Treat Patients as People… Not Diseases

June 19, 2011

We as physicians are commonly trained to treat diseases, not patients.   Another way of looking at it is that we are trained to think mechanically.  If ”X” is present, administer “y” and if  “A” is broken, we must fix it.   Orthopedic surgeons in particular are frequently trained to treat MRI findings and not necessarily how to incorporate patient values, or the tailor a treatment plan based on  how a disease effects their quality of life.  Many  surgeons are  not typically considering the patient’s underlying emotional status and the influence that this will have on the patient’s ultimate recovery.  At risk patients have significant anxiety and other psycho-social issues that affect their ability  with regards to medical decision making and recovery from medical intervention.

Research has shown that at risk patients are agnostic with respect to socioeconomic background, age, or gender. The at risk patient has significant anxiety, perhaps low-grade chronic depression and certainly diminished coping skills.  In order to put in place or create an environment that ensures successful treatment of a disease state, it is imperative that the surgeon identify the at risk population preoperatively. This will enable us to put the proper mechanisms  in place in order to insure a proper setting or environment for functional improvement in the postoperative setting. Identifying an at risk patient does not necessarily mean that the patient should not consider a proposed procedure – – – instead it should alert the physician that a multi-modal approach with the inclusion of social workers or psychiatrists and psychologists may be necessary.

I’ve always stated that great surgeons know how to perform  most procedures well within their area of specialty. More importantly they know how to deal with complications as they arise and work towards the best situation possible to ensure the likelihood of success.  I’ve also been quoted as saying is that a master surgeon approaches patients as people,  and not diseases. A master surgeon incorporates patient values, and can identify the at risk patient and institute measures to effectively manage and treat those patients both pre-and post-operatively and perhaps more importantly they can identify the at risk patient who should not be indicated for surgery.

For many patients it is impossible to separate the emotional and physical aspects of recovery from surgery or other disease states. There is frequently a mismatch between a patient’s subjective complaints versus the surgeon’s thoughts on objective impairment. It is the psychological issues and the coping skills of the patient that perhaps lead to this mismatch. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other non-conventional treatment modalities may prove to have a crucial role in aligning these issues.

What this boils down to is the art of patient – physician communication. It is incumbent upon the physician to have a clear sense of what the patient understands about their disease and to engage them further to improve their level of understanding. We can go further and  provide the patient with information, booklets, or links to a website  the patient can then review in the comfort of their own home or with other family members.

Those of you who frequent this blog understand that I am a strong believer in shared decision-making principles. I believe that a patient should clearly understand  their diagnosis,  the future implications of their disease, what the treatment alternatives are and what the risks of either nonoperative or operative treatment are and how the choice of surgical or nonsurgical management might affect them.

I’ve spoken before about the low touch- high technology approach to orthopedics that is far too prevalent in our society. Not only does this lead to over testing and over treatment – – – it lends itself to  ignoring the quality-of-life impact the disease/injury in question is having on the patient. When surgery is considered, this leaves many patients at risk for poor functional outcomes simply because the surgeon may not have recognized or addressed the non-physical  functional needs of the patient.  Orthopedic surgery cannot simply be defined as fixing a broken part, without the clear understanding of how our intervention affects a patient, and the fact that how a patient reacts to surgical or nonsurgical management, is simply not mechanical.

We need to treat our patients as people and not as disease states.  We need to treat patients and not MRI findings. It is no longer advisable, nor perhaps acceptable, to look at a patient as possessing a mechanical issue and not consider the impact of whatever intervention we recommend on their lifestyle and quality of life.