Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Make the patients do more of the work !

Conversation between doctor and patient/consumer.There is a shortage of doctors. This is true all over the world because of many reasons. Medical training is expensive and arduous, and not many people are capable of surviving the grind. Also, doctor are unevenly distributed, which means that there are too many in large cities, but not enough in the villages. Finally, a lot of the doctor’s time , energy and expertise is wasted in handling problems which do not really need their expert attention. These are problems which can easily be handled by the patient and his family himself.

The standard solution to the chronic shortage of doctors has always been the standard knee-jerk response - train more doctors ! This solution comes in many different flavours - open more colleges; or create a new cadre of barefoot village doctors. However, these are just short-term fixes - and the problem recurs every few years, because doctors create a demand for their own services. This means that churning out more doctors will never help - it will just exacerbate the problem !

The solution is surprisingly simple - empower patients to take better care of their own health !
How can patients figure out when they need to go to the doctor ( and when they can take care of themselves as home ? ) How do they determine which problems they can solve for themselves and which should make them seek medical attention ? Is this headache a migraine ? or a brain tumour ? Is the fever because of a viral URTI ? or is it TB ? How is the poor patient going to figure this out ? Isn’t that what you need a doctor for ?

Right now the standard response for all patient queries is - Ask your doctor ! ( Isn't it ridiculous that most books and websites on fitness and exercise have this disclaimer - Please check with your doctor before starting an exercise program ! ) All we end up doing is making patients more dependent on the doctor and unnecessarily increasing the doctor's workload ! What we need to do is make patients more independent, so they can fend for themselves !

The trick to making patients do all the work is to develop clever tools which will help the patient to make sense of what is happening to them so they can communicate clearly with their doctor. The vast majority of health problems are self-limited and just need reassurance. They can easily be managed by a phone call or an email.

Doctors can learn a lot from retailers. In the past, customers went to the shop and the shopkeeper would have to physically carry the selected objects and then pack them and bill for them. The shopkeeper was the major bottleneck - and had to do all the grunt work. The new supermarkets make the customer do all the work, thus allowing them to service a much larger number of customers - for much less ! It's true that the retailing ecosystem had to change to allow this evolution to occur ( better packaging; better shelf displays; better branding; and more customer education), but this has now become the standard - and the retail industry is doing very well for itself, thank you !

Here's a simple example . A lot of the doctor's time is spent on taking a medical history. Many busy doctors do not have the time to do this themselves, which is why they get an assistant ( who may not be very competent !) to do it for them. We make our patients do this themselves by making them fill a very detailed and complex form ( see a copy at

This has many advantages. It saves me time. It ensures the history is complete and that I have not overlooked any important information. Even more important, it helps to educate my patients ( because they need to do their homework to be able to fill in the form intelligently !). It also ensures they are better organised, because they need to collate all their medical test results and summarise their history !

Please note that I do not expect patients to make their own diagnosis ! However, patients are the experts on their problem, and helping them to help the doctor will help everyone !

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1 comment:

  1. Hello Doctor,

    I would like to know how do you see if technology could bring about a change in answering such problems. how about applications online(like has been created which helps doctor to do a paper less work in such field....It takes care of patients in a simple way which in return make your practice easy and scale up also.



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