I described helping a woman bring her bad LDL cholesterol down from 205 to 158 with two clinic visits the other day, and someone said, “ I can replace you with a teacher who is much cheaper. Why should you go to medical school to talk about the things people already know? Let's free you up to do heart surgery or something important.”
Well? What about that? Is my career as a doctor wasted because I am in primary care? I am in Family Practice and I spend tons of time counseling people about diet, exercise, lifestyle choices.
My work is not wasted.
If all we had to do was give people information, we have the information. Every magazine and newspaper screams at us: “Obesity! Stop smoking! Exercise for health! Eat right! Don't eat junk food!”
Why do two visits with me make a difference?
People do not feel valuable and do not feel cared for in our culture. In the same magazine with articles about losing weight, getting organized, shouting “You can do it!” there are multiple advertisements for sugary desserts and things to consume. My spouse used to joke, “If I get (whatever he wanted at that time) then I'll be a better person.”
I see pregnant woman who can stop smoking while pregnant, to care for the baby on board, but who often can't extend the same caring to themselves after the child is born.
The history is often listed as the most important part of a clinic visit. I agree, but not just for diagnosing illness. I am listening to the person, and now with a laptop, I am recording their history. Why are they here today, what medical problems have they had, allergies, surgeries, do they smoke, are they married, do they have children? I want a picture of the person and I must listen hard. What do they reveal about their trust in medicine, about favorable or unfavorable medical interactions in the past, about what they understand or believe about their health? The visit is a negotiation. I need their view of what is happening and their questions.
The physical exam is often an interlude for me. I look at the persons throat, in their ears, listen to their heart and lungs. And part of me is collating the information that I've gathered, so that we can move to the next step: analysis and plan.
If I am doing a preventative check, a wellness visit, a physical, whatever you want to call it, I name the positives and negatives. Are they exercising regularly, have they stopped smoking, are they trying to eat a good diet? I name these. Are they lucky enough to have four grandparents who lived to 102 or do the men in their family die at 52 of a heart attack? A 55 year old man who has lost multiple relatives in their early 50s is surprised that he's alive, and starting to wonder if it might be worth attending a little to his own health. He is a bit shy about hoping that he might not die tomorrow, and ready for encouragement in taking care of himself.
The visit is really about caring. Many people in our culture do not feel cared for. Moms are supposed to care for everyone else. Parents are very very busy, trying to take care of children and have jobs. People are afraid that they will lose their job, their insurance, their homes. We try to do the tasks of adulthood: have the career, find the true love, raise the children, achieve the lifestyle, home and place in our society. And many people feel that they are failing or fear failing. They have not gotten the job they hoped for. They have a house, but it is a huge amount of work. They are working very hard, but there are still so many things they would like to do or see or have. They have become overweight, they have gotten hooked on tobacco, their children are not turning out as they'd planned, the ungrateful wretches. And their parents' health is crumbling, and in all the chaos, why would the person attend to themselves? The cell phone rings, the computer beckons, it's time to work, to cook, to clean, to stay on the hamster wheel of life.
In clinic, for a few moments, this person is the center. They explain their health to me. They are painting a picture of their life. A patient will say, “I've been worrying about my mother, my son, my spouse, and I don't take the time to exercise or eat right.”
And I say, “I hope that your mother, son, spouse does better. But you are important too. It is wonderful that you have stopped smoking, excellent! But we're both worried about your cholesterol, right? It is too high. How are we going to take care of you? What can you fit in?”
Most people do not want to start with a medicine. They want to take care of themselves, too. They are willing to make lifestyle changes. They need encouragement and permission and to come back to see how it is going. What they need is my caring. And I do care.
I used to think that somehow complex patients would gravitate to me. But that is not true: the truth is that everyone is complex. Each person has layers and thoughts and feelings: fears and joys. I barely scratch the surface. It is the caring that is most important and each person that I see is important.
At the end of the visit, I print my note. I give it to the person. “Check it. Tell me if something is wrong. I cannot change the note, but I can put an addendum.” I see that people are shy and often show some confusion. Two pages? Single spaced? About me?
Yes. About you.