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Patients As Partners

The famous late 19th and early 20th century physician, Sir William Osler, said that “a physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.” How would he have felt about patients diagnosing and treating themselves? Would he have written in support of the Journal of Participatory Medicine or against it? I also wonder how he would have practiced medicine in the “information age” when many of our patients present with a diagnosis already made, right or wrong.

I recognize that bringing Dr. Osler into a discussion set in the information age is, perhaps, anachronistic. Yet I believe he still has something to teach the 21st century on the topic of patient participation. When he advised that “the first duty of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine,” he offered one of the earliest lessons on a physician’s role as educator.

He also said: “The great physician would treat the patient with the disease while the good physician would treat the disease.” For me, this marches lock-step with the reality of today’s patient as consumer and active participant in the doctor-patient relationship. Simply put, it is impossible to separate the patient from a pre-conceived and often well-researched opinion — correct or not. So to treat the “patient with the disease” requires me to think of my patient as an intellectual partner. Read more »

Practicing Primary Care: A Lesson In Treading Water

As a primary care physician, I am becoming painfully aware of how hard it is to be good –- I mean really good — at what we do today. I would prefer to believe that it has always been so, yet I do not believe that our predecessors in the medical profession found it nearly as difficult to excel in their time as we do now.

With all of the technological and medical advances, you might ask how I could believe this to be true. Too, you might consider it pessimistic or even crazy to suggest that physicians 20, 30, or 100 years ago found it easier to practice medicine well in their time.

You could counter with numerous or obvious examples such as antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, robotic surgical procedures, or even our wondrous ability to peer inside the human body without cutting it open. You also would be correct to point out that the technological advancements of the 20th century opened the way for the medical profession to become a real science thus giving me and my colleagues the chance and knowledge to make a real difference in our patients’ lives today. Read more »

Career Counselor? Thoughts On Becoming A Doctor

As a physician, I’ve had several people ask my “honest” opinion of their plans to become a doctor. I know what my response is to this question, but I wonder what others in my profession would answer. Would your response depend, in large part, on who’s doing the asking — could you answer your own child as you would someone you just met? Be careful, your answer to this question, if honestly given, might shine an unsettling light on your own feelings about your current career choice.

Last week I spoke with a college junior working to fulfill her lifelong plans to become a physician. She told me about a recent conversation with her own doctor where she shared her plans to go to medical school and he’d tried to dissuade her. She couldn’t recall a single cogent reason given for avoiding the medical profession, yet it appeared to me that his odium had negatively imprinted her image of the medical profession, which is a shame. At this time more than ever, we –- doctors and patients alike — need to encourage the most talented of our youth to join the medical profession. Read more »

A Man Is Not Equal To The Sum Of His Medicine Problems

I believe that those controlling the purse strings are steering modern medicine towards the practice of seeing patients more as the sum of their medical problems than as individual people. Patients have become streams of data as opposed to real human lives.

Consider the dynamics of a family: a wife may worry about her husband while their child adores a father she instinctively knows to be irreplaceable. Modern medicine, however, may only see a diabetic with hypertension and a cholesterol-level running too high. The computers programmed for those advocating the power of data to revolutionize medicine would boil this man down to his “meaningful” essence — numbers, for the above imaginary man: 250.00, 401.0, and 272.0. Read more »

The Positive Power Of Compulsive Medicine

Most experienced physicians expect uncertainty in caring for real people with average everyday problems. Yet those inexperienced or uninitiated in medicine tend to see the practice of medicine as exact or even absolute.

I remember waiting in vain as a medical student and resident for my instructors to illuminate a path towards certitude. Instead, I was given something far more real and lasting: An acceptance of the indeterminate mixed with the drive to be compulsive on behalf of my patients.

During my internal medicine internship, I remember a more-senior resident during our daily morning report bemoaning her uncertainty by saying, “But I just don’t know what’s wrong with my patient.” Although she was visibly upset, our program director’s reaction to her comment bordered on amusement, culminating with, for me, an unforgettable response: “Well, you certainly have chosen the wrong profession.”

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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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