Physician Autonomy Essential for Good Patient Care

Several years ago, one of my colleagues was having a disagreement with an external health care agency. She’s a very bright young family physician, and is extremely passionate about one part of comprehensive family medicine care. She really felt the external agency was failing in providing a reasonable level of service for one group of marginalized patients. In particular, she felt the agency’s process for accepting referrals was deeply flawed.

After months of advocacy by her, the agency finally reviewed their intake process. They then pronounced that everything was ok, because 90% of the referrals were processed accordingly.

In response, my tenacious colleague sent an email to all the family docs in the area, asking them for feedback on the referral process. She the proceeded to blast said agency for the 90% processing rate. “If a server at McDonald’s got the order wrong 10% of the time, would he still have a job?” was the line in her email that really got everyone’s attention. As a result, my colleagues sent feedback, the external agency’s response was proven inadequate, and changes were made. In her own way, my colleague was following the wisdom of Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

It also shows, in one neat example why physician autonomy is so important to patient care. Because without that autonomy, and independence, we can’t speak out. We can’t advocate for our patients even if it makes bureaucrats uncomfortable. We can’t expose those situations where patient care has been compromised.

This is, of course, exactly what those who want to take autonomy away from us want. For the most part this includes two types of people. First are health care bureaucrats, who feel that because they control the purse strings, everything should be done their way, and no pesky front line physicians should dare question their judgement or expose their flaws. The second group consists of a small number of physicians, who, while well intentioned, feel that physicians autonomy impedes whatever fancy new health program they want to implement.

Suppose you are an employee in the IT department of a corporation. You make a statement like say, “If our legal department worked at McDonald’s they would get fired because they get orders wrong 10% of the time.” What happens then? Human Resources gets involved, you get called out for making derogatory comments, the CEO might even get involved, you get disciplined and basically told to shut up. Even (especially?) if you are right in the first place.

This is exactly what those who oppose physician autonomy want.

The anti-autonomy crowd feels that physicians resist change. Therefore, the thinking goes, physicians will use their autonomy and independence to impede whatever new program/model/team is being promoted. Hence, autonomy must be curtailed so physicians can do what they are told, and accept whatever the powers that be tell them is good for them.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast majority of physicians are open to new ways of doing things. If they truly believe a new process will help their patients, and help their lives, they will adapt. This is why we use new medications, new treatment protocols and yes, newer models of health care delivery than we used in the past. Medicine would not have changed so much in the past 25 years, if it wasn’t for the willingness of physicians to explore newer and different methods of delivering health care.

But as my friend’s example shows (and there are many like hers), what is essential to the provision of good patient care, is for physicians to retain their ability to speak out. My friend saw an area where a health care agency was failing a group of patients. Because she didn’t have to fear retribution in the form of being hauled up in front of Human Resources, she was able to effectively advocate for patients (who in this case happened to be too frail to advocate for themselves). Eventually, due to her persistence, the agency recognized their errors and fixed their flawed process.

In much the same way as we explore transforming the health system again (in Ontario these are to be done with the Ontario Health Teams or OHTs), it is fundamentally important to ensure that physician autonomy is protected in these models. This will allow physicians to speak up if the implementation plans are not going the way they should, or if programs promoted by the leaders are not really going to help patients. While painful for those in charge to hear criticisms, it results in better outcomes in the long run because the new programs will be better, stronger and more effective.

Let’s hope that as the new OHTs are developed (full disclosure, I support the concept) the message of the essential nature of physician autonomy is not lost. Physician autonomy has allowed us to be the best possible advocates for patient care in the past. If we can no longer, as Ginsburg urged, fight for the things we care about, it will be the patients who suffer.

Author: justanoldcountrydoctor

Practicing rural family medicine since 1992. I still have active privileges at the Collingwood Hospital. Immediate Past-President of the Ontario Medical Association.

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