Category Archives: Primary Care

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (IV)

“Mustard gas burns.  Terrific suffering.”

 [The fourth of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

Now, sadly, chemical weapons are back in the news.  But large-scale chemical warfare  reaches back over a century.   In WWI, Germany released 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas across a four-mile stretch of no-man’s-land into the Allied lines during the Second Battle of Ypres in April, 1915. Thus the birth of chemical warfare.  Britain replied in kind, releasing cylinders of chlorine gas during the Battle of Loos the following summer, and  Germany upped the horror in July, 1917, delivering artillery shells filled with dichlor-ethyl-sulphide or “mustard gas” just prior to the Third Battle of Ypres.

Chlorine gas attacked the airways.  Severe respiratory swelling and inflammation killed many instantly and the rest struggled to nearby casualty clearing stations with acute congestion of the lungs, pneumonia, and blindness.  Soldiers who had inhaled the most gas arrived  with heavy discharge of a frothy yellow fluid from their noses and mouths as they drowned in their own secretions.  For the rest, partial suffocation persisted for days, and long-term survivors had permanent lung damage, chronic bronchitis, and occasionally heart failure.  Mustard gas burned the skin and respiratory tract, stripping the mucous membrane off the bronchial tubes and causing violent inflammation of the eyes.  Victims were left in excruciating pain and utterly helpless.[1]

Nurses, no less than physicians, were initially confused about the nature of the gas and the severity of its effects.[2]  But they quickly came up to speed and realized that soldiers suffering from poison gas posed a nursing challenge no less formidable than those dying from gangrenous wounds.  Nurses were accustomed to losing patients, but not to being powerless to provide comfort care, to  ease  patients’ agony during their final days.  How to nurse on when nursing was unavailing, when the burns were so terrible that “nothing seems to give relief”?[3]

WWI nurses in gas masks treat soldiers after a gas attack

Of course, nurses did what little they could.  Inflamed eyes were repeatedly irrigated with alkaline solution.  Respirators soaked in hyposulphate could be provided to patients able to use them.  At American Base Hospital 32, soldiers who had breathed in mustard gas were given a mixture of guiacol, camphor, menthol, oil of thyme, and eucalyptus that caused them to expectorate inflammatory material.   According to Maude Essig, an American Red Cross Nurse who worked at the hospital, the nurses helped devise it.[4]

According to Essig, the mixture provided some temporary relief to soldiers with burning throats and mouths.  But nurses otherwise echoed a shared sense of impotence when it came to making gassed patients comfortable.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, when chlorine gas was first used by the Germans, Canadian nurse Agnes Warner recalled the initial wave of gassed troops:  “There they lay, fully sensible, choking, suffocating, dying in horrible agonies.  We did what we could, but the best treatment for such cases had yet to be discovered, and we felt almost powerless.”[5]   Shirley Millard was graphic in describing the severe burn patients who rendered nursing futile.  “Gas cases are terrible,” she wrote at war’s end in November, 1918.

They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up.  They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done . . . their lungs are gone . . . literally burnt out.  Some with their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by the gas, and bodies covered with first degree burns.  We try to relieve them by pouring oil on them.  They cannot be bandaged or even touched.[6]

Whereas soldiers with even the worst of battlefield wounds usually did not complain,  the gas cases “invariably are beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.” Millard’s judgment was affirmed by many others.  Maude Essig wrote of a “star patient,” one Leo Moquinn, who “was terribly burned with mustard gas while carrying a pal of his three-quarters of a mile to safety after the gas attack.  Except for his back, she added, his “entire body is one third-degree burn.  He cannot see and has  developed pneumonia and he is delirious.”[7]  Such were the burn patients.

Essig’s reference to pneumonia alludes to the multitude of infectious diseases that accompanied battlefield wounds and complicated (or prevented) recovery. Pneumonia could be rampant during winter months; gangrene and tetanus were prevalent year round.  Typhoid was partially  controlled by the antityphoid serum injections troops received, usually prior to disembarkation but otherwise in the reception huts of clearing stations and field hospitals. But bronchitis, trench fever, diphtheria, cholera, dysentery, meningitis, measles, mumps, erysipelas,[8] and, finally, influenza, were not.  Nurses recorded deaths resulting from various combinations of the foregoing, such as Edith Appleton’s “poor little boy, Kerr,” who died of gas, pneumonia, and bronchitis.[9]

Infected shrapnel and gunshot wounds could be irrigated or bathed continuously in antiseptics, first developed in the 1870s and packed in sterile dressings available in sealed paper packages since 1893.[10]  But in the preantibiotic era, nursing care of systemic infections was limited to the same palliatives we employ today:  rest, warmth, hydration, nutrition, aspirin (and, back then, quinine), all amplified by the nurse’s caring, maternal presence.

Trench foot, a combination of fungal infection, frostbite, and poor circulation, was endemic during the winter months, when soldiers lived in trenches flooded with icy water, often waist-high, for days on end.  They struggled into clearing stations with feet that were “hideously swollen and purple,” feet “that were “raw with broken blisters and were wrapped in muddy, dripping bandages.”[11] But trench feet, however disabling, at least  permitted more active measures.   In addition to giving morphine, there was a treatment protocol to follow, such as this one at a British Military Hospital in the winter of 1917:

We had to rub their feet every morning and every evening with warm olive oil for about a quarter of an hour or so, massage it well in and wrap their feet in cotton wool and oiled silk – all sorts of  things just to keep them warm – and then we put big fisherman’s socks on them.  Their feet were absolutely white, swollen up and dead.  Some of their toes dropped off with it, and their feet looked dreadful.  We would say, ‘I’ll stick a pin in you.  Can you feel it?”  Whenever they did feel the pin-prick we knew that life was coming back, and then we’d see a little bit of pink come up and everybody in the ward would cheer.”[12]

It is the dizzying  confluence of multiple battlefield injuries, many gangrenous, with the effects of poison gas and intercurrent infectious diseases that threatened to, and occasionally did,  overwhelm the WWI nurses.  Reading their diaries and memoirs, one sees time and again how the nurses’ calling, amplified by the camaraderie of other nurses, surgeons, and orderlies who felt similarly called, overpowered resignation and despair.  In a diary entry of September 14, 1916,  Kate Luard referred to the “very special nursing” required by soldiers with multiple severe injuries.  She had in mind

The man with two broken arms has also a wound in the knee – joint in a splint – and has had his left eye removed today.  He is nearly crazy.  Another man has compound fractures of both legs, one arm, and head, and is quite sensible.  Another has both legs amputated, and a compound fracture of [the] arm.  These people – as you may imagine – need very special nursing.[13]

If one adds to such clusters the serious general infections that often accompanied battlefield injuries, one has some sense of what nurses were up against, and just how special their nursing had to be.   When influenza, the deadly Spanish flu, began to swamp clearing stations and hospitals in the spring of 1918, nurses simply added it to the list of challenges to be met with the resources at hand. And they did so in the knowledge that as many as half of the infected would die.[14]  Beatrice Hopkinson, a British auxiliary nurse, recorded the new protocol developed at her General Hospital in St. Omer to meet the rush of influenza patients:

During those early days of the flu the treatment was to strip the patients in one tent, their clothing going immediately to the fumigator.  Then, the patient was bathed in disinfectant and taken to the different wards.  Some of the patients were very ill and died with pneumonia after a few days.[15]

The early days of the pandemic gave way to the later days, and after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, nurses occasionally felt boredom, even mild malaise, when the demands of “special nursing” relented and they increasingly found themselves nursing “mostly mild influenza cases.”[16]

I admire the nurses of WWI because they did what was required of them absent any preexisting sense of what they could be required to do, absent, that is,  anything approaching a  “job description.” Without medical residents, internists, and infectious disease specialists to fall back on, they collapsed specialism into global care-giving identities.  This meant they managed multiple war wounds and  intercurrent infections, prioritizing among them and continuously adjusting treatment goals in the manner of highly skilled primary care physicians.  By the same token, they realized the importance of compassion in the face of ameliorative impotence.  Somehow they found  time to be present, to slip into a ward with a soldier dying of gas gangrene every few minutes “to do something perfectly useless that might perhaps give a ray of comfort.”[17]

Ironically, given the environment in which they labored and their “patient population” of soldiers in extremis, the nurses embodied the values of primary care medicine, since they took upon themselves the role of primary caregivers obligated to stay with their patients through thick and thin, to summon senior colleagues and surgeons as needed, and to ease life transitions, whether to recovery,  convalescence, lifelong disability, or death.[18]   And they did so whatever the weight of multiple assaults on their own bodily and mental integrity.

Nurses, technically noncombatants, suffered alongside the troops.  During rushes, their clearing stations, hospitals, and living quarters were under land and air assault and occasionally took direct hits.  They contracted infectious diseases, especially flu,[19] during which they usually carried on with the aid of simple analgesics until they felt better or worse.  When Helen Boylston became feverish in November, 1918, a symptom she attributed to diphtheria, she braced herself for a long-awaited evening dance with “quantities of quinine and finally a stiff dose of whiskey, and I felt ready for anything.” But not ready enough, it turned out.  She collapsed at the dance with a bad chill and had to be carried to her bed.  When she went on duty the following day, she became delirious in the ward and was lugged off by an orderly and subsequently seen by a doctor. “So here I am,” she wrote in her diary.  “I’ve developed a heart and a liver, and am as yellow as a cow-lily.  I have to lie flat on my back and be fed.  For three days I lay motionless all day long, not caring to move or to speak, I was so tired.”  Boylston was soon joined by a second nurse with diphtheria, placing the camp “in a panic,” with every staff member now given daily throat cultures.[20]

Despite training in the use of gas masks in the event of direct shelling, mask-less nurses suffered the effects of poison gas from daily proximity to patients on whom the shells had landed.  Their own vulnerability to gas attack and attenuated exposure to the poison lent special intensity to their care of burn victims.  They understood, with Maude Essig, that mustard gas burns indeed meant “terrific suffering.”[21]  Whether infected or poisoned, they usually labored on until they collapsed or were so near collapse that medical colleagues ordered them out of the wards, whether to bed, to a general hospital for treatment, or to a nearby convalescent homes for recuperation and a desperately needed “time out.”[22]

Civil War nurses too eased transitions to death, but their nursing goal during a soldier’s final days was to reconfigure mortal battlefield injury into the promise of a beneficent afterlife.   So they stayed with the dying, soliciting final confessions of sinful living, allowing soldiers to reminisce and reflect, and soliciting (and writing down) words of comfort  to sustain family members in believing that their soldier had died a “good death.”[23]  World War II, on the other hand, witnessed the development of new vaccines, a national blood bank program, the widespread availability of sulfa drugs in 1941 and penicillin in 1944, major advances in the control of shock and bleeding and in battlefield surgery, and much greater speed of evacuation of the seriously wounded to European and stateside base hospitals.  Taken together these advances created a buffer between nurses and the prolonged witnessing  of soldiers dying in unrelievable pain.

It was the nurses of WWI who took it on the chin.  They could not sustain themselves and their patients with the naturalistic view of the afterlife popular during the Civil War.[24]  Nor did they have the benefit of more “modern” technology and organization to shield them, if only somewhat, from the experiential onslaught of  dying soldiers.   It was not death per se but the agony of dying – from infected battle wounds and/or systemic infections,  gas gangrene, chlorine and mustard gas,  rushed amputations followed by reinfection and blood loss –  that took them to their own existential no-man’s-land, the kind we encounter in the writings of Mary Borden and Ellen LaMotte.

In the summer of 1917, the nurses at No. 12 General Hospital on the outskirts of Rouen struggled with a gas victim whose paroxysms of coughing came every minute and a half “by the clock,” and who had not slept in four days.  To quiet him, they rigged up a croup tent under which they took turns holding a small stove that heated a croup kettle from which the soldier could breathe the steam.  When sleep finally came, they were “ready to get down on their knees in gratitude, his anguish had been so terrible to watch.”  To their head nurse, Julia Stimson, they remarked that “they could not wish the Germans any greater unhappiness than to have them have to witness the sufferings of a man like that and know that they had been the cause of it.”[25]

It was bearing witness to unrelievable suffering that was the worst assault borne by the nurses.  “It is dreadful to be impotent, to stand by grievously stricken men it is impossible to help, to see the death-sweat gathering on young faces, to have no means of easing their last moments.  This is the nearest to Hell I have yet been.”  This is the voice of an anonymous British Red Cross nurse, unsettled by the dying Belgium soldiers she encountered on ambulance runs in the fields of West Flanders in the winter of 1915.  The American nurses at No. 12 General Hospital brushed up against this same hell, and they could think of no greater punishment for enemy combatants than to witness what they witnessed, often for weeks on end.  And yet the nurses of WWI were not stymied by seeming impotence in the face of pain.  They labored on to the breaking point in the service of soldiers who, all too often, were already broken.  This makes them warriors of care and, in a devotion to patients that was literally and not metaphorically self-less, heroes of the first rank.

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[1] Christine E. Hallett, Veiled Warriors:  Allied Nurses of the First World War (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 79-80, 203.

[2] E.g., Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 80; John & Caroline Stevens, eds., Unknown Warriors:  The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918 (Stroud: History Press, 2014), loc 1945.

[3] Maude Frances Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam, 1917-1919:  How We Won World War I, unpublished journal written during the summer, 1919, entry of March 24, 1918.

[4] Agnes Warner, My Beloved Poilus’ (St. John: Barnes, 1917), loc 861.

[5] Warner, My Beloved Poilus’ , loc 814.

[6] Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections (New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro, 2011), loc 514.

[7] Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam,  entry of March 24, 1918.

[8] Erysipelas is an acute bacterial infection of the upper dermis, usually of the arms, legs, and/or face, that is accompanied by red swollen rashes.  Without antibiotic treatment, It can spread through the blood stream and cause sepsis.

[9] Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 111.

[10] Rodney D. Sinclair & Terence J. Ryan, “A Great War for Antiseptics,” Australas. J. Dermatol, 34:115-118, 1993.  These nineteenth-century antiseptics included salicylic, thymol, Eucalyptus oil, aluminum acetate, and boric acid.

[11] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Ives Washburn, 1927), loc 154.

[12] Kathleen Yarwood (VAD, Dearnley Military Hospital), in Lyn MacDonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land (London: Penguin, 1993 [1980]), 197-198.

[13] Luard, Letters, loc 1245.

[14] Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 472.

[15] Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1999.

[16] Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell, loc 2609.

[17] [Kate Norman Derr] “Mademoiselle Miss”: Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by Richard C. Cabot (Boston:  Butterfield, 1916), 76-77.

[18] For an exposition of these values and how they gained expression in American medicine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, extending through “general practice” of the 1950s and ’60s, see Paul E. Stepansky, In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016).

[19] “The flu is back again and everybody has it, including me.  I’ve run a temperature of one hundred and two for three days, can hardly breathe, and have to sleep on four pillows at night.” Boylston, Sister, loc 630.

[20] Boylston, Sister, loc 1350, 1357.

[21] Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam, entry of March 23, 1918.

[22] E.g., Luard, Letters, loc 1247:  “Sister D, the Mother of all the Abdominals, has her marching orders and goes down to Rouen to a General Hospital tomorrow.  Her loss is irreparable.”  Edith Appleton  recounts taking care of three sick nurses and a sick VAD at one time:  “I have begun to feel like a perpetual night nurse to the sick sisters as I have another one to look after tonight with an abscess in her ear”(A Nurse at the Front, p. 123).  Maude Essig contracted erysipelas in the spring of 1918 and reported feeling “awfully sick” the following fall, when she relied on “quinine and aspirin in large doses” to keep going (My Trip with Uncle Sam, entries of April 9, 1918, April 14, 1918, and October 27, 1918).

[23] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering:  Death and The American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2008), chapter 1.

[24] Faust, Republic of Suffering, pp. 178, 187.

[25] Stimson, Finding Themselves, pp. 80-81.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

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Patient Ratings and ER Burnout

[You can now preorder Dr. Stepansky’s new  book, In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care,** at Amazon.com]

The lot of ER physicians is not an easy one, and their tendency to early-career burnout, relative to physicians in other specialties, has been well documented over the past quarter century.  Surveys show that a majority of ER Docs (usually around 60%) report moderate to high degrees of burnout, of which feelings of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization along with a low sense of personal accomplishment are all components.[1]  In recent years their “burnout syndrome” has been aided and abetted by the unregulated patient ratings services that glut the internet.

How has this come about?  It results from the fact that salaried ER Docs working in hospital emergency rooms face a ratings-related predicament inapplicable to colleagues outside hospital walls.  To wit, the hospitals that employ and pay ER Docs  are now obligated to survey discharged patients on their hospital experience, and this includes patients discharged from hospital emergency rooms.  So ER Docs are  participants in a development that has come to embrace inpatient hospital care in general.  In the U.S., beginning in 2006, hospital patients have, on discharge, been asked to complete the 27-item “Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and System” (HCAHPS) survey, with the understanding that the survey was designed to provide data about patients’ perspectives on care that can be compared among hospitals and, in so doing, create incentives for hospitals to improve quality of care.[2]  For ER units, the American Board of Emergency Medicine’s Maintenance of Certification requirement of a “communication/professionalism activity” can become an additional circle of ratings hell.  It may include collection of patient feedback (e.g., Press-Ganey scores), and if the feedback is not sufficiently positive, the unit’s contract may be in jeopardy.[3]

More onerously still, a portion of ER Docs’ compensation may be tied to the “quality” of services they provide, with such quality linked to the patient ratings they receive.  This means that ER Docs are under mounting pressure to send happy ER patients off into the survey-ready night.  And happy ER patients, unsurprisingly, are those whose pain has been taken to heart, and whose ER Docs have ordered the studies and prescribed the meds the patients’ themselves know they require.

This development is not anecdotal and is borne out by recent surveys that attest to the tendency of ER Docs to overprescribe and order unnecessary studies in order to send happier patients out of ER rooms to the patient-satisfaction forms that await them.  And the tendency to give way to patient insistence on inappropriate care has been consequential:  it has led to dramatically inflated costs to Medicare among patients who make ER visits.  And here is the irony:  high patient satisfaction ratings by patients have not been shown to correlate with measurable indices of higher quality care.  A 2012 survey of 52,000 respondents to the national Medical Expenditure Panel Survey by researchers at the University of California, Davis, for example, showed that over a seven-year period (2000-2007) respondents in the highest patient satisfaction quartile not only spent more on prescription drugs, but were 12% more likely to be admitted to the hospital.  They also accounted for 9% more in total health care costs than survey respondents who did not give their providers such stellar ratings.[4]

For ER patients, especially, the kind of “patient satisfaction” associated with surveys is not the “satisfaction” associated with patient-centered care, much less long-term trusting relationships rooted in procedural and expressive touch.  Rather, it is a commodified, point-of-service satisfaction that revolves around pain management and brings in its wake another irony:  ER Docs reliant on happy patients who give them positive ratings are, to their own dismay, becoming less concerned with patients’ compliance with their medical directives (now “recommendations” or “suggestions”) than with their own compliance with their patients’ expectations.  And patients, in turn, increasingly rely more on met expectations than on objective medical outcomes in rating their doctors.

The predicament of ER Docs amplifies a general trend in primary care, where office visits are brief and pressure on clinicians to maximize “throughput” (i.e., to see as many patients as possible during office hours) is intense.  In doctors’ offices, as in emergency rooms, there is pressure to make patients happy by, for example, prescribing addictive opioids rather than taking the time to discuss alternative treatments.  So ER Docs and PCPs alike are in a tightening bind:  their desire to satisfy patients and avoid poor satisfaction scores may trump medical judgment, in which case they “may find themselves in the role of ‘customer service’ providers rather than medical professionals or healers.”[5]  Unsurprisingly, we have a new round of survey data on burnout syndrome that adds a new burnout factor to those documented in the 1990s:  the association between utilization of patient satisfaction surveys, on the one hand, and job dissatisfaction and attrition among physicians, especially ER and primary care physicians, on the other.[6]  An online survey of over 700 ER doctors reported in Emergency Physicians Monthly, for example,  found that 59% of the ER Docs admitted increasing the number of tests they ordered because of patient satisfaction surveys.  When the South Carolina Medical Association asked its members whether they ever ordered a test they felt was inappropriate because of such pressure, 55% said “yes,” and nearly half of the 131 respondents admitted improperly prescribing antibiotics and narcotics in direct response to patient satisfaction surveys.[7]

So let’s end this dismal reportage by noting a final unsettling irony.  We now face a veritable epidemic of opioid addiction for which the emergency room has become ground zero.  Between 2004 and 2011, visits to ERs for misuse or abuse of prescription opioids increased 153%.  And yet, at the very moment in history that the nation belatedly confronts this epidemic, with states, state-wide hospital organizations and, most recently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) all issuing restrictive guidelines for prescribing painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin,[8] we have ER Docs and their colleagues in primary care reaching for prescription pads in their quest for happy (or happy enough) patients who will give them a favorable nod and let them move on to the next patient.  These Docs are not overprescribing with reckless abandon.  Far from it.  The surveys all suggest they are miserable overprescribers boxed into a corner by throughput pressures  and the addictive quest for positive ratings.

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[1] K. L. Keller & H. J. Koenig, “Management of stress and prevention of burnout in emergency physicians,” Ann. Emerg. Med., 18:42-47, 1989; S. Lloyd, et al., “Burnout, depression, life and job satisfaction among Canadian emergency physicians,” J. Emerg. Med., 12:559-565, 1994; R. Goldberg, et al., “Burnout and its correlates in emergency physicians: four years’ experience with a wellness booth,” Acad. Emerg. Med., 3:1156-1164, 1996.

[2] See “The HCAHPS Survey – Frequently Asked Questions” (https://www.cms.gov/medicare/quality-initiatives-patient-assessment-instruments/hospitalqualityinits/downloads/hospitalhcahpsfactsheet201007.pdf).

[3] E. Schwarz, “The CDC Weighs In With Opioid Prescribing Guidelines,” Emergency Physicians Monthly, March 30, 2016 (http://epmonthly.com/article/the-cdc-weighs-in-with-opioid-prescribing-guidelines/).

[4] J. J. Fenton, et al., “The Cost of Satisfaction:  A National Study of Patient Satisfaction, Health Care Utilization, Expenditures, and Mortality,” Arch. Intern. Med., 172:405-411, 2012.

[5] J. T. Chang, et al., “Patients’ global ratings of their health care are not associated with the technical quality of their care,”  Ann. Intern. Med., 144:665-672, 2006; D. S. Lee, et al., “Patient satisfaction and its relationship with quality and outcomes of care after acute myocardial infarction,” Circulation, 118:1938-1945, 2008; A. Zgierska, M. Miller, & D. Rabago, “Patient satisfaction, prescription drug abuse, and potential unintended consequences,” JAMA, 307:1377-1378, 2012, quoted at 1378; A. Lembke, “Why doctors prescribe opioids to known opioid abusers,” N. Engl. J. Med., 367:1580-1581, 2012.

[6] A. Zgierska, D. Rabago, & M. M. Miller, “Impact of patient satisfaction ratings on physicians and clinical care,” Patient Prefer. Adherence., 8:437-446, 2014.

[7] These studies are cited by Kai Falkenberg in “Why rating your doctor is bad for your health,” Forbes, January 21, 2013 (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kaifalkenberg/2013/01/02/why-rating-your-doctor-is-bad-for-your-health). 

[8] “Doctors told to avoid prescribing opiates for chronic pain” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/15/cdc-issues-new-guidelines-opiate-prescribing-reduce-abuse-overdoses/81809704/).

Copyright © 2016 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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**ADVANCE PRAISE FOR IN THE HANDS OF DOCTORS

 

“An engaging, richly documented, brilliant critique of the bond between doctor and patient, ranging from classical times through the present. The need for the bond continues, Stepansky argues; patients trust doctors, not teams, medical homes or health care systems. Along the way he discusses what it means to “care” for someone as a professional, whether empathy can be taught, the narrowed scope of family medicine as a field, and how far science and the procedural aspects of medicine are antagonistic to, or simply part of, the humanity inherent in medicine. He offers his own ideas for change. This is a superb introduction to the role of the doctor in a continuing historical context.”- Rosemary Stevens, Ph.D., DeWitt Wallace Distinguished Scholar, Weill Cornell Medical College; author, American Medicine and the Public Interest: A History of Specialization and A Time of Scandal: Charles R. Forbes, Warren G. Harding and the Making of the Veterans Bureau

“Paul Stepansky’s In the Hands of Doctors is a unique and compelling reexamination of American medical practice and patient expectations in historical and cultural context.  Examining the many ways in which we seek health, literally from the doctor’s touch, Stepansky draws on his skills as a respected cultural historian and his perspective growing up the son of a rural general practitioner in the 1950s and 1960s. The result is a multilayered, nuanced, and accessible study that focuses on what physicians have offered and patients have sought, especially since the Second World War.  Stepansky laments the impact of specialization on what he terms “true doctoring,” even while recognizing its great benefit in treating illness.  Eschewing nostalgia, while acknowledging the complexity of today’s health care delivery, Stepansky nevertheless offers a way back to the type of care his father provided.  This book deserves a wide audience not only of health practitioners and patients, but also of medical historians and medical humanities scholars.” – Howard I. Kushner, Ph.D., Nat C. Robertson Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University

“In the Hands of Doctors is an original contribution to medical history and, in addition, a book that will appeal to all those in the caring professions: psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurse practitioners, and others.  Dr. Stepansky gives new meaning to the roles of touch, empathy, and friendship as these are involved in medical practice, and he presents original ideas about the shape of such practice as it moves into the next decades.  In short, a clearly written and profoundly argued book.” – Louis Breger, Ph.D., Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology

“One of the greatest challenges confronting 21st-century medical education is how to train physicians who are not only competent but also compassionate, and who know how to demonstrate that caring to the patient.  In this engaging and deeply personal book, Paul Stepansky gives us a valuable historical perspective on caring in medicine and offers suggestions that will be useful for medical educators, practicing physicians, nurse practitioners, and patients alike.” – Joel D. Howell M.D., Ph.D., Victor Vaughan Professor of the History of Medicine, University of Michigan

 

 

What Do Nurse Practitioners Practice?

What should the nurse practitioner’s “scope of practice” be  and how autonomously should she or he be allowed to practice within that scope?  A half century after the first advanced training programs brought nurses into the ranks of clinical providers, these two questions continue to bedevil nursing, medicine, insurance companies, and state legislatures.  The crucial role of nurse practitioners in modern health care delivery, their ability to provide primary care, and the satisfaction of patients who receive this care – these facts are well-established and, for me at least, beyond dispute.

But questions of scope of practice and practice prerogatives (including prescribing privileges) remain contentious, and different state legislatures have codified different answers.   I have no desire to enter debates that will likely continue at medical, nursing, and legislative levels for some time to come.  But let me offer one historian’s perspective on a few aspects of these knotty issues.

The expansion of nursing’s role in the direction of specialized clinical expertise occurred in an amazingly brief stretch of time.  In 1955, The American Nurses Association (ANA) approved a legal definition of nursing practice that prohibited “acts of diagnosis and prescription of therapeutic or corrective measures,” and it was only seven years later, in 1962, that it held its first clinical sessions at its annual convention.[1]  Even then, until 1968, the ANA’s Code for Professional Nurses framed the nurse’s professional responsibilities in terms of the nurse’s relationship to physicians.[2]  Yet, by the mid-60s, spearheaded by reforms in nursing education then underway, the term “nurse practitioner” came into use.  It conveyed a nurse with “specialized expertise,” often in hospital settings, that grew out of additional training beyond the three years of hospital-based training that led to state licensure as a Registered Nurse.

“Specialized expertise” is an evocative but imprecise term.  In nursing, it initially conveyed expertise in one or another aspect of hospital-based care.  In the early 1900s, nurses acquired expertise as x-ray technicians and microscopists, and then again in the 1930s, they “specialized” in monitoring polio patients in their iron lungs.  During World War II, nurses both on the front lines and in stateside hospitals began to perform venipunctures to administer fluids intravenously; after the war, they continued to do so, and some  became specialized IV  therapists, performing and monitoring  IVs all along their units.

But in postwar America it was especially the new technologies brought to bear in treating acutely ill patients that elicited nurse specialization.  Self-evidently, we needed critical care nurses, obstetrical nurses, and dialysis nurses able to exercise independent judgment and initiate (or discontinue) treatments in exigent circumstances, in what the historian Margaret Sandelowski terms “emergent life-threatening conditions.”  By the 1960s, as Sandelowski observes, the new “machinery of care” had fostered a more collegial and collaborative relationship between physicians and nurses.[3]  But this machinery  – vital function monitors, cardiac monitors, electronic fetal monitors, and the like – was integral to medical care in the hospital.  These monitors were not invented by nursing scientists as extensions of nursing care; they were instruments of improved hospital care whose design, manufacture, and intended use fell within the domain of physicians and the medical model.

The nomenclatural challenge proved even greater when advanced nursing practice left the hospital setting and became office-based, especially in the realm of primary care.  Historians of nursing such as Julie Fairman tend to collapse the distinction between hospital-based specialty nursing and independent “nursing practice” in a global narrative of nursing’s coming-of-age in the four decades following the end of World War II.  The storyline of professional self-becoming involves new forms of collegial collaboration between individual nurses and physicians, which, over time, empowered the nursing profession to liberate itself from the bondage of organized medicine, with its long-held belief in the subordinate role of nurses as physician extenders.  What tends to be glossed over is the phenomenology of “expertise” in relation to different professional activities.  Expertise in the implementation of technologically driven, hospital-based monitoring – with the diagnostic and treatment prerogatives associated with it – is not the same as the expertise that inheres in being a “practitioner” of medicine.

Or is it the expertise that inheres in being a “practitioner” of nursing?  In her illuminating history of the nurse practitioner movement in America, Fairman delineates the inter-professional tensions congealed in this question.  Even  Loretta Ford and Henry Silver, she points out, who collaboratively developed the first (pediatric) nurse practitioner training program at the University of Colorado in the mid-1960s, used different, politically laden terminology to describe exactly what kind of nonmedical practitioner they were training.  For the pediatrician Silver, the new provider would be a “nurse associate”; for the nurse educator Ford, she or he would be a “nurse practitioner.”[4]

And the linguistic-cum-political tension was played out in different pairs of descriptors.  Nurse practitioners saw themselves as “taking on” diagnostic and treatment activities traditionally reserved for physicians, whereas physicians saw themselves as “delegating” certain medical tasks to nurses.[5]  The need to define the nurse specialist’s prerogative to diagnose and treat illness as  something other than “medical”  was at the heart of the American Nurses Association’s need to distance itself from another nonmedically trained practitioner who emerged at this same moment in  American history:  the Physician Assistant.  PAs were precisely what newly empowered clinical care nurses, at least in the eyes of their professional organization, did not want to be: a Physician Assistant rather than an autonomous Nurse Practitioner.[6]

In the realm of independent practice, this claim is highly problematic, since diagnosis and treatment of illness is not nursing “practice” in any historically meaningful sense of the term; rather, diagnosis and treatment have always fallen to the physician, as the word “physician” has been understood since the beginning of the thirteenth century, when Anglo-Normans gathered the Latin “physicus” and the French “physic” into the English “physic,” from which the word  “physician” as a medical practitioner came in to use later in the century.  It is easy to see how nursing practice can envelop sophisticated technological skills that are teachable and learnable.  But the art of diagnosis and treatment – and the qualities of learned judgment[7] that fall to this task – have always been the province of medicine.

The historical claim enfolds an epistemic claim, a claim about the nature of different kinds of knowledge.  Nursing knowledge, as codified in Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It is Not (1859) and the British and American training programs that adopted her model in the 1870s and thereafter, has never been coextensive with medical knowledge.  For  Nightingale and her cohort of nursing educators, it remained a “gendered” (read: womanly) knowledge of comfort care; such care drew on sanitary science and scientifically informed  bedside observation, both infused with a maternalistic sensibility.[8]  Whether or not the knowledge base that subtends such patient-centered caring is something other than medical knowledge (as Nightingale believed) or a neglected subset of medical knowledge, is beside the point. And the point is this:  The kind of “knowledge and skills”[9] that enter into independent clinical practice – “knowledge and skills” that, to be sure, nurse practitioners and other nonmedical providers can acquire to some extent  – are by their nature medical.  This is why the struggle of nurse practitioners to obtain state licensure that permits them to “practice” without medical supervision has been halting and may never succeed entirely.

It is not simply a matter of power in the sense of Foucault, of organized medicine’s ability to withhold, control, and/or regulate entry into the world of practice.  It is because the science of clinical evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment that emerged in postbellum America was vested in the medical profession, not in the nascent nursing profession.  In the final three decades of the nineteenth century, we behold the paradigm shift in medicine that historians endlessly write about:  Medicine became scientific medicine, and this shift, with its associated educational and organizational changes, coincided with the emergence of a “profession” in the modern sense of the term.  The physician, not his (then) helpmate nurse, was part of the profession vested with the scientific understanding of illness and the cultural authorization to act on this understanding by diagnosing and treating it.[10]

The foregoing helps explain why, in retrospect, the ANA’s insistence that pediatric nurse practitioners retain the prerogative to delineate their own scope of practice was foredoomed.  ANA leaders sought to contest a notion of “practice” that, by the early 1970s, was incontestable.  And the pediatric nurse practitioners knew as much.  Like their nurse anesthetist forebears, who formed the National Association of Nurse Anesthetists in 1932,[11] they walked away from the ANA and formed their own professional association, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates and Practitioners (NAPNAP) in 1973.  And the NAPNAP, without further ado, accepted affiliation with the American Academy of Pediatrics, realizing that the ANA’s insistence on complete autonomy for nursing was self-defeating.  The pediatric nurses, if not the ANA leaders, realized that such insistence militated against the idea of team practice, of a pediatrician, pediatric nurse practitioner, and nurse working together, and it contravened the reality that, in all such cases, the pediatrician would be the leader of the team.[12]

The dilemma for nurse practitioners is that they have spent  over a half century trying to define themselves by what they are not.  They are not physicians.  They are not physician assistants or associates.  They are not general nurses who lack advanced postgraduate training and specialty licensure.  So what exactly are they?

In the late 1950s and 1960s, nurse educators like Esther Brown and Hildegard Peplau sought to fill in the lacuna by articulating a new basis for nurse practitioner expertise.  In so doing, they adopted the same orientation as the founders of the “family practice” specialty movement during the same time.  That is, they sought to equate the nurse practitioner’s “expert clinical practice”  with a psychosocial sensibility and an ability to provide holistic psychotherapeutic care.  Social science course work and psychodynamic training, they hoped, would move the nursing practitioner away from medicine and toward this new kind of nursing expertise.

That Brown and Peplau spearheaded this effort in nurse education is hardly surprising, given their respective backgrounds.  Brown, a social anthropologist on the staff of the Russell Sage Foundation, authored Nursing for the Future (1948), a Foundation report that advocated university-based nurse training schools in the service of a vague psychosocial vision of nursing care.  The nurse of the future, she wrote, would “complement the patient by supplying what he needs in knowledge, will, or strength to perform his daily activities and also to carry out the treatment prescribed for him by the physician.”  Peplau, the founder of psychiatric nursing, followed an M.A. at Columbia’s Teachers College, where she completed the first course in advanced psychiatric nursing, with psychoanalytic training at New York’s William Alanson White Institute.[13]  She believed that psychiatric nurses should function as psychotherapists, and, implicitly, that all nurses should bring a broad psychosocial, really a psychotherapeutic, orientation to their work.  Were Brown, Peplau, and their associates successful in reforming nursing training in a manner that subserved a new kind of nursing identity?   No, certainly not in the manner they envisioned.  And further, at the time their educational reforms were introduced in the nursing schools of large public universities, there were serious problems: Graduates overfed with the new social science curriculum were simply unprepared to assume the responsibilities of nursing practice.[14]

_______________________

 My father, William Stepansky, whose remarkable postwar career in family medicine has been woven into many of these essays, was a pharmacist before he was a physician.  He entered Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1940, but his education was interrupted by induction into the army in March, 1943, several months before he completed his junior year.  He had not begun pharmacy college with the intention of attending medical school – this seemed an utterly far-fetched dream for the son of poor Russian émigrés who fled the Pogroms in 1921 and struggled to raise a family in the Jewish enclave of South Philadelphia.  His own mother thought him foolish for entering college and crazy (meshuga) when he mentioned his interest in medicine.  In 1946, after two years of service as a surgical technician on the battlefields of France, Belgium and Germany and an additional six months as a laboratory technician in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, he returned to Philadelphia, where he completed his pharmacy training in 1947.  Only then, with the G.I. Bill in place, did he allow himself to envision a career in medicine, and following an inventive series of initiatives, he gained admittance to Jefferson Medical College, where he joined the freshman class in the fall of 1948.[15]

My father not only retained an active pharmacy license throughout his career, but actually “practiced” pharmacy out of his Trappe office.  He maintained an impressive inventory of basic and not-so-basic drugs, and he concocted, among other things, the marvelous “red medicine” of which I have written.  He became a staff research clinician for McNeil Labs and later participated in clinical drug trials with the Psychopharmacology Research Unit of the University of Pennsylvania.  Pharmacy training certainly proved helpful to him and his rural patients, but it was not at the core of his professional identity.  He was not a “pharmacist practitioner” or an “advanced practice pharmacist.”  He was a physician, a general practitioner of medicine.

Perhaps it is time for the nurse practitioner profession to dispense with the “nurse” appellation altogether.  These men and women are not professional nurses as the notion of nurse professionalism took shape over 150 years, even though they come to  medical “practice” through nursing training and the patient-centered values it instills.  But additional clinical training of several years duration beyond the R.N. or B.S.N. level, I suggest, takes them out of the realm of nursing practice altogether.   So, with a nod to perduring intra- and inter-professional politics, let’s cast aside the terms “medical,” “physician,” “nurse,” and “nursing” altogether, and come up with something more accurate.  Advanced practice nurses should henceforth be designated “licensed clinical providers” or “licensed clinical practitioners,” with the appropriate specialty designation appended to their licenses, e.g., “licensed clinical provider – primary care” or “licensed clinical provider – nephrology” or “licensed clinical provider – oncology.”  There, I’ve said it.  These designations are accurate and neutral and therefore certain to please no one.

 __________________

[1] J. Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic:  Nurse Practitioners and the Evolution of Modern Health Care (New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 2008), pp. 119-21.

[2] L. Freitas, “Historical roots and future perspectives related to nursing ethics,” J. Prof. Nurs., 197-205, 1990, at 202.

[3]  M. Sandelowski, Devices and Desires:  Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 127-28.

[4] Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic, p. 91.

[5] J. Fairman, “Delegated by default or negotiated by need?:  physicians, nurse practitioners, and the process of clinical thinking,” in E. D. Baer, et al., Enduring Issues in American Nursing (NY:  Springer Pub., 2002), pp. 309-333, at p. 323.

[6] Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic, pp. 95ff.

[7] N.B. I do not understand “clinical judgment,” with its reliance on mentoring and tacit knowing, in the same way Fairman understands “clinical thinking,” viz., as a process or skill set. See Fairman, “Delegated by default,” pp. 311-12 and Making Room in the Clinic, p. 187.

[8] For a wonderful popular exposition of  Nightingale’s vision of the nurse transposed to the Bellevue Hospital Training School in the early 1880s,  see F. H. North, “A new profession for women,” The Century, 25:30-37, 1882.

[9] Fairman, “Delegated by default,” p. 323.

[10] These brief remarks allude to, without doing justice to, the brilliant analysis of Thomas Haskell on the emergence of modern professions in postbellum America.  See T. L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science:  The American Social Science Association the the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2000 [1977]), pp. 68-74, 91-121, and passim.

[11] K. Koch, “Agatha Hodgins, Lakeside Alumnae Association, and the founding of the AANA,” AANA Journal, 73:259-62, 2005.

[12] Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic, pp. 175-80.

[13] On Peplau’s graduate training at Teacher’s College and the William Alanson White Institute, see B. J. Callaway, Hildegard Peplau: Psychiatric Nurse of the Century (NY:  Springer Pub., 2002), pp. 167-91.

[14] Dominique Tobbell documents the perceived deficiencies of 1960s graduates of the UCLA and University of Minnesota nursing schools, where the new curriculum was implemented,  in “’Coming to grips with the nursing question’:  the politics of nursing education reform in 1960s America,”  Nurs. Hist. Rev., 22:37-60, 2014.

[15] This paragraph is culled from my memoir of my father’s life and career, P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor:  Remembering My Father’s Medicine (Montclair, NJ:  Keynote, 2011).

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Procedural Rural Medicine

“Primary care practice in the future may be more akin to an Amish barn-raising than care delivered by the fictional Marcus Welby.” – Valerie E. Stone, et al., “Physician Education and Training in Primary Care” (2010)[1]

Current proposals to remedy the crisis in primary care, especially among those Americans living in small, rural communities, are politically correct (or, in the case of J-1 waivers for foreign-trained physicians, ethically unacceptable) gestures.  Small adjustments in Medicare reimbursement schedules for physicians serving the underserved and unenforceable mandates by state legislatures that public medical schools “produce” more primary care physicians are all but meaningless.  Rural medicine programs at a handful of medical colleges basically serve the tiny number of rural-based students who arrive at medical school already committed to serving the underserved.  Such programs have had little if any impact on a crisis of systemic proportions.  If we want to pull significant numbers of typical medical students into primary care, we must empower them and reward them – big time.  So what exactly do we do?

  1. We phase out  “family medicine” for reasons I have adduced and replace it with a new specialty that will supplement internal medicine and pediatrics as core primary care specialties.  I term the new specialty procedural rural medicine (PRM) and physicians certified to practice it procedural care specialists.  Self-evidently, many procedural rural specialists will practice in urban settings.  The “rural” designation simply underscores the fact that physicians with this specialty training will be equipped to care for underserved populations (most of whom live in rural areas) who lack ready  access to specialist care.  Such care will be procedurally enlarged beyond the scope of contemporary family medicine.
  2. Procedural care specialists will serve the underserved, whether in private practice or under the umbrella of Federally Qualified Health Centers, Rural Health Centers, or the National Health Service Corps. They will  complete a four-year residency that equips all rural care specialists to perform a range of diagnostic and treatment procedures that primary care physicians now occasionally perform in certain parts of the country (e.g., colposcopy, sigmoidoscopy, nasopharyngoscopy), but more often do not.  It would equip them to do minor surgery, including office-based dermatology, basic podiatry, and wound management.   I leave it to clinical educators to determine exactly which baseline procedures can be mastered within a general four-year rural care residency, and I allow that it may be necessary to expand the residency to five years.  I further allow for procedural tracks within the final year of a procedural care program, so that certain board-certified procedural care specialists would be trained to perform operative obstetrics whereas others would be trained to perform colonoscopy.[2] The point is that all rural care proceduralists would be trained to perform a range of baseline procedures.  As such, they would be credentialed by hospitals as “specialists” trained to perform those procedures and would receive the same fee by Medicare and third-party insurers as the “root specialists” for particular procedures.
  3. Procedural care specialists will train in hospitals but will spend a considerable portion of their residencies learning and practicing procedurally oriented primary care in community health centers.  Such centers are the ideal venue for learning to perform “specialty procedures” under specialist supervision; they also inculcate the mindset associated with PRM, since researchers have found that residents who have their “continuity clinic” in community health centers are more likely to practice in underserved areas following training.[3]
  4. On completion of an approved four- or five-year residency in procedural rural medicine and the passing of PRM specialty boards, procedural care specialists will have all medical school and residency-related loans wiped off the books. Period.  This financial relief will be premised on a contractual commitment to work full-time providing procedural primary care to an underserved community for no less than, say, 10 years.
  5. Procedural care specialists who make this commitment deserve a bonus. They have become national resources in healthcare.  Aspiring big league baseball players who are drafted during the first four rounds of the MLB draft, many right out of high school, typically receive signing bonuses in the $100,000-$200,000 range.  In 2012, the top 100 MLB draftees each received a cool half million or more, and the top 50 received from one to six million.[4]  I propose that we give each newly trained procedural care specialist a $250,000 signing bonus in exchange for his or her 10-year commitment to serve the underserved.  Call me a wild-eyed radical, but I think physicians who have completed high school, four years of college, four years of medical school, and a four- or five-year residency program and committed themselves to bringing health care to underserved rural and urban Americans for 10 years deserve the same financial consideration as journeymen ball players given a crack at the big leagues.
  6. Taken together, the two foregoing proposals will make a start at decreasing the income gap between one group of primary care physicians (PCPs) and their colleagues in medical subspecialties and surgical specialties.  This gap decreases the odds of choosing primary care by nearly 50%; it is also associated with the career dissatisfaction of PCPs relative to other physicians, which may prompt them to retire earlier than their specialist colleagues.[5]
  7. I am not especially concerned about funding the debt waiver and signing bonuses for board-certified procedural care specialists.  These physicians will bring health care to over 60 million underserved Americans and, over time, they will be instrumental in saving the system, especially Medicare and Medicaid, billions of dollars.  Initial costs will be a  drop in the bucket in the context of American healthcare spending that consumed 17.9% of GDP in 2011.  Various funding mechanisms for primary care training – Title VII, Section 747 of the Public Health Service Act of 1963, the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration, Medicare – have long been in place, with the express purpose of expanding geographic distribution of primary care physicians in order to bring care to the underserved.  The Affordable Care Act of 2010 may be expected greatly to increase their funding.

————

These proposals offer an alternative vision for addressing the crisis in primary care that now draws only 3% of non-osteopathic physicians to federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas and consigns over 20% of Americans to the care of 9% of its physicians.  The mainstream approach moves in a different direction, and the 2010 Macy Foundation-sponsored conference, “Who Will Provide Primary Care and How Will They Be Trained,” typifies it.  Academic physicians participating in the conference sought to address the crisis in primary care through what amounts to a technology-driven resuscitation of the “family practice” ideology of the late 1960s.  For them, PCPs of the future will be systems-savvy coordinators/integrators with a panoply of administrative and coordinating skills.  In this vision of things, the “patient-centered medical home” becomes the site of primary care, and effective practice within this setting obliges PCPs to acquire leadership skills that focus on “team building, system reengineering, and quality improvement.”

To be sure, docs will remain leaders of the healthcare team, but their leadership veers away from procedural medicine and into the domain of “quality improvement techniques and ‘system architecture’ competencies to continuously improve the function and design of practice systems.”  The “systems” in question are healthcare teams, redubbed “integrated delivery systems.”  It follows that tomorrow’s PCPs will be educated into a brave new world of “shared competencies” and interprofessional collaboration, both summoning “the integrative power of health information technology as the basis of preparation.”[6]

When this daunting skill set is enlarged still further by curricula addressing prevention and health promotion, wellness and “life balance” counseling, patient self-management for chronic disease, and strategies for engaging patients in all manner of decision-making, we end up with new-style primary care physicians who look like information-age reincarnations of the “holistic” mind-body family practitioners of the 1970s. What exactly will be dropped from existing medical school curricula and residency training programs to make room for acquisition of these new skill sets remains unaddressed.

I have nothing against prevention, health promotion, wellness, “life balance” counseling, and the like. Three cheers for all of them – and for patient-centered care and shared decision-making as well.  But I think health policy experts and medical academics have taken to theorizing about such matters – and the information-age skill sets they fall back on – in an existential vacuum, as if “new competencies in patient engagement and coaching”[7] can be taught didactically as opposed to being earned in the relational fulcrum of clinical encounter.  “Tracking and assisting patients as they move across care settings,” “coordinating services with other providers,” providing wellness counseling, teaching self-management strategies, and the like – all these things finally fall back on a trusting doctor-patient relationship.  In study after study, patient trust, a product of empathic doctoring,  has been linked to issues of compliance, subjective well-being, and treatment outcome.  Absent such trust, information-age “competencies” will have limited impact; they will briefly blossom but not take root in transformative ways.

I suggest we attend to first matters first.  We must fortify patient trust by training primary care doctors to do more, procedurally speaking, and then reward them for caring for underserved Americans who urgently need to have more done for them.  The rest – the tracking, assisting, coordinating, and counseling – will follow.  And the patient-centered medical home of the future will have patient educators, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and social workers to absorb physicians’ counseling functions, just as it will have practice managers and care coordinators to guide physicians through the thicket of intertwining  information technologies.  We still have much to learn from Marcus Welby – and William Stepansky – on the community-sustaining art of barn-raising and especially the difference between barns well and poorly raised.


[1] Quoted from “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained?”  Proceedings of a conference chaired by L. Cronenwett & V. J. Dzau, transcript edited by B. J. Culliton & S. Russell (NY:  Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, 2010), p. 148.

[2] The prerogative to develop specialized knowledge and treatment skills within certain areas has always been part of general practice, and it was explicitly recommended in the Report of the AMA Ad Hoc Committee on Education for Family Practice (the Willard Committee) of 1966 that paved the way for establishment of the American Board of Family Practice in 1969.  See N.A., Family Practice: Creation of a Specialty (American Academy of Family Physicians, 1980), p.  41.

[3] C. G. Morris & F. M. Chen, “Training residents in community health centers:  facilitators and barriers,” Ann. Fam. Med., 7:488-94, 2009; C. G. Morris, et al., “Training family physicians in community health centers,” Fam. Med., 40:271-6, 2008; E. M. Mazur, et al., “Collaboration between an internal medicine residency program and a federally qualified health center: Norwalk hospital and the Norwalk community health center,” Acad. Med., 76: 1159-64, 2001.

[5] “Specialty and geographic distribution of the physician workforce:  What influences medical student & resident choices?”  A publication of the Robert Graham Center, funded by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation (2009), pp. 5, 47; “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained” (n. 1), p. 140.

[6] “Who Will Provide Primary Care And How Will They Be Trained”(n. 1), pp. 147, 148.

[7] Ibid, p. 151.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Re-Visioning Primary Care

Existing approaches to the looming crisis of primary care are like Congressional approaches to our fiscal crisis.  They have been, and will continue to be, unavailing because they shy away from structural change that would promote equity.  I suggest the time has come to think outside the financial box of subsidization and loan repayment for medical students and residents who agree to serve the medically underserved for a few years.  Here are my propositions and proposals:

  1. We should redefine “primary care” in a way that gives primary care physicians (PCPs) a fighting chance of actually functioning as specialists. This means eliminating “family medicine” altogether.  The effort to make the family physician (FP) (until 2003, the “family practitioner”) a specialist among specialists was tried in the 70s and by and largely failed – not for FP patients, certainly, but for FPs themselves, who, by most accounts, failed to achieve the academic stature and clinical privileges associated with specialist standing.  It is time to face this hard fact and acknowledge that the era of modern general practice/family medicine, as it took shape in the 1940s and came to fruition in the quarter century following World War II, is at an end.  Yet another round of financial incentives that make it easier for medical students and residents to “specialize” in family medicine will fail.  “Making it easier” will not make it easy enough, nor will it overcome a specialist mentality that has been entrenched since the 1950s.  Further policy-related efforts to increase the tenability of family medicine, such as increasing Medicare reimbursement for primary care services or restructuring Medicare to do away with primary care billing costs, will be socioeconomic Band-Aids that cover over the professional, personal, familial, and, yes, financial strains associated with family medicine in the twenty-first century.  Vague and unenforceable “mandates” by state legislatures directing public medical schools to “produce” more primary care physicians have been, and will continue to be, political Band-Aids.[1]
  2. As a society, we must re-vision generalist practice as the province of internists and pediatricians.  We must focus on developing incentives that encourage internists and pediatricians to practice general internal medicine and general pediatrics, respectively.  This reconfiguring of primary care medicine will help advance the “specialty” claims of primary care physicians.  Historically speaking, internal medicine and pediatrics are specialties, and the decision-making authority and case management prerogatives of internists and pediatricians are, in many locales, still those of specialists. General internists become “chief medical officers” of their hospitals; family physicians, with very rare exceptions, do not.  For a host of pragmatic and ideological reasons, many more American medical students at this juncture in medical history will enter primary care as internists and pediatricians than as family physicians.
  3. Part of this re-visioning and reconfiguring must entail recognition that generalist values are not synonymous with generalist practice.  Generalist values can be cultivated (or neglected) in any type of postgraduate medical training and implemented (or neglected) by physicians in any specialty. There are caring physicians among specialists, just as there are less-than-caring primary care physicians aplenty.  Caring physicians make caring interventions, however narrow their gaze.  My wonderfully caring dentist only observes the inside of my mouth but he is no less concerned with my well-being on account of it.  The claim of G. Gayle Stephens, one of the founders of the family practice specialty in the late 1960s, that internists, as a class, were zealous scientists committed to “a mechanistic and flawed concept of disease,” whereas family physicians, as a class, were humanistic, psychosocially embedded caregivers, was specious then and now.[2]  General internists are primary care physicians, and they can be expected to be no less caring (and, sadly, no more caring) of their patients than family physicians.  This is truer still of general pediatrics, which, as far back as the late nineteenth century, provided a decidedly patient-centered agenda for a cohort of gifted researcher-clinicians, many women physicians among them, whose growth as specialists (and, by the 1920s and 30s, as pediatric subspecialists) went hand-in-hand with an abiding commitment to the “whole patient.”[3]
  4. We will not remedy the primary care crisis by eliminating family medicine and developing incentives to keep internists and pediatricians in the “general practice” of their specialties.  In addition, we need policy initiatives to encourage subspecialized internists and subspecialized pediatricians to continue to work as generalists.  This has proven a workable solution in many developed countries, where the provision of primary care by specialists is a long-established norm.[4]   And, in point of fact, it has long been a de facto reality in many smaller American communities, where medical and pediatric subspecialists in cardiology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, et al. also practice general internal medicine and general pediatrics.  Perhaps we need a new kind of mandate:  that board-certified internists and pediatricians practice general internal medicine and general pediatrics, respectively, for a stipulated period (say, two years) before beginning their subspecialty fellowships.

Can we remedy the shortage of primary care physicians through the conduits of internal medicine and pediatrics?  No, absolutely not.  Even if incentive programs and mandates increase the percentage of internists and pediatricians who practice primary care, they will hardly provide the 44,000-53,000 new primary care physicians we will need by 2025.[5]  Nor will an increase in the percentage of medical students who choose primary care pull these new providers to the underserved communities where they are desperately needed.  There is little evidence that increasing the supply of primary care physicians affects (mal)distribution of those providers across the country.  Twenty percent of the American population lives in nonmetropolitan areas and is currently served by 9% of the nation’s physicians; over one third of these rural Americans live in what the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designates “Health Professional Shortage Areas” (HPSAs) in need of primary medical care.[6]  Efforts to induce foreign-trained physicians to serve these communities by offering them J-1 visa waivers have barely made a dent in the problem and represent an unconscionable “brain drain” of the medical resources of developing countries.[7]  The hope that expansion of rural medicine training programs at U.S. medical schools, taken in conjunction with increased medical school enrollement, could meet the need for thousands of new rural PCPs is not being borne out.  Graduating rural primary care physicians has not been, and likely will not be, a high priority for most American medical schools, a reality acknowledged by proponents of rural medicine programs.[8]

Over and against the admirable but ill-fated initiatives on the table, I propose two focal strategies for addressing the primary care crisis as a crisis of uneven distribution of medical services across the population:

  1. We must expend political capital and economic resources to encourage people to become mid-level providers, i.e., physician’s assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs), and then develop incentives to keep them in primary care.  This need is more pressing than ever given (a) evidence that mid-level practitioners are more likely to remain in underserved areas than physicians,[9] and (b) the key role of mid-level providers in the team delivery systems, such as  Accountable Care Organizations and Patient-Centered Medical Homes, promoted by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.  Unlike other health care providers, PAs change specialties over the course of their careers without additional training, and since the late 1990s, more PAs have left family medicine than have entered it.  It has become incumbent on us as a society to follow the lead of the armed forces and the Veterans Health Administration in exploiting this health care resource.[10]  To wit, (a) we must provide incentives to attract newly graduated PAs to primary care in underserved communities and to pull specialty-changing “journeyman PAs” back to primary care,[11] and (b) we must ease the path of military medics and corpsmen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan into PA programs by waiving college-degree eligibility requirements that have all but driven them away from these programs.[12]  Although the Physician Assistant profession came into existence in the mid-1960s to capitalize on the skill set and experience of medical corpsman returning from Vietnam, contemporary PA programs, with few exceptions, no longer recruit military veterans into their programs.[13]
  2. Finally, and most controversially, we need a new primary care specialty aimed at providing comprehensive care to rural and underserved communities.  I designate this new specialty Procedural Rural Medicine (PRM) and envision it as the most demanding – and potentially most rewarding – primary care specialty.  PRM would borrow and enlarge the recruitment strategies employed by the handful of medical schools with rural medicine training programs.[14]  But it would require a training curriculum, a residency program, and a broad system of incentives all its own.

In the next installment of this series, I will elaborate my vision of Procedural Rural Medicine and explain how and why it differs from family medicine as it currently exists.


[1] D. Hogberg, “The Next Exodus: Primary-Care Physicians and Medicare,” National Policy Analysis #640 (http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA640.html); C S. Weissert & S. L. Silberman, “Sending a policy signal: state legislatures, medical schools, and primary care mandates,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 23:743-770, 1998.

[2] G. G. Stephens, The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice (Tucson, AZ: Winter Publishing, 1982), pp. 77, 96.

[3] See E. S. More, Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 170-72.  Edith Dunham, Martha Eliot, Helen Taussig, Edith Banfield Jackson, and Virginia Apgar stand out among the pioneer pediatricians who were true generalist-specialists.

[4] See W. J. Stephen, An Analysis of Primary Care: An International Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and B. S. Starfield, Primary Care: Concept, Evaluation and Policy (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1992).

[5] The percentile range denotes the different protocols employed by researchers.  See M. J. Dill & E. S. Salsberg, “The complexities of physician supply and demand: projections through 2025,” Association of American Medical College, 2008 (http://www.innovationlabs.com/pa_future/1/background_docs/AAMC%20Complexities%20of%20physician%20demand,%202008.pdf); J. M. Colwill, et al., Will generalist physician supply meet demands of an increasing and aging population?  Health Affairs, 27:w232-w241, 2008;  and S. M. Petterson, et al., “Projecting US primary care physician workforce needs:  2010-2025,” Ann. Fam. Med., 10: 503-509, 2012.

[6] See the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, “Facts about . . . rural physicians” (http://www.shepscenter.unc.edu/rural/pubs/finding_brief/phy.html ) and J. D. Gazewood, et al., “Beyond the horizon: the role of academic health centers in improving the health of rural communities,” Acad. Med., 81:793-797, 2006.  In all, the federal government has designated 5,848 geographical areas HPSAs in need of primary medical care (http://datawarehouse.hrsa.gov/factSheetNation.aspx).

[7] These non-immigrant visa waivers, authorized since 1994 by the Physicians for Underserved Areas Act (the “Conrad State 30” Program), allow foreign-trained physicians who provide primary care in underserved communities for at least three years to waive the two-hear home residence requirement.  That is, these physicians do not have to return to their native countries for at least two years prior to applying for permanent residence or an immigration visa.  On the negative impact of this program on health equity and, inter alia, the global fight against HIV and AIDS, see V. Patel, “Recruiting doctors from poor countries: the great brain robbery?, BMJ, 327:926-928, 2003; F. Mullan, “The metrics of the physician brain drain,” New Engl. J. Med., 353:1810-1818, 2005; and N. Eyal & S. A. Hurst, “Physician brain drain:  can nothing be done?, Public Health Ethics, 1:180-192, 2008.

[8] See H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “Medical school programs to increase the rural physician supply: a systematic review,” Acad. Med., 83:235-243, at 242:  “It is, therefore, unlikely that the graduation of rural physicians will be a high priority for most medical schools, unless specific regulations require this, or unless adequate financial resources are provided as incentives to support this mission.”

[9] U. Lehmann, “Mid-level health workers: the state of evidence on programmes, activities, costs and impact on health outcomes,” World Health Organization, 2008 (http://www.who.int/hrh/MLHW_review_2008.pdf).

[10] R. S. Hooker, “Federally employed physician assistants,” Mil. Med., 173:895-899, 2008.

[11] J. F. Cawley & R. S. Hooker, “Physician assistant role flexibility and career mobility,” JAAPA, 23:10, 2010.

[12] D. M. Brock, et al., “The physician assistant profession and military veterans,” Mil. Med., 176:197-203, 2011.

[13] N. Holt, “’Confusion’s masterpiece’:  the development of the physician assistant profession,” Bull. Hist. Med., 72:246-278, 1998; Brock, op cit., p. 197.

[14]H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “Critical factors  for designing programs to increase the supply and retention of rural primary care physicians,” JAMA, 286:1041-48, 2001; H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “The relationship between entering medical students’ backgrounds and career plans and their rural practice outcomes three decades later,” Acad. Med., 87:493-497, 2012; H. K. Rabinowitz, et al., “The relationship between matriculating medical students’ planned specialties and eventual rural practice outcomes,” Acad. Med., 87:1086-1090, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Wanted: Primary Care Docs

“It will readily be seen that amid all these claimants for pathological territory there is scarcely standing-room left for the general practitioner.” – Andrew H. Smith, “The Family Physician (1888)

“The time when every family, rich or poor, had its own family physician, who knew the illnesses and health of its members and enjoyed the confidence of the upgrowing boys and girls during two or three generations, is gone.” – Abraham Jacobi, “Commercialized Medicine” (1910)

“More recent investigation shows that almost one-third of the towns of 1,000 or less throughout the United States which had physicians in 1914 had none in 1925. . . . it will be seen at a glance that the present generation of country doctors will have practically disappeared in another ten years.” – A. F. van Bibber, “The Swan Song of the Country Doctor” (1929)

“But complete medical care means more than the sum of the services provided by specialists, no matter how highly qualified.  It must include acceptance by one doctor of complete responsibility for the care of the patient and for the coordination of specialist, laboratory, and other services.  Within a generation, if the present situation continues, few Americans will have a personal physician do this for them.” – David D. Rutstein, “Do You Really Want a Family Doctor?” (1960)

“Whoever takes up the cause of primary care, one thing is clear: action is needed to calm the brewing storm before the levees break.” – Thomas Bodenheimer, “Primary Care – Will It Survive?” (2006)

“Potential access challenges”—that’s the current way of putting the growing shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs).  Euphemism melodious of care incommodious. Aggravated by the 33 million Americans shortly to receive health insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 – health insurance leads to increased use of physicians – the chronic shortage of primary care physicians is seen as a looming crisis capable of dragging us back into the medical dark ages.  Medical school graduates continue to veer away from the less remunerative primary care specialties, opting for the  well-fertilized and debt-annihilating verdure of the subspecialties.  Where then will we find the 51,880 additional primary care physicians that, according to the most recent published projections,[1] we will need by 2025 to keep up with an expanding, aging, and more universally insured American population?

Dire forecasts about the imminent disappearance of general practitioners or family practitioners or, more recently, primary care physicians have been part of the medical-cum-political landscape for more than a century.  Now the bleak scenarios are back in vogue, and they are more frightening than ever, foretelling a consumer purgatory of lengthy visits to emergency rooms for private primary care – or worse.  Dr. Lee Green, chair of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, offers this bleak vision of a near future where patients are barely able to see primary care physicians at all:

Primary care will be past saturated with wait times longer and will not accept any new patients.  There will be an increase in hospitalizations and increase in death rates for basic preventable things like hypertension that was not managed adequately.[2]

I have no intention of minimizing the urgency of a problem that, by all measurable indices, has grown worse in recent decades. But I do think that Dr. Green’s vision is, shall we say, over the top.  It is premised on a traditional model of primary care in which a single physician assumes responsibility for a single patient.  As soon as we look past the traditional model and take into account structural changes in the provision of primary care over the past four decades, we are able to forecast a different, if still troubling, future.

Beginning in the 1970s, and picking up steam in the 1980s and 90s, primary care medicine was enlarged by mid-level providers (physician assistants, nurse practitioners, psychiatric nurses, and clinical social workers) who, in many locales, have absorbed the traditional functions of primary care physicians.  The role of these providers in American health care will only increase with implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the innovative health delivery systems it promotes as solutions to the crisis in healthcare.

I refer specifically to the Act’s promotion of “Patient-Centered Medical Homes” (PCMHs) and “Accountable Care Organizations” (ACOs), both of which involve a collaborative melding of roles in the provision of primary care.  Both delivery systems seek to tilt the demographic and economic balance among medical providers back in the direction of primary care and, in the process, to render medical care more cost-effective through the use of electronic information systems, evidence-based care (especially the population-based management of chronic illnesses), and performance measurement and improvement.  To these ends, the new delivery systems equate primary care with “team-based care, in which physicians share responsibility with nurses, care coordinators, patient educators, clinical pharmacists, social workers, behavioral health specialists, and other team members.”[3]  The degree to which the overarching goals of these new models – reduced hospital admissions and readmissions and more integrated, cost-effective management of chronic illnesses – can be achieved will be seen in the years ahead.  But it is clear that these developments, propelled by the Accountable Care Act and the Obama administration’s investment of $19 billion to stimulate the use of information technology in medical practice, all point to the diminished role of the all-purpose primary care physician (PCP).

So we are entering a brave new world in which mid-level providers, all working under the supervision of generalist physicians in ever larger health systems, will assume an increasing role in primary care.  Indeed, PCMHs and ACOs, which attempt to redress the crisis in primary care, will probably have the paradoxical effect of relegating the traditional “caring” aspects of the doctor-patient relationship to nonphysician members of the health care team.  The trend away from patient-centered care on the part of physicians is already discernible in the technical quality objectives (like mammography rates) and financial goals of ACOs that increasingly pull primary care physicians away from relational caregiving.

The culprit here is time.  ACOs, for example, may direct PCPs to administer depression scales and fall risk assessments to all Medicare patients, the results of which must be recorded in the electronic record along with any “intervention” initiated.  In all but the largest health systems (think Kaiser Permanente), such tasks currently fall to the physician him- or herself.  The new delivery systems do not provide ancillary help for such tasks, which makes it harder still for overtaxed PCPs to keep on schedule and connect with their patients in more human, and less assessment-driven, ways.[4]

So, yes, we’re going to need many more primary care physicians, but perhaps not as many as Petterson and his colleagues project.  Their extrapolations from “utilization data” – the number of  PCPs we will will need to accommodate the number of office visits made by a growing, aging, and better insured American population at a future point in time – do not incorporate the growing reality of team-administered primary care.  The latter already includes patient visits to physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and clinical social workers and is poised to include electronic office “visits” via the Internet.   For health services researchers, this kind of  distributed care suggests the reasonableness of equating “continuity of care” with “site continuity” (the place where we receive care) rather than “provider continuity” (the personal physician who provides that care).

Of course, we are still left with the massive and to date intractable problem of the uneven distribution of primary care physicians (or primary care “teams”) across the population.  Since the 1990s, attempts to pull PCPs to those areas where they are most needed have concentrated on the well-documented financial disincentives associated with primary care, especially in underserved, mainly rural areas .  Unsurprisingly, these disincentives evoke financial solutions for newly trained physicians who agree to practice primary care for at least a few years in what the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration designates “Health Professional Shortage Areas” (HPSAs).  The benefit package currently in place includes medical school scholarships, loan repayment plans, and, beginning in 1987, a modest bonus payment program administered by Medicare Part B carriers.[5]

The most recent and elaborate proposal to persuade primary care physicians to go where they are most needed adopts a two-pronged approach.  It calls for creation of a National Residency Exchange that would determine the optimal number of  residencies in different medical specialties for each state, and then “optimally redistribute”  residency assignments state by state in the direction of underrepresented specialties, especially primary care specialties in underserved communities.  This would be teamed with a federally funded primary care loan repayment program, administered by Medicare, that would gradually repay participants’ loans over the course of their first eight years of post-residency primary care practice in an HPSA.[6]

But this and like-minded schemes will come to naught if medical students are not drawn to primary care medicine in the first place.  There was such a “draw” in the late 60s and early 70s; it followed the creation of “family practice” as a residency-based specialty and developed in tandem with social activist movements of the period.  But it did not last into the 80s and left many of its proponents disillusioned.  Despite the financial incentives already in place (including those provided by the federal government’s National Health Service Corps[7]) and the existence of “rural medicine” training programs,[8] there is no sense of gathering social forces that will pull a new generation of medical students into primary care.  Nor is there any reason to suppose that the dwindling number of medical students whose sense of calling leads to careers among the underserved will be drawn to the emerging world of primary care in which the PCP assumes an increasingly administrative (and data-driven) role as coordinator of a health care team.

In truth, I am skeptical that financial packages, even if greatly enlarged, can overcome the specialist mentality that emerged after World War II and is long-entrenched in American medicine.  Financial incentives assume that medical students would opt for primary care if not for financial disincentives that make it harder for them to do so.  Now recent literature suggests that financial realities do play an important role in the choice of specialty.[9]  But there is more to choice of specialty than debt management and long-term earning power.  Specialism is not simply a veering away from generalism; it is a pathway to medicine with its own intrinsic satisfactions, among which are prestige, authority, procedural competence, problem-solving acuity, and considerations of lifestyle. These satisfactions are at present vastly greater in specialty medicine than those inhering in primary care.  This is why primary care educators, health economists, and policy makers place us (yet again) on the brink of crisis.

Financial incentives associated with primary care are important and probably need to be enlarged far beyond the status quo.  But at the same time, we need to think outside the box in a number of ways.  To wit, we need to rethink the meaning of generalism and its role in medical practice (including specialty practice).  And we need to find and nurture (and financially support) more medical students who are drawn to primary care.  And finally, and perhaps most radically, we need to rethink the three current primary care specialties (pediatrics, general internal medicine, and family medicine) and the relationships among them.  Perhaps this long-established tripartite division is no longer the best way to conceptualize primary care and to draw a larger percentage of medical students to it.  I will offer my thoughts on these knotty issues in blog essays to follow.


[1] S. M. Petterson, et al., “Projecting US primary care physician workforce needs:  2010-2025,” Ann. Fam. Med., 10:503-509, 2012.

[2] Quoted in Nisha Nathan, “Doc Shortage Could Crash Health Care,” online at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/doctor-shortage-healthcare-crash/story?id=17708473.

[3] D. R. Rittenhouse & S. M. Shortell, “The patient-centered medical home:  will it stand the test of health reform?, JAMA, 301:22038-2040, 2009, at 2039.  Among recent commentaries, see further D. M. Berwick, “making good on ACOs’ promise – the final rule for the Medicare shared savings program,” New Engl. J. Med., 365:1753-1756, 2011; D. R. Rittenhouse, et al., “Primary care and accountable care – two essential elements of delivery-system reform,” New Engl. J. Med., 361:2301-2303, 2009, and E. Carrier, et al., “Medical homes:  challenges in translating theory into practice,” Med. Care, 47:714-722, 2009.

[4] I am grateful to my brother, David Stepansky, M.D., whose medical group participates in both PCMH and ACO entities, for these insights on the impact of participation on PCPs who are not part of relatively large health  systems.

[5]E.g., R. G. Petersdorf, “Financing medical education: a universal ‘Berry plan’  for medical students,” New Engl. J. Med., 328, 651, 1993;  K. M. Byrnes, “Is there a primary care doctor in the house? the legislation needed to address a national shortage,” Rutgers Law Journal, 25: 799, 806-808, 1994.  On the Medicare Incentive Payment Program for physicians practicing in designated HPSAs – and the inadequacy  of the 10% bonus system now in place – see L. R. Shugarman & D. O. Farley, “Shortcomings in Medicare bonus payments for physicians in underserved areas,” Health Affairs, 22:173-78, 2003 at 177 (online at http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/22/4/173.full.pdf+html) and S. Gunselman, “The Conrad ‘state-30’ program:  a temporary relief to the U.S. shortage of physicians or a contributor to the brain drain,”  J. Health & Biomed. Law, 5:91-115, 2009, at 107-108.

[6]G. Cheng, “The national residency exchange: a proposal to restore primary care in an age of microspecialization,” Amer. J. Law & Med., 38:158-195, 2012.

[7] The NHSC, founded in 1970, provides full scholarship support for medical students who agree to serve as PCPs in high-need, underserved locales, with one year of service for each year of support provided by the government.  For medical school graduates who have already accrued debt, the program provides student loan payment for physicians who commit to at least two years of service at an approved site. Descriptions of the scholarship and loan repayment program are available at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/

[8] See the rationale for rural training programs set forth in a document of the Association of American Medical Colleges, “Rural medicine programs aim to reverse physician shortage in outlying regions,” online at http://www.aamc.org/newsroom/reporter/nov04/rural.htm.  One of the best such programs, Jefferson Medical College’s Physician Shortage Area Program, is described and its graduates profiled in H. K. Rabinowitz, Caring for the country:  family doctors in small rural towns (NY: Springer, 2004).

[9] See especially the 2003 white paper by the AMA’s taskforce on student debt, online at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/15/debt_report.pdf and, more recently, P. A. Pugno, et al., “Results of the 2009 national resident matching program: family medicine,” Fam. Med., 41:567-577, 2009 and H. S. Teitelbaum, et al., “Factors affecting specialty choice among osteopathic medical students, Acad. Med., 84:718-723, 2009.

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

Caring Technology

The critique of contemporary medical treatment as impersonal, uncaring, and disease-focused usually invokes the dehumanizing perils of high technology.  The problem is that high technology is a moving target.  In the England of the 1730s, obstetrical forceps were the high technology of the day; William Smellie, London’s leading obstetrical physician, opposed their use for more than a decade, despite compelling evidence that the technology revolutionized childbirth by permitting obstructed births to become live births.[1]  For much of the nineteenth century, stethoscopes and sphygmomanometers (blood pressure meters) were considered technological contrivances that distanced the doctor from the patient.  For any number of Victorian patients (and doctors too), the kindly ear against the chest and the trained finger on the wrist helped make the physical examination an essentially human encounter.  Interpose instruments between the physician and the patient and, ipso facto, you distance the one from the other.  In late nineteenth-century Britain, “experimental” or “laboratory” medicine was itself a revolutionary technology, and it elicited  bitter denunciation from antivivisectionists (among whom were physicians) that foreshadows contemporary indictments of the “hypertrophied scientism” of modern medicine.[2]

Nineteenth-century concerns about high technology blossomed in the early twentieth century when technologies (urinalysis, blood studies, x-rays, EKGs) multiplied and their use switched to hospital settings.  Older pediatricians opposed the use of the new-fangled incubators for premature newborns. They  not only had faulty ventilation that deprived infants of fresh air but were a wasteful expenditure, given that preemies of the poor were never brought to the hospital right after birth.[3]   Cautionary words were always at hand for the younger generation given to the latest gadgetry.  At the dedication of Yale’s Sterling Hall of Medicine, the neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing extolled family physicians as exemplars of his gospel of observation and deduction and urged  Yale students to engage in actual “house-to-house practice” without the benefit of “all of the paraphernalia and instruments of precision supposed to be necessary for a diagnosis.”  This was in 1925.[4]

Concerns about the impact of technology on doctor-patient relationships blossomed again in the 1960s and 70s and played a role  in the rebirth of primary care medicine in the guise of the “family practice movement.”  Reading the papers of the recently deceased G. Gayle Stephens, written at the time and collected in his volume The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice (1982), is a strong reminder of the risks attendant to loading high technology with relational meaning.  Stephens, an architect of the new structure of primary care training, saw the “generalist role in medicine” as an aspect of 70s counterculture that questioned an “unconditional faith in science” that extended to medical training, practice, and values.  And so he aligned the family practice movement with other social movements of the 70s that sought to put the breaks on scientism run rampant:  agrarianism, utopianism, humanism, consumerism, and feminism.  With its clinical focus on the whole person and liberal borrowings from psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, family practice set out to liberate medicine from its “captivity” to a flawed view of reality that was mechanistic, protoplasmic, and molecular.[5]

Technology was deeply implicated in Stephens’ critique, even though he failed to stipulate which technologies he had in mind.  His was a global indictment: Medicine’s obsession with its “technological legerdemain” blinded the physician to the rich phenomenology of “dis-ease” and, as such, was anti-Hippocratic.  For Stephens, the “mechanical appurtenances of healing” had to be differentiated from the “essential ingredient” of the healing process, viz., “a physician who really cares about the patient.” “We have reached a point of diminishing returns in the effectiveness of technology to improve the total health of our nation.”  So he opined in 1973, only two years after the first crude CT scanner was demonstrated in London and long before the development of MRIs and PET scans, of angioplasty with stents, and of the broad array of laser- and computer-assisted operations available to contemporary surgeons.[6]  Entire domains of technologically guided intervention – consider technologies of blood and marrow transplantation and medical genetics – barely existed in the early 70s.  Robotics was the stuff of science fiction.

It is easy to sympathize with both Stephens’ critique and his mounting skepticism about the family practice movement’s ability to realize its goals. [7]  He placed the movement on an ideological battleground in which the combatants were of unequal strength and numbers.  There was the family practice counterculture, with the guiding belief that “something genuine and vital occurs in the meeting of doctor and patient” and the pedagogical correlate that  “A preoccupation with a disease instead of a person is detrimental to good medicine.”  And then there were the forces of organized medicine, of medical schools, of turf-protecting internists and surgeons, of hospitals with their “business-industrial models” of healthcare delivery, of specialization and of technology – all bound together by a cultural commitment to science and its  “reductionist hypothesis about the nature of reality.”[8]

Perceptive and humane as Stephen’s critique was, it fell back on the very sort of reductionism he imputed to the opponents of family practice.  Again and again, he juxtaposed “high technology,” in all its allure (and allegedly diminishing returns) with the humanistic goals of patient care.  But are technology and humane patient care really so antipodal?  Technology in and of itself has no ontological status within medicine.  It promotes neither a mechanistic worldview that precludes holistic understanding of patients as people nor a humanizing of the doctor-patient encounter.  In fact, technology is utterly neutral with respect to the values that inform medical practice and shape individual doctor-patient relationships.  Technology does not make (or unmake) the doctor.  It no doubt affects the physician’s choice of specialty, pulling those who lack doctoring instincts or people skills in problem-solving directions (think diagnostic radiology or pathology). But this is hardly a bad thing.

For Stephens, who struggled to formulate an “intellectual” defense of family practice as a new medical discipline, technology was an easy target.  Infusing the nascent behavioral medicine of his day with a liberal dose of sociology and psychoanalysis, he envisioned the family practice movement as a vehicle for recapturing “diseases of the self” through dialogue.[9]  To the extent that technology – whose very existence all but guaranteed its overuse – supplanted  the sensibility (and associated communicational skills) that enabled such dialogue, it was ipso facto part of the problem.

Now there is no question that overreliance on technology, teamed with epistemic assurance that technology invariably determines what is best, can make a mess of things, interpersonally speaking.  But is the problem with the technology or with the human beings who use it?  Technology, however “high” or “low,” is an instrument of diagnosis and treatment, not a signpost of treatment well- or ill-rendered.  Physicians who are not patient-centered will assuredly not find themselves pulled toward doctor-patient dialogue through the tools of their specialty.  But neither will they become less patient-centered on account of these tools.  Physicians who are patient-centered, who enjoy their patients as people, and who comprehend their physicianly responsibilities in broader Hippocratic terms – these physicians will not be rendered less human, less caring, less dialogic, because of the technology they rely on.  On the contrary, their caregiving values, if deeply held, will suffuse the technology and humanize its deployment in patient-centered ways.

When my retinologist examines the back of my eyes with the high-tech tools of his specialty – a retinal camera, a slit lamp, an optical coherence tomography machine – I do not feel that my connection with him is depersonalized or objectified through the instrumentation.  Not in the least.  On the contrary, I perceive the technology as an extension of his person.  I am his patient, I have retinal pathology, and I need his regular reassurance that my condition remains stable and that I can continue with my work.  He is responsive to my anxiety and sees me whenever I need to see him.  The high technology he deploys in evaluating the back of my eye does not come between us; it is a mechanical extension of his physicianly gaze that fortifies his judgment and amplifies the reassurance he is able to provide.  Because he cares for me, his technology cares for me.  It is caring technology because he is a caring physician.

Modern retinology is something of a technological tour de force, but it is no different in kind from other specialties that employ colposcopes, cytoscopes, gastroscopes, proctoscopes, rhinoscopes, and the like to investigate symptoms and make diagnoses.  If the physician who employs the technology is caring, then all such technological invasions, however unpleasant, are caring interventions.  The cardiologist who recommends an invasive procedure like cardiac catheterization is no less caring on that account; such high technology does not distance him from the patient, though it may well enable him to maintain the distance that already exists.  It is a matter of personality, not technology.

I extend this claim to advanced imaging studies as well.  When the need for an MRI is explained in a caring and comprehensible manner, when the explanation is enveloped in a trusting doctor-patient relationship, then the technology, however discomfiting, becomes the physician’s collaborator in care-giving.  This is altogether different from the patient who demands an MRI or the physician who, in the throes of defensive medicine, remarks off-handedly, “Well, we better get an MRI” or simply, “I’m going to order an MRI.”

Medical technology, at its best, is the problem-solving equivalent of a prosthetic limb.  It is an inanimate extender of the physician’s mental “grasp” of the problem at hand. To the extent that technology remains tethered to the physician’s caring sensibility, to his understanding that his diagnostic or treatment-related problem is our existential problem – and that, per Kierkegaard, we are often fraught with fear and trembling on account of it – then we may welcome the embrace of high technology, just as polio patients of the 1930s and 40s with paralyzed intercostal muscles welcomed the literal embrace of the iron lung, which enabled them to breath fully and deeply and without pain.

No doubt, many physicians fail to comprehend their use of technology in this fuzzy, humanistic way – and we are probably the worse for it.  Technology does not structure interpersonal relationships; it is simply there for the using or abusing.  The problem is not that we have too much of it, but that we impute a kind of relational valence to it, as if otherwise caring doctors are pulled away from patient care because technology gets between them and their patients.  With some doctors, this may indeed be the case.  But it is not the press of technology per se that reduces physicians to, in a word Stephens disparagingly uses, “technologists.”  The problem is not in their tools but in themselves.


[1] A. Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770 (Cambridge: Harvard, 1995), pp. 97-98, 127-128.

[2] R. D. French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 411.

[3] J. P. Baker, “The Incubator Controversy: Pediatricians and the Origins of Premature Infant Technology in the United States, 1890 to 1910,” Pediatrics, 87:654-662, 1991.

[4] E. H. Thomson, Harvey Cushing: Surgeon, Author, Artist (NY: Schuman, 1950), pp. 244-45.

[5] G. G. Stephens, The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice (Kansas City: Winter, 1982), pp. 62, 56, 83-85, 135-39.

[6] Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 84, 191, 64, 39, 28.

[7] E.g., Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 96, 194.  Cf. his comment on the American College of Surgeon’s effort to keep FPs out of the hospital: “There are issues of political hegemony masquerading as quality of patient care, medicolegal issues disguised as professional qualifications, and economic wolves in the sheepskins of guardians of the public safety” (p. 69).

[8] Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 23, 38, 22.  In 1978, he spoke of the incursion of family practice  into the medical school curriculum of the early 70s as an assault on an entrenched power base:  “The medical education establishment has proved to be a tough opponent, with weapons we never dreamed of. . . .We had to deal with strong emotions, hostility, anger, humiliation. Our very existence was a judgment on the schools, much in the same way that civil rights demonstrators were a judgment on the establishment.  We identified ourselves with all the natural critics of the schools – students, underserved segments of the public, and their elected representatives – to bring pressure to bear on the schools to create academic units devoted to family practice” (pp. 184, 187).

[9] Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 94, 105, 120-23, 192.

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