Health care as if your humanity depended on it
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The opening night party for an artist friend's gallery exhibit was approaching. Although our sons are close, I hadn't seen her in months and was eager to reconnect and support her work. I let her know I'd be there if my bronchitis cleared up.
So when we greeted each other that night, sickness and doctors and health care quickly came up. With two new acquaintances in our conversational circle, though, this could have been deadly cocktail chitchat, so I cut right to the good stuff.
"Get this: After we dealt with the actual health issues, my doctor leaned back in his chair and said" -- I paused for dramatic effect -- " 'So what else is going on in your life these days?' "
There were gasps and dropped jaws and then, nearly in unison, the three other women demanded to know my doctor's name.
It's not quite an if-I-told-you-I'd-have-to-kill-you thing, more an if-I-told-you-then-I-couldn't-get-appointments-as-quickly thing. Did I really want to share?
I did, of course -- though maybe I should have bartered the doctor's name for, oh, another painting. If they followed through and contacted him, then they're benefiting from the same holistic, thoughtful approach to health that my family and seemingly half the North Side have been getting for years.
My doctor's practice is part of West Penn Allegheny Health System, which is why I've been following the on-and-off courtship of Highmark and WPAHS with great interest.
It's "on" again, now that officials have reached an agreement in which the insurance company will shoulder the hospital system's outstanding debt and the hospital system will avoid bankruptcy.
All parties seem upbeat and hopeful. I have some hopes, too.
I wonder how -- not whether, but how -- new ownership will impact the generous style of care that has so blessed my family. Will Highmark live up to the high mark that WPAHS has already set?
Maybe, but what's certain is that one thing this new partnership will ensure for all Pittsburghers is desperately needed competition.
Competition is key to quality health care -- not just to cost control. It also impacts unquantifiable values such as sensitivity to patients' needs and respect for them as individuals -- values that require a little extra time and thought to express.
Because WPAHS has been losing money, Highmark promises -- understandably -- to improve the system's financial profile. But how do you achieve economic efficiencies without making patients feel like "through-put"?
As any consumer can testify, the biggest bargain may not be the best value and the slickest marketing may not deliver a high-quality product.
Health care is a consumer product, yes, but because our physical health is so mysteriously tied to our emotional and spiritual health, it is much more than a consumer product.
It requires the kind of doctor who asks, "So what else is going on in your life?" Is the doctor who poses such questions and ponders the answers wasting valuable time? Or is he ultimately delivering better care?
Don't get me wrong: My family and I have had truly excellent care from doctors at both UPMC and Allegheny General. I think both health care systems employ people who are really devoted to their patients and their life's calling.
But every corporation or group of people of any size, really, has a communal spirit of some sort. It can be warm, indifferent, condescending, disengaged -- you name it. The group spirit usually emanates from the top down, and it shapes policies and personal interactions.
The sense I get -- from the occasional muttered comment or rolled eyes -- is that UPMC's staffers express warmth and caring almost despite the corporation's internal spirit and external image.
That image wasn't exactly burnished recently when UPMC abruptly left hundreds of pregnant women without obstetrical care. Five doctors had just given UPMC six months' notice that they were leaving (for WPAHS). UPMC responded by telling them to clear out their offices immediately, revoking their hospital privileges and leaving patients to learn the news through the grapevine or a toll-free hot line.
You can't convince me that UPMC's caregivers feel good about this decision. It definitely displays a corporate spirit -- one of disgraceful disregard for the patients a nonprofit health system supposedly exists to help.
UPMC may still be the region's 800-pound gorilla, but maybe it will behave less like an unthinking animal and more like a noble nonprofit with a vibrant, suddenly much more viable competitor in town.
I hope Highmark establishes an esprit-de-corporation that allows great physicians like mine to practice as they see fit. It would be great to live in a city where mentioning your doctor's interest in your total well-being was really boring cocktail chatter.
First Published January 21, 2013 12:00 am