Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Stepford doctors

Ever since variation was declared to be an enemy of medicine there has been a multifaceted unrelenting effort to constrain the autonomy of clinicians.

In an article in the Medical Humanities journal titled “Stepford doctors”: an allegory GM Sayers described this trend creeping towards the ultimate creation of a workforce of Stepford doctors. 

From the paper:

The Stepford Wives, a novel by Ira Levin, provides the theme for this allegory. The men of Stepford belong to the Men’s Association. Their wives are “perfect”, in that they do nothing other than clean, cook, preen, and provide satisfaction without argument for their husbands. They are, furthermore, content with their lot, and believe that their previous interests and freedoms were self indulgent.

Applying the allegory to hospital medicine, Sayers wrote:
In the hospitals, doctors were pooled and moved like pawns to fill clinical slots, by masters who controlled both board and pieces...

The masters were not doctors; they were experts in managing time, costs, and doctors. They had not studied medicine, bioethics, or humanities; they were devoid of empathy. They did not treat patients, perform operations or do clinical research. They did not break bad news or get consent from patients for surgery. Nevertheless, they knew what sort of doctors they wanted—‘‘Stepford doctors’’. These were not ‘‘excellent’’ doctors, but ‘‘good enough’’ doctors, who would devote themselves to the masters’ objective of expediency, and the masters’ duty to balance the budget.

It is not completely clear how the masters changed the thinking and acting of so many doctors, but they did. Some of the doctors accepted the superficial plausibility of the reasoning that informed the masters’ demands. Some of the doctors themselves became masters, and they persuaded other doctors that the way the masters saw medicine was the way medicine should be.


The article was published in 2006 and might be considered dated but the premise is even more relevant today. In the words of the author: “This allegory cannot be concluded because it is on going.”

Monday, May 02, 2022

Are internal medicine’s core values effectively applied in today’s hospitalist practice?

Hospital medicine has changed. The change has been brought by business and regulatory pressures rather than the core values of internal medicine. Internal medicine’s core values are timeless.

Phillip Tumulty was famous as one of internal medicine’s great teachers. He was a lead faculty member in the department of internal medicine at Johns Hopkins for over 20 years. He published an article in JAMAInternal Medicine in 1977 in which he laid out some of the core values of internal medicine. Tumulty, an exemplar of internal medicine if their ever was one, had these things to say (paraphrasing from some of the points he made):

An internist is meticulous in the application of expertise in history and physical examination.

An internist develops a “referral practice” which leads to distinction among peers. (In other words, an internist is a specialist).

An internist “must not nod, nor grow bored, but sustain his enthusiasm through constantly searching for the unexpected in the seemingly obvious. Its occasional discovery in a patient’s problem hitherto passed over as routine brings self renewal.“ In other words the internist’s professional satisfaction feeds on being able to spot zebras in the morass of “bread and butter“ problems.

The internist should not be regarded “merely as some useful indispensable medical work horse, ably attending to the daily clinical chores.“

Tumulty summarizes his points this way: “some may say this is all very well but only as an idealistic concept of a kind of clinician and care that is no longer practical. I agree; it is indeed a concept of excellence. However, in the care of the sick, should one plan for less?“

Are the pressures and expectations placed on hospitalists today aligned with these core principles and values of internal medicine as articulated by Tumulty?