This blog post is a finalist in the STFM Blog Competition.
Two years ago I chose family medicine not only to develop a diverse skill set and knowledge to handle almost any patient concern, but also to build a connection with numerous patients of different ages to learn from them as they learn from me.
Fast-forward to now, I’m in the depths of a busy clinic, stabilizing a crying baby’s ear and desperately searching for a reflective hue amid a narrow tunnel of earwax. I’m not finding it. I glimpse for 2 seconds before the child’s war cries rattle my own tympanic membranes and I abort the mission. On my third try, I hit the jackpot and visualize a reflective drum. My job is done. I instill some confidence in the mom that her baby will do fine without a goodie bag of antibiotics. We share a bonding laugh at the absurdity of spending over an hour out of her day for a one-second examination with a magnifying glass.
I scamper to my computer and slam in some orders for vaccines, glance at my schedule, and then briskly walk to the next room down the hall. Behind the door is a 70-year-old woman seated in the infamous tripod pose, hunched over with retracting neck muscles, swollen legs and appearing worried. She was discharged just 2 weeks ago for heart failure. I examine her and order 40mg of IV Lasix. A half of an hour later she’s still retracting. I kneel to tell her she’s going to get through this and she nods appreciatively, hoping I’m right. I send her to the hospital for more diuretics as I tap on the door of my next patient.
It’s a wiry 60-year-old man who describes brief spouts of right upper quadrant pain so severe that he swears it’s worse than childbirth. I examine him and explain the possibility of a problem in his liver or gallbladder. After ordering some labs and a right upper quadrant ultrasound, he thanks me for my care. Days later, my suspicion is confirmed. Gallstones are present and off to surgery he goes.
While I enjoy these hectic days and the meaningful connections I find through them, I also understand that in 10 years, my family medicine clinic will likely run differently.
For the screaming baby with possible otitis media, if mom had sent in photos of her baby’s eardrum with a smartphone, perhaps a 10-minute video call would have provided all information that supportive care is appropriate.
For the 70-year-old woman with persistent CHF exacerbations, perhaps if she were plugged into a system of communicating nurses trained in heart failure management, maybe she wouldn’t be in need of another hospitalization.
For the 60-year-old man with right upper quadrant pain, if a quick bedside ultrasound by the physician were possible, perhaps he could have been referred to surgery that day.
With small improvements in patient care, we have the opportunity to develop a more efficient and inexpensive health care system with better health outcomes. While I delight in new technology that enhances our care for patients, some aspects of family medicine won’t change. Technology won’t change the reassuring words we can offer to a worried parent or acutely ill patient. It won’t alter the power of our receptive ears being present for a scared patient. And it definitely won’t replace the wisdom, laughs, perspectives, and connections we encounter with our patients each day. And that’s good thing.