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Doctors: It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

Most physicians will be thrust into the role of patient or caregiver at some point during their careers. Unfortunately, it’s not until this occurs that many become fully aware of the finer points of excellent care and communication. Take for example, the simple act of reporting test results to a patient. We do this every day, but may not realize that how we frame the information is as important as the data themselves.

I came to realize this on a recent hospital visit when I was in the role of healthcare proxy for a loved one with heart disease. Not only did various physicians present information with different degrees of optimism, but individual doctors presented things differently on different days… depending on (I guess) how tired/hurried they were. Consider these different messages with the same ejection fraction (EF – a measure of heart pump strength) and angiogram (heart vessel imaging) test results:

Doctor 1: “I wish I had better news. The EF is lower than we thought. It is low because of your previous massive heart attack.”

Doctor 2: “Although your EF is impaired, there’s a lot that can be done to improve pump function with medications.”

Doctor 1 (different day): “On the other hand, the EF might be temporarily low because of your recent flu infection. It’s possible it will bounce back in a couple of months and you’ll be back to your usual self.”

Doctor 2: “I’m not worried about your chest pain because we know it’s caused by small vessel disease. Your angiogram showed that all your main heart arteries are wide open. The pain is not dangerous, though I’m sure it’s annoying.”

Doctor 1: “Chest pain is always serious. You never know when it could be the big one.”

Doctor 3: “It’s hard to interpret EF because some people live long and productive lives with low EFs, and others are quite impaired with only a small dip in pump function.”

Doctor 2: “Sure there are medications we can try to improve your EF, but I doubt you’ll tolerate them because your blood pressure is kind of low.”

Doctor 3: “Don’t worry about the EF, it will correct on its own once we get your rhythm controlled. This is an electrical problem, not plumbing.”

All of this emotional whiplash caused by the same test results… due to different physicians’ interpretations of prognosis and treatment options. What can be done? First of all, we physicians need to take a deep breath and realize how our words affect our patients. They are scared and vulnerable, and they are looking to us for hope… and when there is real hope, why not emphasize it? There is no need to focus on the worst-case scenarios until we are well and truly in their midst.

I believe that being a good clinician is not just about giving patients factual information, but also about presenting data with kindness. Sometimes, as I’ve discovered with my own loved one, it’s not as important what you say, as how you say it.

Physician Shows Gratitude For His Often Unappreciated Colleagues

Today I would like to say thanks to a group of colleagues that too often go un-thanked.

These would be my hospital-based internal medicine friends: hospitalists are what they are called.

This idea came to me after reading Dr Robert Centor’s post on KevinMD. In his usual concise manner, he laments the lack of respect that many sub-specialists show hospitalists.

I feel differently about my hard-working colleagues.

As a sub, sub-specialist who works primarily in the hospital, I would like to say how grateful I am to have knowledgeable, hospital-based internists available.

I believe, and write frequently about the importance of seeing the forest through the trees. A good doctor must see the big picture: a little atrial fib, for instance, isn’t a major problem if you can’t move, eat or have widespread Cancer.

But for good patient care, the details are important too. Hospitalists are good at details. In fact, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

Should Multaq Be Used To Treat AF? This Physician Answers With A Resounding “No”

What should I have told the doctor who recently asked me about dronedarone (Multaq)?

“Supposedly, it’s [Multaq] just like Amiodarone, but without the side effects?” he asked.

Gosh…Should I, or shouldn’t I?

I took a big cleansing breath, reminding myself to stay civil, as at least Sanofi-Aventis, the makers of Multaq, sponsor a cycling team. Then I gave him my long answer:

I started with the fact that Multaq barely made it through the approval process. One of the original studies with Multaq (ANDROMEDA), a randomized trial of Multaq in patients with severe heart failure, showed that patients who took the drug were twice as likely to die.

Multaq eventually won approval for use in patients without significant heart failure and mild forms of AF, based on the results of the ATHENA trial—which randomized 4628 patients with non-permanent AF to either standard therapy or standard therapy plus Multaq. The ATHENA investigators didn’t exactly say that Multaq works, rather they claimed that it reduced a composite of hospitalizations and death.

This started the marketing machine in motion, the likes of which I have not ever witnessed. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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