Blog | Monday, April 30, 2012

Lamentation


I had an article published on the Atlantic's website.

I've been struck over the last few years by how many graduates in my field of internal medicine choose NOT to work as traditional internists.

Call us what you like:
--traditional internists,
--general internists,
--primary care internists,
--outpatient internists, and
--just plain old internists.

You can see we've always had a problem with what we're called. What is an "internist" anyway? No one has any problem understanding what a cardiologist is. It's right there in the name.

Subspecialties have always been a good career path for internal medicine graduates. But those of us that didn't want to do the additional training (three to four more years) to become certified in a specific body part could always be internists.

But now our graduates are choosing hospital work as the path of least resistance. And for good reasons:
--better pay,
--flexible scheduling,
--no on-call (i.e. after hour) duties,
--feeling better trained for the work

Part of me is jealous that this opportunity did not exist as such when I graduated twelve years ago. Part of me is sad that our trainees don't want to take the job that I willingly signed up for.

The hospital has excellent systems in place to provide good care for patients. The doctors that work there are part of a well-oiled (well, at least greasy) machine that caters to them as much (if not more) than it does for patients.

Not true in the office world, where there is less support. More of the administrative, financial and organizational burdens fall on the doctors. That isn't inherently bad, but it's not what we are trained to do. And by comparison, it makes the practice of outpatient (office) medicine that much harder.

More importantly, there's the relationship aspect: I chose to work in primary care because my relationship with patients would evolve over decades. I believed (and still do) that by getting to know patients more thoroughly over time, I can provide better, more informed, value-conscious care. The relationship between a hospitalist and a patient lasts days. Then it's over. For an ER doc, it's hours or even minutes. I'm not passing judgment; it's just a different type of thing altogether.

I think about my patients at night. On the weekends. In the shower. Wherever and whenever.

In site-based care, like the hospital or the ER, when your shift is over, you go home. Without your work. [I know, of course doctors in these settings think about their patients when they go home. It's just the idea of this freedom that rankles.]

I could jump ship and become a hospitalist. As I reported in the article, a colleague left her office practice after 23 years. Her patients are upset, confused, wistful. Grateful for her care over the many years. Happy for her personally on an intellectual level. But emotionally distraught.

When I started researching the article, I identified with Dr. Fingold (read the Marticle for context). To some degree, I looked at Dr. Wachter as someone who had unleashed a profession-altering (destroying?) force into the world.

By the time I was finished, I realized that things are not that simple. Dr. Wachter took me on a whirlwind tour of the history of hospitalists and their impact in American medicine, and it's quite a story. He certainly didn't unleash the disruptive force as much as he understood it, rode it, catalogued it, and helped develop it.

"I invented the term 'hospitalist' like Al Gore invented the Internet," is only one of his well-crafted interview lines.

The work I did for the article is helping me to radically re-think both how we practice and deliver health care, including how we teach it to our future doctors, regardless of where they end up practicing.

This post by John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist. His blog, GlassHospital, seeks to bring transparency to medical practice and to improve the patient experience.