When was the last time your PCP accompanied you to a specialist visit? Never? Same here. That’s actually not entirely surprising in today’s healthcare environment, given the demands placed on healthcare providers and primary care physicians in particular. But last week, I had the opportunity to be a part of such a visit.
I’m a medical student on my family medicine clerkship with Dr. Gold, and on his schedule this day was a cardiology visit for one of our 78 year-old patients. In the afternoon, we drove to meet her at the cardiologist’s office. She had recently had an episode of atrial fibrillation picked up by her pacemaker, and at this appointment, we would discuss the possibility of starting her on blood thinners. The cardiologist thoroughly explained the algorithms that guide decision-making for the treatment of new a-fib, along with the risks and benefits of blood thinners. He concluded by saying that, while he slightly favored starting the medication, he would leave the decision to our patient. As she took a moment to take in this information, her eyes began to well up. Amidst her tears, she explained that having to add yet another medication to her regimen or the thought of a stroke or going into a-fib again or bleeding from a fall was all too overwhelming to process.
The situation was complicated further by our patient’s chronic pain, which she experiences as a burning sensation across her lower chest. It has been treated with varying success for many years, and she was soon visiting a pain clinic for further assessment. So how was she to decide given these circumstances? The cardiologist offered expertise focused on giving her the best possible care for her cardiovascular health and went on to reassure her that the pain was not cardiac in origin. The presence of her primary care physician in addition, however, proved essential in helping her feel comfortable with her options. Primary care physicians are charged with taking care of the whole patient, a-fib, pain, tears and all. So when it became Dr. Gold’s turn to offer his input, he took a step back and considered her quality of life and her priorities. He helped her to sort through the risk calculators, EKG results and medication side effects to reveal what was really causing her the most distress each day and keeping her up at night. It was not her cardiac issues. It was her pain. Perhaps, he advised, we should address this issue first and then reconsider starting blood thinners in the future.
I would argue that any primary care physician would want this opportunity, the chance to sit down with his or her patient and another member of the healthcare team for one hour and determine what is really best for the patient at a given point in time. The problem is finding that hour amidst the multitude of patient visits, phone calls, notes, prior authorizations and EMR notifications. This time is what Dr. Gold offers his patients, and I believe that this single visit demonstrates how essential that time can be.
Tufts 3rd Year Medical Student