The human connection is missing in modern healthcare

What is so unsatisfying about healthcare today? Though diagnosis and treatment continue to improve, an experience that was once personal, even intimate, is now one frustration after another once you’ve put yourself in the hands of a doctor.

Most providers are no longer willing to sacrifice their lives for 24/7 medicine. In the past, it didn’t matter whether it was day, night, weekend or holiday when you got sick. “Your” doctor would be available and “your” doctor would see you.

This doctor literally knew you inside and out. Maybe she, but mostly he has taken care of you for years if not decades. He may have taken care of your parents and then when you graduated in pediatrics he took care of you. He knew your spouse and children, your medical history, whether you tended to exaggerate or downplay your symptoms.

This family doctor’s commitment to medicine was not without cost. Patients came first. Spouses and children learned to live with unpredictable absences, disappearing from the dinner table, the empty seat at school plays or concerts. It was tough as a family, but there was also pride in his position in the community, loved by many grateful patients.

Sometime around the turn of the century, younger physicians were much less willing to put everything in their life behind the responsibility for patient care. They are still good doctors. They still give a quality care. But they are not about to live a life dedicated solely to health care. Can you blame them?

Then there is the march towards the ‘professionalization’ of healthcare, with an emphasis on the business side rather than the nursing side. Outpatient “long-term care” is billed in 15-minute increments. It takes some of us 15 minutes to take off our socks.

These healthcare changes mean we no longer have our own doctor. There may be a “Principal Physician” who has overall responsibility for our care, but there is no guarantee that we will see that provider when we need them. We are part of a healthcare group with hospitals, clinics and offices in several cities. Call with a problem and it’s “Dr. (name we’ve never heard of) can see you in (two cities away) on (in three days).” There’s a feeling, fair or not, that nobody cares.

Even this level of care applies only to those who are fortunate enough to live relatively stable lives, who can establish themselves in a healthcare community, and who are reasonably solvent. For the poor, the homeless, the needy, it’s the ER or nothing.

Despite the vast amounts of money in the system, hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices are struggling to survive. The network of providers, payers and practitioners resists understanding. Burdened with rules, regulations and layoffs, the healthcare system has achieved one thing. It’s propelled us to the point where we throw up our hands, indulge in whatever worries we can get, and worry about how we’re going to pay for them later.

The costs are astronomical. Insurance is also expensive. office visits? three digits A hospital stay costs more than a car. Surgery? Forget it. Private insurers seem intent on avoiding coverage rather than providing it to those who can afford the premiums.

Smaller hospitals, like those in Hancock County, depend on philanthropists whose contributions make up some of the difference between the cost of healthcare and the cost to patients or insurers. But there is a limit to what even the most generous benefactor can offer. The Acadia Family Center on Mount Desert Island, which provides addiction and mental health services, closed its doors last fall. Philanthropy accounted for well over half of revenue, a situation that one board member described as “unsustainable.” They are involved in a process to determine the terms on which their much-needed services may be able to return.

The public bears some responsibility for this dilemma. When it comes to health care, we want what we want, when we want it. Even in situations that don’t arise, we don’t want to wait. We despise healthcare systems like our neighbors in Canada, where people sometimes have to wait MONTHS for elective (non-urgent) surgeries. Still, most of their health care is covered. Illness or injury does not ruin a family.

When we seek medical help we want to be healed of an illness, healed of an injury. Studies show that it’s better when we feel cared for. Perhaps “the doctor will see you now” should mean “the doctor will hear you now”. We want our healthcare providers to have time to see us, to hear us. We want them to have time to take care of them.

Jill Goldthwait was a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital for 25 years. She served as a Bar Harbor councilwoman and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

Jill Goldthwait was a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital for 25 years. She served as a Bar Harbor councilwoman and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

Jill Goldthwait

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