Tuesday, July 10, 2012


An issue that plagues healthcare is patients’ surreal expectations. We’ve internalized popular culture’s portrayal of physicians as action figures. Consider radio’s Dr. Christian, and television’s Dr. Ben Casey, Dr. Marcus Welby, Dr. Gregory House, and even Star Trek’s Dr. “Bones” McCoy. My all-time favorite is the 1950s series “Medic,” featuring Dr. Konrad Steiner, played by young Richard Boone (“A physician’s three qualities: the eye of an eagle, the heart of a lion, the hand…of a woman.” Check it out at http://xoteria.com/CH45.html.) We never see these heroes quietly sitting with a patient. No, they’re can-do go-getters who, suddenly realizing that the correct diagnosis is tetanus, run to the bedside and push the intravenous antitoxin, stat!

Curing tetanus, stat, is a good thing, of course. When we truly need it, medical technology can be miraculous. But our pop fantasy has us expecting and even demanding that docs apply technology willy-nilly. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we believe medical hi-tech can vanquish every enemy unto the Grim Reaper.

For example, a study of how cardiopulmonary resuscitation—CPR—is portrayed on television found that it was successful in three-quarters of the cases, and two-thirds of these patients went home. A study of ninety-nine thousand actual CPR cases found, though, that only eight percent of patients survived more than one month, and only three percent of them could lead something like a normal life. I’ll save you doing the math: of ninety-nine thousand, two hundred twenty-eight were pulled from death into a normal life. The rarity of success doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, only that our expectations need trimming.

The flame of wishful thinking is also fanned by infomercials touting the latest “breakthroughs,” and magazine ads advising us to ask our doctor if a daily dose of PanaceaTM will fix our lives.

We’re inundated with messages suggesting that doctors can cure anything. Compared to this vaunted potency, anything patients can contribute seems negligible. Most significantly, we’ve absorbed the myth that healthcare is identical to the application of technology, which leaves subjective phenomena like suffering to flap in the wind.

Standard healthcare's failure to address the emotions of the sick is not the fault of practitioners, as few have been trained in compassion skills. It falls to us to appreciate and treat our suffering. We can do it with the help of close relatives and friends, counselors, and support programs.

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