Making Physicians Better, and Making Better Physicians

A few recent reports point to ways for improving the quality of physician delivered care that has little to do with technology or complex interventions.  The first involves how physicians interact with patients, and the second examines the work hours for physicians in training.

Etiquette in Medicine
The first article, by Dr. Michael Kahn in the New York Times, describes six recommended actions for physician to create a good rapport with hospitalized patients. Dr. Kahn collectively calls these actions “etiquette-based medicine”:

  1. Ask permission to enter the room; wait for an answer
  2. Introduce yourself; show your ID badge
  3. Shake hands
  4. Sit down. Smile if appropriate
  5. Explain your role on the health care team
  6. Ask how the patient feels about being in the hospital

Clearly these actions are all directed towards creating a stronger person-to-person connection between the physician and the patient as a step toward improved communications – which is the foundation for developing and effectively delivering a treatment plan to and for the patient.

Physicians Getting Rest
Another challenge physicians have in this process is being awake and aware enough to actually engage in those 6 steps. (Having enough energy also would effect their ability to engage patients empathetically – something I’ve written about before.)  [Also see the previous posting about napping being better than caffeine for improving verbal and physical memory and learning.]

How much sleep physicians need to act appropriately – and avoid making errors – is the subject of a recent Institute of Medicine report, (“Resident Duty Hours: Enhancing Sleep, Supervision and Safety”), that makes new recommendations for limits to the work hours for physicians in training:

  • Duty hours should not exceed 16 hours per shift; For 30 hour shifts there should be an uninterrupted five hour break for sleep
  • Residents should have variable off-duty periods between shifts based on the timing and duration of shifts to increase residents’ opportunities for sleep each day, as well as regular days off that enable residents to recover from chronic sleep deprivation.
  • Medical moonlighting, (additional paid healthcare work), should be restricted
    [A chart comparing the current and new recommendations is available here.]

While all these changes would certainly make for more aware and awake residents, the IOM also estimates that recruiting and paying professional staff to substitute for the work hours the residents would have been (over)working, would cost about $1.7 billion.

Besides figuring out how to pay for these new staff hours, one policy question for implementing these recommendations is how to find the clinicians to actually work these hours considering there is such a shortage of non-physician clinicians.

Anther policy question these recommendations raise, is why they should they only apply to physicians in training?  Why shouldn’t they also apply to physicians who’ve finished their training and are supervising, teaching, and mentoring residents and medical students – and of course are directly responsible for patients?  While it might be argued that most physicians don’t work these long hours, for some that may not be the case – particularly in hospitals without many residents.

Considering that many quality improvements for medicine have been taken from the airline industry – such as the pre-flight/pre-surgery checklist – then why shouldn’t the limits on pilot shifts and hours also be applied to fully licensed physicians?  [I suspect that this will not make me popular with some physicians, but I wonder how they will defend their right to treat patients round-the-clock without sleep?]

Perhaps work hours and etiquette should be other aspects of quality improvement and patient safety that are considered as part of health reform discussions at the Federal and State levels. Certainly well-rested, empathetic physicians trained to interact with their patients with etiquette should improve the quality of healthcare by reducing errors and making physician-patient communications more effective.

How to integrate all these “innovations” into physician training and practice will be a significant challenge, because teaching such skills and promoting their use is not very exciting or technological, and it will be hard for such behaviors to be tied to economic incentives – which are often the carrot or stick for quality improvement initiatives.  Hopefully, as health reform ideas move forward and become crafted into comprehensive packages and plans, they will expand beyond direct economic incentives for improving clinical processes, to include non-economic inducements to promote quality enhancing actions and attitudes for clinicians as well as patients.

5 thoughts on “Making Physicians Better, and Making Better Physicians

  1. Ever since an 18-year-old New York woman died tragically in 1984 under the care of medical residents who—in the view of her family—were overworked and undersupervised, the subject of the duty hours of physician trainees has simmered in the academic medical community and, on occasion, among public policymakers. Now, as the consequence of a new study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), these issues will reemerge in a robust fashion again, and the leading questions will focus on how to ensure patient safety while maintaining rigorous training programs.

    The IOM study was requested by four members of Congress—all of whom are senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—as part of the panel’s investigation into preventable medical errors. They are Chairman John Dingell (D-MI), ranking Republican Joe Barton of Texas, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY). In a letter (dated March 29, 2007), the representatives directed the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to contract with the IOM to study “medical errors associated with physician and resident work schedules.”



  2. Wow!! This blog and the topic contained in this blog is awesome. I stayed more than 2 hours and took notes which contains more information about how to making Physicians Better and making Better Physicians. Thanks for sharing this kind of topic.

  3. Residency training, the three to seven or more years following medical school, has historically been the most intense period of a doctor’s professional life. In teaching hospitals and large academic medical centers across the country, freshly minted doctors balance learning myriad clinical skills with serving on the clinical front line. Residents are often the first doctors to see a patient in the admission process and in hospital emergencies. And up until relatively recently, they shouldered these responsibilities while working 110 hours a week or more.

  4. Excellent article. I like the use of the airline pilot safety standards for the practice of medicine. Both are scientific areas in which scientific studies and their results are valued, and alertness is crucial. I also like the points about the personal relationships and two-way courtesy.

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