Just Fix It

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation.”

-Dr. Rudolf Virchow

Paul Farmer, MD PhD, an infectious disease specialist and anthropologist who started a foundation to provide care to impoverished populations in Haiti and around the world, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack this past week, at age 62.

Dr. Farmer studied Haitian culture as a medical anthropologist before becoming a physician and a specialist in infectious diseases. Through his direct patient care activities and by developing a public health infrastructure in a remote area of central Haiti, he cultivated a deep understanding of the links between disease, poverty, and political power. He wrote several books on this topic, using patients’ experiences to drive home his arguments.

Biographer John Tracy Kidder in “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man who Would Cure the World,” relates this story:

A TB patient from a village hadn’t shown up for his monthly doctor’s appointment. So—this was one of the rules—someone had to go and find him. The annals of international health contain many stories of adequately financed projects that failed because “noncompliant” patients didn’t take all their medications. Farmer said, “The only non-compliant people are physicians. If the patient doesn’t get better (because they don’t take medications as prescribed), it’s your own fault. Fix it.”

Of the many moving and interesting parts of Farmer’s life detailed in the book, this one sticks with me, because it is so at odds with how many of us think about “non-compliant” patients. Attributing failure of an intervention to non-compliance is a way for health care professionals to assign responsibility or blame to our patients for them not getting better, because they don’t follow our scientific advice. The alternative term “non-adherence” was initially used with an intent to look for underlying factors that could be impacted, but it has come to be used in place of “non-compliant” just to sound less judgmental, but with the same implicit intent and outcome. The clinician moves on to their next task, their next patient.

Dr. Farmer believed that an understanding of a patient’s culture is essential to build trust between the physician and the patient allowing a skilled physician to devise a way to form an alliance with the patient that will lead them, long after they feel better, to complete an antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis, to cure them of the infection. This is difficult work in many ways. It requires time spent listening to the patient, as well as mental creativity, and tenacity.

This belief is what drove Dr. Farmer, a handful of Haitian doctors, a larger group of community health workers, and the community health center/hospital he ran in Haiti, to uncompromisingly provide quality health care to an impoverished population about the size of Shasta County. No one in the region served by his health center had died of measles or tuberculosis in many years (unlike other areas of Haiti, where deaths from these diseases were sadly common).

Dr. Farmer said his role model, since his undergraduate years, was Dr. Rudolf Virchow, a 19th century German physician of many skills and interests. Dr. Virchow was known as both the father of modern pathology (with an understanding of the central role of cells in tissues and diseases), and also the father of the field of social medicine. Like Farmer, Virchow was an anthropologist and a scientist as well as a prolific writer on both scientific and socio-political topics.

The work that you do in your health centers and offices follows the same spirit of service to the most vulnerable members of our community. Let Farmer and Virchow inspire us to not accept mediocrity, bureaucratic barriers, or blame our patients for poor outcomes. We must develop a deep understanding of the cultures of the patients we serve, the system we are working within, and combine this with compassionate medical care to meet the challenge of caring for the individual patients before us.

Improving Diagnostic Judgment: A Behavioral Economic Approach (Part IV in series on Diagnostic Accuracy)

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.”

-Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics

Regular readers of this newsletter will recall a series of lead articles on improving diagnostic accuracy (Parts I, II, and III found on our phcprimarycare.org blog). Medical schools, residencies and continuing medical education programs have recently adopted some formal training in critical thinking, including how to understand how cognitive biases can lead to mistaken diagnoses. This takes the principles of behavioral economics, based on the pioneering work of Psychologist Daniel Kahneman (summarized for a general audience in his most famous book, Thinking Fast and Slow), and helps us understand how physicians think and make mistakes.

In the January 25, 2022 JAMA, Dr. Pat Croskerry provided a succinct summary of recommendations for overcoming these biases to become a “rational diagnostician.”

  1. Establish Awareness of How Cognition Works. Understand the most common cognitive biases and the difference between type 1 (intuitive/fast) and type 2 (analytical/slow) processing.
  2. Teach and Coach Critical Thinking. Excellent coaching promotes deep learning, allowing 10-fold faster development of expertise. Understanding the mechanism of deep learning can help those of us without ready coaches to improve our mastery of complex areas of expertise. The book The Talent Code, provides the best overview of this topic.
  3. Make the Work Environment More Conducive to Sound Thinking. Three main conditions that interfere with analytical thinking include:
    1. Psychological stress leading to anxiety and dysphoria,
    2. Sleep deprivation causing chronic fatigue, and
    3. Excessive cognitive loading (responding to a barrage of emails and tasks without time to pause and reflect).
  4. Circumvent Type 1 Distortion. Setting up mental steps and processes to allow “executive override” to pause and reflect on the possibility that our intuitive initial impression is incorrect, and evaluating possible alternative explanations or decisions. For example, when a patient’s clinical presentation has some findings that are not explained by our initial, presumptive diagnosis, we pause to consider what else might explain this. For example: “Is this recurrent pharyngitis a sign of an underlying immune compromise?”
  5. Expand Individual Expertise. While routine expertise is developed with training and practice, adaptive expertise encourages flexibility and innovation in problem-solving. Adaptive expertise is fueled by curiosity; it develops when exploring the possibilities raised with type 2 thinking, and also by regularly reading journal articles or exploring topics that are unrelated to any particular patient.
  6. Promote Team Cognition. Regular conferring with colleagues on challenging diagnostic or therapeutic situations brings a collective expertise to bear, which can produce better outcomes for your patients. While synchronous consultation (for example “curbside consultation”) allows some back and forth, and is quicker, asynchronous consultation (for example using eConsult or secure email) allows time for more nuance and detail to be included and more analytic thinking and background research to be done.
  7. Mitigate Judgment and Decision-making Fatigue. Dr. Croskerry suggests the use of “cognitive forcing strategies,” like adopting clinical maxims such as “rule out worst-case scenario,” practices such as routinely documenting a differential diagnosis, or always using a pre-operative checklist.

The common feature of these approaches is that they will require an intentionality derived from a sense of professionalism. It is essential for clinical leaders to find ways nurture these habits for those on our teams.