Category Archives: Primary Care

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.

“Doctor’s Office . . .”

Looking for a new primary care physician some time back, I received a referral from one of my specialists and called the office.  “Doctor’s Office . . .”   Thus began my nonconversation with the office receptionist.  We never progressed beyond the generic opening, as the receptionist was inarticulate, insensitive, unable to answer basic questions in a direct, professional manner, and dismally unable, after repeated attempts, to pronounce my three-syllable name.  When I asked directly whether the doctor was accepting new patients, the receptionist groped for a reply, which eventually took the form of “well, yes, sometimes, under certain circumstances, it all depends, but it would be a long time before you could see her.”  When I suggested that the first order of business was to determine whether or not the practice accepted my health insurance, the receptionist, audibly discomfited, replied that someone else would have to call me back to discuss insurance.

After the receptionist mangled my name four times trying to take down a message for another staff member, with blood pressure rising and anger management kicking in, I decided I had had enough.  I injected through her Darwinian approach to name pronunciation – keep trying variants until one of them elicits the adaptive “that’s it!” — that I wanted no part of a practice that made her the point of patient contact and hung up.

Now a brief  letter from a former patient to my father, William Stepansky, at the time of his retirement in 1990 after 40 years of family medicine:  “One only has to sit in the waiting area for a short while to see the care and respect shown to each and every patient by yourself and your staff.”  And this from another former patient on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2002:

“I heard that you are celebrating a special birthday – your 80th.  I wanted to send a note to a very special person to wish you a happy birthday and hope that this finds you and Mrs. Stepansky in good health.  We continue to see your son, David, as our primary doctor and are so glad that we stayed with him.  He is as nice as you are.  I’m sure you know that the entire practice changed.  I have to admit that I really miss the days of you in your other office with Shirley [the receptionist] and Connie [the nurse].  I have fond memories of bringing the children in and knowing that they were getting great care and attention.”[1]

Here in microcosm is one aspect of the devolution of American primary care over the past half century.  Between my own upset and the nostalgia of my father’s former patient, there is the burgeoning of practice management, which is simply a euphemism for the commercialization of medicine.  There is a small literature on the division of labor that follows commercialization, including articles on the role of new-style, techno-savvy office managers with business backgrounds.  But there is nothing on the role of phone receptionists save two articles concerned with practice efficiency:  one provides the reader with seven “never-fail strategies” for saving time and avoiding phone tag; the other enjoins receptionists to enforce “practice rules” in managing patient demand for appointments.[2]  Neither has anything to do, even tangentially, with the psychological role of the receptionist as the modulator of stress and gateway to the practice.

To be sure, the phone receptionist is low man or woman on the staff totem pole.  But these people have presumably been trained to do a job.  My earlier experience left me befuddled both about what they are trained to do and, equally important, how they are trained to be.  If a receptionist cannot tell a prospective patient courteously and professionally (a) whether or not the practice is accepting new patients; (b) whether or not the practice accepts specific insurance plans; and (c) whether or not the doctor grants appointments to  prospective patients who wish to introduce themselves, then what exactly are they being trained to do?

There should be a literature on the interpersonal and tension-regulatory aspects of receptionist phone talk.  Let me initiate it here.  People – especially prospective patients unknown to staff – typically call the doctor with some degree of stress, even trepidation.  It is important to reassure the prospective patient that the doctor(s) is a competent and caring provider who has surrounded him- or herself with adjunct staff who share his or her values and welcome patient queries.  There is a world of connotative difference between answering the phone with “Doctor’s office,” “Doctor Jones’s office,” “Doctor Jones’s office; Marge speaking,” and “Good morning, Doctor Jones’s office; Marge speaking.”  The differences concern the attitudinal and affective signals that are embedded in all interpersonal transactions, even a simple phone query.  Each of the aforementioned options has a different interpersonal valence; each, to borrow the terminology of J. L. Austin, the author of speech act theory, has its own perlocutionary effect.  Each, that is, makes the recipient of the utterance think and feel and possibly act a certain way apart from the dry content of the communication.[3]

“Doctor’s office” is generic, impersonal, and blatantly commercial; it suggests that the doctor is simply a member of a class of faceless providers whose services comfortably nestle within a business model.   “Doctor Jones’s office” at least personalizes the business setting to the extent of identifying a particular doctor who provides the services.  Whether she is warm and caring, whether she likes her work, and whether she is happy (or simply willing) to meet and take on new patients – these things remain to be determined.  But at least the prospective patient’s intent of seeing one particular doctor (or becoming part of one particular practice) and not merely a recipient of generic doctoring services is acknowledged.

“Doctor Jones’s office; Marge speaking” is a much more humanizing variant.  The prospective patient not only receives confirmation that he has sought out one particular doctor (or practice), but also feels that his reaching out has elicited a human response, that his query has landed him in a human community of providers.  It is not only that Dr. Jones is one doctor among many, but also that she has among her employees a person comfortable enough in her role to identify herself by name and thereby invite the caller to so identify her – even if he is unknown to her and to the doctor.  The two simple words “Marge speaking” establish a bond, which may or may not outlast the initial communication.  But for the duration of the phone transaction, at least, “Marge speaking” holds out the promise of what Mary Ainsworth and the legions of attachment researchers who followed her term a “secure attachment.”[4] Prefacing the communication with “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” amplifies the personal connection through simple conviviality, the notion that this receptionist may be a friendly person standing in for a genuinely friendly provider.

Of course, even “Good morning, Marge speaking” is a promissory note; it rewards the prospective patient for taking the first step and encourages him to take a second, which may or may not prove satisfactory. If “Marge” cannot answer reasonable questions (“Is the doctor a board-certified internist”  “Is the doctor taking new patients?”) in a courteous, professional manner, the promissory note may come to naught.  On the other hand, the more knowledgeable and/or friendly Marge is, the greater the invitation to a preliminary attachment.

Doctors are always free to strengthen the invitation personally, though few have the time or inclination to do so.  My internist brother, David Stepansky, told me that when his group practice consolidated offices and replaced the familiar staff that had worked with our father for many years, patient unhappiness at losing the comfortable familiarity of well-liked receptionists was keen and spurred him to action.   He prevailed on the office manager to add his personal voicemail to the list of phone options offered to patients who called the practice.  Patients unhappy with the new system and personnel could hear his voice and then leave a message that he himself would listen to.  Despite the initial concern of the office manager, he continued with this arrangement for many years and never found it taxing.  His patients, our father’s former patients, seemed genuinely appreciative of the personal touch and, as a result, never abused the privilege of leaving messages for him.  The mere knowledge that they could, if necessary, hear his voice and leave a message for him successfully bridged the transition to a new location and a new staff.

Physicians should impress on their phone receptionists that they not only make appointments but provide new patients with their initial (and perhaps durable) sense of the physician and the staff.  Phone receptionists should understand that patients – especially new patients – are not merely consumers buying a service, but individuals who may be, variously, vulnerable, anxious, and/or in pain.  There is a gravity, however subliminal, in that first phone call and in those first words offered to the would-be patient.  And let there be no doubt:  Many patients still cling to the notion that a medical practice – especially a primary care practice – should be, per Winnicott, a “holding environment,” if only in the minimalist sense that the leap to scheduling an appointment will land one in good and even caring hands.


[1] The first quoted passage is reprinted in P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor: Remembering My Father’s Medicine (Keynote, 2011), p. 123. The second passage is not in the book and is among my father’s personal effects.

[2] L. Macmillan & M. Pringle, “Practice managers and practice management,” BMJ, 304:1672-1674, 1992; L . S. Hill, “Telephone techniques and etiquette: a medical practice staff training tool,” J. Med. Pract. Manage., 3:166-170, 2007; M. Gallagher, et al.,  “Managing patient demand: a qualitative study of appointment making in general practice,” Brit. J. Gen. Pract., 51:280-285, 2001.

[3] See J. L. Austin,  How To Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962) and the work of his student, J. R. Searle, Speech Acts:  An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

[4] Ainsworth’s typology of mother-infant attachment states grew out of her observational research on mother-infant pairs in Uganda, gathered in her Infancy in Uganda (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967).  On the nature of secure attachments, see especially J. Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development(New York: Basic Books, 1988) and  I. Bretherton, “The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Develop. Psychol., 28:759-775, 1992.

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

Empathy, Psychotherapy, Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

My Doctor, My Friend

In a piece several months ago  in the Boston Globe, “Blurred Boundaries Between Doctor and Patient,” columnist and primary care internist Suzanne Koven writes movingly of her patient Emma, whom Koven befriended over the last 15 years of Emma’s life.  “Emma and I met frequently to gossip, talk about books and politics, and trade stories about our lives,” she remarks.  “She came to my house for dinner several times, and my husband and kids joined me at her 90th birthday party.  When, at 92, Emma moved reluctantly into a nursing home, I brought her the bagels and lox she craved – rich, salty treats her doctor had long discouraged her from eating.  Here’s the funny part:  I was that doctor.”

Koven writes perceptively of her initial concern with doctor-patient boundaries (heightened, she admits, by her status as “a young female physician”), her ill-fated efforts to maintain her early ideal of professional detachment, and, as with Emma, her eventual understanding that the roles of physician and friend could be for the most part “mutually reinforcing.”

As a historian of medicine interested in the doctor-patient relationship, I reacted to Koven’s piece appreciatively but, as I confessed to her, sadly.  For her initial concern with “blurred boundaries” and her realization after years of practice about the compatibility of friendship with primary medical care only underscore the fragmented and depersonalized world of contemporary medicine, primary care included.  By this, I mean that the quality of intimacy that grows out of most doctoring has become so shallow that we are led to scrutinize doctor-patient “friendship” as a problematic (Is it good?  Is it bad?  Should there be limits to it?) and celebrate instances of such friendship as signal achievements.   Psychoanalysts, be it noted, have been pondering these questions in their literature for decades, but they at least have the excuse of their method, which centrally implicates the analysis and resolution of transference with patients who tend to become inordinately dependent on them.

My father, William Stepansky, like many of the WWII generation, befriended his patients, but he befriended them as their doctor.  That is, he understood his medicine to include human provisions of a loving and Hippocratic sort.  Friendly two-way extramedical queries about his family, contact at community events, attendance at local weddings and other receptions – these were not boundary-testing land mines but aspects of community-embedded caregiving.  But here’s the rub:  My father befriended his patients as their doctor; his friendship was simply the caring dimension of his care-giving.  What, after all, did he have in common with the vast majority of his patients?  They were Protestants and Catholics, members of the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs who attended the local churches and coached little league baseball and Pop Warner football.  He was an intellectual East European Jew, a serious lifelong student of the violin whose leisure time was spent practicing, reading medical journals, and tending to his lawn.

And yet to his patients, he was always a special friend, though he himself would admit nothing special about it:  his friendship  was simply the human expression of his calling.  He did not (to my knowledge) bring anyone bagels and lox or pay visits to chat about books or politics, but he provided treatment (including ongoing supportive psychotherapy) at no charge, accepted payment in kind, and visited patients in their homes when they became too elderly or infirm to come to the office.  Other routine “friendly” gestures included charging for a single visit when a mother brought a brood of sick children to the office during the cold season.  And when elderly patients became terminal, they did not have to ask – he simply began visiting them regularly in their homes to provide what comfort he could and to let them know they were on his mind.

When he announced his impending retirement to his patients in the fall of 1990, his farewell letter began “Dear Friend” and then expressed regret at “leaving many patients with whom I have shared significant life experience from which many long-term friendships have evolved.”  “It has been a privilege to serve as your physician for these many years,” he concluded.  “Your confidence and friendship have meant much to me.”  When, in my research for The Last Family Doctor, I sifted through the bags of cards and letters that followed this announcement, I was struck by the number of patients who not only reciprocated my father’s sentiment but summoned the words to convey deep gratitude for the gift of their doctor’s friendship.

In our own era of fragmented multispecialty care, hemmed in by patient rights, defensive medicine, and concerns about boundary violations, it is far from easy for a physician to “friend” a patient as physician, to be and remain a physician-friend.  Furthermore, physicians now wrestle with the ethical implications of “friending” in ways that are increasingly dissociated from a medical identity.  Many choose to forego professional distance at the close of a work day.  No less than the rest of us, physicians seek multicolored self states woven of myriad connective threads; no less than the rest of us, they are the Children of Facebook.

But there is a downside to this diffusion of connective energy.  When, as a society, we construe the friendship of doctors as extramedical, when we pull it into the arena of depersonalized connecting fostered by social media, we risk marginalizing the deeper kind of friendship associated with the medical calling: the physician’s nurturing love of the patient.   And we lose sight of the fact that, until the final two decades of the 19th century,  when advances in cellular biology, experimental physiology, bacteriology, and pharmacology ushered in an era of specific remedies for specific ailments, most effective doctoring – excluding only a limited number of surgeries – amounted to little more than just such friendship, such comfortable and comforting “friending” of sick and suffering people.

And this takes us back to Suzanne Koven, who imputes the “austere façade” of her medical youth to those imposing 19th-century role models “whose oil portraits lined the walls of the hospital [MGH] in which I did my medical training.”  Among the grim visages that stared down from on high was that of the illustrious James Jackson, Sr., who brought Jenner’s technique of smallpox inoculation to the shores of Boston in 1800, became Harvard’s second Hersey Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine in 1812, and was a driving force in the founding of MGH, which opened its doors in 1821.  Koven cites a passage from the second of Jackson’s Letters to a Young Physician (1855) in which he urges his young colleague to “abstain from all levity” and “never exact attention to himself.”

But why should absence of levity and focal concern with the patient be tantamount to indifference, coolness, the withholding of physicianly friendship?  Was Jackson really so forbidding a role model?  Composing his Letters in the wake of the cholera epidemic of 1848, when “regular” remedies such as bleeding and purging proved futile and only heightened the suffering of  thousands, Jackson cautioned modesty when it came to therapeutic pretensions.  He abjured the use of drugs “as much as possible,” and added that “the true physician takes care of his patient without claiming to control the disease in all cases.” Indeed he sought to restore “cure” to its original Latin meaning, to curare, the sense in which “to cure meant to take care.”  “The physician,” he instructed his protégé,

“may do very much for the welfare of the sick, more than others can do, although he does not, even in the major part of cases, undertake to control and overcome the disease by art.  It was with these views that I never reported any patients cured at our hospital.  Those who recovered their health before they left the house were reported as well, not implying that they were made so by the active treatment they had received there.  But it was to be understood that all patients received in that house were to be cured, that is, taken care of” [Letters to a Young Physician, p. 16, Jackson’s emphasis].

And then he moved on to the narrowing of vision that safeguarded the physician’s caring values, his cura:

“You must not mistake me.  We are not called upon to forget ourselves in our regard for others.  We do not engage in practice merely from philanthropy.  We are justified in looking for both profit and honor, if we give our best services to our patients; only we must not be thinking of these when at the bedside.  There the welfare of the sick must occupy us entirely” [Letters to a Young Physician, pp. 22-23].

Koven sees the Hippocratic commitment that lies beneath Jackson’s stern glance and, with the benefit of hindsight, links it to her friendship with Emma. “As mutually affectionate as our friendship was,” she concludes, “her health and comfort were always its purpose.”  Indeed.  For my father and any number of caring generalists, friendship was prerequisite to clinical knowing and foundational to clinical caring.  It was not extramural, not reserved for special patients, but a way of being with all patients.  And this friendship for his patients, orbiting around a sensibility of cura and a wide range of procedural activities, was not a heavy thing, leaden with solemnity.  It was musical.  It danced.

In the early 60s, he returns from a nursing home where he has just visited a convalescing patient.  I am his travelling companion during afternoon house calls, and I greet him on his return to the car.  He looks at me and with a sly grin remarks that he has just added “medicinal scotch” to the regimen of this elderly gentlemen, who sorely missed his liquor and was certain a little imbibing would move his rehab right along.  It was a warmly caring gesture worthy of Osler, that lover of humanity, student of the classics, and inveterate practical joker.  And a generation before Osler, the elder Jackson would have smiled.  Immediately after cautioning the young physician to “abstain from all levity,” he added: “He should, indeed, be cheerful, and, under proper circumstances, he may indulge in vivacity and in humor, if he has any.  But all this should be done with reference to the actual state of feeling of the patient and of his friends.”  Just so.

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

Hail the House Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum

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

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

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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