March 24, 2009

The Power of Slow Medicine

I discovered the power of slowness even while being rushed to see more patients faster. Luckily, I have a good way with most children, and they aren't usually scared of me. But there's no practical way of examining a child within a minute of walking in the room. Like the rest of us, children get territorial about their personal space, and will be upset if you violate their boundaries. So the key to a cooperative examination is getting the child to invite me to share their space with them. This takes time and patience. I will often use a prop of some sort, such as my tie or a toy or stuffed animal to engage the child and get them to reach out to me. It's a subtle dance which can take more than a few minutes, especially for anxious children. The first part of my definition is literal: slow visits.

Slow visits allow the patient or parent to ask all their questions, to get comfortable with the surroundings. In medicine, there's something known as the 'doorknob question.' The patient is in the room with the doctor, and their visit is finished, and just as the doctor turns the knob to leave the room, the patient asks a really important question like, 'Oh, and doc, should I be worried about this chest pain I keep having?' I think there would be fewer doorknob questions if doctors weren't always reaching for doorknobs. The removal of time pressure in the visit allows the patient to express their anxiety, and gradually open up about important issues. It also allows them to explain complex related problems, like family or financial situations that might have an important impact on whether they will be able to take their medicine or follow the doctor's advice.

The goal would not be simply providing the minimal acceptable level of care. Having an expert doctor who knows who you are is like having a chef who knows how to take advantage of that local seasonal produce. It takes more skill to cook something fresh than to heat something in the microwave. Having uninterrupted access to your physician can keep you from unnecessary treatments and save your insurance company money.

When I see a sick child, I have a luxury that I didn't have when working in a busy clinic. In the clinic, it wasn't clear when or if the parent could bring the child back. So to be safe, we would sometimes prescribe medication on the assumption that the diagnosis would eventually require it. Because my current patients have open access to me, I will often choose not to treat the child at all. I tell the parents to call me right away if the child gets worse. If I don't hear from them, I'll call the next day to check up on the child. Often, my patient will get better on their own and won't need any medication at all. This system only works because when parents call, they talk directly to me. I know the situation and can evaluate the need for treatment at that time. If it were a doctor covering for me, this might be a problem. Either the covering doctor would be extra cautious and prescribe medication or possibly not take it as seriously because they wouldn't know the whole history. If the parent is even more removed from the doctor, by calling a call center, they often can only get a response by selling the person answering the phone on how awfully sick their child is.

About two months ago, I got a call one Sunday from a mother of two preschoolers. Both had fever and seemed to be in pain. I met them at my office, opened the office for them and treated them. I was later told by their insurer that Sunday visits aren't a covered service. The person I spoke to on the phone in the claims department suggested that I do what most practices would do on Sunday--send them to the emergency room. It didn't seem to matter that the ER would be way more expensive, slower, and scarier.

I wonder if slower, more customized, more personal care would end up costing less. I think there might be fewer tests, fewer ER visits, fewer prescriptions, better compliance with the doctor's advice, and a lot more medical problems might be caught early. That could result in better health outcomes, lower cost of care, and more satisfied patients. I suspect there aren't enough doctors who practice this way to do the research to prove it.

I practice slow medicine.

Next Post: Slow Medicine and the Telephone Paradox


  1. Sending a child to the ER instead of an office visit, another example of the broken health care system. Let's hope we can work for a better, smarter (and ultimately more efficient and effective) health care system that cares for the whole person. Yes to Slow Medicine!

  2. Interesting that after you posted this, an article about how knowing your physician can improve your health shows up in the NYT:

    The beginning of a movement?

  3. I love the idea that you embrace Slow Medicine. So often doctors fall to the pressures of their profession. Investing time in your patients can often bring them closer to wellness. It helps establish a more positive doctor-patient relationship for sure. I applaud you for honoring your patients time, too!


Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?