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Unusual topics in medicine :Physician Ego and the patient suffering

Posted Apr 23 2010 11:03am
Ego can be a  great  motivator and destroyer as well. It has the  potential not only  to damage the self  but also the people in the near domain .This has been proven in all walks of life. Medical practice is no different . In fact ,it can have the more devastating effect as the victims are often the poor patients.
The medical ego can be individualistic,  departmental, institutional, etc.

Often in the dormant  form , can raise to gargantuan  levels when stimulated or challenged.  In its mildest form it occurs every day in the office practice. A physician  often thinks he is always right and fails to get a second opinion even in difficult  cases . Some where  along  the medical  curriculum  ,  doctors have to be taught that ,  what we know is only a fraction of what we are supposed to know ,  and  the importance of self auditing. This never happens in most medical schools.

Individual Physician ego

This exist in several forms . Ego with fellow colleagues is the most common type . Failure to accept a error in diagnosis is the most  frequent form injured physician ego. There are many instances doctors carry on with the wrong diagnosis tag (On their patients)  even after some authentic documentation is available against it. This especially happens when the correct diagnosis is made by  a junior colleague . Eg : “I still think it is a pheochromocytoma let us do the scans again”  Same tests  are repeated . In the intervening period  involves  treatment delay  and  financial costs for the patient. It is obvious , such an  ego in emergency rooms can be  disastrous .

Few doctors have a habit of asking for fresh set of investigations even if the patient has recent records of his illness . This is because many  feel interpreting   investigations ordered by other doctors is an inferior job .(Of course ,  financial incentives for repeating the  tests  could also be a motivation  )
Ego with paramedics and fellows

This is also quiet common. Doctors expect  their orders to be carried out at any cost.  They take it very seriously , if a nurse or a junior doctor behaves independently . This is understandable as it raises the fundamental question  who the  boss is ? !  But ,  the problem here is, even a smart move in the interest of patient is  not always relished  the physicians . (Because it is  perceived as an  insult to the consultant ) . You can’t act smarter than me !

We know the major responsibility  of caring a patient lies with staff nurses and  junior doctors .(It is a universal medical rule the consultant will be remote from the patient care unless of course it is needed).If the specialist exerts an  academic ego on them , there is every chance for the patient to suffer as  even vital interventions could be delayed.

(Eg :   Sir , I withheld  the beta blocker in  this  patient  as he  had a  bradycardia ! I thought it is  better to remove the urinary catheter as the patient was struggling with it  etc and etc )

I have observed  , even  some of the shrewd  directives  from the residents and junior doctors have elicited  big hue and cry from some of the renowned physicians of our region.While many   recognise the good work done by the junior colleagues  , still  their  ego does not allow to  appreciate and complement them . This is not a good sign for the  medical professional .

Specialty ego and departmental ego

This is new phenomenon . Traditional ego was between surgeons and physicians. Now , with medicine growing leaps and bound there is probably a medical and surgical specialty for every human organ . This helps the physicians ,  to shrug of the collective responsibility . It  has become a  dangerous trend in many institutions.

God created  human body as a single entity  . Specialists  share their  organs  , convert a  human body  into a commodity (Has to  make a living out of it )  As the medical science is branching out at a phenomenal rate  it becomes   a difficult task for them  to come to the rescue of the patient when they need a collective intervention  . Further , conflicts of interest and ego clashes take a front stage.

Even in an  academically and ethically superior medical center it is a  herculean task to arrange   for . . .example
An ENT surgeon and neuro surgeon to operate a nasal tumor together.

A hybrid procedure of PTCA and CABG (Could be very useful in many situations)  can not be practiced  that easily .

The issue here  is not simply logistic .It goes beyond that . . .

(Why should I  sweat for some one else’s fame ?)

Institutional Ego

It has a peculiar issue .The  admitting  physician is  vested with supreme powers – he becomes  the sole caretaker  for the given  patient .Though it fixes responsibility , it has a potential  risk , as this  patient automatically  becomes untouchable for other consultants . There are centers in which even intra departmental  consultations are lacking .I know at least a handful of cardiologists who  do not talk with each other  even at times of crises in cath lab. This is more prevalent in fully commercial institutions .

In this regard  group practice with fixed financial remuneration may be a  lesser breeding ground for ego clashes.

Another form  egoism may be financial  discrimination , which  is seen in some of the big corporate hospitals . There are instances some doctors and institutions  shy away poor or relatively poor  patients .There are institutions which feel allowing entry to   less sophisticated public  inside  their premises is detrimental to their reputation and ambiance.  

Ego issues with patients.

Generally doctors show great respect for their patients. Information sharing is the major issue. What to tell and what not to,  can  some times reach really difficult proposition. Does the patient have a right to criticize the treatment ? Whether you like it or not some patients do it .

Few suffer from a  worst  form of physician ego , that is directed  against their own  patient. Doctors are  rarely  comfortable when patient ask probing questions.This is acceptable in few instances. The root of the problem is doctors rarely accept their ignorance .

There are many instances  where a consultant   refuses  to see  his own patient  once he  gets  a second opinion from another doctor . It need to be realised  this is actually the fundamental right of the patient he is executing .No need to get offended .

Why this ego ?

It is the  part of normal human psyche. There is no reason to believe doctors  are different . But the following could be unique factors .

  • A subconsciously feel of  the demi god status  conferred  by the patients .
  • Failure to have an open mind approach .
  • This translates into fixed ideas about a patient and his illness.
  • This is especially common in countries  where , single doctor or a family of doctors run nursing homes .

The other substrates  for ego growth among physicians are

  • Academic  excellence
  • Practical skills
  • Popularity in the society
  • Financial superiority

Negative ego : A feel of inferiority also creeps in for many physicians  who  find to hard to acquire the above .And this  can  have  a serious effect on  the patients .It is  shocking to note many of  the academically incompetent  have a strong  dose of ego .This is most dangerous for the society.   A deadly combination of  incompetence  and arrogance

What is to be done ?

  • Containing  the  physician egoism  could be more important for doctors  than attending to  sophisticated CMEs and conferences and workshops .
  • Counseling is required for many .
  • Behavioral science with the specific tips for  self-regulation is to be included in the basic undergraduate medical curriculum
  • Courage to tell the truth to their patients to be imbibed.

Final message

Hippocrates said some 2000 years ago the fundamental quality of a doctor  is  to accept his limitations and ignorance .Every action of his or her, should aim  only at removing the suffering of the patient .

Now we are in the era where , market force  have literally hijacked the medical filed  . A  medical degree  can be bought in a weekend university shopping (At least in India it is possible ! )  .

In this scenario  if our students grow with one more wise  ie “hyped up ego”  one can imagine  where our profession is heading for !

We need to initiate a debate on the issue . And there need to be a movement to cleanse  the contaminated profession. It should be  in the league of nuclear  treaty ,  war on terror or the global environmental protection.


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