The spotlight has recently been on the opioid epidemic ravaging our country. As a primary care physician, I’m acutely aware of this issue and the challenges it poses to individuals, medical providers and the public health system as a whole. NPR’s The Takeaway recently did a program on understanding this crisis and approached it from many angles. Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote short a piece in Glamour magazine that gives a primary care physician’s perspective. In “The Dilemma Doctors Face,” Ofri notes that chronic pain is very real but differs from other chronic disease in that there is no definitive test or measurement for pain, it is subjective. “Chronic pain is real. It can ruin people’s lives. But the anvil of addiction and death can’t be ignored.” Ofri asserts that one challenge is that a system that doesn’t often pay for other ways of treating pain, such as physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, makes it easier for the medical provider to “just write a prescription.” Can you relate?
Writing Prompt: Have you or a loved one struggled with chronic pain? What were the challenges you faced when trying to find appropriate treatment? Have you or a loved one struggled with opioid addiction? What was the first sign that this had become an issue? If you prescribe opioid pain medications, how do you approach counseling patients about the risks and benefits of taking these medications? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in having this discussion? Write for 10 minutes.
I’ve tried to write a piece like Timeline several times. It’s simply a chronicle of my typical work day, but, in the past, I never was able to get it just right. It didn’t flow sufficiently, wasn’t a clear reflection of the exhaustion I feel at the end of the day.
When I discovered Pulse’s “More Voices” column theme this month was “Stress and Burnout,” I felt compelled to finish this piece for submission. It was initially much longer, but I think the confines of the short word count (less than 400) was helpful in honing it to only the necessities. Previous versions of this essay were written in first person or third person. Second person, I’ve discovered, suits the purpose of the piece. My goal is to place the reader in the shoes of the primary care physician, feel the weight of her day, the exhaustion inherent in the constant churn of a general practitioner’s practice. I hope this piece provides a snapshot of a day-in-the-life of a family physician, and evokes a thoughtful reflection on the state of our health care system and the very real crisis of physician burnout.
I’m grateful to Pulse for publishing Timeline and for their regular promotion of issues relevant to patients and medical providers through narrative medicine poetry and prose.
Writing prompt: When do you feel most stressed at work? When do you feel energized? Have you witnessed signs of burnout in your colleagues or your own medical provider? List your own timeline of a typical workday. How do you feel when you read it back? Write for 10 minutes.
As a primary care physician myself, I found Atul Gawande’s new article “The Heroism of Incremental Care” encouraging and empowering. The New Yorker piece highlights the importance of longitudinal care between a patient and their primary care provider.
When Gawande visits a headache clinic in Massachusetts, the physician there tells him she starts by listening to the patient: “You ask them to tell the story of their headache and then you stay very quiet for a long time.” What have you found is the most important component of a physician-patient encounter? If you are a provider, do you feel you’re always able to listen to the patient’s full story? If you’re a patient, do you feel listened to when you see your doctor?
When Gawande visits the primary care clinic in Boston, he’s told the reason primary care is important to bettering patient health is due to the “relationship”. Do you agree? Have you had a relationship with a primary care provider that has invariably improved your health over the years? If you are a primary care provider, has this been your experience with patients?
Writing Prompt: Gawande writes of the clinic he visits: “At any given moment, someone there might be suturing a laceration, lancing an abscess, aspirating a gouty joint, biopsying a suspicious skin lesion, managing a bipolar-disorder crisis, assessing a geriatric patient who had taken a fall, placing an intrauterine contraceptive device, or stabilizing a patient who’d had an asthma attack.” Think about the last time you saw your primary care provider. Write about that visit in the present tense, then project a decade or two into the future. Imagine how that visit, and many others like it, might have made a difference to your health decades from now. Write for 10 minutes.