The Atlantic recently ran a great piece that talks about why physicians should read fiction. It discusses a paper recently published in Literature and Medicine that suggests that working with literature can help physicians think more broadly and can help them better understand the situations their patients are facing.
My medical school was progressive in this regard, offering a writing elective for first-year students. We met with a member of the faculty who was also a writer and worked through both reading and writing exercises. Of course, we talked about famous physicians who were writers, such as Chekhov, but also had the opportunity to write about our experiences with medicine both personally and professionally.
Hot on the heels of some short story classes in college, I wrote a story about my grandfather’s having a heart attack and dying at a fairly young age. It was a challenge to think about it from a medical perspective and to try to link together some of the things that occurred prior his death, in the greater context of the disease that ultimately took him. I’m not much of a poet, but one of my classmates wrote some moving verse about her experiences in the neonatal intensive care unit. It was great to see a different side of my classmates, considering we spent most of our time competing for the scarce A grades our professors were willing to award.
In particular the paper, titled “Showing That Medical Ethics Cases Can Miss the Point,” talks about ethics cases that healthcare students might review as part of their coursework. The goal is for students to think how they might react in similar situations, and what different options they and their patients might have to choose from. The paper suggests that the case studies are lacking in style, and don’t include the nuances or tidbits that would help the characters come to life. Author Woods Nash feels the sparseness of the case studies might limit their ability to impact students. He uses examples to show the difference between a story that explains characters and their motivations and a dry ethics case that tries to boil the issues down to a minimum of words.
When Nash works with medical students, he assigns stories that the students have to try to distill to an ethics case study. The students then read each others’ work and talk about whether students make different assumptions about the situations or whether they include the same details in their respective write-ups. The point is to help students understand that style can influence how a case is perceived.
Nash told the Atlantic that case studies might need to fall by the wayside: “The real world is messy, of course, and ethics cases often teach us (implicitly) to clean up that mess by oversimplifying it.” He goes on to say that ethics cases “are themselves a byproduct and reflection of clinical practice’s overemphasis on efficiency. Not just in primary care, but in many areas of medicine, doctors spend far too little time really listening to patients and trying to appreciate the depths of their patients’ problems.”
As our healthcare system continues to press for efficiency, it makes it harder for physicians to listen to their patients. Market forces are driving physicians to only see the sickest patients, leveraging care teams including midlevel providers to deliver the more routine visits, including preventive visits. For younger patients, the preventive visit might represent the sole interaction with a physician each year.
As patients age, their needs increase and those visits become more frequent, resulting in the intensification of the patient-physician relationship. Of course, this assumes that the patient’s insurance hasn’t changed, they haven’t had to move to a different primary care physician, and that they’ve been able to maintain continuity. From experience, it’s much easier to advise a patient and his or her family on end-of-life issues if you’ve known them for some time and have been able to build that relationship. In the world of six-minute office visits, that’s a much taller order to try to fulfill.
The practice of medicine is messy and I’m glad to have come across authors who recognize that and can lead people through some of the challenges we face. A favorite author who is very good at this is Chris Bohjalian, whose book “Midwives” captivated me in medical school. The book deals with a particular medical scenario, where a midwife performs an emergency C-section on a patient who may not have been dead. It goes through the resulting legal issues and trial, and brings up a lot of questions about what happens in the heat of the moment when there is a medical emergency. I hadn’t read anything of his until recently, when I came across “The Double Bind.” It also has some medical overtones as well as being a good read.
Being in healthcare can lead many of us to question our own humanity. I don’t think it’s exclusive to people who are providers, but I think it starts to flow over to people in related fields such as healthcare IT and health policy. As we start to look more at populations and cohorts of people, will that lead us to stop thinking about individuals and their unique situations? Will we be more likely to treat the statistics rather than treating the patients in front of us?
As cool as I think big data is and how great it is to be able to look at population-based data, it’s hard to explain odds and statistics to families who want everything done for their loved ones despite insurmountable odds. Population health is great when it helps us reach patients who might not be receiving recommended preventive services or who are at risk for serious health conditions. The ability to protect patients and preserve health is amazing. At some point, however, population health technology might be used to identify people who are receiving what some might perceive are too many services or too many treatments given their age and condition. Where do we go from there?
I always ask myself whether I’m considering everything a patient is going through when they make what might initially seem like an unreasonable request. Are they just having a bad day, or is there something else going on? What else can we in the healing professions do to help? Those questions are difficult to contemplate in a short visit, but reading about similar experiences may help prime our brains so that we’re better prepared to address complex situations when they come our way. That’s the point of ethical case studies.
Are they as helpful as we think? Will they better prepare us for the challenges we face in healthcare? Does your organization use them? Leave a comment or email me.
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