Thursday, October 10, 2013

Administrators, Clinicians, and Professionalism

From “Not Running a Hospital” ( by Paul Levy, today:
“We still find hospital administrators more interested in market dynamics, mergers, and the like than improving the quality and safety of care.  We still find doctors untrained in the use of the scientific method to achieve clinical processes.  We still see medical schools and residency training programs as woefully deficient in such matters.”
And from an article in Kaiser Health News today:
A recent study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that only a third of 400 elderly patients were discharged with a follow-up doctor's appointment and 25 percent were handed instructions written in impenetrable medical jargon.

Right.  When I read about this, I am outraged.  It gets to the core of professionalism.
I learned this in internship.  On rounds at UCSF, I said to my attending pediatrician that the lab was very slow and unresponsive, and that as a result the patient would just have to suffer.  I was being passive aggressive, and I knew, provocative.
He turned to me with heat  He said, "You will not do this!  You will go down to the lab and get those results personally!"  (The attending was Henry Shinefield, a wonderful man and clinician, with whom I developed a very warm relationship.)
Structurally, he was wrong.  I would be enabling the lab's poor service.  A system correction was needed, and all the clinicians should have gone to administration and demand they get the damn lab fixed.
But his doctor's solution was also correct.  The patient, the individual patient, comes first, and the doctor's job is to get it fixed for the patient, right now.
In fact, to be successful, both views are needed, the clinician's impatience to fix the individual situation, and the the administrator's view to fix the system for everyone once and for all.  
In our 10-office practice, I taught our managers, "Patience is not a virtue!  Insist that things go right, right away.  If you don't get a fix on something, call me directly.  That will be my job."  I taught them not to have an "off my plate" mentality.  It's not off your plate if the problem is simply on some else's plate now -- it's only off your plate when the problem is fixed.
How successful was I at Bayside in teaching organizational professionalism?  I truly don’t know.  I think I changed some of the managers’ attitudes, maybe.  I know they admired my point of view, but how much could they adopt it themselves?  Some did.

How successful was I with the clinicians?  I’m pretty sure they were professionally responsible to their patients, one by one.  How much were they responsible for seeing that a system got changed?  Some, but not so much.  This depends a lot on leadership.  I had quarterly meetings in each office with an agenda that featured systemic problems in the office from both the clinician’s and my own (leadership's) point of view.  After each meeting I made sure to effect improvements within a week, demonstrating to the clinicians that it was a responsible system.  But since I sold the practice I understand that the meetings have been sporadic at best and the Medical Director does not attend.  Leadership is key.

It is hard to overstate the importance of responsibility and persistence as ingredients of success.  As an executive, one thinks: who takes the job seriously?  Professionals take it seriously; that’s what is meant by being a professional.  Economics mixes us up by distinguishing an amateur and a professional by accepting money or not.  But the deeper meaning is the degree of responsibility accepted.  A true professional is someone who figures a problem is off his plate only when a problem is solved systemically.

It is so easy to talk about an "uncoordinated system," but within that system are real people, who are taking responsibility or not.  A system will hold the individuals accountable, but a real top-quality professional will hold not only him or herself accountable, but will hold the system accountable as well.  
As in the above hospital example with poor follow-up and undecipherable patient instructions, where are the professional members of the system headed to the offices of the administrator and the chief physician saying, how can you let this happen?  Where is your leadership in fixing this?  Do we only see individuals doing their jobs with their patients, heading down to the lab to get the results that should have been there at morning rounds, enabling a poor system?  Do we see ER docs readmitting patients, knowing they didn't have follow up appointments, knowing their instructions were indecipherable, and not insisting the leadership improve this performance?  I don't think so.  They might being a professional in the narrow sense, but it’s not enough.  
On the other hand, the profession called attention to the problem some 14 years ago (the Institute of Medicine report on safety), professionals conceived of this study and someone gave a grant for it, and a journal published it.  In my view it's too much time and the cumbersomeness reveals a lack of true interior professionalism -- if everyone were professional in the system the research results would have been different -- but at least we're on the right road.  It's just bumpy and meandering while people die and money is wasted, is all.

Budd Shenkin


  1. For a number of years, I have needed treatment for a serious illness, have sought care from two hospital systems. Thus I can speak to the enormous and obvious impact professionalism, as you define it, has on everyone in a hospital system. Life or death for a patient.
    My treatment at Richmond's VCU hospital was excellent. In all ways. Doctors, residents, highly skilled, also compassionate and friendly. Nurses, admin staff, were efficient, and nice. Consent forms were proper. There was laughter and joy somehow. I retained my dignity as I recovered from major surgery.
    Also, I go to this hospital,
    Valley Health Corporation, Winchester Medical Center, is close to where I live at present. NOTE: I must stress, some doctors, nurses, other clinicians at this hospital are highly skilled, professional and compassionate, they are not the norm. I have seen disgraceful, dangerous medical
    short-cuts. The hospital is dirty. Hostility toward patients is found throughout the hospital.
    The support staff is angry.
    from an article by Kim Walter, 05/14/13
    Valley Health shifts from volume to value
    Chris Rumpf, Senior Vice President and Chief Quality and Medical Officer, speaking to members of the Valley Health Corporation about recent health care changes, (they have left him) "tired and weary."

    1. Thanks for the comment. So sorry about your illness, but it is so satisfying when one can receive excellent care from and excellent organization, and so disappointing when that doesn't happen. I think the wider responsibilities of professionalism should be taught and reinforced, so that professionals see their duty to rise and protest, but the fight between good and evil continues everywhere. Looks like evil is winning at Valley Health.

    2. Well, maybe at present. An individual, one person, is powerless to effect change. That does not give us the right to ignore, walk away. We do have laws and regulations, imperfect, yes, but they are in place.
      I believe anyone who discovers systemic wrongs, the poor slob, gains an obligation. This obligation, in my opinion, is to report, to the best of one's ability, what one has come across, the the regulatory agencies. Not to sue, simply (well, it is not so simple) to collect the information at hand, then present it to the proper agencies.
      Not an easy or pleasant process. The boards, if honest, and I see no reason to assume they are not, will review, investigate and evaluate. Take appropriate action(s).
      Laws and regulations just sit on the books, they can't join the party unless invited.
      Will let your reader's know.