lectured, “The careful physician, using time, tact, and technical aids, and teaching the patient the signs and meanings of his symptoms, probably does the most satisfactory job” (JAMA, 156:586, 1954).

Many generalists of the time, my father, William Stepansky, among them, practiced psychiatry.  Indeed they viewed psychiatry, which in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s typically meant psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy, as intrinsic to their work.  My father counseled patients from the time he set out his shingle in 1953.  Well-read in the psychiatric literature of his time and additionally interested in psychopharmacology, he supplemented medical school and internship with basic and advanced-level graduate courses on psychodynamics in medical practice.  Appointed staff research clinician at McNeal Laboratories in 1959, he conducted and published  (Cur. Ther. Res. Clin. Exp., 2:144, 1960) clinical research on McNeal’s valmethamide, an early anti-anxiety agent.  Beginning in the 1960s, he attended case conferences at Norristown State Hospital (in exchange for which he gave his services, gratis, as a medical consultant).  And he participated in clinical drug trials as a member of the Psychopharmacology Research Unit of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, sharing authorship of several publications that came out of the unit.  In The Last Family Doctor, my tribute to him and his cohort of postwar GPs, I wrote:

“The constraints of my father’s practice make it impossible for him to provide more than supportive care, but it is expert support framed by deep psychodynamic understanding and no less valuable to his patients owing to the relative brevity of 30-minute ‘double’ sessions.  Saturday mornings and early afternoons, when his patients are not at work, are especially reserved for psychotherapy.  Often, as well , the last appointment on weekday evenings is given to a patient who needs to talk to him.  He counsels many married couples having difficulties.  Sometimes he sees the husband and wife individually; sometimes he seems them together in couples therapy.  He counsels the occasional alcoholic who comes to him.  He is there for whoever seeks his counsel, and a considerable amount of his counseling, I learn from [his nurse] Connie Fretz, is provided gratis.”

To be sure, this was family medicine of a different era.  Today primary care physicians (PCPs) lack the motivation, not to mention the time, to become frontline psychotherapists.  Nor would their credentialing organizations (or their accountants) look kindly on scheduling double-sessions for office psychotherapy and then billing the patient for a simple office visit.  The time constraints under which PCPs typically operate, the pressing need to maintain practice “flow” in a climate of regulation, third-party mediation, and bureaucratic excrescences of all sorts – these things make it more and more difficult for physicians to summon the patience to take in, much less to co-construct and/or psychotherapeutically reconfigure, their patients’ illness narratives.

But this is largely beside the point.  Contemporary primary care medicine, in lockstep with psychiatry, has veered away from psychodynamically informed history-taking and office psychotherapy altogether.  For PCPs and nonanalytic psychiatrists alike – and certainly there are exceptions – the postwar generation’s mandate to practice “minor psychiatry,” which included an array of supportive, psychoeducative, and psychodynamic interventions, has effectively shrunk to the simple act of prescribing psychotropic medication.

At most, PCPs may aspire to become, in the words of Howard Brody, “narrative physicians” able to empathize with their patients and embrace a “compassionate vulnerability” toward their suffering.  But even this has become a difficult feat.  Brody, a family physician and bioethicist, remarks that respectful attentiveness to the patient’s own story or “illness narrative” represents a sincere attempt “to develop over time into a certain sort of person – a healing sort of person – for whom the primary focus of attention is outward, toward the experience and suffering of the patient, and not inward, toward the physician’s own preconceived agenda” (Lit. & Med., 13:88, 1994; my emphasis).  The attempt is no less praiseworthy than the goal.  But where, pray tell, does the time come from?  The problem, or better, the problematic, has to do with the driven structure of contemporary primary care, which makes it harder and harder for physicians to enter into a world of open-ended storytelling that over time provides entry to the patient’s psychological and psychosocial worlds.

Whether or not most PCPs even want to know their patients in psychosocially (much less psychodynamically) salient ways is an open question.  Back in the early 90s, primary care educators recommended special training in “psychosocial skills” in an effort to remedy the disinclination of primary care residents to address the psychosocial aspects of medical care.  Survey research of the time showed that most residents not only devalued psychosocial care, but also doubted their competence to provide it (J. Gen. Int. Med., 7:26, 1992; Acad. Med., 69:48, 1994).

Perhaps things have improved a bit since then with the infusion of courses in the medical humanities into some medical school curricula and focal training in “patient and relationship-centered medicine” in certain residency programs.   But if narrative listening and relationship-centered practice are to be more than academic exercises, they must be undergirded by a clinical identity in which relational knowing is constitutive, not superadded in the manner of an elective.  Psychodynamic psychiatry was such a constituent in the general medicine that emerged after World War II.  If it has become largely irrelevant to contemporary primary care, what can take its place?  Are there other pathways through which PCPs, even within the structural constraints of contemporary practice, may enter into their patients’ stories?

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

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (III)

“The good physician knows his patients through and through, and his knowledge is bought dearly.  Time, sympathy and understanding must be lavishly dispensed, but the reward is to be found in that personal bond which forms the greatest satisfaction of the practice of medicine.  One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”

— Francis W. Peabody, M.D., “The Care of the Patient” (1927)

Beginning in the 1980s, primary care educators, concerned that newly trained family physicians, freighted with technology and adrift in protocols, lacked people skills, resuscitated an expression coined by the British psychoanalyst Enid Balint in 1969.  They began promoting “patient-centered medicine,” which, according to Balint’s stunning insight, called on the physician to understand the patient “as a unique human being” (J. Roy. Coll. Gen. Practit., 17:269, 1969).  More recently, patient-centered medicine has evolved into “relationship-centered care” (or “patient and relationship-centered care” [PRCC]) that not only delineates  the relational matrix in which care is  provided but also extols the “moral value” of cultivating doctor-patient relationships that transcend the realm of the biomedical.  In language that could just as well come from a primer of relational psychotherapy, these educators enjoin clinicians to embrace the clinician-patient relationship as “the unique product of its participants and its context,” to “remain aware of their own emotions, reactions, and biases,” to move from detached concern to emotional engagement and empathy, and to embrace the reciprocal nature of doctor-patient interactions.  According to this latter, the clinical goal of restoring and maintaining health must still “allow[ing] a patient to have an impact on the clinician” in order “to honor that patient and his or her experience” (J. Gen. Int. Med., 21:S4, 2006).

Recent literature on relationship-centered care evinces an unsettling didacticism about the human dimension of effective doctoring.  It is as if medical students and residents not only fail to receive training in communication skills but fail equally to comprehend that medical practice will actually oblige them to comfort anxious and confused human beings.  So educators present them with “models” and “frameworks” for learning how to communicate effectively.  Painfully commonsensical “core skills” for delivering quality health care are enumerated over and over.  The creation and maintenance of an “effective” doctor-patient relationship becomes a “task” associated with a discrete skill set (e.g.,  listening skills, effective nonverbal communication, respect, empathy).  A recent piece on “advanced” communication strategies for relationship-centered care in pediatrics reminds pediatricians that “Most patients prefer information and discussion, and some prefer mutual or joint decisions,” and this proviso leads to the formulation of a typical advanced-level injunction:  “Share diagnostic and treatment information with kindness, and use words that are easy for the child and family to understand” (Pediatr. Ann., 4:450, 2011).

Other writers shift the relational burden away from caring entirely and move to terrain with which residents and practitioners are bound to be more comfortable.  Thus, we read of  how electronic health records (EHRs) can be integrated into a relational style of practice (Fam. Med., 42:364, 2010) and of how “interprofessional collaboration” between physicians and alternative/complementary providers can profit from “constructs” borrowed from the “model” of relationship-centered care (J. Interprof. Care., 25:125, 2011).  More dauntingly still, we learn of how  relational theory may be applied to the successful operation of primary care practices, where the latter are seen as “complex adaptive systems”  in need of strategies for organizational learning borrowed from complexity theory (Ann. Fam. Med., 8S:S72, 2010).

There is the sense that true doctoring skills (really the human aptitude and desire to doctor) are so ancillary to contemporary practice that their cultivation must be justified in statistical terms.  Journal readers continue to be reminded of studies from the 1990s that suggest an association between physicianly caring and the effectiveness and appropriateness of care, the latter measured by efficiency, diagnostic accuracy, patient adherence, patient satisfaction, and the like (Pediatr. Ann., 40:452, 2011; J. Gen Intern. Med., 6:420, 1991; JAMA, 266:1931, 1991).  And, mirabile dictu, researchers have found that physicians who permit patients to complete a “statement of concerns” report their patients’ problems more accurately than those who do not; indeed, failure to solicit the patient’s agenda correlates with a 24% reduction in physician understanding (J. Gen. Int. Med., 20:267, 2005).

The problem, as I observed in The Last Family Doctor, is that contemporary medical students are rarely drawn to general medicine as a calling and, even if they are, the highly regulated, multispecialty structure of American (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Canadian) medicine militates against their ability to live out the calling.  So they lack the aptitude and desire to be primary caregivers – which is not the same as being primary care physicians – that was an apriori among GPs of the post-WWII generation and their predecessors.  Primary care educators compensate by endeavoring to codify the art of humane caregiving that has traditionally been associated with the generalist calling – whether or not students and residents actually feel called.  My father would probably have appreciated the need for a teachable model of relationship-centered care, but he would also have viewed it as a sadly remedial attempt to transform individuals with medical training into physicians.  Gifted generalists of his generation did not require instruction on the role of the doctor-patient relationship in medical caregiving.  “Patient and relationship-centered care” was intrinsic to their doctoring; it did not fall back on a skill set to be acquired over time.

The PRCC model, however useful in jump-starting an arrested doctoring sensibility, pales alongside the writings of the great physician-educators of the early twentieth century who lived out values that contemporary educators try to parse into teachable precepts.  For medical students and primary care residents, I say, put aside the PRCC literature and introduce them ab initio to writings that lay bare what Sherwin Nuland terms “the soul of medicine.”  I find nothing of practical significance in the PRCC literature that was not said many decades ago – and far more tellingly and eloquently – by Francis W. Peabody in “The Care of the Patient” (JAMA, 88:877, 1927), L. J. Henderson in “Physician and Patient as a Social System (NEJM, 212:819, 1935), W. R. Houston in “The Doctor Himself as a Therapeutic Agent” (Ann. Int. Med., 11:1416, 1939), and especially William Osler in the addresses gathered together in the volume Aequanimitas (1904).  Supplement these classic readings with a healthy dose of Oliver Sacks and Richard Selzer and top them off with patient narratives that underscore the terrible cost of physicians’ failing to communicate with patients as people (such as Sacks’s own A Leg to Stand On [1984] and David Newman’s powerful and troubling Talking with Doctors [2011]), and you will have done more to instill the principles of patient and relationship-centered care than all the models, frameworks, algorithms, communicational strategies, and measures of patient satisfaction under the sun.

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

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.

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (I)

Can contemporary primary care physicians, or PCPs, actually be family physicians in the strong, traditional sense of the term? I’m referring not to scope of practice per se but to something  more subjective and tenuous: the quality of caring.

Among the generation of American GPs who trained during and immediately after World War II, the quality of caring was anchored in hands-on doctoring: it was instrumental and procedural. The family doctor was a good listener and explainer, but he or she listened and explained preparatory to doing things to the patient, to “doctoring” the patient’s body.  In The Last Family Doctor, my tribute to my father’s medicine and the medicine of his cohort of postwar American GPs, I underscore the manual aspect of their doctoring. From the late 40s through the 70s, American GPs not only prescribed, ordered tests, and referred; they doctored through a laying on of hands (with all that entails). To be sure, there were far fewer procedures than today, and even specialty procedures were far less enmeshed in exotic technology.  For this very reason, a highly motivated family doctor – a family doctor who, like my father, was both academically oriented and mechanically gifted – could acquire broad procedural competence across a range of specialties simply by reading the journal literature, taking postgraduate courses, and receiving hands-on instruction by surgical specialists on various office-based interventions.

Consider office surgery. When I ask my family physician and others I have met whether or not they do office surgery, they typically evince mild chagrin and reply to this effect: “Only if I have to. It really messes up office hours.” My father’s medicine was different. He learned surgery as a surgical tech on the battlefields of France and Germany; during his rotating internship at a small community hospital in southeastern Pennsylvania; through a post-internship mentorship with a local surgeon; and then during a year-long course on minor surgery at Philadelphia’s Einstein Medical Center in the late 1950s. He did all kinds of office surgery – and he enjoyed doing it. Like countless GPs in agricultural communities of the time, he tended surgically to all manner of farm-equipment wounds. He reattached the first joint of countless fingers and toes. He was skilled at performing nerve blocks. He did successful skin grafts. This was rural general practice in the 50s and 60s. The caring of a family doctor who actually doctors – who treats you and, where possible, fixes you – is different from the caring of a family doctor who exams, prescribes, orders studies, manages risk factors, and coordinates multi-specialty care. In my father’s day, patients felt well cared for; today, more often than not, they feel well managed.

I am not suggesting for an instant that contemporary PCPs do not care about their patients. Of course they do. But fewer and fewer procedural tributaries flow into their caring. Increasingly their training – and the caring it sustains – is cordoned off from the laying on of hands in medically salient ways. So we end up with PCPs who are touted as gatekeepers to the health care system; as “a kind of case manager” or “central coordinators of care” (Acad. Med., 77:2002, p. 771); and, more grandiloquently still, as “an essential hub in the network formed by patients, health care organizations, and communities” (Ann. Int. Med., 142:2005, p. 695). Hmm.

Empirical research suggests that the majority of patients (90% by one account) continue to have trusting relationships with their doctors, and that trust is the “basic driver” of patient satisfaction (Med. Care, 37:510, 1999; Milbank Q., 79:631, 2001).  Patients who trust their doctors tend to have less treatment anxiety and greater pain tolerance (Sci. & Med., 13A:81, 1979); they are more likely over time to be satisfied with the care they receive.  But there are different kinds of trust.  Can the trust associated with managing, coordinating, and being an “essential hub” approximate the trust that grew out of, and was sustained by, a range of doctoring activities – suturing, delivering babies, doing basic dermatology, gynecology, ENT, allergy testing and allergy treatment?

Trust that has bodily moorings tends to be deeper and more sustaining than the disembodied trust of care coordinators, just like the most vital and enduring of the metaphors that enter into our everyday speech  – the “metaphors we live by,” to borrow the title of a classic book by the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – tend to be rooted in phenomena and relationships in the physical environment. When it came to forging trusting bonds with their patients, my father’s medicine – which lives on among American and Canadian family physicians trained to care for rural and/or underserved populations – had a leg up (indeed, an entire torso up) on contemporary primary care providers. They doctored from infancy onward and from the body outward, so their patients were left not only with the knowledge of being well managed but with the feeling of being well cared for.

Contemporary providers cannot care in the manner of my father’s generation, for their caring is legally, procedurally, and educationally constrained in ways that were alien to GPs of the mid-twentieth cenury.  Like all physicians, PCPs are subject to clinical practice guidelines, treatment eligibility criteria, and reimbursement schedules. Now insurance carriers, relying on credentialing organizations, effectively determine the range of procedures and interventions a given doctor may employ. So in most American and Canadian locales, contemporary PCPs differ from family doctors of my father’s generation because third-parties largely determine the kind of medicine they may even aspire to practice.

These claims admit important exceptions, and we shall discuss them in future blogs. There are PCPs trained to serve rural communities: graduates of Jefferson Medical College’s Physician Shortage Area Program; the University Minnesota School of Medicine’s Rural Physician Associate Program; and the Maine-Dartmouth family medicine residency who work out of Augusta’s Family Medicine Institute.

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