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Shameful Operating Room Moments: Medical Journal On Calling Out ‘Dirtball’ Doctors

(Just Us 3/Flickr)

An essay published in the Annals of Internal Medicine begs the question: How many of us are being mocked and crudely disrespected while we’re at our most vulnerable? (Just Us 3/Flickr)

Imagine this scene:

A female patient under general anesthesia is being prepped for a vaginal hysterectomy. As the attending doctor washes and scrubs her labia and inner thighs, he turns to a medical student and says: “I bet she’s enjoying this.” Then he winks and laughs.

No, this account doesn’t come from a racy British tabloid. It was published this week in a reputable medical journal, Annals of Internal Medicine.

The account, written by an anonymous doctor and titled “Our Family Secrets,” also describes an incident involving an obstetric patient, Mrs. Lopez, who experienced hemorrhaging and other complications after childbirth. To stop the bleeding and ultimately save the patient, her doctor performs what is called an “internal bimanual uterine massage,” which means he must get his entire hand inside her vagina. From the piece:

“…something happened that I’ll never forget. Dr. Canby raises his right hand into the air. He starts to sing ‘La Cucaracha.’ He sings, ‘La Cucaracha, la cucaracha, dada, dada, dada-daaa.’ It looks like he is dancing with her. He stomps his feet, twists his body, and waves his right arm above his head. All the while, he holds her, his whole hand still inside her vagina. He starts laughing. He keeps dancing. And then he looks at me. I begin to sway to his beat. My feet shuffle. I hum and laugh along with him. Moments later, the anesthesiologist yells, ‘Knock it off, assholes!’ And we stop.”

Stomach Churning

Dr. Christine Laine, editor in chief of Annals of Internal Medicine, said this is the first time in her tenure that such a profanity has been printed in the journal. But, she said in an interview, it seemed appropriate in this case. When she first read the essay she says it made her “stomach churn,” and it made her angry.

“Angry for the patients … angry for the younger physicians who encountered this behavior, angry at myself and others who have witnessed colleagues being disrespectful to patients but were too timid to speak out,” Laine said.

In an accompanying editorial condemning the behavior described in the essay, Laine and her colleagues wrote: “The first incident reeked of misogyny and disrespect — the second reeked of all that plus heavy overtones of sexual assault and racism.”

So how did this series of unfortunate medical events unfold?

Here’s the backstory: The anonymous author of the essay (the journal decided to keep the doctor’s identity a secret) was leading a course on medical humanities for senior medical students. The topic was “the virtue of forgiveness.” At one point the doctor put a question to the class: “Do any of you have someone to forgive from your clinical experiences? Did anything ever happen that you need to forgive or perhaps still can’t forgive?” Continue reading

Barriers Block Disabled Patients From Specialty Care, Study Finds

If you’re disabled and in a wheelchair, gaining full access to basic medical care can still be elusive, a new report finds.

The study, published online in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, focuses on speciality care and concludes that even in our high-tech environment, something that seems fairly low-tech — getting a patient on to an exam table — doesn’t happen in many doctor’s offices. “Many sub-specialists could not accommodate a patient with mobility impairment because they could not transfer the patient to an examination table,” the report states.

It’s widely known — and a huge problem — that adults who use wheelchairs often face difficulties getting a complete physical examination because they have trouble getting on the exam table, says Dr. Lisa I. Iezzoni, director of the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Iezzoni, who has used a wheelchair for nearly 25 years because of multiple sclerosis, recently authored a report that found people with disabilities face major obstacles accessing a range of health services, from cancer screening to various medical treatments.) As a result, the study authors note, this patient population receives “less preventive care than their able-bodied counterparts.”

Dr. Tara Lagu, an internist at Baystate Medical Center

Dr. Tara Lagu, an internist at Baystate Medical Center

To investigate the problem further, researchers led by Dr. Tara Lagu, an internist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, enlisted medical students and residents to make appointments for a fictional obese (219 pounds), wheelchair-using patient with a recent stroke. They called doctors in four states (Massachusetts, Georgia, Oregon and Texas) and included a range of specialists — endocrinologists, gynecologists, orthopedic surgeons, ophthalmologists and psychiatrists, among others.

“We wanted a real-life snapshot of accessibility,” Lagu said. The callers would say: “I’m an internal medical resident trying to make an appointment for my patient — they had a specific script they had to adhere to.”

Shockingly, many of the office staff flat out refused to make an appointment, the researchers report. When asked why, some of these office staffers were quite direct and said it was not possible to get the disabled person on to the exam table.

You can listen to Lagu discuss the research here. But the bottom line (from the abstract) is this:

Of 256 practices, 56 (22%) reported that they could not accommodate the patient, 9 (4%) reported that the building was inaccessible, 47 (18%) reported inability to transfer a patient from a wheelchair to an examination table, and 22 (9%) reported use of height-adjustable tables or a lift for transfer. Gynecology was the subspecialty with the highest rate of inaccessible practices (44%).

Lagu said the study tracks with her “real life experience,” after 10 years as a doctor. “Pretty much everywhere I’ve been in my career, I’ve encountered this or a similar problem,” she said. Continue reading