A while back, I was driving to work one day, and my son Adam asked me a question, “Mommy, what do you do for a living? What’s your job? I quickly answered, “Adam, I’m an ear, nose, and throat doctor. I operate near people’s brains.”
I peeked into the rear-view mirror. He looked confused. I quickly added, “I help patients to get more healthy.” He broke out into a big smile. Later that day, I went to clinic, I started seeing patients and I forgot about this conversation.
At the end of a busy day, when I was an hour behind, I looked at the clock, it was 4:30, and I walked in with my last patient, Charlie. As soon as I walked in, I asked Charlie, “Hi sir, how are you doing?” Charlie bristled “Do not call me sir. You are the seventh doctor that I’m seeing. I’ve had oodles of tests, multiple blood work, nobody knows what’s wrong with me, and I tell you, there is something that’s going on.”
Puzzled, I examined Charlie. I looked inside his sinuses, and I tried to figure out what was happening. But nothing! I couldn’t find anything. So, I did what all of us sinus surgeons do when we don’t know the answer: I ordered a CAT scan. Then I looked at Charlie and said, “While I’m excited to figure out this journey with you and figure out what’s happening, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow with the results of this CAT scan.” And off I went, to the hospital to see patients and then back to pick up Adam.
When I got Adam, he asked, “Did you help patients today?” I smiled and thought of Charlie “Yes, I did.”
So the next day I went to clinic, and I immediately open Charlie’s CAT scan and try to look through the images to find out what was wrong. Negative. Nothing on the results. Nothing on the sinus scan. Essentially, I was still curious. Puzzled, I scrolled the images myself. I looked through the brain images and the neck images. And suddenly, I noted with growing horror that Charlie had a mass that was growing in his brain and eroding through the bone.
I called him in, and I let him and his wife see the scan. His wife started slowly weeping. But Charlie looked relieved “Thank you, doc, for believing in me.” And long story short, Charlie went on to get treatment and still is doing well today, cherishing his beautiful family.
But this is not a story about me as a doctor or Charlie as a patient. This is a story about the 1,000 Charlies in the world who are unable to get a health care diagnosis. Why is that? Why is it that we have so many talented physicians dedicated to helping patients who are unable to help the Charlies of the world? We all have heard of medical errors. Ninety-eight thousands people per year are dying from preventable errors. But let me ask you guys a question.
How many of you have gone in to see the doctor, and the doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with you? And how many of you have a family member who you know has felt scared because they don’t know the answer? So I’m here to tell you today that we can’t solve the health care system because maybe we haven’t been asking the right questions. Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same level of thinking that created them.” I’m here to tell you today that we need to adopt a systems thinking mindset in order to approach our health care crisis. And in order to do that, I pose three questions for you today. Systems thinking is not a new philosophy, it has reframed conversations in several industries, but the reason it’s important is it helps us understand how things are related – events, people, and places – even if they don’t seem connected.
What it also does is it looks for leverage points, small actions that have really big impact. So I’m going to ask you three questions that I think will help us to find some of that impact. The first is how do we talk to our doctor as our friend. The second is why is it that competition is so bad in health care? And the third is why do we fear failure and what we can learn from it? So let’s go to the first question. In order to answer the first question, I want you all to think about this number.
As a patient, when you walk in to see your doctor, there is a 15% chance that they’re either going to miss your diagnosis or have the wrong diagnosis by the end of the visit. That’s going to increase your chance of getting sicker or dying twice as likely. So where do we go from here? I think the systems thinking asks us to structure the conversation completely differently, to take a step back and really ask, “Why is this happening?” Perhaps because when Charlie went to the doctor, he stated his problem, then he received some tests, got a medication that didn’t help him, and was sent home. And the pattern repeated itself. We’re trying to engineer a relationship between the doctor and the patient that is efficient but not meaningful.
Perhaps what we need to do is change the nature of the conversation and ask physicians to mean that you are able to have the time to step back and listen to Charlie’s story. In order to do that, we have to ask ourselves the following question: shouldn’t seeing your doctor not be something that’s rushed? In fact, I believe that seeing your doctor should be like getting together with a friend for a cup of coffee. But I know some of you are still thinking about this 15%. What if we don’t know the answer as the doctor? What if we can’t find out what’s wrong with you? Where do we go from here? This is where the health care system and its competitive nature does not help us. So from the moment we get into medical school, it’s a deep culture of competition.