(I wrote this a few weeks back as I was just starting the first portion of my internal medicine clerkship. I was obviously rather energized at the time, though my thoughts now remain generally the same. More science-y posts to come, I promise, but for now it’s hard to find time to put together such posts!)
Our current medical system does not fit our current medical condition.
Our health-care system was built on the premise of people being relatively healthy until they became significantly sick. By those standards, our medical system has been hugely successful. Antibiotics routinely save people who would die without medical intervention. Trauma surgeons routinely put people back together who would have died 100, or even 10 years ago (and put them back together better and faster with improving technology). Today, conditions that used to be major killers- meningitis, endocarditis, pneumonia- are usually (though not always) successfully treated. The pediatrics floor of my University’s hospital is frequently almost empty- most serious diseases of childhood are now prevented.
Yet people see our medical system as a failure.
And it is.
Our medical system fails to prevent the preventable. Rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and “diseases of civilization” are increasing exponentially. The expense of our medical system is unaffordable. As much as we are able to treat the sick, we often fail the ill.
Different doctors have different views towards medicine. Some are rather paternalistic; some are loud proponents of patient autonomy. For the most part, however, all hospital-based doctors know they can’t keep their patients in the hospital until they are healthy. They treat them, and when they are ready to go home (or to a rehab center or nursing home), they are discharged. The problem is- you can treat an infection or a crisis, but you can’t treat a lifestyle.
When a patient comes in with Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS- a term that refers to a spectrum of cardiac conditions from unstable angina to a severe myocardial infarction) and four risk factors (let’s say diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia and a history of smoking), what is the job of the hospital team? They CANNOT fix all the underlying factors. Their job is to stabilize the patient, make a diagnosis, and treat their current condition.
Who is “to blame” for this situation? Is it the patient that lived a lifestyle full of cardiovascular risk factors? Is it the fault of the patient’s family that never taught the patient, as a child, how to cook and care for themselves? Is it the fault of the community for not providing safe playgrounds for the patient when they grew up, leading to a sedentary lifestyle? Is it the fault of the education system, which might have fed this patient disastrous food while preaching the benefits of the food pyramid (if they taught anything nutrition-related at all)? Is it a lack of physician availability, which leads to ‘dead zones’ where no primary-care physicians can be found, even if you have insurance or can pay for care? Is it the failure of the patient who took at face value all the ill-guided “health-care” advice they were given (or perhaps, is it their fault for blatantly pursuing a lifestyle that no one would suggest is healthy)?
Our system was built around the premise of people being healthy until they got sick. We currently live in a world where most people are chronically ill.
It’s a fun thought-experiment to imagine what we could do with modern medical tools and technology with the patient base of 100 (or 10000?) years ago. What would the hospitals look like in a world where patients ate real food, moved, lived, and interacted like humans, but with all the marvels of the modern world? It’s a pretty dream to dream- especially if you are a physician (or future physician). Helping people return to health is rewarding. Patching people up to die another day is exhausting, and frequently demoralizing.
Some say the system is broken. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, though I’d be apt to argue that we have some pretty amazing skills and tools, but we’re working in a broken world. No one person can fix this. No one profession can fix this. What are you doing to make things better?
Imagine there’s no diseases of civilization
It’s easy if you try
No collapsed arches below us
Above us only Vitamin-D producing sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no diabetes
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to chronically treat or amputate for
And no exogenous insulin too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
(Humblest apologies to all John Lennon fans… I couldn’t help myself)
There will always be disease. There will always be trauma. The question is: how do we handle these things, minimizing illness and maximizing the enjoyment of life?
A friend and classmate made a good point over on my facebook page. I’ll paraphrase.
Our hospital’s pediatrics ward is empty because we’re not a peds specialty hospital and all the intense cases get shipped to a hospital with more pediatric specialists or to a children’s hospital.
It’s a good point, but if anything I think it strengthens my argument. We no longer have the bread-and-butter pediatric diseases of yore. Our pediatricians aren’t managing polio, treating a bunch of meningitis, or rehydrating children with rotavirus. On the other hand- the children’s specialty hospitals are now treating things that were previously unseen because children died. Children with rare and complex disorders now survive and are treated at specialty hospitals, while the run-of-the-mill pediatric illnesses fall into distant memory (though Pertussis is making a nasty comeback).
When it comes to pediatrics, we’re making great headway in keeping children healthy (though the rates at which our children are getting “adult” diseases such as Type II Diabetes are terrifying). What we do see, at least at our hospital, is a failure of good pre-natal care, leading to complex and problematic pediatric conditions… Again- it’s the lifestyle stuff that we struggle with!