Your Tool Touches Me

It is little known that René Laënnec, the Parisian physician who invented the stethoscope at the Necker Hospital in 1816, found it distasteful to place his ear to the patient’s chest.  The distastefulness of “direct auscultation” was compounded by its impracticality in the hospital where, he observed, “it was scarcely to be suggested for most women patients, in some of whom the size of the breasts also posed a physical obstacle.”[1]  The stethoscope, which permitted “mediate auscultation,” not only amplified heart and lung sounds in diagnostically transformative ways; it enabled Laënnec to avoid repugnant  ear to chest contact.

Many women patients of Laënnec’s time and place did not see it that way.  Accustomed to the warmly human pressure of ear on chest, they were uncomfortable when an elongated wooden cylinder was interposed between the two.  By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, of course, the situation was inverted:  The stethoscope, in its modern binaural guise, had become so integral to physical examination that patients  hardly viewed it as a tool at all.  It had become emblematic of hands-on doctoring and, as such, a sensory extender of the doctor.  Even now, the stethoscope virtually stands in for the doctor, especially the generalist or the cardiologist, so that a retiring physician will announce that he is, or will be characterized by others as, hanging up his stethoscope.[2]

It’s easy to argue for the “oneness” of the physician and his or her instruments when it’s a matter of simple tools that amplify sensory endowment  (stethoscopes), provide a hands-on bodily “reading” (of temperature or blood pressure), or elicit a tendon reflex (e.g., the reflex hammer).  And the argument can be extended without much difficulty to the more invasive, high-tech “scopes” used by medical specialists to see what is invisible to the naked eye.  Instruments become so wedded to one or another specialty that it is hard to think of our providers without them.  What is an ophthalmologist without her ophthalmoscope?  An ENT without his nasal speculum?  A gynecologist without her vaginal speculum?  An internist without his blood pressure meter?  Such hand-held devices are diagnostic enablers, and as such they are, or at least ought to be, our friends.

In “Caring Technology” I  suggested that even large-scale technology administered by technicians, and therefore outside the physician’s literal grasp, can be linked in meaningful ways to the physician’s person.  A caring explanation of the need for this or that study, informed by a relational bond, can humanize even the most forbidding high-tech machinery.  To be sure, medical machinery, whatever the discomfort and/or bodily bombardment it entails, is often discomfiting.  But it need be alienating only when we come to it in an alienated state, when it is not an instrument of physicianly engagement but a dehumanized object – a piece of technology.

Critical care nurses, whose work is both technology-laden and technology-driven, have had much to say on the relationship of technology to nursing identity and nursing care.  This literature includes provocative contributions that look at where nurses stand in a hospital hierarchy that comprises staff physicians, residents, students, administrators, patients, and patients’ families.

For some CCU nurses, the use of technology and the acquisition of technological competence segue into issues of power and autonomy and they, in turn, are linked to issues of gender, medical domination, and “ownership” of the technology.[3]  A less feminist sensibility informs interview research that yields unsurprising empirical findings, viz.,  that comfort with technology and the ability to incorporate it into a caring, “touching” disposition hinge on the technological mastery associated with nursing experience.  Student and novice nurses, for example, find the machinery of the CCU anxiety-inducing, even overwhelming.  They resent the casual manner in which physicians relegate to them complex technological tasks, such as weaning patients from respirators, without appreciating the long list of  nursing duties to which such tasks are appended.[4]  Withal, beginners approach the use of technology in task-specific ways and have great difficulty “caring with technology.”[5]   Theirs is not a caring technology but a technology that causes stress and jeopardizes fragile professional identities.

Experienced CCU nurses, on the other hand, achieve a technological competence that lets them pull the machinery to them; they use it as a window of opportunity for being with their patients.[6]   Following Christine Little, we can give the transformation from novice to expert a phenomenological gloss and say that as technological inexperience gives way to technological mastery, technological skills become “ready-to-hand” (Heidegger) and “a natural extension of practice.”[7]

Well and good.  We want critical care nurses comfortable with the machinery of critical care – with cardiac and vital signs monitors, respirators, catheters, and infusion pumps – so that implementing technological interventions and monitoring the monitors do not blot out the nurse’s “presence”  in the patient’s care.   But all this is from the perspective of the nurse and her role in the hospital.  What, one wonders, does the patient make of all this technology?

Humanizing technology means identifying with it in ways that are not only responsive to the patient’s fears but also conducive to a shared appreciation of its role in treatment.  It is easier for patients to feel humanly touched by technology, that is, if their doctors and nurses appropriate it and represent it as an extender of care.  Perhaps some doctors and nurses do so as a matter of course, but one searches the literature in vain for examples of nurse-patient or doctor-patient interactions that humanize technology through dialogue.  And such dialogue, however perfunctory in nature, may greatly matter.

Consider the seriously ill patient whose nurse interacts with him without consideration of the technology-saturated environment in which care is given.  Now consider the seriously ill patient whose nurse incorporates the machinery into his or her caregiving identity, as in “This monitor [or this line or this pump] is a terrific thing for you and for me.  It lets me take better care of you.”  Such reassurance, which can be elaborated in any number of patient-centered ways, is not trivial; it may turn an anxious patient around, psychologically speaking.  And it is all the more important when, owing to the gravity of the patient’s condition, the nurse must spend more time assessing data and tending to machinery than caring for the patient.  Here especially the patient needs to be reminded that the nurse’s responsibility for machinery expands his or her role as the patient’s guardian.[8]

The touch of the physician’s sensory extenders, if literally uncomfortable, may still be comforting.  For it is the physician’s own ears that hear us through the stethoscope and whose own eyes gaze on us through the ophthalmoscope, the laryngoscope, the esophagoscope, the colposcope.  It is easier to appreciate tools as beneficent extenders of care in the safe confines of one’s own doctor’s office, where instrumental touching is fortified by the relational bond that grows out of continuing care.  In the hospital, absent such relational grounding, there is  more room for dissonance and hence more need for shared values and empathy.  A nurse who lets the cardiac monitor pull her away from patient care will not do well with a frightened patient who needs personal caring.  A parturient who welcomes the technology of the labor room will connect better with a labor nurse who values the electronic fetal monitor (and the reassuring visualization it provides the soon-to-be mother) than a nurse who is unhappy with its employment in low-risk births and prefers a return to intermittent auscultation.

In the best of circumstances, tools elicit an intersubjective convergence grounded in an expectation of objectively superior care.  It helps to keep the “objective care” part in mind, to remember that technology was not devised to frighten us, encumber us, or cause us pain,  but to help doctors and nurses evaluate us, keep us stable and comfortable, and enable treatments that will make us better, or at least leave us better off than our technology-free forebears.

My retinologist reclines the examination chair all the way back and begins prepping my left eye for its second intravitreal  injection of Eylea, one of the newest drugs used to treat macular disease.  I am grateful for all the technology that has brought me to this point:  the retinal camera, the slit lamp, the optical coherence tomography machine.  I am especially grateful for the development of fluorescein angiography, which allows my doctor to pinpoint with great precision the lesion in need of treatment.  And of course I am grateful to my retinologist, who brings all this technology to bear with a human touch, calmly reassuring me through every step of evaluation and treatment.

I experienced almost immediate improvement after the first such injection a month earlier and am eager to proceed with the treatment.  So I am relatively relaxed as he douses my eye with antiseptic and anesthetic washes in preparation for the needle.  Then, at the point of injection, he asks me to look up at the face of his assistant, a young woman with a lovely smile.  “My pleasure,” I quip, slipping into gendered mode.  “I love to look at pretty faces.”   I am barely aware of the momentary pressure of the needle that punctures my eyeball and releases this wonderfully effective new drug into the back of my eye.  It is not the needle that administers treatment but my trusted and caring physician.  “Great technique,” I remark.  “I barely felt it.”  To which his young assistant, still standing above me, smiles and adds,  “I think I had something to do with it.”  And indeed she had.

[1] Quoted in J. Duffin, To See with a Better Eye: A Life of R. T. H. Laennec (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 122.

[2] Here are a few recent examples:  O. Samuel, “On hanging up my stethoscope,” BMJ, 312:1426, 1996; “Dr. Van Ausdal hangs up his stethoscope,”, September 26, 2013 (;  “At 90, Gardena doctor is hanging up his stethoscope,” The Daily Breeze, October, 29, 2013 (;  “Well-known doctor hangs up his stethoscope,” Bay Post, February 8, 2014 (

[3] See, for example, A. Barnard, “A critical review of the belief that technology is a neutral object and nurses are its master,” J. Advanced Nurs., 26:126-131, 1997; J. Fairman & P. D’Antonio, “Virtual power: gendering the nurse-technology relationship,” Nurs. Inq., 6:178-186, 1999; & B. J. Hoerst & J. Fairman, “Social and professional influences of the technology of electronic fetal monitoring on obstetrical nursing,” Western J. Nurs. Res., 22:475-491, 2000, at pp. 481-82.

[4] C. Crocker & S. Timmons, “The role of technology in critical care nursing,” J. Advanced Nurs., 65:52-61, 2008.

[5] M. McGrath, “The challenges of caring in a technological environment:  critical care nurses’ experiences,” J. Clin. Nurs., 17:1096-1104, 2008.

[6] A. Bernardo, “Technology and true presence in nursing,” Holistic Nurs. Prac., 12:40-49, 1998;  R. C. Locsin,  Technological Competency As Caring in Nursing: A Model For Practice (Indianapolis: Centre Nursing Press, 2005);  McGrath, “The challenges of caring,” op. cit.

[7] C. V. Little, “Technological competence as a fundamental structure of learning in critical care nursing: a phenomenological study,” J. Clin. Nurs., 9:391-399, 2000, at pp. 398, 396.

[8] See E. A. McConnell, “The impact of machines on the work of critical care nurses,” Crit. Care Nurs. Q., 12:45-52, 1990, at p. 51; D. Pelletier , et al., “The impact of the technological care environment on the nursing role, Int. J. Tech. Assess. Health Care, 12:35     8-366, 1996.C

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

You Touch Me

Etymologically, the word “touch” (from the old French touchier) is a semantic cornucopia.  In English, of course, common usage embraces dual meanings. We make tactile contact, and we receive emotional contact.  The latter meaning is usually passively rendered, in the manner of receiving a gift:  we are the beneficiary of someone else’s emotional offering; we are “touched” by a person’s words, gestures, or deeds.  The duality extends to the realm of healthcare:  as patients, we are touched physically by our physicians (or other providers) but, if we are fortunate, we are also touched emotionally by their kindness, concern, empathy, even love.  Here the two kinds of touching are complementary.  We are examined (and often experience a measure of  contact comfort through the touch)  and then comforted by the physician’s sympathetic words; we are touched by the human contact that follows from physical touch.

For nurses, caregiving as touching and being touched has been central to professional identity.  The foundations of nursing as a modern “profession” were laid down on the battlefields of Crimea and the American South during the mid-nineteenth century.  Crimean and Civil War nurses could not “treat” their patients, but they “touched” them literally and figuratively and, in so doing, individualized their suffering.  Their nursing touch was amplified by the caring impulse of mothers:  they listened to soldiers’ stories, sought to keep them warm, and especially sought to nourish them, struggling to pry their food parcels away from corrupt medical officers.  In the process, they formulated a professional ethos that, in privileging patient care over hospital protocol, was anathema to the professionalism associated with male medical authority.[1]

This alternative, comfort-based vision of professionalism is one reason, among others, that nursing literature is more nuanced than medical literature in exploring the phenomenology and dynamic meanings of touch. It has fallen to nursing researchers to isolate and appraise the tactile components of touch (such as duration, location, intensity, and sensation) and also to differentiate between comforting touch and the touch associated with procedures, i.e., procedural touch.[2]  Buttressing the  phenomenological viewpoint of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty with recent neurophysiologic research, Catherine Green has recently argued that nurse-patient interaction, with its “heavily tactile component” promotes an experiential oneness:  it “plunges the nurse into the patient situation in a direct and immediate way.”  To touch, she reminds us, is simultaneously to be touched, so that the nurse’s soothing touch not only promotes deep empathy of the patient’s plight but actually “constitutes” the nurse herself (or himself) in her (or his) very personhood.[3]  Other nurse researchers question the intersubjective convergence presumed by Green’s rendering.  A survey of hospitalized patients, for example, documents that some patients are ambivalent toward the nurse’s touch, since for them it signifies not only care but also control.[4]

After World War II, the rise of sophisticated monitoring equipment in hospitals pulled American nursing away from hands-on, one-on-one bedside nursing.  By the 1960s, hospital nurses, no less than physicians, were “proceduralists” who relied on cardiac and vital function monitors, electronic fetal monitors, and the like for “data” on the patients they “nursed.”  They monitored the monitors and, for educators critical of this turn of events, especially psychiatric nurses, had become little more than monitors themselves.

As the historian Margarete Sandelowski has elaborated, this transformation of hospital nursing had both an upside and a downside.  It elevated the status of nurses by aligning them with postwar scientific medicine in all its burgeoning technological power.  Nurses, the skilled human monitors of the machines, were key players on whom hospitalized patients and their physicians increasingly relied.  In the hospital setting, they became “middle managers,”[5] with command authority of their wards. Those nurses with specialized skills – especially those who worked in the newly established intensive care units (ICUs) – were at the top of the nursing pecking order.  They were the most medical of the nurses, trained to diagnose and treat life-threating conditions as they arose.  As such, they achieved a new collegial status with physicians, the limits of which were all too clear.  Yes, physicians relied on nurses (and often learned from them) in the use of the new machines, but they simultaneously demeaned the “practical knowledge” that nurses acquired in the service of advanced technology – as if educating and reassuring patients about the purpose of the machines; maintaining them (and recommending improvements to manufacturers); and utilizing them without medical supervision was something any minimally intelligent person could do.

A special predicament of nursing concerns the impact of monitoring and proceduralism on a profession whose historical raison d’être was hands-on caring, first on the battlefields and then at the bedside.  Self-evidently, nurses with advanced procedural skills had to relinquish that most traditional of nursing functions: the laying on of hands.  Consider hospital-based nurses who worked full-time as x-ray technicians and microscopists in the early 1900s; who, beginning in the 1930s, monitored  polio patients in their iron lungs; who, in the decades following World War II, performed venipuncture as full-time IV therapists; and who, beginning in the 1960s, diagnosed and treated life-threatening conditions in the machine-driven ICUs.  Obstetrical nurses who, beginning in the late 1960s, relied on electronic fetal monitors to gauge the progress of labor and who, on detecting “nonreassuring” fetal heart rate patterns, initiated oxygen therapy or terminated oxytocin infusions – these “modern” OB nurses were worlds removed from their pre-1940s forebears, who monitored labor with their hands and eyes in the patient’s own home.  Nursing educators grew concerned that, with the growing reliance on electronic metering, nurses were “literally and figuratively ‘losing touch’ with laboring women.”[6]

Nor did the dilemma for nurses end with the pull of machine-age monitoring away from what nursing educators long construed as “true nursing.”  It pertained equally to the compensatory efforts to restore the personal touch to nursing in the 1970s and 80s.  This is because “true nursing,” as understood by Florence Nightingale and several generations of twentieth-century nursing educators, fell back on gendered touching; to nurse truly and well was to deploy the feminine touch of caring women.  If “losing touch” through technology was the price paid for elevated status in the hospital, then restoring touch brought with it the re-gendering (and hence devaluing) of the nurse’s charge:  she was, when all was said and done, the womanly helpmate of physicians, those masculine (or masculinized) gatekeepers of scientific medicine in all its curative glory.[7]  And yet, in the matter of touching and being touched, gender takes us only so far.  What then of male nurses, who insist on the synergy of masculinity, caring, and touch?[8]  Is their touch ipso facto deficient in some essential ingredient of true nursing?

As soon as we enter the realm of soothing touch, with its attendant psychological meanings, we encounter a number of binaries.  Each pole of a binary is a construct, an example of what the sociologist Max Weber termed an “ideal type.”  The question-promoting, if not questionable, nature of these constructs only increases their heuristic value.  They give us something to think about.  So we have “feminine” and “masculine” touch, as noted above.  But we also have the nurse’s touch and, at the other pole, the physician’s touch.  In the gendered world of many feminist writers, this binary replicates the gender divide, despite the historical and contemporary reality of women physicians and male nurses.

But the binary extends  to women physicians themselves.  In their efforts to gain entry to the world of male American medicine,  female medical pioneers adopted two radically different strategies.  At one pole, we have the touch-comfort-sympathy approach of Elizabeth Blackwell, which assigned women their own  feminized domain of practice (child care, nonsurgical obstetrics and gynecology, womanly counseling on matters of sanitation, hygiene, and prevention).  At the opposite pole we have the research-oriented, scientific approach of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Marie Zakrezewska, which held that  women physicians must be physicians in any and all respects.  Only with state-of-the-art training in the medical science (e.g., bacteriology) and treatments (e.g., ovariotomy) of the day, they held, would women docs achieve what they deserved:  full parity with  medical men.  The binary of female physicians as extenders of women’s “natural sphere” versus female physicians as physicians pure and simple runs through the second half of the nineteenth century.[9]

Within medicine, we can perhaps speak of the generalist touch (analogous to the generalist gaze[10]) that can be juxtaposed with the specialist touch.  Medical technology, especially tools that amplify the physician’s senses –  invite another binary.  There is the pole of direct touch and the pole of touch mediated by instrumentation.  This binary spans the divide between “direct auscultation,” with the physician’s ear on the patient’s chest, and “mediate auscultation,” with the stethoscope linking (and, for some nineteenth-century patients, coming between) the physician’s ear and the patient’s chest).

Broader than any of the foregoing is the binary that pushes beyond the framework of comfort care per se.  Consider it a meta-binary.  At one pole is therapeutic touch (TT), whose premise of a preternatural human energy field subject to disturbance and hands-on (or hands-near) remediation is nothing if not a recrudescence of Anton Mesmer’s “vital magnetism” of the late 18th century, with the TT therapist (usually a nurse) taking the role of Mesmer’s magnétiseur.[11]  At the opposite pole is transgressive touch.  This is the pole of boundary violations typically, though not invariably, associated with touch-free specialties such as psychiatry and psychoanalysis.[12]  Transgressive touch signifies inappropriately intimate, usually sexualized, touch that violates the boundaries of professional caring and results in the patient’s dis-comfort and dis-ease, sometimes to the point of leaving the patient traumatized, i.e., “touched in the head.”  It also signifies the psychological impairment of the therapist, who, in another etymologically just sense of the term, may be “touched,” given his or her gross inability to maintain a professional treatment relationship.

These binaries invite further scrutiny, less on account of the extremes than of the shades of grayness that span each  continuum.  Exploration of touch is a messy business, a hands-on business, a psycho-physical business.  It may yield important insights but perhaps only fitfully, in the manner of – to invoke a meaning that arose in the early nineteenth century – touch and go.

[1] See J. E. Schultz, “The inhospitable hospital: gender and professionalism in civil war medicine,” Signs, 17:363-392, 1992.

[2]  S. J. Weiss, “The language of touch,” Nurs. Res., 28:76-80, 1979; S. J. Weiss, “Psychophysiological effects of caregiver touch on incidence of cardiac dysrhythmia,” Heart and Lung, 15:494-505, 1986; C. A. Estabrooks, “Touch in nursing practice: a historical perspective: 1900-1920,” J. Nursing Hist., 2:33-49, 1987; J. S. Mulaik, et al., “Patients’ perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” W. J. Nursing Res., 13:306-323, 1991.

[3] C. Green, “Philosophic reflections on the meaning of touch in nurse-patient interactions,” Nurs. Phil., 14:242-253, 2013; quoted at pp. 250-251.

[4] Mulaik, “Patient’s perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” pp. 317-318.

[5] “Middle managers” is the characterization of the nursing historian Barbara Melosh, in “Doctors, patients, and ‘big nurse’: work and gender in the postwar hospital,” in E. C. Lagemann, ed., Nursing History: New Perspective, New Possibilities (NY: Teachers College Press, 1983), pp. 157-179.  

[6] M. Sandelowski, Devices and Desires:  Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 166.

[7] On the revalorization of the feminine in nursing in the Nursing Theory Movement of the 70s and 80s, see Sandelowski, Devices and Desires, pp. 131-134.

[8] See R. L. Pullen, et al., “Men, caring, & touch,”  Men in Nursing, 7:14-17, 2009.

[9] The work of Regina Morantz-Sanchez is especially illuminating of this binary and the major protagonists at the two poles.  See R. Morantz, “Feminism, professionalism, and germs: the thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell,” American Quarterly, 34:459-478, 1982, with a slightly revised version of the paper in R. Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 [1985]), pp. 184-202.

[10] I have written about the “generalist gaze” in P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor:  Remembering my Father’s Medicine (Montclair, NJ: Keynote Books, 2011), pp. 62-66, and more recently in P. E. Stepansky, “When generalist values meant general practice: family medicine in post-WWII America” (precirculated paper, American Association for the History of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, May 16-19, 2013).

[11] Therapeutic touch was devised and promulgated by the nursing educator Delores Krieger in publications of the 1970s and 80s, e.g., “Therapeutic touch:  the imprimatur of nursing,” Amer. J. Nursing, 75:785-787, 1975; The Therapeutic Touch (NY: Prentice Hall, 1985); and Living the Therapeutic Touch (NY:  Dodd, Mead, 1987).  I share the viewpoint of Therese Meehan, who sees the technique as a risk-free nursing intervention capable of potentiating a powerful placebo effect (T. C. Meehan, “Therapeutic touch as a nursing intervention,” J. Advanced Nursing, 1:117-125, 1998).

[12] For a fairly recent examination of transgressive touch and its ramifications, see G. O. Gabbard & E. P. Lester, Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis (Arlington, VA: Amer. Psychiatric Pub., 2002). 

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

The Times They Are a-Changin’: Trends in Medical Education

Medical educators certainly have their differences, but one still discerns an emerging consensus about the kind of changes that will improve healthcare delivery and simultaneously re-humanize physician-patient encounters.  Here are a few of the most progressive trends in medical education, along with brief glosses that serve to recapitulate certain themes of previous postings.

Contemporary medical training stresses the importance of teamwork and militates against the traditional narcissistic investment in solo expertise.  Teamwork, which relies on the contributions of nonphysician midlevel providers, works against the legacy of socialization that, for many generations, rendered physicians “unfit” for teamwork.  The trend now is to re-vision training so that the physician becomes fit for a new kind of collaborative endeavor.  It is teamwork, when all is said and done, that “transfers the bulk of our work from the realm of guesswork and conjecture to one in which certainty and exactitude may be at least approached.”  Must group practice militate against personalized care?  Perhaps not. Recently, medical groups large and small have been enjoined to remember that “a considerable proportion of the physician’s work is not the practice of medicine at all.  It consists of counseling, orienting, extricating, encouraging, solacing, sympathizing, understanding.”

Contemporary medical training understands that the patient him- or herself has become, and by rights ought to be, a member of the healthcare team.  Medical educators ceded long ago that patients, in their own best interests, “should know something about the human body.”  Now we have more concrete expressions of this requirement, viz., that  if more adequate teaching of anatomy and physiology were provided in secondary schools, “physicians will profit and patients will prosper.”   “Just because a man is ill,” notes one educator, “is no reason why he should stop using his mind,” especially as he [i.e., the patient] is the important factor in the solution of his problem, not the doctor.”  For many educators the knowledgeable patient is not only a member of the “team,” but the physician’s bonafide collaborator.  They assume, that is, that physician and patient “will be able to work together intelligently.”  Working together intelligently suggests a “frank cooperation” in which physician and patient alike have “free access to all outside sources of help and expert knowledge.”  It also means recognizing, without prejudice or personal affront,  that the patient’s “inalienable right is to consult as many physicians as he chooses.”  Even today, an educator observes, “doctors have too much property interest in their patients,” despite the fact that patients find their pronouncements something less than, shall we say, “oracular.”  Contemporary training inherits the mantle of the patient rights revolution of the 1970s and 80s.  Educators today recognize that “It is the patient who must decide the validity of opinion from consideration of its source and probability.”  Another speaks for many in reiterating that

It is the patient who must decide the validity of opinion from consideration of its source and probability.  If the doctor’s opinion does not seem reasonable, or if the bias of it, due to temperament or personal and professional experience is obvious, then it is well for the patient to get another opinion, and the doctor has no right to be incensed or humiliated by such action.

Contemporary medical training stresses the importance of primary care values that are lineal descendants of old-style general practice.  This trend grows out of the realization that a physician “can take care of a patient without caring for him,” that the man or woman publicly considered a “good doctor” is invariably the doctor who will “find something in a sick person that aroused his sympathy, excited his admiration, or moved his compassion.”  Optimally, commentators suggest,  multispecialty and subspecialty groups would retain their own patient-centered generalists – call them, perhaps, “therapeutists”  — to provide integrative patient care beyond diagnostic problem-solving and even beyond the conventional treatment modalities of the group.  The group-based therapeutist, while trained in the root specialty of his colleagues, would also have specialized knowledge of alternative treatments outside the specialty.  He would, for example, supplement familiarity with mainstream drug therapies with a whole-patient, one might say a “wholesome” distrust of drugs.

Contemporary training finally recognizes the importance of first-hand experience of illness in inculcating the values that make for “good doctoring.”  Indeed, innovative curricula now land medical students in the emergency rooms and clinics with (feigned) symptoms and histories that invite discomfiting and sometimes lengthy interventions.  Why has it taken educators so long to enlarge the curriculum in this humanizing manner?  If, as one educator notes, “It is too much to ask of a physician that he himself should have had an enigmatic illness,” it should still be a guiding heuristic that “any illness makes him a better doctor.”  Another adds:  “It is said that an ill doctor is a pathetic sight; but one who has been ill and has recovered has had an affective experience which he can utilize to the advantage of his patients.”

The affective side of a personal illness experience may entail first-hand experience of medicine’s dehumanizing “hidden curriculum.”  Fortunate the patient whose physician has undergone his or her own medical odyssey, so that life experience vivifies the commonplace reported by one seriously ill provider:  “ I felt I had not been treated like a human being.”  A physician-writer who experienced obscure, long-term infectious illness early in his career and was shunted from consultant to consultant understands far better than healthy colleagues that physicians “are so prone to occupy themselves with the theoretical requirements of a case that they lose sight entirely of the human being and his life story.”  Here is the painful reminiscence of another ill physician of more literary bent:

There had been no inquiry of plans or prospects, no solicitude for ambitious or desires, no interest in the spirit of the man whose engine was signaling for gas and oil.  That day I determined never to sentence a person on sight, for life or to death.

Contemporary medical training increasingly recognizes that all medicine is, to one degree or another, psychiatric medicine.  Clinical opinions, educators remind us, can be truthful but still contoured to the personality, especially the psychological needs, of the patient.  Sad to say, the best clinical educators are those who know colleagues, whatever their specialty, who either “do not appreciate that constituent of personality which psychologists call the affects . . . and the importance of the role which these affects or emotions play in conditioning [the patient’s] destiny, well or ill, or they refuse to be taught by observation and experience.”   This realization segues into the role of psychiatric training in medical education, certainly for physicians engaged in primary care, but really for all physicians.  Among other things, such training “would teach him [or her] that disease cannot be standardized, that the individual must be considered first, then the disease.”  Even among patients with typical illnesses, psychiatric training can help physicians understand idiosyncratic reactions to standard treatment protocols.  It aids comprehension  of the individual “who happens to have a very common disease in his own very personal manner.”


These trends encapsulate the reflections and recommendations of progressive medical educators responsive to the public demand for more humane and humanizing physicians. The trends are also responsive to the mounting burnout of physicians – especially primary care physicians – who, in the  cost-conscious, productivity-driven, and regulatory climate of our time, find it harder than ever to practice patient-centered medicine.  But are these trends really so contemporary?  I confess to a deception.  The foregoing paraphrases, quotations, and recommendations are not from contemporary educators at all.  They are culled from the popular essays of a single physician, the pioneer neurologist Joseph Collins, all of which were published in Harper’s Monthly between 1924 and 1929.[1]

Collins is a fascinating figure.  An 1888 graduate of New York University Medical College, he attended medical school and began his practice burdened with serious, sometimes debilitating, pulmonary and abdominal symptoms that had him run the gauntlet of consultant diagnoses – pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, “tuberculosis of the kidney,” chronic appendicitis, even brain tumor.  None of these authoritative pronouncements was on the mark, but taken together they left Collins highly critical of his own profession and pushed him in the direction of holistic, collaborative, patient-centered medicine.  After an extended period of general practice, he segued into the emerging specialty of neurology (then termed neuropsychiatry) and, with his colleagues Joseph Fraenkel and Pearce Bailey, founded the New York Neurological Institute in 1909.  Collins’s career as a neurologist never dislodged his commitment to  generalist patient-centered care. Indeed, the neurologist, as he understood the specialty in 1911, was the generalist best suited to treat chronic disease of any sort.[2]

Collin’s colorful, multifaceted career as a popular medical writer and literary critic is beyond the scope of this essay.[3]  I use him here to circle back to a cardinal point of previous writings.  “Patient-centered/relationship-centered care,” humanistic medicine, empathic caregiving, behavioral adjustments to the reality of patients’ rights  – these additives to the medical school curriculum are as old as they are new.  What is new is the relatively recent effort to cultivate such sensibilities through curricular innovations.  Taken together,  public health, preventive medicine, childhood vaccination, and modern antibiotic therapy have (mercifully) cut short the kind of  experiential journey that for Collins secured the humanistic moorings of the biomedical imperative.  Now medical educators rely on communication skills training, empathy-promoting protocols, core-skills workshops, and seminars on “The Healer’s Art” to close the circle, rescue medical students from evidence-based and protocol-driven overkill, and bring them back in line with Collins’s hard-won precepts.

It is not quite right to observe that these precepts apply equally to Collins’s time and our own.  They give expression to the care-giving impulse, to the ancient injunction to cure through caring (the Latin curare) that, in all its ebb and flow, whether as figure or ground, weaves through the fabric of medical history writ large.  Listen to Collins one final time as he expounds his philosophy of practice in 1926:

It would be a wise thing to devote a part of medical education to the mind of the physician himself, especially as it concerns his patients.  For the glories of medical history are the humanized physicians.  Science will always fall short; but compassion covereth all.[4]

[1] Joseph Collins, “The alienist in court,” Harper’s Monthly, 150:280-286, 1924; Joseph Collins, “A doctor looks at doctors,” Harper’s Monthly, 154:348-356, 1926; Joseph Collins, “Should doctors tell the truth?”, Harper’s Monthly, 155:320-326, 1927;  Joseph Collins, “Group practice in medicine,” Harper’s Monthly, 158:165-173, 1928;  Joseph Collins, “The patient’s dilemma,” Harper’s Monthly, 159:505-514, 1929.   I have also consulted two of Collins’s popular collections that make many of the same points:  Letters to a Neurologist, 2nd series (NY: Wood, 1910) and The Way with the Nerves: Letters to a Neurologist on Various Modern Nervous Ailments, Real and Fancied, with Replies Thereto Telling of their Nature and Treatment (NY: Putnam, 1911).

[2] Collins, The Way with Nerves, p. 268.

[3] Collins’s review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the first by an American, was published  in The New York Times on May 28, 1922.  His volume The Doctor Looks at Literature: Psychological Studies of Life and Literature (NY: Doran, 1923) appeared the following year.

[4] Collins, “A doctor looks at doctors,” p. 356.  Collins’s injunction is exemplified in “The Healer’s Art,” a course developed by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen over the past 22 years and currently taught annually in 71  American medical colleges as well as medical colleges in seven other countries.  See David Bornstein, “Medicine’s Search for Meaning,” posted for The New York Times/Opinionator on September 18, 2013 (

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

It Takes a Village in Health Care, Too

It Takes a Village in Health Care, Too

David W. Stepansky, M.D.**

A few weeks ago, while rounding on patients at Phoenixville Hospital, I began to experience a vague tightness in my upper chest as I walked from one nurses’ station to the next.  The pain was fairly mild, but I also became a little sweaty with it.  The symptoms did not cause me to stop and rest, but when I did sit down to write on a chart, the discomfort would subside, only to recur when I began walking again.

As a physician, I well knew what my symptoms might have represented, but being just as susceptible to denial as any other human, I chose to ignore things for a little while, not wanting to believe that I might be experiencing angina.  I knew what would take place as soon as I said anything to anyone and only wanted to forget that it was happening.  I actually went out to my car to drive to the office to start my outpatient hours, again experiencing that same mild but gnawing pressure in my chest.  I sat in my car for a minute or two, just trying to think it all through, when I finally came to the realization that if I was indeed ignoring cardiac symptoms, than I was being very foolish.

Even then, I did not go directly to the emergency room.  Instead, I wandered through the hospital until I found one of my cardiologist partners and told him my story. Of course, from that moment on, I ceased to be a doctor and somewhat begrudgingly became a patient.  I knew from that moment that I would have to  completely relinquish my regular identity and become wholly reliant not only on the judgment and skill, but also on the compassion of the many who then began to care for me.

What happened after that was at once extraordinary and commonplace. Following my evaluation in the emergency room, I was taken directly to the cath lab where a 95% occlusion of my circumflex artery was discovered and uneventfully stented.  I recuperated in the post-op area, was transferred briefly to an inpatient room, and was ultimately discharged at 6:00 PM.  In the aftermath of this whirlwind, surreal day, I found myself at home safe, healed, and marveling with my wife at how I had had my heart fixed from a tiny hole in my wrist.  All that remained was for me to take it easy for a few days, contemplate how my life had changed, and reflect on this stark and jolting recognition of my own frailty.

The care that I received while a patient at the hospital was wonderful – efficient, accurate, and at the same time compassionate and reassuring.  As an attending physician at Phoenixville Hospital for over 30 years, as well as the organization’s CMO and Patient Safety Officer, I have spent countless hours in countless meetings overseeing the hospital’s quality and safety.  Yet experiencing the care provided from this new (and hopefully not oft repeated) vantage point was eye-opening in some unexpected ways.

In particular, I was repeatedly struck by the realization that exemplary health care is truly the sum total of the well-intended, expert actions of a multitude of people.  With due gratitude to, and respect for, the talented physicians who cared for me, their actions would not have been possible without the support of a highly competent and reliable team that comprised both people and machines.  I was repeatedly impressed and comforted by the confident attitudes of nearly everyone I encountered.  Some of these people I knew well and some I had never seen before.  The people who participated in my care, aside from my doctors, included ER nurses, x-ray technicians, laboratory technicians, cath lab personnel, post-op nurses, and telemetry nurses.  But this barely scratches the surface when one considers that the technology brought to bear on me was developed and refined by scores of dedicated individuals whose ultimate purpose was to provide accurate and safe healing to individuals like me.  In many ways, this was a humbling experience, as I must be thankful to a multitude of people, most of whom are actually behind the scenes and will never be known to me.

Many individuals who are involved in the front line of health care, including me, worry about the dehumanizing effect that high technology and specialization has had on patient care.  Doctors and the systems in which they work are so often criticized for being aloof and insensitive to the emotional needs of patients. Health care has become highly business-oriented, often at the expense of the human needs of those for whom the system ostensibly came into being.  Unfortunately, there is much truth to this concern.

However, the realization that I had during my brief hospital stay was that the human aspects of health care can be maintained even in the face of “dehumanizing” technology.  Doctors do less “hand holding” than in the past, but this is at least in part because there is so much more they can do.  Patients expect, and are entitled to, the high technology that modern medicine brings to them,  but they are also  entitled to  the warmth and  caring of the people who deploy that technology on their behalf.  I can happily report that I received both when I was ill.  It was, once again, an eye-opening experience.

The reality is that high-quality health care can only be the result of painstaking design.  The care that I received could never happen were it not for the coordinated actions of hundreds of dedicated individuals.  And so I would like to acknowledge the many people and machines that brought me back to good health.  To my doctors, nurses, technicians and others who provided efficient and compassionate care; to the many people behind the scenes whom I will never know who also contributed to my well-being; and finally to Community Health Systems for providing the structure necessary for all of this to happen – my heartfelt thanks.

Copyright © 2013 by David W. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.


**Internist David Stepansky is Chief Medical Officer and Patient Safety Officer at Phoenixville Hospital, Phoenixville, PA, and Chair of the Patient Safety Committee of Community Health Systems, Inc., Franklin, TN.

Exit the Family Doctor

WHERE’S the good old family doctor, with

his microscopic bills,

With his bag of plasters, powders, and those

evil-tasting pills?

How our troubles used to lighten and our

aches and pains abate,

When his shabby horse and buggy tied up

at the old front gate!


Now it’s Doctor This for measles and it’s

Doctor That for mumps,

And it’s Doctor What-You-Call-Him when

it’s just a case of dumps;

If it’s only common colic, just as plain as

plain can be,

To a hospital you’re hustled for some



Comes the twentieth century doctor in a

spotless limousine,

Sealed hermetically in it — clothed “germproof”

to microbes keen.

Or, more truly, this great doctor will not

come at all to you —

In an office he’s receiving—”Office hours

from one to two.”


And it’s Doctor This for left eye and it’s

Doctor That for right,

And it’s Doctor What-You-Call-Him if

you’re crosswise in your sight;

When you need some fancy glasses just

to see more than you ought,

To Berlin you’re shipped instanter to that

famous Doctor Whaught.


He can amputate bad tempers, he can

make  good folks of bad,

He’ll immune you from diseases that you

never could have had.

Yes, time’s come when it’s expected, just

to keep you ” middling fair,”

You must know the specialistic docs of

all the kinds there are.


Oh, it’s Doctor This for ” eetises” and

Doctor That for ” ites,”

And it’s Doctor What-You-Call-Him when

you’re seeing things o’nights.

Each will treat one ” error ” only,

will these modern unionists,

Then divide your woes with twenty other

waiting specialists.

The Washington Post, February 17, 1910, p. 6.

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.

The Paradox of Generalist Specialists

General practitioners of medicine (GPs), the medical heroes of World War II, returned home only to find their medical standing at their local hospitals in jeopardy.  Specialization made great inroads during the war years, and, while the GPs were fighting the war in Europe, many hospitals reclassified their staff physicians on the basis of specialist qualifications.  GPs of course were low men on the totem pole, and some found that the very hospitals where they had worked before the war had rescinded their surgical privileges after the war.  Stanley R. Truman, the first Secretary of the American Academy of General Practice and chronicler of its founding, recalled this very situation at his own Merritt Hospital in Oakland, CA.  “Some of these men had gone away with major surgical privileges,” he later recalled, “and had been assigned leading surgical responsibilities here and overseas.  They were furious when they came home and found themselves in ‘Class A’ [the lowest rung of the hospital hierarchy, in which surgery could only be performed after consultation and under supervision].”  One day in late 1945, Truman continued,

I met Harold Maloney who had just come back.  He was one of our leading general practitioners; a fine doctor and surgeon; a member of the American College of Surgeons and in ‘Class A.’ We had previously talked about an organization of general practitioners; and this day, in talking the situation over again, we agreed that an organization was urgent.[1]

And so the GPs organized, first into the General Practitioners Association of Truman’s Alameda County; then in 1945 into the Section on General Practice of the American Medical Association; and finally in 1947 into the American Academy of General Practice (AAGP).  The organizers and officers of the AAGP, who assumed the burden of promoting the new organization and encouraging the formation of local chapters, made no bones about the reason for its existence .  It was not about “family practice,” “comprehensive care,” “total patient care,” or any of the other buzzwords that were invoked in the discussions two decades later that led to the creation of the American Board of Family Practice in 1969.  It was about power pure and simple, and power in postwar America meant the power to treat one’s patients in the hospital, including patients who required operative obstetrics and major surgery.

Returning GPs, who, as General Medical Officers, had met wartime needs at both ends of the specialty spectrum – in psychiatry and in surgery – were aghast at rumors that certain stateside hospitals – perhaps their own hospitals – planned to limit their staffs to board-certified medical specialists by the early 50s. Was this their reward for exemplary service to the nation?  “Since the second World War,” intoned the AAGP’s first President, Paul Davis, in 1948, the GP “has been discriminated against in many cases, and had his professional standards encroached upon.”  In 1953, two of New York’s leading GPs recollected:  “It was as if the hospitals were about to put up signs reading: ‘If you’re a general practitioner, keep out!”  A few years later, Eric Royston, another prominent AAGP booster, recalled the postwar feeling among GPs of being discriminated against in their medical associations “and being pushed to the periphery in the metropolitan hospitals.”[2] The AAGP would come to the rescue; it would have the strength of numbers,[3] which meant it would have the power. The AAGP’s resolve to keep GPs in the hospitals and put scalpels back in their hands was baldly stated in Article II of the its constitution, which set forth this organizational objective:  “To preserve the right of the general practitioner to engage in medical and surgical procedures for which he is qualified by training and experience.”[4]

But all did not go as planned.  Although the AAGP stabilized the GP’s hospital status as it existed before the war, it could not protect GPs from the continuing development of specialty medicine, which increasingly took place in hospitals and entailed ever more sophisticated procedures and interventions.  Specialty encroachment of GP hospital privileges might be slowed but never halted.  And along with the organizational support came the stigma, which is exactly what the AAGP sought to prevent.  In the late 40s, many GP-surgeons resisted joining the AAGP lest — publicly identified as GPs – they have their surgical privileges rescinded.  On the other hand, the few GP residency programs that proved successful in the early 60s, mostly in California, were those that taught surgery and permitted GP residents to perform major operations.[5]  It was all about surgery, all about procedures, all about treatment-related prerogatives within the hospital.

Of course, the AAGP could not prevail, given the great impetus to specialization provided by the war.  When, in the mid-1960s, efforts to upgrade the status of the generalist centered around creation of a new residency-based specialty, “family practice,” it was no longer a matter of surgical privileges within the hospital.  No, family practice would be a new and different kind of specialty, one less concerned with procedures and surgeries than with holistic, patient-centered, intergenerational caregiving.  The retreat from proceduralism was codified in the “Core Content” of family practice adopted by the AAGP in 1966.  The family practitioner (FP) of the future, it held, would assume “comprehensive and continuing responsibility” for his or her patients.  This meant that family practice would be a  “horizontal specialty” that cut across the other specialties.  It would fall back on “function” rather than a “body of knowledge.”[6]

What was lost in the new rhetoric of patient-centered caregiving was the very thing that mattered so much to the AAGP two decades earlier:  safeguarding the GP’s prerogative to perform those procedures and interventions that fell within the domain of the practicing (as opposed to the caring) generalist.  The proponents of family practice could no longer hope to wrest control of a piece of the medical pie, so they elaborated a new – and, they fervently hoped, specialized – gloss on the pie in its entirety.  This amounted to proposing a “sort of a focus”[7] for the residency-trained FP of the future.  What FP proponents and educators failed to do was delineate in a conventional manner the procedural correlates of the FP’s “focus” – the things that all FPs would be trained to do that qualified as specialist interventions, not just attitudinal correlates of caregiving that meshed with their person-centered ideology.

The question-begging nature of early definitions of family practice is nowhere more evident than in the matter of surgery.  By the mid-60s, the founders of family practice realized full well that the American College of Surgeons would never cede residency-trained family practitioners the prerogative to perform major operations in the hospital. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the AAGP was beset with a schism within its own ranks:  there were GPs who did considerable surgery (including operative obstetrics) and GPs who did not.  The former believed family practice should include a strong surgical component; the latter did not.  The former were concerned about the exclusion of surgery from “modern” family practice, and for this reason they opposed the development of a family practice specialty board through the early 60s.  The pragmatic (non)solution to this quandary was simply to leave the issue open.  The AAGP’s vision of the new family practice specialist, as spelled out in its “Core Content” position paper of 1966, assigned family practitioners the nebulous domain of “applicable surgery,” meaning that “the physician in family practice should be trained to do the types and kinds of surgery he would be required to perform after graduation.”

There is irony in this nebulous manifesto:  the very effort to transform old-style general practice into specialized family practice hinged on a willingness to fall back on a pre-1930s notion of specialization in which generalists would somehow know, in advance of practice, what kinds of techniques they would need to master for their future work.  They would then “pick up” these techniques during residency or after residency in the world of everyday practice and occasional postgraduate courses.  Family practice, in these mid-60s deliberations, increasingly looked like a specialty that was not only “different,” but antithetical to the very meaning of specialization.  That is, if family practice is a medical specialty of any kind, then all FP residents should receive common training in a range of diagnostic and treatment procedures that, in their totality, add up to specialist interventional care.  The willingness to localize procedural skills, to leave it to individual practitioners and/or training programs to determine which skills would be “appropriate” to practice, was a nod to the surgical specialists, whose advanced training and control of hospitals was shored up by the postwar climate of opinion.  But it had the paradoxical effect of marginalizing the family practitioner out of the gate:  once you begin localizing the procedural, hands-on component of any specialty, medical or otherwise, you risk gutting the specialty, cutting away the shared procedural content that coalesces into expert knowledge and sustains a common professional identity.  What kind of specialty leaves it to the individual to fill in the procedural content of the specialty as he or she proceeds through training and practice?

Here we have a central dilemma of family medicine.  I invoke it here in support of the need for a new kind of generalist physician who is procedurally empowered in the manner of GPs of the 1940s and 50s.  We need to oscillate back to generalists who can do many things and away from generalist physicians who hypothetically know their patients “better” but are increasingly content to “coordinate” their care.  The family practice movement failed because it sought the impossible: to create a new kind of specialty that would not delimit expertise in treatment-specific ways.

The family practitioner of the 1970s was to be an interpersonally embedded, empathically attuned, total-patient provider.  He or she was to provide comprehensive care that was intergenerational, mind-body care.  Proponents of the movement spent years debating what “comprehensive care” meant, and ultimately had to beg the question.  The result was a medical specialty that, until recently, lacked consensually agreed on procedural requirements.  The semantically strained, even oxymoronic, vision of a non-specialty specialty, a specialty that rejected specialist values, was an amalgam of 1960s counterculture, the social sciences, and a dash of psychoanalytic object relations theory (per Michael Balint), all abetted by the dearth of “personal physicians” and the emergence in the 1970s of the patient rights movement.   Family practice was of its time – it was entirely admirable and terribly ill-fated.  This is why only eight percent of non-osteopathic medical students now choose to “specialize” in it.[8] It is also why some top-tier medical schools — Harvard,  Yale, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Cornell, among them —  do not even have departments of family medicine.

If we are to address the primary care crisis within rural America, we need a new kind of doctor – call them specialists in procedural rural medicine (PRM) or rural care proceduralists (RCPs) – who can actually take care of people in rural settings where specialists are sparse.  Such physicians will not do many things, certainly not the kinds of surgeries that GP-surgeons of the postwar era felt within their province. But they will be trained to do much more than the majority of contemporary family physicians.  Their connection with their patients will rely less on prescribing and coordinating than on what W. R. Houston, in his justly celebrated address to the American College of Physicians of 1937, termed “the line of procedure.”[9]  We need primary care physicians who do things to their patients’ bodies.  Such physicians will “touch” their patients in the dual sense of activating an inborn biological pleasure (contact touch) and allowing such pleasure, through symbolic elaboration, to become a touchstone of a trusting doctor-patient relationship.[10]  A renewal of procedural medicine will not make indifferent caregivers caring, but it will fortify in the realm of action what Houston termed the “dynamic power” of the doctor-patient relationship.  It will make it easier for caring doctors to doctor.

In the next essay in this series, we will look further at procedural rural medicine and how it would differ from family medicine as it currently exists.

[1] S. A. Truman, The History of the Founding of the American Academy of General Practice (St. Louis: Green, 1969), p. 16.

[2] P. A. Davis, “The American Academy of General Practice,” Southern Med. J., 41:651-55, 1948, at p. 654; W. C. Allen & S. A. Garlan, “Educational motivation in the field of general practice,” NY State J. Med., 53:1243-1245, 1953, at p. 1243; E. A. Royston, “The American Academy of General Practice:  its origin, objectives, growth and outlook,” S. Afr. Med., J., 30:298-99, 1956.

[3] The AAGP had well over 2,000 members by the end of 1947, the year of its founding.  By 1968, membership had grown to 30,000.  Truman, op cit., pp. 54, 60.

[4] N.A., Family Practice: Creation of a Specialty (American Academy of Family Physicians, 1980), p. 34; Truman, op cit., p. 43.

[5] Family Practice: Creation of a Specialty, op. cit., pp. 12, 20.

[6] Family Practice: Creation of a Specialty, op. cit., pp. 37-38.

[7] Family Practice: Creation of a Specialty, op. cit., p. 42.

[8] W. S. Biggs, et al., “Entry of US medical school graduates into family medicine residencies: 2011-2012,” Fam. Med., 44:620-626, 2012.

[9] W. R. Houston, “The doctor himself as a therapeutic agent,” Ann. Int. Med., 11:1416-1425, 1938.

[10] See, for example, N. S. Lehrman, “Pleasure heals: the role of social pleasure—love in its broadest sense—in medical practice,” Arch . Intern. Med., 1993;153:929–934.  Contemporary physicians writing about primary care have little to say about the salience of the laying on of hands – even when mediated by instrumentation – as a component of care-giving that mobilizes patient trust.  But there is much to be gleaned from contiguous literature, e.g., G. Pohl, et al., “’Laying on of hands’ improves well-being in patients with advanced cancer,” Support Care Cancer, 15:143-151, 2007; S. Jain, et al., “Healing touch with guided imagery for PTSD in returning active duty military: a randomized controlled trial,” Mil. Med., 177:1015-1021, 2012;  and T. Jones & L. Glover, “Exploring the psychological processes underlying touch: lessons from the Alexander technique,” Clin. Psychol. Psychother., Nov., 2012 (Epub ahead of print).

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 (; 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 (,%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” ( ) 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 (

[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 (

[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

[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 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

[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  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 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.