Category Archives: Motivating Chage

How Doctors Should Talk To Patients About Obesity, An Open Letter To Doctors

Last week I had surgery, a long surgery that required over an hour of operating room time, but the operation was not my greatest fear as I approached this process.

What concerned me the most? I feared having to get a pre-op clearance from my internist; a simple visit that would require less than 10 minutes of contact time. You may be thinking that my primary care physician is mean, rude, and evil. Of course, this is not the case. He appears to be a nice man and a good doctor. If I felt otherwise, I would not work with him.

So Dr. Mike, what is the problem? First a little more background information.

As a person who has battled obesity all of my life, I have become acutely aware of the stigma that comes with weighing excess pounds. Few human attributes can be ridiculed and condemned in the millennial “microaggression” culture of 2018. Imagine criticizing or mocking someone because of their race, sex, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, physical stature, or a multitude of other differentiating human characteristics.

Making fun of “fat people,” is an acceptable national sport, even though the CDC reports that over 70% of adults in the US are now overweight. Of course, as the overweight population explosion redefines the concept of what is normal weight, there will always be those outliers who exist beyond a standard deviation from that norm. There will always be a group to abuse with fat jokes, both overt and covert criticism, and outright disdain. If you are obese, it appears that it is OK for others to assume that you are lazy, dirty, and stupid.

We would never make such assumptions for other medical epidemics. Imagine someone undervaluing you because of your high blood pressure, or your fasting blood sugar? Just like obesity, these illness are caused by multiple factors: genetic, environmental, and lifestyle. Unlike obesity, there are good medical treatments for these ailments, making them easier to treat. The majority of folks with high blood pressure can significantly reduce health risks with medication management alone. However, the majority of obese people will continue to be fat despite diet plans, medications, exercise, and shaming television shows.

I lost over 100 pounds about 3 years ago. I did this after failing many traditional techniques of weight loss. I feel that my weight loss was indeed a miracle that was fueled by common sense, rather than modern medicine.

We are humans, not machines. We are motivated and influenced by a multitude of factors. This variability can be considered a weakness, but it should also be acknowledged as one of our greatest strengths. We are complicated, and as such simple blanket solutions have marginal utility.

Over the three years since I lost weight, I have regained a small percentage of my weight. Most people have told me that I look better with a few extra pounds. They say I look less gaunt, and more vital with this increase. Additionally, I have long shifted from judging myself based on a number on a scale. My lifestyle changes have been just that, they are not strategies to lose weight and thereby achieve some sort of false utopia. “My life will be good if I am not fat.”

Three years into this process:

I still can wear my same wardrobe.
I still exercise every day, walking from 3.5 to 8 miles.
I still avoid all forms of concentrated sugar.
I still practice healthy eating.
I still make an effort to eat more natural foods.
I still assess and correct hidden forms of weight gain, like emotional eating.

When I determine my current status I would say that my efforts continue to be successful, but what about the matter of my small weight gain, does this one objective parameter signify failure? I would say, “No.”

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I sit in a chair opposite from my primary care doctor who is staring at a computer screen.

“You have gained weight.” My doctor says. My initial impulse is to apologize for my failing. I resist. My second impulse is to defend my position. I resist and remain silent. “Are you exercising?” I reply that I am and had already walked four miles before our appointment. “But what about cardiovascular exercise?” He retorts. And so it went. Three minutes of questioning that felt like three hours of interrogation. Pain always feels worse when inflicted on an open wound.

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Dear readers, I’m am a resilient person. Besides, I am good at using the counterbalance of logic when dealing with my emotional exaggerations. However, there is more to this story than just a detailed account of me stepping on the scale and my emotional response to that event.

Being a physician, I understand the power that doctors have over their patients. Patients come to us in an extremely vulnerable state looking for help. Studies have shown that a statement like, “You need to quit smoking,” will convert some active smokers into former smokers. Unfortunately, in medicine one size does not fit all. It is easy for physicians to generalize the above truth and think that simple pronouncements can be used to motivate all lifestyle change. However, a doctor’s command is a partial solution at best, and should only be used when wielded within a broader understanding of what causes people to change.

Many of the illnesses that physicians treat on a daily basis have a strong lifestyle component. My weight loss eliminated my need for blood pressure tablets, high cholesterol medication, and a CPAP machine. So why is it that physicals don’t learn and employ simple motivational techniques so they can move their patients towards health? I don’t ascribe to know all of the answers to this questions. However, I do know some of them.

Physicians in the US work in a production model. We get paid by the volume of the work that we do. See fewer patients, make less money. As medical practices get bought up by business investors the push for physicians to do more continues to increase. A good business model consists of finding ways to spend less and make more. This fact is contrasted by a simple truth; we are caregivers, and most of us want to provide care.

Our contact with patients is reduced by the use of physician extenders. Someone else takes our patient’s blood pressure and obtains their chief complaint. We employ electronic medical records (EMRs), which provide a clear notation of our treatment plan, but does so at the cost of patient interaction. Patients now have the “privilege” of answering our questions as our eyes are focused on a computer screen instead of them. Patients want care from us, and we want to meet their needs. There is a pill for everything, and today’s EMR makes prescribing absurdly easy. Is writing prescriptions the same as providing care? I believe that it is only a part of our job, and it should not define us in total.

When I retired from private practice, I was fortunate to have patients write goodbye letters to me. Almost universally they said that they valued their time with me because I listened to them, didn’t judge them, and guided rather than controlled them. To do these things I needed to spend time with them. I would have made more money if I saw 6 people in an hour, rather than the two that I scheduled. However, I would not have known my patients as well, and more importantly, they would not have known me as well. Trust is a function of integrity multiplied by time. Trust by itself offers a positive corollary to patient satisfaction and well-being. Besides, a career that includes connecting with others is eminently more satisfying to we providers than one that does not. A win/win.

One factor needed to motivate change is time. Unfortunately, extending the length of appointments may not be possible in today’s corporate medicine climate. There are indeed a variety of stop-gap strategies that doctors can do to build a connection, such as deliberately spending a few minutes directly with the patient before turning to a computer screen. Such simple changes can make a patient feel more connected, but they still don’t address the elephant in the room.

How should doctors interact with patients to create change? Fat people know that they are overweight, and should lose weight. Alcoholics know that they drink too much, and should stop. Diabetics realize the importance of blood sugar control, and that they shouldn’t eat that extra donut. We live in a culture that shames, and it is likely that some will avoid being humiliated by their physician by avoiding seeking necessary medical care. I admit that I have been an avoider in the past.

Big problems become smaller when shared with someone. I am willing to tackle projects that I would not usually attempt when I have someone at my side. This phenomenon is even more evident if that “someone” has expertise that I lack. If you have been reading my prior post, you know that I have been converting a cargo van into a camper. I dare to significantly modify my van because I am doing the project with a friend who has expertise far beyond mine in such manners. We, physicians, have expertise far beyond our patients in such manners as health. Most reasonable patients accept this, despite the advent of the Internet. A colleague of mine has a cup in his office that reads, “Please don’t confuse my medical degree with your Google search.” However, most patient’s intrinsically understand our expertise, which is why they are seeing us.

Doctors need to connect with their patients as human being to human being, and they need to do this on a level that patients can relate to. We need to become trusted knowledgeable friends rather than overbearing, critical parents.

We need to understand where our patients are coming from, and how willing they are to make change. We need to problem solve with them. Imagine if my doctor asked me, “Are there any barriers that prevent you from seeking medical attention?” Or, “Are there any ways that I can help you with your lifestyle change?” Those simple questions would instantly change my relationship with my care provider. I would want to meet with him, and I would look at setbacks as problems to be solved, rather than justifications for criticism.

Once a patient’s cards are on the table, all things are possible. Is the doctor’s goal the same as the patient’s? What are the barriers to achieving the desired goal? What steps should be tried? How will progress be measured? How is a reversal of progress addressed? Empathy joins, criticism divides.

A meaningful connection with a patient doesn’t happen all at once. Relationships develop over time. However, imagine helping your patients make a significant and real change. Imagine the satisfaction of having a substantial connection with them. What would it be like to work with real people instead of being a reviewer of lab data? What would it be like to end your workday with the knowledge that you truly connected with someone in a meaningful and significant way that changed their life? What would it be like to move from treating diseases to treating people?

We blame our patients for their failings, while we steadfastly hold on to methods and techniques that simply do not work. Imagine if our relationships with our patients were more as a knowledgeable and caring peer rather than a stern and critical parent? Imagine yourself as the patient. You are aware that you have a problem and you need help. Who are you going to ask? Someone who tells you what you already know, makes you feel bad, and offers no real help? Probably not.

Patient Mike