When Medicine Fails Us

We are often our own worst critics.

Whenever doctors feel down, or burned out in our roles as healthcare providers and healers, we look inward. We wonder what is wrong with us. What could we do differently? We wonder why other doctors don’t have this problem.

The truth is, we do. We all do.

And yes, sometimes the problem is within us.

But other times, the problem is outside of us. Sometimes, it’s not our failure.

It’s medicine’s failure.

And that’s when it gets rough.

Let’s look at it objectively for a minute. We’ve done our duty. Studied like mad to get into med school or nursing school or vet school. Worked crazy hours through our training, while striving to maintain our spirits, our stamina, and our motivation. Missed countless family gatherings, weddings, funerals, and baby’s first steps. Kept up the momentum after training and given each of our patients the love we would hope our beloved grandmother would receive.

Then what?

Then medicine smacks us—not a little, but a lot.

Medicine fails us when we are told that we must re-certify our board exams every 5 or 7 or 10 years. The tests are grueling, expensive, and typically do not have anything to do with what we are currently doing medicine-wise to help others. It feels like a slap in the face to spend thousands of dollars and hours to maintain our status quo.

Medicine fails us when we are told we must change the way we present data. We’re required to spend more time, money, and effort to use electronic medical records. And then, we must change the coding system so that paper-pushers, who do not take patient calls, do not care for patients, and who do not know the difference between cancer-treating procedures and cosmetic ones, will have an easier time denying payment for our services.

Medicine fails us when we are told to ensure our patients are “satisfied”. Are they satisfied after we explain the reason their infection is not healing is because their diabetes is out of control due to poor eating habits? Are they satisfied after we explain that the reason they are not getting better is because they stopped taking the medication we prescribed? Are they satisfied after we tell them—again—to quit smoking so they can breathe better?

And medicine fails us when mistakes are made.

  • Mistakes made by colleagues in the O.R., the office, or the boardroom.
  • Mistakes due to cutbacks that allow our surgical instruments to be improperly sterilized, putting our patients at risk.
  • Mistakes due to certification processes that push colleagues to use robotics for procedures so they can accumulate enough hours to meet the certification criteria, even though they are not skilled in the first place.
  • Mistakes made by nurses in medication delivery because they are so short staffed that they must do everything, for everyone, all the time.

It’s medicine’s mistakes that make me weep and wonder about our future. Not merely the future of medicine, but the future of our world.

When medicine fails us so deeply, so undeniably, so irrevocably, I struggle to remain the glass-half-full person you’ve come to know. And I not only burn out, I bottom out.

It’s times like this that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have some of the answers.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it helps me better understand the frustration and sadness in the emails and phone calls from my colleagues.

Maybe it helps remind me that we’re all just human beings, trying to make a difference, one patient, one colleague, one day at a time.

CATEGORIES: Blog on December 9, 2014 by Starla Fitch, M.D.

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6 thoughts on “When Medicine Fails Us

  1. Jen Uteda

    Thank you for this important message. It’s a tough subject, yet you have bravely taken it on…with a big heart. Having lost a loved one recently, I have wondered all these things. We don’t have answers, but it’s important to discuss…and as usual your insight makes me feel better. Thank you.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Dearest Jen. Thanks for your note. It makes life so much harder when we go through the loss of the loved one. I have known that feeling recently, too. There are not always answers. But just knowing we’re all here together to sort it out as best we can. And hug each other through the tough times. That can help a bit. Big hugs to you.

  2. Hariram

    It happens to all doctors, all over the world. Bitter truth one has to accept and go on with optimism!
    Thanks for the tips, Starla.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      Dear Hariram, thank you for your kind words. All health care professionals experience loss of patients and many experience the loss of our loved ones. Shouldering on together can help. Reaching out to each other can help, too. That’s why we’re here. Blessings.

  3. S

    I wonder how you would recommend handling situations in which it seems hospital (non-physician) leadership appears to overlook us and fail us– failing to see how their choices may negatively affect our patients, could drastically negatively affect medical education, sever deeply rooted partnerships, and cause job dissatisfaction amongst physicians. Do we as physicians become actively a part of the process and try to affect change? Do we choose our battles and allow things to happen? Do we attempt to separate our work life from our personal lives, and not let work-place drama affect our personal well-being? Do we try to focus on what remains true no matter the whirlwind of change going on around us– that no matter what, I am still taking care of patients, and helping train future physicians (no matter where I am, who I am working for, who tears down or builds a building, who severs a tie or forms a new partnership)? We could use some guidance with this.

    Thank you.

    1. Starla Fitch, M.D. Post author

      These are tough questions for a complicated world. I think we do a little of everything. It has to start within each of us, imho, because if we lose sight of our unique goals and our happiness, nothing else matters. So, start with that. Then pick the battles you can change. Some systems are more amenable to change than others. Encourage others. And remember you are in this for the doctor-patient relationship. That relationship includes you, dear one.


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