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Friday Feb 05, 2016

Get the Candidates Talking About Family Medicine Issues

After months of buildup, Iowans like me finally voted in our caucus this month.  

Presidential candidates had been meeting with voters in the Hawkeye State for the past year to explain how they would lead the country (and how they would do it better than their opponents). The experience for me started last April during a meeting with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. I was invited by a friend, and we sat around a table with 15 others to hear Rubio's thoughts and to ask questions.

Of course, I asked about health care, and Rubio said he would repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). I asked what he would replace it with, but his response was vague. Since that meeting, Rubio has reiterated his desire to get rid of the ACA, but he still has not offered a specific plan for a replacement.  

This is a frustrating part of the process, and it certainly is not unique to one politician or one party. The candidates like to repeat their favorite soundbites, but they rarely offer detailed solutions. Too often, discussions on the campaign trail are about getting elected rather than solving real problems.

In Iowa, candidates continued to meet with voters in increasingly large groups across the state as their campaigns went on. We were bombarded with TV and print ads. And for the unfortunate families that still have landlines, the phone calls were frequent. In recent weeks, our local newspapers covered every candidate visit and recapped what was said.

We Iowans take this process seriously; we try to stay informed and influence where we should go as a country. A record 186,874 Republican voters participated, while the Democrats drew 171,109 caucus-goers. That equates to a turnout of 15.7 percent of eligible voters.

It's worth noting that in states with primaries, polling stations typically are open throughout the day, and people can vote at their convenience. A caucus requires attendance and registration at one specific time of day, so voter turnout of nearly 16 percent is remarkable.

During the Republican caucus that my wife and I attended, roughly 450 people participated. Representatives for each candidate spoke for three minutes or less -- except Rubio, who spoke for himself -- in one final opportunity to reach voters. The speeches were respectful and in stark contrast to the contentious discussions and often unsavory behavior we have been subjected to in the candidates' televised debates.

Too often we can't talk about politics in our society. Many issues are polarizing, and people aren't willing to listen to what others have to say. Before the caucuses, my wife and I attended a discussion on civility. The speakers talked about things such as how to discuss controversial topics without being judgmental and how to defuse a tense situation. I think we were able to use that in discussions with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues to bring back meaningful political discussion. Just because someone disagrees with me does not make them wrong or uncaring. It simply means they have a different view on how the problem should be solved. We need to be able to work together to solve our problems, both locally and nationally.

We are done with the presidential candidates here in Iowa. Our state has only six electoral votes, so we likely won’t see them again before Election Day.

Many of you, however, will still have opportunities to vote in your state's caucuses and primaries. You can make connections with candidates or their staff members and talk with them about the problems our practices and our patients face -- issues that deserve more than their well-practiced talking points. Make your voice heard, and make your vote count.

Robert Lee, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Tuesday Feb 02, 2016

Family Medicine: The Force Awakens

I recently saw the latest Star Wars movie with my family, and I could not help but compare the plight of the Jedi to that of family medicine. With the many challenges facing us as family doctors -- payment reform, endless paperwork, putting patients back at the center of care, electronic health records and recruiting the brightest young family physicians -- it often seems like the good in all we do is menaced by the darkness of partisan politics, back-room lobbying and catering to special interests. But like the young Jedi Knights, if we are attuned to the Force, we can wield its power.

In medicine, the Force is the collective voice that speaks for our patients. Physicians use it when we defy the status quo and pressure the government, insurance companies, hospital corporations and Pharma to heed our concerns because we are the front line of medicine. 

In The Force Awakens, we cheered for the Resistance, a group of passionate people who rally together to reclaim the good in their world. In the world of medicine, we got a great start on reclaiming the good when we won repeal of the Medicare sustainable growth rate last year, and CMS' announcement several months later that it plans to end meaningful use as we know it could be a good next step. But it will take determination to keep this momentum going so future payment models and new ways of measuring quality health care support our work as physicians.

Another family physician who covers OB call with me recently said, "I honestly know how much my voice matters. I know that I should be more present advocating on behalf of my patients, but I don't have the energy or the time. I can barely keep afloat in my small, rural practice."

He's been practicing for more than 20 years, and now he feels burdened by meaningless work to the point of exhaustion. He knows there is a sacred component to walking with patients through their important life moments -- a delivery, seeing a child grow to maturity, working through chronic addictions and illness or the end of life -- but he feels pressured to reduce all that to clicking boxes and being "productive." We mustn't allow the business of medicine to pull us from what we as physicians vowed to do, which is care for patients, and we must find the energy to fight for what matters. 

I know that the doctors who the AAFP and our sister organizations represent are looking for their representatives to press CMS, Congress and others harder to enact meaningful change. Our practicing physicians deserve it and so do our patients. But success won't come if that burden rests only on the shoulders of a few. Everyone has to play a part to reclaim medicine and resist the bureaucracy that tries to steal the joy of practice from us. 

Our members need to become emboldened. Each individual within our own Resistance has a special role to play. If we as family doctors do not speak to our legislators, then we have no ground to stand on. If we do not take the time to educate our communities about the things that make our practice of medicine difficult, then we lose their trust. If we do not continue to press the government by developing new and innovative practice models, then we will continue to fall prey to meaningless bureaucracy. 

Our collective voice and our individual stories have weight and meaning. We can become the doctors we wrote about in our medical school personal statements. We have the power and the right to protect our practices, our patients and our joy of medicine. We have to remember that without us, the system of medicine fails. Let us not be bullied.

Colleagues, I urge you to contact your legislators and tell them your story. Stop accepting half-done business deals from the hospitals you work with. Take the time to write to the local paper. Contribute to FamMedPAC so it can continue to back candidates who support family medicine. Most importantly, don’t stop believing in the power we have as healers of our nation.

As a wise woman says in the movie, "Close your eyes. Feel it -- the light. It's always been there. It will guide you."

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Wednesday Jan 27, 2016

Win-Win? Cardiology Project Could Benefit Patients, FPs

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more the 600,000 lives each year. That's more than the population of Wyoming.

CVD accounts for 17 percent of U.S. health expenditures, and those costs are expected to triple between 2010 and 2030. Improving prevention and care processes, however, could substantially reduce morbidity, mortality and the costs associated with CVD, and the AAFP is participating in work that aims to do just that.

I recently attended a meeting at the Brookings Institution in Washington with representatives from the American College of Cardiology, the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, as well as CMS, private-payer organizations, health systems, medical schools, research groups and the Veterans Health Administration. Our goal for this meeting, and the conference calls that preceded it, is ultimately to produce a policy paper that would serve as a model to improve the way primary care physicians and cardiologists work together.

The end product could result not only in better care for our patients, but more equitable pay for primary care. Our patients and our practices both have a lot to gain in the process.

It was interesting to see how much common ground primary care has with our subspecialty colleagues. We discussed numerous opportunities to close gaps in care, reduce overtreatment and address undertreatment.

Inadequate communication between physicians, patients and caregivers is one obvious problem we agreed on, and universal dismay was expressed -- from primary care, cardiology and payers -- about the state of electronic health record systems. Current products are not meeting needs and are a barrier to innovation.

We also agreed that physicians -- regardless of specialty -- need more time with our patients than what is typically possible in the fee-for-service world of health care. Cardiology is still firmly based in that fee-for-service model. Roughly three-fourths of practices are owned by health systems. Meanwhile, a recent study showed that roughly one-third of family physicians already are pursuing value-based payment.

So how do we pull the cardiologists into our patient-centered neighborhood? A representative from CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield pointed out that the payer has had tremendous success with the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) model, lowering both ER visits and readmission rates related to CVD. Primary care practices, he said, are receiving better payment as a result of this hard work. Health systems representatives also pointed to the PCMH as a means to improve quality and lower costs.

In addition to how we might work better together, we also discussed how improving care, coordination and communication could also affect payment, including pay-for-performance programs, bundled payments, shared savings and more.

This project, which is an initiative of the new Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, still has a long way to go. There will be followup work still to come. But the possibilities are intriguing, and if we can get it right, this could serve as a model for how primary care works with other subspecialties, as well.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

Tuesday Jan 19, 2016

Patient Perspective Vital for Practice Improvement

When my practice was planning to move to a new facility, we involved most of the people you might expect -- architects, builders, consultants, etc. Our new office includes all the modern technology we need in a patient-centered medical home (PCMH).

But as one of my colleagues likes to say, it's not patient-centered until the patient says it is. When we asked members of our patient advisory board for feedback about the new office, they offered perspectives we had clearly missed in the planning stages.

"There's no place to hang my coat," one man said.

Although we had put exhaustive time into considering what two family physicians, a physician assistant and office staff would need, we had failed to consider a basic amenity -- hooks on the doors -- that patients want in an exam room.

Today, we strive to put the patient at the center of everything we do, and payers need to acknowledge that work. Our small, rural practice achieved level three PCMH recognition from the National Committee for Quality Assurance a few years ago, and it's changed the way we do things. We extended our hours and added open-access scheduling. We added a health coach and adopted team-based care. We're doing more tracking, which means we're doing a better job at both providing preventive care and following up.

Our patient advisory board has been invaluable. The group meets monthly and provides direct feedback that not only helps us solve problems, but in many cases alerts us to their very existence. For example, when we implemented a new phone system, calls were going to voicemail too quickly rather than rolling to other staff members. We weren't even aware of the problem until our patient volunteers voiced their frustrations.

It’s all about the patient experience, and people want and need to talk with other people -- not machines.

Of course, all of these factors related to patient-centered care take additional time and effort, and that's one of the points I made in a recent meeting with HHS. On Jan. 14, I represented the AAFP in a roundtable discussion about patient engagement. The Academy was the lone physician organization at an event that also included representatives from consumer and patient advocacy groups, payers, health systems, a nurses' organization and an electronic health records vendor. HHS wanted to foster a discussion about "how engaging and empowering individuals in their health is an essential part of transforming our health care system."

More than one-third of AAFP members already practice in recognized PCMHs, but I said that if HHS and other payers truly want to move the needle on patient engagement, they must pay primary care physicians appropriately so practices can afford to make needed changes.

As we move from a payment system based on quantity of services delivered to one based on quality of care provided, payers must recognize the significant investment they are asking our practices to make. When that happens, we can move beyond discussions of the triple aim -- enhancing the patient care experience, improving population health and reducing costs -- to focus on a system that embraces the quadruple aim by adding the goal of improving the work life of health care professionals.

Mott Blair, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors. 

Tuesday Jan 12, 2016

U.S. Needs More Than Baby Steps on Paid Maternity Leave

Maybe, just maybe, Americans are finally waking up to a truth that has already been accepted globally: Paid maternity leave has far-reaching health implications for both mothers and their children, including facilitating breastfeeding.

Last month, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that branch of the U.S. military will triple its paid maternity leave benefit to 18 weeks, following the example set by the Navy back in August.

The international corporate world also took some big steps in the past year. Nestlé, the largest food and beverage marketer in the world, announced that it was extending its paid parental leave for primary caretakers from six weeks to 14 weeks for its workers globally, and it also will allow employees to take 12 unpaid weeks.

Nestlé CEO Paul Bulcke said in an interview with Fortune that supporting breastfeeding was one of the primary drivers behind changing the company's policy. That's an interesting step for a company that has been boycotted off and on for decades for the way it markets its infant formula.

The World Health Organization recommends that women should breastfeed for as long as two years, and the AAFP recommends breastfeeding for at least 12 months.  (The Academy's breastfeeding toolkit has resources for moms and practices.)

It is well documented that breastfeeding is healthy for both mothers and babies, boosting immunity, increasing bonding, reducing risk of postpartum depression and decreasing risk of morbid obesity in babies. With an ever-growing amount of data that support breastfeeding, why does our country have such a dismal rate of mothers who breastfeed past the first six months of life?

Roughly 80 percent of U.S. mothers are breastfeeding during the first 48 hours postpartum, according to the CDC. That drops to approximately 20 percent by six months. Disparities become more pronounced when looking further into the demographics. Women who breastfeed beyond six months tend to be Caucasian, have higher household incomes, stay home and be more educated. Those least likely to breastfeed tend to be black working moms who are less educated and are from homes with lower household incomes.

Although there are many factors that contribute to these shameful statistics, a major one is the persistent lack of parental leave for the vast majority of U.S. workers. This is despite studies that indicate mothers who have sufficient time to transition into parenting not only are more successful with breastfeeding, they also use less sick days, are more productive, suffer less burnout and demonstrate more loyalty to their employer.

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not support some kind of paid parental leave. Many people have little or no time off, even unpaid. Particularly for those affected by poor postnatal outcomes, taking time off could mean risking one's job.

Some might argue that the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees one's job after return from a leave due to birth, adoption or the serious illness of a loved one for up to 12 weeks, is sufficient. However, the law does not require the leave to be paid and it generally applies only to people who have worked at least 12 months for an employer who has at least 50 employees.

Unfortunately, only about 12 percent of U.S. employers offer paid maternity or paternity leave, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That's down from 17 percent in 2010.

No one can deny that becoming a parent is a life-defining moment, one that requires time to which to adjust. However, how can one take that time when there are bills to pay? In my second year of residency, I took only two weeks off after delivering my second child because I was allotted only eight weeks of paid time off and I already had used five weeks for bedrest. (I needed my last week of vacation time for job interviews.)

So why is paid leave so important to one’s ability to breastfeed? Simply put, if I have to return to work before my milk even has time to be established, then how can I be successful in maintaining my supply? Furthermore, women are expected, or perhaps feel pressured, to make up for the time they were away on leave.

Becoming a mother is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding, accomplishments I have under my belt. Let’s not lessen the impact and powerful message working mothers make when they embrace their many important roles both in and out of work. We should celebrate our many roles, including providing nourishment for our children.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Wednesday Jan 06, 2016

Telehealth Is Family Medicine’s Next Big Opportunity

Perhaps, like me, you've noticed that telehealth really hasn't lived up to its promise here in the United States. Although you may find the technology in niche markets, like satellite hospital consultations, there is hardly a transformative, mainstream movement of consumer access to family physician services online or by smartphone. 

Yet the trends are unmistakable:

  • Estimates vary, but perhaps 20 percent of what family physicians do in the office could be accomplished remotely. I would even go so far to say that much of what is happening now in retail clinics could be safely performed as a telehealth visit. (Will retail health be disrupted next?)
  • Although the fee-for-service model has barely paid for telemedicine, the advent of new models such as direct primary care and accountable care organizations could create a sustainable funding source for services that were previously not paid for.
  • Regulators at the state and national level are continuing to modernize the laws around telehealth and telemedicine to encourage physicians to engage patients remotely within clear boundaries that are safe and have utility to consumers.
  • The proliferation of Bluetooth-enabled biosensors that can communicate with smartphones and sync data to cloud-based health information exchanges allow for remote monitoring of patients. These patients are empowered to decide with whom they will share that information. For some patients and family physicians, this might allow for a novel telehealth visit with vitals.

So what does the United States need to do to start participating more? Well, according to the American Telemedicine Association, we are about halfway there. State legislatures and policymakers must continue to remove regulatory barriers such as only requiring insurers to pay for telehealth for rural patients, because suburban and urban areas also have health care disparities and access problems.

Family physicians should not be required to document a barrier to an in-person visit before a health benefit plan covers telemedicine. And nothing should require the use of telemedicine when in-person care by a participating physician is available within the member’s geographic area, or when a family physician determines it is inappropriate. In other words, actual plan networks cannot be remote.

I am amazed at how many patients in this economy may have a tablet computer or a smartphone, but not an automobile. Moreover, just as we use Skype and Facetime with friends and family more than with strangers, I predict the strongest future for telehealth will be between family physicians and their long-time patients, not between strangers connecting to chat.

John Bender, M.D., M.B.A., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Wednesday Dec 23, 2015

End of Medicare Bonuses Underlines Need for New Payment Models

More than just the calendar year will end on Dec. 31. The New Year also will mark the end of the Primary Care Incentive Program (PCIP).

The PCIP, created in 2010 as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, pays family physicians and other primary care providers bonuses equal to 10 percent of the amount Medicare paid them for primary care services if they met certain conditions. This bonus was an overdue step toward recognizing the value of primary care.

The program paid $664 million to primary care practices in 2012, but how much it will be missed depends somewhat on whom you ask. A survey of primary care physicians found that half were unaware of the program's existence. Some physicians "boutique" their practices, limiting their number of Medicare patients. But many practices in rural and underserved areas can't do this, and they benefited greatly from the bonus payments. Practices with large Medicare panels certainly will feel the hit. Qualifying primary care physicians received an average of nearly $4,000 a year.

Although the AAFP and other primary care advocates fought for an extension of the program, Congress showed little interest in prolonging a bonus program based on the fee-for-service model. As we have seen in the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) -- the law passed earlier this year that repealed the flawed Medicare sustainable growth rate formula -- legislators are more interested in linking increased physician payments to certain quality and performance standards.

If you haven't already, I strongly encourage you to start making yourself familiar with the alternative payment models and the merit-based incentive payment system (MIPS) described in the new law. By 2019, all physicians participating in Medicare will fall into one category or the other.

MIPS, while attempting to promote quality and added value, still is based on fee-for-service. And as we have seen, that model continues to be a popular target for spending cuts. A multi-year federal budget agreement led to a 2 percent cut to Medicare payments in 2013 and further incremental reductions for several years, and Congress allowed the Medicaid parity program -- a provision of the ACA that raised Medicaid physician payments in line with Medicare -- to expire in December 2014.

The 2016 physician fee schedule called for a modest 0.5 percent increase in the physician payment conversion rate. However, other legal mandates made even that minimal increase too tall a task for CMS because it failed to identify and adjust a required percentage of overvalued CPT codes. As a result, the Medicare physician fee schedule will see a fractional decrease in the conversion factor in 2016, rather than a half-percent increase.

What it boils down to is that alternative payment models are the path forward that will provide stability and give our practices the greatest opportunity to thrive. One-third of family physicians already are pursuing value-based payments.

The AAFP recently submitted detailed responses to 126 questions as part of a CMS request for information on how to implement new payment models associated with MACRA. Early in 2016, the Academy will be rolling out materials that will help family physicians better understand the choices, deadlines and challenges that MACRA presents. Stay tuned.

Robert Wergin, M.D., is Board Chair of the AAFP.

Monday Dec 21, 2015

Government Hears From FPs on Opioid Abuse Crisis

In the 1990s, physicians were told we weren't doing enough to address pain. Millions of Americans were suffering with chronic pain, affecting more patients than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Essentially, we were told we were failing these patients.

Naturally, physicians responded.

© 2015 Shawn Martin/AAFP

Here I am with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. Murthy gathered a group of stakeholders Dec. 16 in Washington to address prescription painkiller abuse.

In 1995, the American Pain Society introduced the slogan "Pain: the fifth vital sign," to raise awareness of the need to treat pain. By 1999, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations was on board as well, and that organization published new standards for pain management a year later.

Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far. The number of prescriptions written for opioids jumped from 87 million in 1995 to 219 million in 2011. From 2003 to 2013, the number of Americans who died as a result of opioid abuse surged from 4.5 per 100,000 to 7.8 per 100,000. In 2014, 19,000 people died as a result of such abuse.

Now we find ourselves in a difficult situation as federal agencies ask us to curb our prescribing at the same time that our patients are living longer and with more chronic conditions. How do we find a balance and bring that pendulum back to the middle?

Last week I devoted an entire day in Washington to this issue, meeting with staff members from the offices of Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., speaking with a national media outlet and participating in a meeting called by the surgeon general.

Toomey and Casey, senators from my state, are hearing a lot from federal agencies, the public and the medical community, and they are trying to determine whether there is a legislative solution. I made them aware of the delicate art and science of caring for patients in pain, and the work that family medicine and AAFP have been doing to curb opioid diversion and deaths.

I also spoke with National Public Radio host Robert Siegel for an upcoming segment of All Things Considered that focuses on our nation's pain and opioid dilemma. One of the things he asked me was how often family physicians have to deal with the issue of pain.

As you know, every day we care for patients with pain because roughly 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. So we discussed how to decide who should be treated -- or not -- with prescription medications and what steps we can take to ensure that medications are used appropriately and only for as long as needed. I also highlighted the importance of having an ongoing relationship with a primary care physician.

Many of these same issues rose that day during an event organized by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. In addition to the AAFP, representatives from many other health care groups -- including the American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Dental Association, AMA, American Osteopathic Association and American Association of Nurse Practitioners -- were present.
The day before this meeting, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that primary care professionals were the biggest prescribers of painkillers, with family medicine recording 15.3 million prescriptions, internal medicine 12.8 million, nurse practitioners 4.1 million and physician assistants 3.1 million. So you might have expected our specialty to be in the crosshairs during this meeting with federal officials.

However, HHS acknowledged that this is a public health issue that is multifactorial. We also agreed that it's not surprising that family physicians see a large number of patients suffering with chronic pain because FPs provide roughly one in five U.S. office visits.

It was refreshing that this event was essentially a listening session for the federal health agencies. We told them what we are experiencing and what needs to improve. For example, we talked about the importance of physicians participating in prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), working with states to make PDMPs more robust when needed, using real-time data and achieving interoperability among state programs. We also discussed safety issues and the need to reduce diversion.

The CDC recently released a draft of its new guidelines for opioid prescribing, and it's not yet clear what the surgeon general's next step will be. But we do know the AAFP will continue to work with the federal agencies, as our policy on this issue states, "to allow effective and safe opioid prescribing for patients in their pain management programs by their family physicians."

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

Wednesday Dec 16, 2015

At the Crux of Art and Science: I'm a Family Physician

My mother walked the hospital corridors with me at her side. I escorted her around the facilities, showing her my place of work. She turned to me with a proud look in her eyes and said, "Remember that what you do is sacred."

I don't think I will ever forget that day. Growing up in an immigrant household, there was nothing more revered than the work of doctors and clergymen. In my culture, they almost go hand in hand. Care is taken to heal the soul, not to simply treat an ailment. There is a keen art in doing so.

Or at least, there was.

I'm not sure how or when medicine turned from an honored profession to an outcome-based mill. I certainly don't recall when patients turned from people to products. However, this is how practicing medicine now sometimes feels.

We are hindered by protocols, quality measures and satisfaction scores, which make fostering relationships with our patients difficult. And as family physicians, aren't relationships the reason we chose our specialty?

Don't get me wrong. Quality plays an important role in delivering good patient care. What I do not agree with, however, is how the health care system defines quality.

With so much information available in an instant, it is all too common for patients to come to me with a diagnosis in hand, seeking a pill they want to try or a remedy they have seen on TV. The problem is that not all information strewn about various media is valid. How many times have you had patients demand antibiotics for sputum they perceived to be greenish in color?

This concept of drive-through medicine is costing the country millions of dollars in unnecessary testing and medication. So how do we fix this "Have it your way" culture at a time when we're judged, at least in part, on patient satisfaction?

A regular reminder I share with not only my patients, but also administrators, is that health is no more a product than is the wind. It flows and is dynamic. Protocols are guidelines, and I certainly am not a dictator when it comes to the care of my patients. Ultimately, they need to remain informed about their conditions and live with the consequences of their decisions. I am their consultant, I remind them, one who collaborates to help them reach their goals.

I am not a personal assistant. Although I guide my patients regarding their health and wellness, that does not necessitate total agreement. Not every ache and pain requires a CT scan or MRI. Not every cough or sniffle requires an antibiotic. Not every person requires a Pap smear or colonoscopy. To best serve my patients, I need the ability to practice the art of medicine.

In the world of fee-for-service health care, we are measured by how many patients we see per day. We feel the pressure of time limitations. Important conversations about effective treatment options often give way to scheduling restrictions. However, we all know that so-called productivity does not necessarily equate to quality. Somehow, a term used to assess factory-based businesses has crept into the medical field.

I am increasingly reassured that the AAFP’s consistent work to change our health care payment structure to a more value-based model is a win-win. But quality takes time, and more family physicians need to be at the head of the table for discussions affecting all aspects of the health care delivery system so this message resonates at all levels. Who would better understand work flow, quality measures and patient-centered teams than a family physician? We need strong family physicians in leadership roles to continue advocating and directing a shift in the current payment model.

The research stands for itself. Family physicians not only give good care, we do so in the most cost-effective manner. A recent retrospective study found that greater family physician comprehensiveness of care, especially as judged by claims measures, is associated with decreasing Medicare costs and hospitalizations.

So how do we educate our patients about sticking to tests and treatments that are necessary and evidence-based? We remain engaged. We continue to advocate and fight for a system of care that values quality instead of procedures. We focus on health and wellness instead of simply fixing broken bodies. We put the patient back into the center of our care. Otherwise, we will continue to face challenges based on information patients receive from Dr. Google.

In essence, we must remember that more does not equal better. In fact, more can actually be detrimental. Just ask my patient who suffers from urinary incontinence after having a radical prostatectomy for low-grade prostate cancer while in his 70s.

Or ask my patient who was taking more than 20 different medications for management of various symptoms before being whittled down to the six she really needed.

Ask the elderly patient who was taking three different brand names of the same anti-arrythmic drug before her family doctor went through her medications with her.

Ask the young lady who developed Clostridium difficile infection after being treated for multiple "respiratory infections."

The list could go on and on.

After all is said and done, we cannot reduce the practice of medicine to a simple black and white algorithm. Trust between physician and patient must be first and foremost. We must resist the urge to allow insurance companies, pharmaceutical agencies and the media to give misinformed guidance in how we provide care to our patients. If not, then our role as family physicians becomes diluted.

How do we change this "Have it your way" culture? One patient at a time.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Wednesday Dec 09, 2015

Seeking Solutions to Gun Violence at the Scene of the Crime

A couple of months ago, I was invited to participate in an event at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., which was the site of a racially motivated shooting earlier this year. The purpose of the event was to bring together stakeholders from legal/judicial, health care, public health, law enforcement, political, faith and other communities to address gun violence prevention.

From the time I started preparing for this event in early October until it actually took place on Dec. 4, the United States witnessed more than 50 other incidents in which three or more people were shot. In just two months, such shootings claimed 90 lives and wounded more than 200 others.

Michael Bowman/Voice of America
A memorial forms outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nine members of the congregation died during a June 17 shooting at the Charleston, S.C., church. I participated in a forum on gun violence Dec. 4 at the church.

As a nation, we cannot allow ourselves to grow numb to such tragedy. By the time we convened last week in the same room where nine members of Emanuel's congregation had been gunned down in June, places such as Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Bernardino, Calif. -- where other high-profile, deadly attacks occurred -- had been thrust into the national spotlight.

It was powerful and poignant to be in that church in Charleston. More than 300 people, including state legislators and the presidents of the American Bar Association and the American College of Physicians, participated. The AAFP was represented by state and national leaders, and I participated in a health care panel discussion.

We talked about the scope of gun violence, which has claimed the lives of more than 406,000 Americans in the past 14 years. In the past four years alone, gun-related deaths have exceeded the number of American lives lost in the Vietnam, Korean, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The issues discussed included adverse childhood experiences, domestic violence, racial disparities, the Second Amendment and more. We learned from a speaker from the American Psychiatric Association that most gun violence homicides are not related to mental health, although conventional conversations would make us believe otherwise. We also discussed the petitions physician groups delivered to Congress a few days earlier (hours before the San Bernadino shooting), seeking repeal of a shameful law that bans the CDC and NIH from conducting research on gun violence.

The obvious question is what can be done about this crisis -- which one speaker, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center on Gun Violence, called a social contagion -- in a sharply politically divided country? On one end of the spectrum, there are those calling for bans on guns, while those on the other end believe the solution is to buy more guns.

How do we find middle ground that effectively addresses the problem? Can we reduce gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment? According to constitutional law experts who participated in the event, the answer is a resounding "yes."

For example, speakers pointed to the need to close loopholes in existing gun laws. The FBI has acknowledged that the Charleston shooter should not have been able to legally buy a gun because of his criminal record. However, federal law allows gun dealers to proceed with sales if FBI examiners do not respond within three days. In the Charleston case, clerical errors prevented the FBI from acting before the transaction was completed. Clearly, the system needs improvements, and the three-day period should be re-evaluated.

Meanwhile, some states are actually easing gun laws. Earlier this year, for example, Kansas passed legislation that allows people to carry concealed handguns without a permit and with no training. Although the gun industry promotes its products as keeping families safe, too often, gun owners are doing the exact opposite. During the first 10 months of this year, 13 U.S. toddlers inadvertently killed themselves when adults left loaded guns in places these children could access. Eighteen others injured themselves, 10 injured others, and two killed other people.

Family physicians can play a key role in helping keep people -- especially children -- safe, but the First Amendment rights of physicians aren't being held in the same regard as the Second Amendment rights of gun owners. Florida passed a law in 2011 that restricts physicians' rights to ask patients whether they own guns. Roughly a dozen other state legislatures have since introduced similar measures. The AAFP strongly opposes these dangerous restrictions on patient-physician conversations that focus on prevention.

Why would physicians ask patients about guns? For the same reason we ask parents about bike helmets and child car seats: We can help parents make good decisions that make their families safer. In this case, we can counsel them about safe gun storage.

Changing gun laws, or passing new ones, likely would be extraordinarily difficult in a political environment where our two major parties can't agree on far less divisive issues. But what if we instead approached gun violence as a public health issue? Cure Violence is one such model that is showing success.

A combination of regulation, education and taxation has led to a dramatic decline in smoking rates, from 42.4 percent of U.S. adults in 1965 to 18 percent in 2014. What combination of education, public health, mental health and health care programs could help reduce gun violence?

Clearly, something has to change, but we must do it in a way that protects people's rights -- and not only their Second Amendment rights. This conversation will be coming to your community. When it does, what will you say as a family physician?

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

Tuesday Dec 01, 2015

Stillbirths: Mourning the Children I Never Got to Know

It was one of those weeks. You know what I mean. I had returned from a great weekend spent as a family medicine delegate to the annual meeting of the California Medical Association House of Delegates, and I felt like my energy had been restored.  

Then I opened my laptop.

I had 25 patients on my schedule, including an induction for a first-time mom who was past her due date. After seeing a few patients, I headed next door to the hospital to review the induction process with my patient. She had a couple of risk factors that are all too common nowadays. Smoking and being overweight, I reminded her, could make jump-starting her body into labor take a bit longer.  

I returned to the clinic to see other patients, answer phone calls, catch up on paperwork and attend meetings, but I stayed in close contact with the labor-and-delivery nurse and watched the fetal tracings remotely. Nothing about the scenario to that point struck me as out of the ordinary. However, after two days of induction and a subsequent cesarean section for fetal intolerance of labor, the result was not as expected.

I recalled going to simulation labs in med school and learning how to give bad news to patients. We were taught how to deal with poor outcomes in residency. I have held the hands of many patients' family members as they said their final goodbyes to loved ones. Death is a natural part of the circle of life. As a family physician, one of my roles in the family context is to usher my patients -- and their families -- into that next part of their journey. I feel great privilege in being there at both ends of the life spectrum, and I strive to honor that life to the best of my ability.  

Birth and death are two of the most vulnerable experiences we face. A woman must essentially relinquish herself to the process of labor as she charges her baby into life.  Similarly, those last moments of life also create an atmosphere where one bears only the necessary. The space for insecurities eventually dwindles. What if, though, life and death happen in a matter of minutes? What if for some unforeseen reason, a neonate is delivered without the breath of life?

Before going into private practice, I experienced only one stillbirth during residency. A young, independent mother made the decision to bring life into the world even after the father of the baby refused to take his part. She came to all her appointments and asked good questions. One day, she presented to labor and delivery after not feeling a previously boisterous baby girl move for two days. I still remember the silence around her as she cried in emotional and physical agony. I still remember the intense grief that filled the room. At the time, I had a toddler of my own waiting for me to get home, but I could not help but pause to ponder why these events happen.   

My hardest experiences are still in these rare but tragic moments. I don’t think any amount of training can completely prepare someone for such a situation. Even when a clear-cut answer comes back via autopsy or placental pathology, a much harder -- and, I think, deeper -- question remains unanswered.

Why?

As I look into the eyes of a woman whose dreams have been crushed, the "why" they ask is organic. "Why did you let this happen?" or "Why am I a mother without ever mothering a child?"

I will never have an adequate answer to these questions because I am just as human as my patients.  

As a physician, I deal with two losses. I have lost a life that never really had a chance to begin, but I also have likely lost that mother as a patient. Often, I do not see the parents any longer. Of the stillbirths that I have been a part of, only one mother returned to continue care with me. I understand how coming to an office filled with pregnant women and young families can torment them. As one mother put it, seeing me forced her to relive her pain.

As a mother myself, I am not sure how I would react if I were in their shoes. There remains such an emotional void from these abrupt farewells that I wonder how we can better support these families.  

What about the patient I started this post with? Well, the father of the baby burst out with hateful words that night. A large family had spent those two days waiting, and they wanted answers.

I stayed. I took the hot words as daggers to my heart. I spoke with the rest of the family, I cried with them, and I hoped they believed me when I told them how sorry I was for such tragedy. The nurses, house supervisor and I created a small area where the family could see the baby and cry out to God for a life lost before it began. I sang an old hymn with them, and I prayed with them and for them. I made sure that my patient was cared for and actually stayed in the hospital the entire next day.  

Everyone at the hospital, from start to end, performed to the highest standards. I am so proud to be able to work with these nurses, respiratory therapists and staff. They truly care about this little community, and so do I.

Mothers and fathers undergo a tremendous amount of stress during these situations. I have found that although there are online support groups, parents and family members affected by such loss need more tangible resources.

We must do a better job as a society to remove the stigma behind death, especially the death of children. I encourage my colleagues to talk about these issues and have close followup with patients who live with loss. We must resist the urge to count ourselves omnipotent and not be afraid to say "I'm sorry." Sometimes the best thing to do is admit one's humanity.

As the holiday season comes into full swing, I urge you to remember how hard this time of year can be for those suffering a loss. Take a moment to think of those who will have their first Christmas without a special person, and hug your loved ones tightly.

I register a star with the name of each baby lost and send the certificate to the parents as a remembrance of a child I never got to fully know.

To The Child I Never Knew

I was there when they heard your heart for the first time
The sheer joy and shock of having new life
The hope you brought
The joy

I was there when you would play hide and seek
Running away from my Doppler as I searched
Throughout the pregnancy
Gauging the time
Precious time

We spoke of their hopes for you
Your name, its meaning
How you would look and when you would walk
The lives you would change

I was there when you came
Without the breath of life
Still beautiful, still sacred

I was there with tears of mourning
Dreams now faded
Reality seems blurry
To the life that did not yet live

I thank you
For teaching me to live in every moment
For bringing hope and beauty even
Before you were born

I hope you dance among the stars
The Milky Way, now your table
Your presence still present

Be the comfort that I cannot become
Fill the void that I cannot fill
Bring peace once more to a heart that my sutures cannot mend
Shine on brightly

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D.,  is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Tuesday Nov 24, 2015

Tales From the Road: Giving Thanks for Family Medicine

In the eight weeks since I became AAFP president, I have visited nine states; Washington, D.C.; and Canada on Academy business. Along the way, I've met with governors, members of Congress, medical students, journalists and many, many family physicians.

Although these are trying times for family medicine, I've seen many things to be thankful for, and I want to share some of those bright spots.

During the recent interim meeting of the AMA House of Delegates in Atlanta, Neil Brooks, M.D., of Vernon, Conn., announced that he was participating in his last AMA meeting. That's significant because the former AAFP president has been representing family medicine in the House of Medicine for more than a quarter of a century, including the past 12 years as a member of the AAFP's delegation.

(Coincidentally, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., spoke highly of Neil and his wife, Sandi, during a recent meeting with AAFP leaders. Courtney is a co-founder of the new Primary Care Caucus, which seeks to advance public policy that establishes, promotes and preserves a well-trained primary care workforce and delivery system as the foundation of our health care system.)

When experienced physicians like Neil Brooks leave leadership roles, who will take their place? Well, for one, I was impressed by Allen Rodriguez, a second-year medical student from UCLA who was part of our AMA delegation. Student interest in family medicine is increasing, and I try to meet with medical students wherever I go. Students are excited by the idea of family medicine -- taking a holistic approach to caring for people in the context of their community, family and life rather than defining them by their disease state.

The students I have met with (most recently at Virginia Commonwealth) are passionate about addressing the social determinants of health, show great leadership skills and are committed to lifting the profile of family medicine. We recently saw students and residents at Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Family Medicine Residency rally around their programs when those organizations announced misguided plans to divest from primary care. Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian backpedaled from those plans after a fierce, and well-deserved, backlash.

And, of course, I'm thankful for the family physicians who are out there helping people every day. I've visited several state chapters in the past few years, and one of the things I look forward to on these trips is hearing the inspiring stories of each state's family physician of the year.

In Illinois, I heard about Elba Villavicencio, M.D., of Buffalo Grove, who was nominated by a patient who said "Dr. V" helped her quit using tobacco after 35 years of smoking and also helped her lose weight. Villavicencio trained in Ecuador and practiced in her home country and Colombia for several years before coming to the United States, a move that required not only additional training but learning a new language.

In Iowa, I heard about Mark Haganman, D.O., of Osage, who was praised not only for being a good doctor but also a good citizen. Haganman was humble about accepting the award, but others praised him for going above and beyond what any patient would normally expect from his or her physician. For example, Haganman mowed a patient's yard, not because the patient had asked but because help was needed after a surgery. Stories like that are inspiring, and we need to hear more of them.

Studies tell us that more than one-third of physicians are struggling with burnout. During my speech in Denver at the Family Medicine Experience, I said that we need to look out for each other. I was pleased recently when one of our members took me literally and asked me to call a colleague who was struggling. I made that call last week and offered a sympathetic ear and some mentoring. It's rough out there, and we need to continue to look out for each other.

We also need to continue to share the stories of our colleagues who are doing incredible things in their communities. Doing so helps inform the press, the public, payers and politicians about why primary care matters.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for all that you do.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

Tuesday Nov 17, 2015

Safeguard Your Sanity -- and Your Specialty -- With a Bold 'No!'

One day I walked into my home after a post-call clinic, having delivered a baby with dystocia and admitted a terminal cancer patient into hospice. It was a long, long call.

My daughter ran to my legs and hugged them, my son asked what was for dinner, and the newborn let it be known that she needed to nurse. I gave my husband a quick hug and kiss, thinking about how I was going to give my patients the quality care they need when my clinic has been paralyzed by our hospital's decision to implement a new electronic health records system without seeking input from physicians in its outpatient clinics.

This conundrum, I am sure, is common among physicians. We are conditioned to multitask, go the extra mile and do it without a grimace. As new physicians, we know all too well the pressures placed on us as medical students and residents to accept more work and excel. Despite working long hours with inadequate sleep, we are programmed to overachieve.

I am four years out of residency, working as a medical director of a rural health clinic, dealing with meaningful use and quality measures while also being a wife and mother of three, and I realize that without boundaries, I am at risk of burnout.

Think about it: In light of the changes occurring in our health care system, we new family doctors are groomed to be prime assets not only to our patients but also to our communities. We understand that, and we innately carry the responsibility of leadership. It is how we are made.

With that in mind, however, I find myself redefining leadership as a means to make a deliberate impact. For me, it has become a much more thoughtful process than it once was. For the first time in my career, I have the ability to tailor my experience and maximize my talents and gifts so that I can become the type of doctor that I once wrote about in my medical school essays.

With this new approach, I see that I must be willing to take a stand to make a difference. Most importantly, there is power in saying no.

Say no to things that do not feed your vision. Medicine, especially family medicine, is as much a calling as it is a job. Although not everyone is passionate on a national level, we each have an impact within our unique settings. But without vision, we can fall prey to spreading ourselves too thin, leading to burnout. With vision, it is easier to say no to demands made by insurers, employers, clinic managers and others.

Before entering medical school, I always envisioned myself working within the family unit and caring for people worldwide. I didn't know at that point that the image of medicine that motivated me to excel was that of a family doctor.

I thrive by providing quality care to all members of my community, not simply those who can afford it. Now, I take care to prioritize my work with my life's vision. The more that vision crystalizes, the more centered I become in life.

Say no to interactions that do not respect you for the asset that you are. We are valuable revenue builders for our health system, and without primary care physicians, the health system could not function. Although our self-worth goes much deeper than our bank accounts, given the years of both social and financial sacrifice we've made, the way we are compensated is an important reflection of respect.

I work as an independent contractor for a hospital-owned clinic, so I have had to develop confidence in my professional worth that I draw upon during contract negotiations. We women often are paid less than our male colleagues, but it is important to find a work environment that aligns with your value. I am no longer afraid to ask for fair compensation.

Beyond money, it is imperative that we guard our time, which is so valuable. It is no secret that family doctors are the backbone of the medical system. We need to be bold enough to say no when we are asked to do work that is not equitable compared to that our colleagues are asked to do. In contract negotiations, we need to be willing to walk away from a bad deal. We need to demand what we value -- money, time off, quality improvement, professional development or educational allowances.

We need to be bold enough to say no to outside sources that attempt to dictate how we practice medicine. We are bogged down by prior authorizations, Physician Quality Reporting System requirements, filing scripts for durable medical equipment and supplies, or even finding a specialist for our patients who lack insurance. It will only get worse if we as a collective don't take a stand against the administrative hassles that drag us away from our patients.

Part of our job as healers is to protect the sacred space between doctor and patient. The only way we can do that is by being a presence our local, state and national leaders know and respect. Until we are recognized for the immense role we play in health care, the pressures of the system will continue to fall on our backs.

When we are ready to hone in on our time, we gain the ability to say yes to more fulfillment. Let's say yes to less burnout. Let's say yes to fair compensation. Let's say yes to better quality of life. Let's say yes to better patient care. Let's say yes to the freedom and joy of serving in such a noble calling.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Tuesday Nov 10, 2015

AAFP to Congress: Primary Care Plays Vital Role in Mental Health

It's no secret that among health care employers, family physicians have been the most highly sought-after type of physician in this country for the past decade. But what some may not know is that psychiatrists are close behind, ranking as the third-most highly recruited specialty.

The shortage of psychiatrists is so acute that nearly 4,000 places in this country have been designated as mental health care health professional shortage areas It would take more than 2,700 mental health professionals to adequately address the problem in these areas where, on average, only half of the need for mental health services is being met.

With a dearth of these subspecialists, primary care physicians provide the majority of mental health services in the United States. Unfortunately, payers and policymakers often are not attuned to this reality. That lack of awareness creates an additional barrier for patients who need help because of the difficulties primary care physicians face regarding payment for mental health services.

Last week, AAFP leaders were on Capitol Hill to speak with legislators and congressional staff about a number of issues concerning family physicians, including payment, meaningful use, funding for primary care programs, the newly created Primary Care Caucus and mental health reform. On Nov. 4, AAFP Board Chair Robert Wergin, M.D., and I met with Sen. Bill Cassidy, M.D., R-La. -- a gastroenterologist -- and Joe Dunn, the legislative assistant to Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Sens. Murphy and Cassidy are the authors of S. 1945, the Mental Health Reform Act, which is one of two major mental health reform bills under consideration by Congress. The other, H.R. 2646, or the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, was introduced in the House by Rep. Tim Murphy, Ph.D., R-Penn., who is a clinical psychologist.

The AAFP has not yet endorsed either bill, but both include policies the Academy supports, including the integration of primary care and behavioral health. During our meetings with Cassidy and Dunn, we voiced our support for such integration while also emphasizing the important role family physicians play in mental health care and the need to eliminate barriers to care created by inadequate reimbursement in primary care settings.

Too often, payers have carved out mental health care as the purview of psychiatrists and psychologists despite the fact that nearly one-third of primary care visits by adults 75 and younger involve mental health issues.

Faced with payers who won't pay adequately -- if at all -- for mental health services, primary care physicians have been forced into creative billing. Rather than submit a code for depression that is likely to be rejected, primary care physicians often code for the symptoms of the disease instead and get paid for things such as treating insomnia or fatigue. Unfortunately, this scenario perpetuates the fallacy payers have bought into, because claims data thus indicate far less mental health care is provided in the primary care setting than is actually given.

Furthermore, the combination of inadequate reimbursement, physician shortages and other factors leads to shortcomings in both diagnosis and treatment. Mental Health America estimates that only 49 percent of patients with clinical depression and 52 percent of those with generalized anxiety disorder receive treatment.

The bill that Sens. Murphy and Cassidy are sponsoring would make an important change to Medicare and Medicaid, allowing patients to access mental health and primary care services at the same location on the same day. The bill also would allow for the creation of grants related to models of care, early intervention and more.

It remains to be seen what will transpire with either of these bills, but our recent meetings made it clear that the Academy plans to play an active role in the debate on this important issue.

John Meigs Jr., M.D., is the president-elect of the AAFP.

Monday Nov 02, 2015

Med Students, Schools Must Safeguard Peers' Mental Wellness

My friend was brilliant. He graduated valedictorian of his high-school class and was salutatorian of his undergraduate department. He had other gifts, too, including a phenomenal singing voice that would put Sam Smith to shame.

He also had bipolar disorder, which recently led him to take his own life.

For some students at our medical school, the news of his suicide was shocking. For those closer to him, it was almost understandable.

 Nearly one-fourth of medical students meet depression criteria.

Starting from day one, medical school students are constantly exposed to a host of new and stressful experiences. Support from family and friends can make a big difference, but this type of encouragement may be limited for those who are in a completely new environment far from home. Too often, we try to process these situations in isolation, or we may try to cope in potentially harmful ways, such as through excessive alcohol consumption.

According to a study on mental health in medical students published in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association several years ago, 14 percent of students surveyed at the University of Michigan Medical School had moderate to severe depression, and another study suggested that nearly one-fourth of med students met depression criteria. More shocking, more than one in 10 students (11.2 percent) surveyed in a study assessing burnout reported experiencing suicidal ideation in the previous year. Third- and fourth-year medical students reported higher rates of suicidal ideation than did first- and second-year students. 

Although medical students are at particular risk for experiencing mental health issues, we’re unlikely to seek help. One commonly cited reason is stigma. Earlier in our lives, we were somehow molded to react uncomfortably to topics such as depression, schizophrenia, substance use or suicide. Medical school culture then builds high expectations in which weakness is not accepted. Some of us think that disclosing a mental health condition would lead us to be viewed as incompetent.

Even when students decide to seek help, we face additional barriers. Oftentimes, our busy class or clinical rotation schedules prevent us from scheduling needed appointments. And even if we do have free time, getting an appointment with a therapist may take weeks, and it may be a few months before a psychiatrist is available.

Another friend battling depression sought help and found that the institution’s student mental health resources had a three-week wait. She decided to go to the emergency department that day to contract for safety.

Addressing student wellness has become a priority for medical schools. Initially, most schools focused on increasing access to post hoc, therapy-oriented services for individuals who develop mental disorders or significant distress. But in recent years, comprehensive wellness programs are increasingly being implemented to counteract or balance the negative experiences students may face.

My institution established a college advisory program modeled after Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s wellness program. Students are divided into four colleges (similar to the Hogwarts houses in the Harry Potter books). Within each college, we are further divided into "molecules" of five students with one faculty member who advises us on wellness and provides career counseling throughout medical school.

We meet with our faculty advisers after each clinical rotation to reflect on experiences from the past eight weeks. The most recent discussion focused on personal growth. A third-year student tearfully spoke about the insecurities he faced on his first rotation. He thought he constantly disappointed his team because he hadn’t met clinical expectations. He didn’t realize the expectations of writing complete progress notes on every patient before rounds and providing sign-out to the night team were beyond the scope of a medical student. Furthermore, his team regularly criticized his oral presentations. Hearing fellow third- and fourth-year classmates relate to his experience and offer advice on future rotations seemed to comfort the student, but the fact remains that he should have been supported earlier in his clerkship.

Additional measures taken to improve student wellness have included a dramatic move from assigning grades (honors, high pass, pass, fail) to using a simple pass/fail system. During the preclinical years, most lecture days end by noon. This provides students time to pursue extracurricular activities that range from conducting research to playing intramural sports to visiting family.

Yet even with these changes in place, my classmate struggled with his mental illness. He refused to seek mental health services and attempted to self-medicate. Ultimately, his strongest support was a small group of classmates who, despite his initial resistance, constantly reached out to him during both his highs and his lows. When he first expressed suicidal ideation, our classmates brought him to the emergency department. When he had his first manic episode, those classmates called police for help. They went through so much with him, and now that he has passed, they are the ones left hurting. Their mental health cannot go unaddressed, nor can the mental health of my classmate’s family and loved ones.

This sad experience offers a strong reminder that we future physicians are not invincible. It is acceptable for us to show weakness and to seek help. After all, if we cannot care for ourselves, how can we care for our patients?

Tiffany Ho, M.P.H., is the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.