Newsweek’s My Turn: What About the Patient?

Last week, Newsweek’s My Turn featured an essay by Dr. Richard Karl. Newsweek called it “Good Doctors Spot Mistakes, Save Lives”… a lousy headline for a well-meaning essay, even if the essay needs a postscript.

(I’ve provided that postscript below.)

Dr. Karl, a surgeon, describes the frustration of trying to track down a sponge which he fears he has left inside his patient. He uses this example to cite one of the many ways physicians, and the medical system in general, harm patients — 15 million of them per year, by count of the Institute of Heathcare Improvement.

He then provides the reasons he thinks this phenomenon has gotten so out of control, from too much innovation to development of too many new drugs and treatment techniques to patients demanding to be a part of their own care decisions.

He’s right. The world has changed.

But the real measure of this man is in his bottom line, where he states, “Most everybody I know in medicine is bright, hardworking and altruistic. Many, though, have been beaten down by hundreds of urgent pages, middle-of-the-night phone calls, decreasing reimbursement, more paperwork and less grateful patients. These doctors have become less careful, and their patients suffer as a result.

It is time for my colleagues and me to reclaim our profession. It is time for doctors and nurses to work together, time for electronic records to actually work in providing the right information to the right person, time for pharmacists and nurses and social workers and doctors to see patients together.”

I hear you Dr. Karl, and I can see that you are trying to shift your thought process from being a blamer to being a fixer. I appreciate that.

But here’s the postscript: in your description of who needs to work together on the “healing together” team, you’ve missed the one person who is, arguably, the most important participant of all: The patient!

Patients: you’ll understand the need to take responsibility by understanding the constraints your providers operate under (as described by Dr. Karl) — it only makes sense for you to be an active participant in your care decisions.

Doctors: if you embrace the empowered, informed patient as a part of the healing team, you’ll find that everyone will benefit. And that, after all, is why you became a doctor.

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