THE BLOG
08/22/2013 11:04 am ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013

'Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!'

My last blog post discussed why medicine is so intolerant of uncertainty and inaction, and how this has resulted in a culture of overtesting and overtreatment.

All of us as patients and doctors are at fault for feeding into this system of waste and harm. However, there are some active voices of resistance. Here are some examples:

Dr. Jerome Groopman, internist and author of the excellent book How Doctors Think, writes about how he teaches medical students to "don't just do something -- stand there." Very few situations in medicine require immediate action. It may be uncomfortable to apply the tincture of time as a treatment, and many doctors find it easier to order a test than to discuss the pros and cons of the test with a patient.

However, we need to remember our first principle, primum non nocere: first do no harm. Dr. Abraham Verghese writes about the importance of restraint and self-awareness in his novel, Cutting For Stone. Here is the protagonist, a doctor himself, speaking about his father:

My father, for whose skills as a surgeon I have the deepest respect, says, "The operation with the best outcome is the one you decide not to do." Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for the assistance of a surgeon of my father's caliber -- that kind of talent, that kind of "brilliance," goes unheralded.

Doctors: Think carefully. Engage in thoughtful discussion with your patient and decide together what's best for him. Remember that no testing and no treatment may be the best course of action.

If you have to do something, consider a novel treatment that Dr. Aaron Stupple coins "a listening infusion." During his internship, Dr. Stupple faced resistance when he questioned his supervisors on the necessity of costly tests and invasive treatments.

As the most junior person on the team, Dr. Stupple couldn't override their decisions, but he could add his own treatment. He made it a routine to visit patients and talk to them, often staying hours after everyone else to finish his "listening infusion." He didn't obtain more test results, but somehow he knew more about his patients than anyone else. He didn't give them a pill, but somehow his patients felt better at the end of the day.

This is what doctoring should be about. A recent study of resident doctors found that only 12 percent of their time was spent interacting with patients, vs. 40 percent interacting with the computer. The doctor may find everything about a person's laboratory tests, but nothing about her family or values. "Personalized medicine" and "patient-centered care" are hot buzzwords, but it's not just about finding someone's DNA and redoing the waiting room area. Improving medical care must begin with personalizing care to the patient and listening to her story.

We must bring back the art of medicine and the art of healing and treat all of our patients with a "listening infusion." Then, "don't just do something -- stand there!" Changing any deeply-entrenched culture is hard, but it can happen: one doctor at a time, one patient at a time.

For more by Leana Wen, M.D., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.