Do-No-Harm

We doctors, are suspended in a strange state of limbo. Gone are the days when consultants treated patients like minions who had to accept their judgment without questions. Also are bygone the days, when concoctions from bottles of various sizes were mixed together and passed on as panaceas for all ailments.  The compounder who would dutifully carry the doctor’s bag and keep the clinic running like clockwork is also, now an extinct species.

We are now in an era where hospitals are treated like business with business models, plans, huge glassed buildings and air conditioned offices. The targets they have to meet to get such a huge gargantuan venture going, loom large in front of the doctors.

The reason we are in a limbo is probably this- that at heart we are still pompous old world people who believe in our skills and dealing with a patient who does not believe in it brings us crashing down to reality!

A lot of patients now behave as though they have come to a hospital for a business transaction. They give us money and we give them health. When the deal works well, everything is hunky dory, but when things go awry, the doctor bears the brunt of it. And how. He is beaten up, the hospital is ransacked and the staff are manhandled, before the good old police finally reach the scene.

In such a scenario, it is not strange that doctors develop a defensive attitude of not accepting our mistakes. And mistakes do happen. After all we are humans. Only, we deal with other humans!

Though treatment procedures have been standardized for years, first in the lab, then on hapless animals and then tried on humans to prevent any mishaps, we know that patients react differently to different drugs. At least 1 in 10 patients and their illness does not behave as obediently as we expect. According to a study in Australia, about 18000 deaths occur in a year due to medical errors! A lot of times the body plays tricks on us. Placing red herrings, leading us on a merry path to a destination, which is exactly at the opposite end of where we want to be. We have to start afresh then. Slightly more cautious and worried. And rarely, it does happen that we mess up bad. And it does end in the patient’s demise. A valuable but a very sad lesson.

Unfortunately, in our profession, accepting our mistake is taken as a sure fire sign of guilt. We only have the freedom to accept our mistakes when we are doing our residency, when the worst we have to face for this is the wrath of our teacher.

Therefore, when I read “Do No Harm”, by Henry Marsh, a neuro surgeon from Britain, I enjoyed it immensely.

First, because it acknowledges that we as doctors are human and need to get it into our head that failures do happen. He has portrayed himself as genuinely as possible. That, at times, he is guilty of losing his temper, sometimes his decisions have been made by how tired he was or how the weather was behaving! This admission according to me, was extraordinarily brave. l have made some purely selfish decisions, but till date ,have great difficulty in acknowledging it! It is always easier to defend myself. And hence, the greatness of this man, who has actually put it on paper.

Secondly, the book also gives us examples of the times when things do not go as expected. The moral being- catharte, accept, console, move on- but do not forget for next time!

Thirdly, that vice versa can also happen. Those whom we expect the worst to happen, go on to outlive their children and we end up being at the end of condescending glares and living room gossip. So to learn to communicate the truth, but not to give out ultimatums. Instead, to be gentle and as hopeful as possible.

Lastly, but most importantly, the book gives us insights about knowing when to stop our work and accept that nature has to take its course. As doctors we sometimes get carried away by the drama of keeping the patient alive by all means. But the consequences of such survival may be more of a burden than help. Like when the operation is a success, but the patient ends up in coma for years. The relatives are at a loss financially, emotionally and unable to take a decision about the future!

Do no harm is a book which deals with such difficult questions and circumstances which every doctor faces but is unable to voice out. It is honest, upsetting sometimes, but definitely re assuring for two reasons.

One because, it gives a sense of solace that the dilemmas shared by doctors all over, are not unique.

Two, because come what may, being honest with the patient and family, brings alive a bond akin to what was present eons ago- a sense of understanding, and a trust level which allows for acceptance even if we inadvertently harm their dear ones.

How I wish this book was a part of my medical school reading!

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How bad is it, doc?

doctors There are many cliches associated with being doctors. The near dictum that doctors are next to Gods. That practicing medicine is a noble, respectable, ideal profession. In the nineties, most children in India, I would safely say, grew up with an idea that their life would be made if they became doctors, or engineers. It was the rare parent that would allow his child to choose a profession apart from these two.

According to a recent study by the WHO, despite medical schools mushrooming all over India, we still are short of doctors.  The state of a patient in rural India, who needs some form of emergency medicine is still abysmally bad. So,yes,we do need doctors.

But suddenly, it almost feels like doctors are everyone’s favorite punching bag. It is as if we are a group of individuals with dubious reputations, unscrupulous, unethical and those trying to make a buck out of the poor patient’s pocket.

It is therefore probably the right time to remind ourselves that medicine is, basically, just another profession. Yes, compassion is important, as well as a sense of responsibility. But then, those with an aptitude for both should not have difficulty in finding their way into this field, just as someone with good computing skills takes up computer engineering. To deglamorise, doctors study five and a half years for a degree which tells them how tackle certain ills in a scientific manner. We do not claim to be Gods, nor are we the devil reincarnate.

I do agree that there is a lot going wrong with the practice of medicine in India. But these wrongs mainly stem from a flawed, aged, system rather than the individual doctor.

Children as young as seventeen, I believe, rarely have the maturity to realize the seriousness of a profession like medicine. In the west, medical school would be an option to only those with an undergraduate degree under their belt. I personally know of kids who take up medicine because of the glamour associated with it or because of parental pressure. When you choose a profession for the wrong reasons, the outcome seems near obviously bad.

The presence of corruption in a system which deals with life itself. In conversation with one of vice chancellors of a medical school, I get to understand that the seat matrix in any medical school across India is decided by how many palms are greased rather than, how good the patient student ratio in the teaching hospital is. We see around us a number of med schools where professors exist only on office papers, and the teaching hospital needs to be filled with fake patients who are hired during MCI inspections. We PRACTICE MEDICINE. And where the practice of teaching is poor, the confidence of a doctor to handle a patient is obviously poor.

The weird attitude that once we choose to become doctors, we, as individuals, need to give up on material gains. The salaries of doctors in rural service is pathetically low for the amount of risk that they take. To quote Atul Gawande in his book, “Better” ,doctors in rural India are the most innovative and efficient. They need to work with patchy electricity, minus specialist help, have to work against unhealthy  but traditional practices to the convince the family to get the patient treated. Hence, they learn to work with enormous amount of common sense. But, the rewards materialistically or otherwise are poor. They have poor roads, horrible infrastructure, no legal aid, their children have no good schools, due to which they would have to be sent away for their education. All the while, when media glaringly shows them, that their counterparts, with half the years of education, are earning fat sums, driving the newest eye candy, spending time in malls, living in penthouses, working in centrally air conditioned offices and sending their children to international schools. Who in their right mind would choose rural service?

As doctors we ultimately deal with lives. And people. And people with a million different personalities. And these personalities, when they are under stress of illness. But nowhere in medical schools are we taught the importance of good communication, on dealing with grief, on being calm during periods of stress or emergency. It is as if we are expected to magically source this information from some place in the universe and imbibe it. The art of counseling, is not hereditary. It needs to be taught. And as my dean in med school, Prof. Dr.B.M.Hegde would quote, doctors, needed to be trained to “cure rarely, care often and comfort always”. Poor counseling skills, automatically translates to poor patient care.

Law concerning self protection, medical insurance and negligence are alien subjects when we study medicine. We only get to hear these terms when we land, slap bang in the middle of a controversy. We do make mistakes. We are human. But, mostly the health of our egos and our bank balance depend on the good health of our patients. The pleasure we get when we see a critically ill patient walk back home with a smile on his face, is probably what keeps most of my fellow doctors in the profession, despite the grueling hours and non existant social life. Hence, if we were to be taught what to do when we err, we would definitely tread with more caution, rather be caught on tv appearing like a petty criminal.

If we are a society concerned with health, then we have to understand that we have an individual responsibility towards our health. Poor lifestyle habits, not following the doctor’s advice and skipping doses, and then blaming the doctor for poor health despite taking expensive medicines is simply playing the blame game. Not acceptable.

To summarize, we need a multi pronged approach to start a change in most of these areas. Able law makers,thinkers, senior doctors and the public at large who should first understand the flawed but totteringly functional system completely. And then attempt change. Only then, we can hope for the health of the country as well as its doctors.  Till then, still happy to be a doctor and enjoying it despite the hurdles!