Monday, April 30, 2012

Satisfying and Unsatisfying Problems

A guest interrupted my questioning to dash into the bathroom, and I heard the sounds of gagging as she vomited.

While waiting, I took a vial of ondansetron from my bag and began filling a syringe. After a few minutes I heard the toilet flush.

“Why don’t I give the vomiting injection now?” I said when she reappeared. “You’ll probably want one.” She agreed with enthusiasm.

I finished my exam, made a diagnosis – the common stomach virus – and delivered advice and a packet of pills. I also went to the ice machine down the corridor and filled her ice bucket, so that she could suck on the chips for the next few hours. She was very grateful and equally grateful the following morning when I phoned to learn she had recovered. Most stomach viruses don’t last long, a day or so.

Vomiting and diarrhea are usually satisfying problems for a doctor. Most skin problems are easy. I rarely have a problem with earaches, backaches, minor injuries, common eye inflammations, even most urinary and gynecological complaints. A hotel doctor’s patients are healthier than average, but serious problems occur. It turns out that these are not necessarily “hard.” When I encounter someone with chest pain, eye pain, sudden weakness, difficulty breathing, or an injury that may be serious I know what to do. At the end patients receive the care they should receive, and we both know it. That’s a satisfying feeling.

What is the most unsatisfying problem a doctor faces? Rare diseases? Puzzling symptoms? Neurotics? Drug addiction? None of these. Most doctors would agree that it’s the common viral upper respiratory infection. About twenty percent of everyone who consults a doctor suffers. Hotel guests are no exception. No one tries to educate me about heart attacks, but everyone is an expert on these. Patients tell me how they acquired theirs (“I got caught in the rain”), or why (“I’m not eating right; my resistance is low”), the proper treatment (“my doctor gives me a Z-pak”), and what will happen if I disagree (“It’ll go to my chest”). These explanations are always wrong.

You catch a virus from another person. The illness lasts from a few days to a few weeks. If you see a doctor, he or she will prescribe an antibiotic at least half the time. The antibiotic is useless. Doctors know this but prescribe them anyway.

No patient agrees. “I have a good doctor,” they reply. “He would never do that.”

My response is that prescribing useless antibiotics is not necessarily a sign of incompetence. It’s so common that good doctors do it. One expert calls this avalanche of unnecessary antibiotics one of our greatest environmental pollutants. It’s producing a growing race of “superbugs:” germs resistant to all antibiotics.

Here’s a professional secret. When doctors chat among themselves, we often bring up the subject. Challenged by colleagues like me, prescribers never claim that antibiotics cure these infections. They know they’re a placebo, but they respond with a powerful argument. “When I’m finished, I want patients to be happy, and they are happy. One hundred percent. What’s your experience?”

It’s not as good. When I deliver sympathy, advice, and perhaps a cough remedy to patients with a respiratory infection, most seem genuinely grateful, but a solid minority drop hints (“Isn’t there something to knock this out….?” “My regular doctor gives me…..” “I have a meeting tomorrow, and I can’t be sick…”).

Doctors love helping patients. That’s why we went into medicine. Equally important, we want you to feel “helped,” and we are super-sensitive to your gratitude. Almost everyone is too polite to argue with a doctor, but we can detect the tiniest trace of disappointment as you leave. It hurts us. Every doctor knows that he can eliminate this pain and produce heartfelt gratitude by prescribing an antibiotic. This is terribly tempting, and after a few dozen or few hundred or few thousand disappointed patients, most doctors give in.

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