Why Crying Doctors Are A Good Fit For Obamacare

DrRich | December 12th, 2011 - 6:44 am


DrRich has written a lot on this blog about the intentional destruction of the classic doctor-patient relationship. That relationship, of course, was a fiduciary one, under which the patient was encouraged and expected to place full trust in the doctor’s sacred duty to put the patient’s own best interests above all other considerations.

Obviously, such a thing is incompatible with a healthcare system in which doctors are expected to covertly ration healthcare at the bedside. Indeed, it was the ethical tension between what the classic doctor-patient relationship required and the new duties of physicians in the real world, that led professional medical organizations to formally re-define medical ethics in 2002.

And today, of course, under these New Age medical ethics, doctors are no longer expected to place the needs of their individual patient first. Rather, they are required to make the needs of the collective – that is, social justice – their chief consideration.

When the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective coincide, of course, so much the better. But when they do not – and they frequently do not – the needs of the collective take precedence. And “the needs of the collective” are now being determined by panels of experts created under Obamacare, which are busily devising the “guidelines” for treatment that physicians must follow to the letter, or risk their careers, life savings, and freedom from incarceration.

Lest you think DrRich is making this up, allow him to remind his readers of this excerpt, from the ominously-titled book, “New Rules,” co-authored by none other than Donald Berwick MD, who has run CMS for the past 18 months:

“Today, this isolated relationship [between doctor and patient] is no longer tenable or possible. . . Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad, must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care. . . The primary function of regulation in health care. . .is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”

Having thus terminated the classic doctor-patient relationship with extreme prejudice, the same political and medical leaders who conducted this assassination immediately realized they had to fill the void – for how can you have no such thing as the doctor-patient relationship? The solution to this problem, of course, was easy. Just as you can create a New Age medical ethics to fit modern exigencies, you can create a new doctor-patient relationship that will do the same thing.

So, what medical students are being taught today about the doctor-patient relationship has nothing to do with fiduciary responsibilities or ethical obligations. Rather, the New Age doctor-patient relationship is all about the interpersonal relationship between doctor and patient. Doctors are admonished: Be compassionate, be empathetic, be nice. And there’s nothing wrong with crying in front of your patients.

Not being an asshole, of course, has always been a useful trait for physicians. Doctors who can relate to their patients, displaying and actually feeling a certain amount of compassion and empathy, have always been more effective at communicating with their patients – and thus have been more effective physicians – than those who are arrogant, self-centered, aloof, or just plain mean*.

*DrRich has already pointed out the following irony: many of the doctors who washed out of clinical medicine, possibly because they were too arrogant, self-centered, rigid, and/or aloof to be effective physicians, are now populating the expert panels which are writing the guidelines which will dictate the behavior of doctors who might otherwise be actually useful.

The benefits of being a nice person are not exclusive to the medical profession. The same rules hold for anyone who makes his/her living by engaging in personal interactions with fellow humans. And so, until recent years, the medical profession categorized this fact (that doctors ought to have decent interpersonal skills) within the realm of common sense, common decency, and common knowledge – and the idea of the doctor-patient relationship meant something else entirely.

Every medical school now has formal training on the doctor-patient relationship, under which young physicians are taught to be compassionate, empathetic, and nice. To the extent that such traits can be taught – and DrRich has his doubts – there’s nothing inherently wrong with emphasizing interpersonal skills. There are, however, two problems that come to mind when emphasizing interpersonal skills becomes a substitute for emphasizing the real and true obligations of a professional.

First, teaching young doctors that a good doctor-patient relationship simply means being nice will result in newer generations of physicians having no concept of any fiduciary obligation to their individual patients. They will address the needs of the collective first, as a matter of course. (But as they withhold information on available treatments about which their patients are not to be informed, we can count on them to be extremely nice about it.)

Second, there is a growing school of thought, amongst those who are responsible for teaching this New Age doctor-patient relationship, that not only should doctors avoid stoicism at the bedside, but they also ought to openly display their emotions, so as to further reinforce their compassion, empathy, niceness, &c. By graphically displaying the deep empathy the physician has for his (or more likely, her) patients, he or she can really bond with them, and thus establish a really strong doctor-patient relationship.

And what better way to openly display one’s emotions than to cry?

Just as a general proposition, DrRich is against crying in front of patients. Certainly, there may be rare occasions when emotions rise up unexpectedly at the bedside – when a patient relates a particularly affecting personal story for instance. But in general, DrRich is convinced that doctors should not make a habit of expressing their emotions too frequently or too luxuriously to their patients.

Empathy and compassion are fine, but what sick patients really need is a doctor who can maintain some sense of composure even when things are the bleakest, some sense that, as bad as things are, this situation is not beyond the doctor’s experience. Even if the outcome is destined to be very bad, the patient deserves a doctor who acts like he or she has been there before, and who they can trust to remain at their side and help guide them through the ordeal that remains.

But DrRich is concerned that the faculty of our medical schools, who are busily training America’s Obamacare Doctors of Tomorrow, have reached the following epiphany: A particularly wonderful way to repair the failing doctor-patient relationship would be to indoctrinate young future physicians (most of whom these days, once again, are said to be women – not that there’s anything wrong with that) that crying at the bedside – indeed, openly displaying their every emotion at the bedside – is a marvelously therapeutic act. Such an open display of the doctor’s emotions conveys a powerful message to the patient, namely, “I care.”

Perhaps. But DrRich thinks crying at the bedside actually conveys two powerful messages to patients:

First Message: I empathize with you. I feel your pain.

Second Message: Your medical condition is so unbelievably dire that not even I can face it with any amount of composure. You, my friend, are well and truly screwed. I cannot imagine the agony you’re in for, without falling apart myself.  May God help you.

It is the conveyance of this latter message that, in the opinion of DrRich, ought to make most doctors on most occasions relatively circumspect about crying in front of their patients.

It is also this latter message that offers to make crying doctors a convenient tool for covert rationing.

When the doctor is reduced to tears (thus graphically demonstrating to the patient that the game’s about up; that there’s pretty much nothing, really, that’s going to change this bleak outcome; and how very sad it all is) – well! Talk about reducing your patient’s expectations!

A chief tenet of covert rationing is that patients who can be made to expect little will be satisfied with little. In most cases this is accomplished by simply coercing doctors to withhold from their patients all of their medical options. But if they can be encouraged to cry when delivering bad news, doctors can destroy patients’ expectations in a much more definitive fashion.

Furthermore, the traditional role of the doctor when a patient’s outlook is poor is to take charge of a very bad situation, and with great empathy, patience and fortitude attempt to guide the patient through that situation with as much skill and courage as possible, even if the final destination looks very bleak. If the doctor instead becomes just one more of the people who gather about the bedside crying about it, then the patient immediately perceives themselves to be abandoned and alone, placed into a position irremediably desolate, with no sense of direction, and no sense of control over their own destiny. Patients fighting illness from such a position do more than merely lose their expectations; they will also die much sooner and in greater despair than necessary.

So obviously, our modern healthcare system under Obamacare will see immediate advantages to encouraging emotional outbursts on the part of doctors. In the name of advancing empathetic physicians and fixing a broken doctor-patient relationship, we could, more easily and more often, get those folks who are in the infamous last six months of life to simply stop striving for a medical miracle – or even for non-miraculous but expensive therapies that actually exist, and that (alas!) might actually extend their survival – and thus effect the sick patient’s demise more quickly and more economically.

Certainly, now that medical schools are teaching forms of alternative medicine that in former years would have made real doctors blush, for courses on the doctor-patient relationship to encourage young doctors to let their emotions free is a good and natural fit.

Young doctors should not be taken in by such ploys. They should empathize with their patients, but remain strong, and lead their patients gently and resolutely through their medical ordeals. They should try to avoid allowing a free display of their emotions to break their patient’s spirit. Their job, instead, is to use their expertise to fortify their patient’s spirit, even in the worst of times. And above all they should not allow themselves to become the trained tools of an ultimately cynical healthcare system, that uses every ploy at its disposal to covertly ration medical care.

4 Responses to “Why Crying Doctors Are A Good Fit For Obamacare”

  1. So, just so I get this right- when the doctor comes into your hospital room bawling his or her head off, that should be taken as a sign that the game is over and done? Who needs end of life planning with ths sort of tactic? That would mean even more savings for our collective society…

    Dr. K

  2. Rationing – Limiting the cost of treatment regardless of effectiveness.

    Best Practices – Applying cost-effective treatments according to group results, without expensive individual testing (see Rationing).

    Doctors – Are not needed to perform inexpensive, simple testing and to apply standardized treatments (see Best Practices).

    Sympathisers – Are Non-Doctors, having cheap but effective training in emotional bonding (see Best Practices). They are best equipped to provide emotional comfort to patients and family while avoiding any troubling understanding of which tests and treatments are not being provided. Death comes to us all, preferably with a sympathetic care-giver who can provide emotional confirmation that we have successfully travelled through a life of woe.

  3. Mike K says:

    I spent ten years teaching students in a program that began as “The doctor-patient Relationship.” That program began in 1960 but the name has been changed as the focus shifts. I’m sure I managed to screw up the plans of a few educators who are of the crying genre. We did have a unit on alternative medicine but it was on how to get the history of such beliefs from the patient. However, money talks and UC, Irvine had a huge donation from the ditzy wife of a billionaire that established a Department of Alternative Medicine with chiropractors, etc. Maybe some faith healers, which California is well equipped with. I once reviewed a workers comp case in which the doctor was treating carpal tunnel syndrome with “out of body experience.”

    Until a couple of years ago when I quit, the program was still pretty solid although there were a few faculty who were shaky.

  4. SMB1979 says:

    I saw tears in the eyes of my Mother’s Oncologist just once, during the 6 years he battled beside her against terminal cancer.
    That was the day, I brought my newborn son, straight from the Maternity Hospital, to his office. He met my Mom there for the first time, and the Doctor who made it possible for her to live to meet her first grandchild. As he held the baby, he said “I see so much death, this is life”.
    The rest of the time, he fulfilled his initial promise to her, and to us. To give her as much time as was possible, to fight along with her, and to tell her and us when it was time to give up. Tears weren’t a part of it, his battle to help, calmly, practically, non-emotionally, was.

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