Why is this discouraging? Just as only the test pilot knows what is happening in the cockpit from second to second, a physician is often the only health professional who gets to know patients as people, including each one’s particular needs and concerns. Being assessed by metrics promulgated by economists, policymakers and health care executives who have never met the patient gives the practice of medicine a hollow feel.
Most physicians don’t want to be astronauts, hurtling uncontrollably into a health care future they cannot see. Instead they want to be pilots – professionals who exemplify why having eyes and ears on the patient is far more important than mastering a computer system or billing code. They don’t want to be astronauts, stuck in a can that dictates their every move and provides no opportunity to make the kind of difference for patients that generates personal challenge and growth.
The situation is summed up nicely by a crayon drawing by a 6-year-old patient we saw recently. Entitled, “My Visit to the Doctor,” it depicts a young patient seated on an examination table, facing the doctor. The doctor, however, is across the room at a desk, facing away from the patient, bent down over a computer into which he is entering data. The implicit message of this simple image? The computer is more important to the doctor than the patient.
If we want to stem the tide of burnout, depression and suicide in medicine, we need to enable doctors to be good doctors – not mere “health care providers” – and to practice medicine in a way they can be proud of. We must allow and even encourage them not merely to manage health information but to care for human beings. Like the early astronauts, physicians, especially the best among them, cannot thrive if they remain relegated to the role of Ham the Astrochimp, America’s first chimpanzee astronaut.
Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University and Peter Gunderman, First-year Resident at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, Indiana University
This article originally appeared on MPR