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The Stresses That Doctors Face : A Physician Examines the Problems of His Profession

December 26, 1985|RICK McGUIRE | McGuire lives in Sepulveda

Ricky, a 4-year-old boy, is wheeled into the emergency room. No one knows how long the youngster was in the water, but CPR had been initiated as soon as he was pulled from the lake.

Dr. David Hilfiker has run from his office next door, leaving behind a waiting room filled with patients. After a frantic hour of heroic measures, there is no pupil response, no heart activity and no spontaneous breathing.

Knowing how hard they worked, Hilfiker can't even look at the nurses and attendants as he dismisses them. A sheet is pulled up over the little body.

Divided Loyalties

The boy's mother is a longtime patient. Hilfiker wants to stay with her until her husband arrives, but he can't. Other patients await his return.

Back in the examining room his patience is tried by a 60-year-old woman whose remaining joy in life seems to be complaining. And that's followed by a look at the chart of a new patient who is apparently going from doctor to doctor trying to get a prescription for Valium.

David Hilfiker walks slowly back to his desk. He sits. Buries his face in his hands and thinks. "I'm not sure I can take this today."

Days like this one, described in his book "Healing the Wounds" (Pantheon: $14.95), illustrate some of the stresses faced by physicians that nearly led Hilfiker to quit his profession, he said.

Very little of Hilfiker's work could be considered glamorous. First in a small town upper Midwest family practice, and today in two Washington health clinics that serve the poor, there is an unrelenting intensity in the work.

Sitting cross-legged in a hotel room, still a little jet-lagged from a cross-country trip the day before, the 40-year-old doctor recalled his initial attraction to rural medicine.

Curses of the Job

"I wanted to be where doctors were really needed and I wanted to be close to the people," he said. But even in the northern hinterlands of Minnesota he could not escape from what he describes as the curses of modern medicine.

"The stresses and contradictions of being a physician were overwhelming. I found myself anxious, nervous, depressed, very quickly burned out, and in a situation I could do very little about," he said, adding that it almost drove him from medicine.

Instead, he took a year off and began writing about the contradictions and the pain. Especially the pain. He wrote two articles on the subject for the New England Journal of Medicine, the premier American medical journal. And he struck a responsive chord in hundreds of physicians who wrote to him. "I sensed in these responses the powerful desire of doctors to speak honestly about the problems of their professional lives and the pressures they face every day for which neither the structure of their profession nor society at large in any way equips them," he wrote in the book which expands on the articles to treat in depth some of the problems of modern physicians.

He has been traveling around the country, speaking about things few doctors dare discuss, even among themselves. He talks about money and how it interferes with medical practice. He discusses how unprepared doctors are to play God, although they are tempted and expected to do so on a daily basis.

And he addresses medical malpractice, doctors' compulsion for efficiency and the maze of spiraling information and technology that is impossible to deal with.

Problem With Images

"First off," he said, "I think the image most people have of doctors is very detrimental to the doctor-patient relationship." He believes patients see physicians as "technicians, entrepreneurs and creators of luxuriant life styles."

He's convinced that this image is fueling today's medical malpractice crisis.

"The increasing emotional distance between physician and patient merely exacerbates the tendency to sue. . . .

"I'm very surprised in the whole malpractice crisis no one mentions how much money doctors make as being etiological." People perceive doctors as being rich and uncaring, he said, and then sue them if they make a mistake.

Hilfiker admits to being sued once and nearly brought to court on another occasion. "Both (patients) had reason to believe that I didn't care because I wasn't aware of the mistake and had never gotten back to talk with them about it."

He allowed that he has made "lots of mistakes" in his career, many "much more serious than the ones for which I was sued," but in those instances he recognized the error and went back to the patient to discuss it.

'Perfectly Understandable'

While some readers believe Hilfiker's book is critical of doctors, he is sympathetic. He finds it "perfectly understandable" that physicians behave as patients complain they do.

"When (doctors) are aloof, authoritarian, preoccupied with efficiency and power, when all they can talk about are their yachts and their money, that's a perfectly natural response to the contradictions (in medicine) which are almost impossible to resolve," he said.

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