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Has Patient-Centered Health Care Run Amok?


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Beginning with the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) landmark Quality Chasm report in the late 1990s, the health policy establishment, the medical profession and the American public began to hear a new and disconcerting message: American health care was not patient-centered.

The IOM prescribed a number of recommendations to redesign health care delivery, one calling for patients as the source of control over their care. "Patients should be given the necessary information and the opportunity to exercise the degree of control they choose over health care decisions that affect them," the IOM recommended, noting that patients should have access to their medical information and to the latest and best available clinical knowledge.

Boatloads of information now float around about the quality of hospitals, doctors and health care providers, and the risks and benefits of various tests and treatments. Perhaps there is even too much information, making it hard for consumers to separate the good from the bad.

Nonetheless, though much of this newly created information to help patients navigate the medical system is far from perfect and increasingly too commercial, it has given patients, a.k.a. consumers, a sense that wow, they may be in charge of their medical destinies after all. For a prime example, think direct-to-consumer drug ads! They really work!

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation a few years back found that people do just as the ads direct them to do – ask their doctors about the promoted drug or procedure. And yes, doctors increasingly give people the drug or the test that they want. Is that the kind of patient-centered care the IOM had in mind? What if what a patient demands isn't evidence-based or isn't best for that patient at that time for that problem?

Last week I was visiting with a New York City primary care doctor who had just seen a patient. What he shared with me about their encounter suggests this business of crowning consumers kings and queens of the medical marketplace may have a very big downside that gets little attention, perhaps because it doesn't fit the narrative of patient-centered care.

A trim, young man, age 29 who worked in the financial industry and exercised regularly, came to see this doctor. He said he was having dizzy spells and was worried about having some neurological disease. The doctor spent nearly an hour with him, taking tests, doing a thorough examination, and concluded there was nothing that warranted any of the neurological studies the patient was demanding.

The next day, the man was scheduled elsewhere for one of those super-duper executive physicals that frequently come with high-paying jobs. That physical also showed no abnormalities requiring further examination. Yet the patient persuaded the second examining physician to give him a referral for an MRI, which later uncovered nothing to explain his dizziness.

Still not satisfied, the young man called the first doctor again just to be sure there was nothing wrong. Not yet convinced he had received appropriate care, he also wanted to discuss his symptoms. Perhaps they were caused by stress from his high-wire job, the doctor told me. The doctor also noted that this patient must have racked up over $5,000 in costs to the health care system, all paid for by his employer or by his generous employer-provided insurance.

Why does this matter to the doctor? He will be paid for dispensing his clinical judgment. But in the brave new world of health care consumerism, patients have also found a voice. They fill out those patient satisfaction surveys, and they write reviews on Internet consumer sites like Yelp. "If I get bad reviews on Yelp or low satisfaction scores, I get fewer patients or the insurance company cuts what they pay me," the physician said. So, he added, some doctors have resorted to just giving in to patients' demands even if their clinical judgment tells them otherwise. That's hardly good medical practice, but that seems to be what medical marketing campaigns encourage, putting them in conflict with the broader aim of the IOM report for quality over quantity.

I checked this doctor's reviews on Yelp. They were glowing except for one. A patient complained the doctor had "refused three different types of testing that I required." She told visitors in Yelpland that the doctor said the "results wouldn't help me" and he made fun of the "little co-pay I pay. This man and his practice need an attitude adjustment."

What's a doc supposed to do with reviews like that? Give in to the patient? What's a patient to do? Avoid a fine doctor who is not keen to overtreat? In medicine, as in other realms of marketplace transactions, the patient is not always right.

Maybe the concept of patient-centered care needs an adjustment. Perhaps we need a new definition of what it means fifteen years after the IOM report first brought it to public attention.

More Blog Posts by Trudy Lieberman

author bio

Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is an adjunct associate professor of public health at Hunter College in New York City. She had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care. She is a longtime contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and blogs for its website,, about media coverage of health care, Social Security and retirement. As a William Ziff Fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, she contributes regularly to the Prepared Patient Blog. Follow her on twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.

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Evidence-Based Medicine   Trudy Lieberman   Make Good Treatment Decisions   Health Care Quality   Inside Healthcare   Medical/Hospital Practice  

Comments on this post
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Ray Collins says
July 22, 2014 at 1:21 PM

The answer to the headline question is no, because patient-centered care does not yet exist except as a marketing slogan.

Davis Liu, MD says
July 27, 2014 at 3:57 PM

Great and important piece. There is a significant and important downside to patient centered / consumer driven health care which is rarely discussed. Those who bring it up are shunned.

Done correctly, patient engagement will make care more personalized and caring. Implemented or designed poorly, the trend of recasting the
patient as consumer could wind up making more problems with many of us driven to less than desirable behaviors of obesity, debt, and inactivity
simply because that is “what we and the consumer market wants” -

But if increasingly people (patients) want to get and hear what
they want to hear, this poses a significant problem. We saw this in the
financial services when people were approved for home mortgages with
purchasing homes with no money down or even income and traders /
investors taking risks. Those loan officers who told prospective clients
were penalized. Those traders / investors who didn't take risk were
penalized. The harder thing to do was to spend more time, tell people
why they didn't qualify. The harder thing to do was for traders /
investors not to invest their clients' money in derivatives or other
assets not understood even as those same clients withdrew money finding other groups who did what they wanted.

This issue is the culture. Malcolm Gladwell observes the cultural piece here -

Over the past few months I've noticed a particularly disturbing trend.
Patients are not consulting doctors for advice, but rather demanding
testing for diagnoses which are not even remote possibilities. A little
knowledge can be dangerous particularly in the context of little to no
clinical experience. Where many patients are today are where medical
students are at the end of their second year - lots of book knowledge
but little to no real world experience.

More patients are becoming the day traders of the boom.
Everyone has a hot stock tip, only now it is "be sure to ask your doctor
for this test" or "ask for this medication because it is the only one
that works". Everyone is an expert with his own suggestion on what
should be done. If a medical expert, like a doctor, weighs in and does
not agree, then there is a set of patients and doctors who begin to argue that these doctors are out of touch or arrogant.

Do we as a country want doctors to be trusted advisors and the willingness to say no? Or do we simply want them to be so focused on giving what people want even if it isn't in their best interest?