American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Patients and physicians: Two left feet or Dancing with the Stars?

The other day I came across this photo of a couple clasping each other in a dramatic tango on the cover of an old medical journal, a special issue from 1999 that was focused entirely on doctor-patient partnership. The tone and subjects of the articles, letters and editorials were identical to those written today on the topic: "It’s time for the paternalism of the relationship between doctors and patients to be transformed into a partnership;" "There are benefits to this change and dangers to maintaining the status quo;" "Some doctors and patients resist the change and some embrace it: Why?"

Two questions struck me as I impatiently scanned the articles from 12 years ago: First, why are these articles about doctor-patient partnership still so relevant? And second, why did the editor choose this cover image?

I’ve been mulling over these questions for a couple days, and I think an answer to the second question sheds light on the first. Here are some thoughts about the relationship between patients and doctors (and nurse practitioners and other clinicians) evoked by that image of the two elegant people dancing together:

It takes two to tango. Ever seen one guy doing the tango? Nope. Whatever he’s doing out there on the dance floor, that’s not tango. Without both dancers, there is no tango. The reason my doctor and I come together is our shared purpose of curing my illness or easing my pain. We bring different skills, perspectives and needs to this interaction. When in a partnership, I describe my symptoms and recount my history. I talk about my values and priorities. I say what I am able and willing to do for myself and what I am not. My doctor has knowledge about my disease and experience treating it in people like me; she explains risks and tradeoffs of different approaches and tailors her use of drugs, devices, and procedures to meet my needs and my preferences. Both of us recognize that without the active commitment of the other we can’t reach our shared goal: To help me live as well as I can for as long as I can.

Each dancer adjusts to his or her partner. In tango, each partner has different moves; the lead shifts subtly and constantly between them throughout the dance. In a partnership, when I am really ill, I delegate more decisions to my physicians; when I am well we freely go back and forth, discussing treatment options and making plans.

Both dancers have to want to dance. One dancer is not familiar with the music and holds back, reluctant to look foolish; another woodenly goes through the motions, dancing with her father-in-law out of obligation. If my doctor doesn’t indicate that she is interested in listening to me--doesn’t invite my contribution to a discussion, answer my questions or address my concerns--chances are we won’t be having much of a partnership. If I believe my doctor can diagnose me based on a few tests, cure me by prescribing a few pills and that she will tell me everything I should to know--I need only do what she’s told me to--the chances of us building a strong working relationship are low.

Everybody has to learn to dance. No one is born knowing how to tango. You have to learn the steps and practice them over time. We witnessed the deference our parents accorded our physicians and most of us have had few opportunities to behave differently, either because we are pretty healthy and have little contact with health professionals or because we are pretty sick and we have other things on our mind at the time. Similarly, most doctors practicing today trained with physicians who expected considerable deference from their patients. The saying, "Just because you have furniture doesn’t mean you are an interior designer" applies: Just because you can talk doesn’t mean you know how to build a partnership where it is possible to openly discuss intimate bodily functions, symptoms, drugs, hope, depression, fear, life, death, and what might be done to ease the suffering with this relative stranger. Building and maintaining a partnership between a doctor and patient constitutes a dramatic change in power, responsibility and ways of interacting. Making those changes requires that both partners learn to listen, talk and act in ways that are unfamiliar and often uncomfortable.

There’s no revenue model for dancing. Unless they win "Dancing With the Stars" or work tirelessly to become professional ballroom dancers, most people who tango receive no financial reward for their efforts. They dance because it is satisfying; because they love the music or the feeling it gives them or the joy of mastery or the fancy outfit. No one will pay me or my doctor to forge a partnership with each other, although it is possible that one barrier to my doctor doing so, lack of time, will be removed by being better compensated in the future. But no policy, incentive program, or performance measure is likely to induce either of us to interact differently. We will only change the way we communicate because we see value in doing it and because we see risk of harm in not doing it. We will change because we respect what each other knows and needs in order to do his or her best. And we will change because we realize that only by communicating as partners can we reach the goal we share, my improved health.

Viewing the relationship between doctors and patients through the lens of these dancers, I am reminded of the flexibility and sensitivity required of both doctors and patients, working as partners, to accommodate the ebb and flow of illness. These new communication skills can only be learned through practice in the company of a partner who is similarly committed to using them. Partnerships between patients and their providers are driven not by financial incentives or punishments but because we both realize that it is no longer safe or feasible to deliver or receive the full benefit of healthcare without them.

And so while I’m disappointed, I’m not discouraged by the relevance of the dated articles in the journal with the dancers on the cover. Moving from paternalism to partnership between doctors and patients constitutes a huge shift in attitude and practice for all of us. That shift is difficult for many and as a result, its pace has been, to quote CMS director Don Berwick, "majestic." The public and professional media cover healthcare reform, public health program cutbacks, daily advances in medicine drugs and technology, demands of evidence-based medicine, and the reorganization of care, reflecting the priorities of those within healthcare. So I am grateful for every journal article, training program, or conference announcement and media campaign that sends up the flag to remind us and our doctors that it is only through our partnerships with one another that we will receive--and they will deliver--the best care.

I may not be discouraged, but I am still impatient. Come on! The music is playing. It’s time for all of us to start dancing.

[Editor's note: A similar cover image was chosen by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) for their February 7, 2009 issue titled "Reframing Relations with Pharma: It Takes Two to Tango."]

This post by Jessie Gruman, PhD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.

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Blog log

Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Auscultation
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Richmond, Va., with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

DrDialogue
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

FutureDocs
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

KevinMD
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

Prescriptions
David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

Interact MD
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.

PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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