The provider will see you now!

Back in the days when I was training, medical students had to study Latin in order to achieve fluency in the language of medicine.  Today, it seems, doctors are learning an entirely new lingo consisting of buzzwords and business speak! According to Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman, two Harvard Medical School / Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center physicians, current healthcare reforms mean that hospitals are becoming factories and clinical encounters are becoming little more than economic transactions. Writing in the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine they claim that, “Patients are no longer patients, but rather ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’. Doctors and nurses have transmuted into providers.” The combination of the ongoing economic crisis and efforts to reform the health care system have resulted in many economists and policy makers proposing that patient care should be industrialized and standardized and that hospitals and clinics should be run like modern factories.  At the sane time, archaic terms like doctor, nurse and patient are being replaced with terminology that fits this new order. In the process, the special knowledge that doctors and nurses possess and use to help patients understand the reason for and remedies to their illness get lost in a system that values prepackaged, off-the-shelf solutions. “Reducing medicine to economics makes a mockery of the bond between the healer and the sick,” they write. Hartzband and Groopman say the new emphasis on ‘evidence-based practice’ is not really a new phenomenon at all. ‘Evidence’ was routinely presented on daily rounds or clinical conferences where doctors debated numerous research studies. Back then, the exercise of clinical judgment, which permitted the assessment and application of data to an individual patient, was seen as the acme of professional practice. Now, health policy planners, and even some physicians, contend that clinical care should essentially be a matter of following operating manuals containing preset guidelines, like factory blueprints. Even more troubling, the authors suggest, is the impact of the new vocabulary on future doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers who care for patients. “Recasting their roles as providers who merely implement prefabricated practices diminishes their professionalism. Reconfiguring medicine in economic and industrial terms is unlikely to attract creative and independent thinkers.” When we are ill, we want someone to care about us as people, rather than as paying customers. Despite the lip service paid to ‘patient-centered care’ by the forces promulgating the new language of medicine, their discourse shifts the focus from the good of the individual to the exigencies of the system and its costs. Should we celebrate the doctors whose practices maximize profits or those who show genuine concern for their ‘customers’ or better still patients? Let us know what you think.