We are currently republishing an installment of this column as part of our continuing celebration of Family Practice News’s 50th anniversary.
Bruce A. Bagley, MD, wrote the first batch of these columns, when he was chief resident in family medicine at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Syracuse, N.Y. Joseph E. Scherger, MD, was the second writer for Family Practice News’s monthly “Residents’ Viewpoint.” At the time Dr. Scherger became a columnist, he was a 26-year-old, 2nd-year family practice resident at the Family Medical Center, University Hospital, University of Washington, Seattle.
Dr. Scherger’s first column was published on Feb. 5, 1977. We are republishing his “Residents’ Viewpoint” from June 15, 1977 (see below) and a new column by Victoria Persampiere, DO, who is currently a 2nd-year resident in the family medicine program at Abington Jefferson Health. (See “My experience as a family medicine resident in 2021” after Dr. Scherger’s column.).
We hope you will enjoy comparing and contrasting the experiences of a resident practicing family medicine today to those of a resident practicing family medicine nearly 4½ decades ago.To learn about Dr. Scherger’s current practice and long career, you can read his profile on the cover of the September 2021 issue of Family Practice News or on MDedge.com/FamilyMedicine in our “Family Practice News 50th Anniversary” section.
Art of medicine or deception?
Originally published in Family Practice News on June 15, 1977.
In medical school I learned the science of medicine. There I diligently studied the basic sciences and gained a thorough understanding of the pathophysiology of disease. In the clinical years I learned to apply this knowledge to a wide variety of interesting patients who came to the academic center.
Yet, when I started my family practice residency, I lacked the ability to care for patients. Though I could take a thorough history, perform a complete physical examination, and diagnose and treat specific illnesses, I had little idea how to satisfy patients by meeting their needs.
The art of medicine is the nonscientific part of a successful doctor-patient interaction. For a doctor-patient interaction to be successful, not only must the illness be appropriately addressed, but both patient and physician must be satisfied.
In the university environment, the art of medicine often gets inadequate attention. Indeed, most academic physicians think that only scientific medicine exists and that patients should be satisfied with a sophisticated approach to their problems. Some patients are satisfied, but many are disgruntled. It is not unusual for a patient, after a $1,000 work-up, to go to a family physician or chiropractor for satisfaction.
I was eager to discover the art of medicine at its finest during my rotation away from the university in a rural community. During these 2 months I looked for the pearls of wisdom that allowed community physicians to be so successful. I found that a very explicit technique was used by some physicians to achieve not only satisfaction but adoration from their patients. Unfortunately, this technique is dishonest.
Early in my community experience I was impressed by how often patients told me a doctor had saved them. I heard such statements as “Dr. X saved my leg,” or “Dr. X saved my life.” I know that it does occur, but not as often as I was hearing it.
Investigating these statements I found such stories as, “One day l twisted my ankle very badly, and it became quite swollen. My doctor told me 1 could lose my leg from this but that he would take x-rays, put my leg in an Ace bandage, and give me crutches. In 3 days I was well. I am so thankful he saved my leg.”
And, “One day I had a temperature of 104. All of my muscles ached, my head hurt, and I had a terrible sore throat and cough. My doctor told me l could die from this, but he gave me a medicine and made me stay home. I was sick for about 2 weeks, but I got better. He saved my life.”
Is the art of medicine the art of deception? This horrifying thought actually came to me after hearing several such stories, but I learned that most of the physicians involved in such stories were not well respected by their colleagues.
I learned many honest techniques for successfully caring for patients. The several family physicians with whom I worked, all clinical instructors associated with my residency, were impeccably honest and taught me to combine compassion and efficiency.
Despite learning many positive techniques and having good role models, I left the community experience somewhat saddened by the lack of integrity that can exist in the profession. I was naive in believing that all the nonscientific aspects of medicine that made patients happy must be good.
By experiencing deception, I learned why quackery continues to flourish despite the widespread availability of honest medical care. Most significantly, I learned the importance of a sometimes frustrating humility; my patients with sprained ankles and influenza will not believe I saved their lives.
My experience as a family medicine resident in 2021
I did not get a medical school graduation; I was one of the many thousands of newly graduated students who simply left their 4th-year rotation sites one chilly day in March 2020 and just never went back. My medical school education didn’t end with me walking triumphantly across the stage – a first-generation college student finally achieving the greatest dream in her life. Instead, it ended with a Zoom “graduation” and a cross-country move from Georgia to Pennsylvania amidst the greatest pandemic in recent memory. To say my impostor syndrome was bad would be an understatement.
Residency in the COVID-19 era
The joy and the draw to family medicine for me has always been the broad scope of conditions that we see and treat. From day 1, however, much of my residency has been devoted to one very small subset of patients – those with COVID-19. At one point, our hospital was so strained that our family medicine program had to run a second inpatient service alongside our usual five-resident service team just to provide care to everybody. Patients were in the hallways. The ER was packed to the gills. We were sleepless, terrified, unvaccinated, and desperate to help our patients survive a disease that was incompletely understood, with very few tools in our toolbox to combat it.
I distinctly remember sitting in the workroom with a coresident of mine, our faces seemingly permanently lined from wearing N95s all shift, and saying to him, “I worry I will be a bad family medicine physician. I worry I haven’t seen enough, other than COVID.” It was midway through my intern year; the days were short, so I was driving to and from the hospital in chilly darkness. My patients, like many around the country, were doing poorly. Vaccines seemed like a promise too good to be true. Worst of all: Those of us who were interns, who had no triumphant podium moment to end our medical school education, were suffering with an intense sense of impostor syndrome, which was strengthened by every “there is nothing else we can offer your loved one at this time” conversation we had. My apprehension about not having seen a wider breadth of medicine during my training is a sentiment still widely shared by COVID-era residents.
Luckily, my coresident was supportive.
“We’re going to be great family medicine physicians,” he said. “We’re learning the hard stuff – the bread and butter of FM – up-front. You’ll see.”
In some ways, I think he was right. Clinical skills, empathy, humility, and forging strong relationships are at the center of every family medicine physician’s heart; my generation has had to learn these skills early and under pressure. Sometimes, there are no answers. Sometimes, the best thing a family doctor can do for a patient is to hear them, understand them, and hold their hand.