Cheryl was a cancer survivor, recovered drug addict, HIV carrier, and devoted mother of 3 kids. At age 35, she had been cured from cervical cancer after surgery and radiation therapy. However, due to treatment-related fistulas, she had been in and out of the hospital for most of the year. I was taking call for the gynecology service the last time her family brought her in, delirious and with black, sticky stool oozing from an opening in her unhealed abdominal incision. She needed wound care and close monitoring in the intensive care unit (ICU). I called my attending and paged the ICU team simultaneously.
The ICU fellow came promptly, and briskly refused to accept her to his unit…again. “She is a poor use of scarce resources,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Further treatment is futile.” Without missing a beat, I looked him in the eye and countered, “What if this was your sister? Your mom?” He relented begrudgingly, but added, “This is why health care is so expensive in this country. You surgeons don’t know when to let go."
Thanking him for accepting my patient, I went back to Cheryl to clean up her wound site. She grabbed my arm and whispered, "Dr. Wu, I'm scared. Don't leave." I assured her that we would do everything we could to get her back to her kids. Afterall, her cancer was gone, she had controlled her heroin addiction, and her HIV viral load was undetectable. She had fought hard to get to this point and wasn’t quitting now. Two days later, Cheryl was leaving her room to sneak a cigarette. One day after that, she was found dead in her hospital bed by a nursing assistant checking vital signs. Cheryl had quietly passed away in her sleep from a massive gastrointestinal bleed.
My experience with Cheryl was one of the most difficult and meaningful moments in my residency. I still wonder if I made the best choice. Had I gotten too attached and lost sight of the big picture, as the ICU fellow purported? Who deserved that last ICU bed that night? Someone who would have only cost taxpayers $10,000, $100,000, or $1,000,000 during her stay? Would it have mattered to the hypothetical taxpayer that Cheryl had lost her job and employer-based insurance due to her long treatment, then lost her home, then spent down her income and thus qualified for Medicaid? Was it my responsibility to be considering broader health care resource allocation while my patient was critically ill? Besides, the ICU fellow abandoned his cost-conscious argument quite quickly at the mere suggestion that he would do otherwise if it were his own family member on the stretcher.
I had worked in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors prior to going to medical school. I had pondered the roles of corporations, governments, and single-issue foundations in shaping our health care system. I knew about the slippery politics, limited data, legal pressures, and economic realities. I had armed myself with the academic tools to appreciate the context before becoming a doctor. Yet, time and time again when my patients come into the emergency room or are lying on the operating table or get better or worse after some intervention, I struggle to see the forest for the trees.
On some level, I don’t think my patients want me to be thinking about the sustainability of the health care system when I’m counseling them about their options. They want to know that I am their unwavering advocate. Their interests are my top priority in that fiduciary relationship. If I suggested more or less, it would only be watching out for them, not for the general public.
Yet, my experience tells me that providers, the people who oversee these cherished doctor-patient interactions, must play a principal role in revamping this overwrought and overpriced health care structure that does not produce the quality and safety outcomes any moral society would demand. Doctors wrestle with the nuances and inefficiencies of the institution every day. Medicine is not mathematics, but it is prudent to inject a measure of cost-awareness into our diagnostic work-ups, treatment algorithms and clinical trials. It may seem distasteful to knowingly put a monetary value on life, but we already do that calculation with each clinical decision we make. Higher quality can be affordable and accessible. Creativity and adaptive skills are the bread and butter of survival in an academic medical center; ask any intern.
So for now, I continue to navigate that difficult space between being a good doctor and a conscientious citizen. I will see many more patients like Cheryl in my career. They will always be pushing me to do better.