Physician, Heal Thyself

Government, insurance companies, and lawyers have degraded the practice of medicine



At age 12, I was rushed home from camp with pain in my abdomen. The family physician drove to our house and palpated my innards. He was a general practitioner who could read signs of ill health in ridged fingernails, bags under the eyes, and a beefy red tongue. That was back when doctors didn’t need a lab to spot anemia. He was as concerned as my parents and personally felt their distress.

Every time I see a Norman Rockwell doctor-and-child painting, it touches a responsive chord that makes me wonder what happened to those all-purpose practitioners. In the 1930s, physician house calls represented 40% of physician-patient encounters. By the late 20th century, this model was pushed aside by office-centered, high-tech medicine and restrictive mega health systems.

Instead of general practitioners, specialists interpret lab results within their narrow niches. It may take a team of specialists to come up with the accurate diagnosis that an old-timer could have made without waiting five days for expensive lab results.

When I recently experienced a frightening episode of atrial fibrillation, I ended up spending several hours in a waiting room until a triage nurse quizzed me on symptoms. An EKG proved I had arrhythmia, so I then had to wait another hour for a busy doctor to check me into the hospital ICU. He flitted away, and I never saw that physician again.

Forget sleeping in ICUs with constant lighting and noisy nurses touring halls at all hours. Somewhere I read that a good night’s sleep and a wholesome diet prevents heart attacks. That new billion-dollar hospital apparently doesn’t honor such information. My breakfast was a glass of orange juice, a bowl of mushy oatmeal and milk — little fiber or protein. Finally, at 9 am, in strolls a white-frocked physician flanked by a doting intern, to happily report that my blood test showed me low in serum potassium and no other abnormalities. Neither one questioned my medical history or mentioned the hospital-induced bags under my eyes. I didn’t tell her I felt light-headed after eating their sugary breakfast. Her diagnosis was conclusive, and that was that. “Nothing to worry about,” she said, handing me two tablets of potassium chloride and a glass of water. “You’ll be fine. Our lab report couldn’t find anything else wrong with you. You can go home.”  It isn’t hard to figure why I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough to a hearty meal and restful sleep.

The arrhythmia didn’t go away and in fact became life-threatening bradycardia at 40 beats per minute, scary enough to get me on my knees praying for God’s guidance. So I went to no fewer than three cardiologists in the next three years. Each shook his head after I related my diet and supplement efforts to get well. They all said my options were only three: ablation surgery, cardiac drugs, or maybe a pacemaker. They limited discussion to their narrow expertise. I was in God’s hands to find some idiomatic cure.

Web forums and Google Scholar are the great levelers for researching anything. I found pertinent research that my doctors likely ignored. Taurine is a conditional amino acid that is essential for good heart function in old age, when the body can’t synthesize it. That’s a major reason seniors are prone to tachycardia. But typical cardiologists ignore such facts, partly due to drug marketing. I have been taking this inexpensive supplement for several months and am happy to report that it works for me.

I forgive all these restrained physicians, due to the many valid reasons practitioners aren’t what they used to be. As the late award-winning essayist Charles Krauthammer, MD (who quit medicine) wrote, “It’s a never-ending attack on the profession from the government, insurance companies, and lawyers… degrading medicine.” His classmate wrote to him of the excessive electronic documentation that “has prompted me to seriously consider leaving for the first time.”

Some 23-year-old HMO administrator a thousand miles away tells doctors how many minutes (up to ten) they can spend with patients, how long doctors can keep them in a hospital, and what kind of treatment they’re allowed to give. And we haven’t even mentioned HMOs, Medicare, and malpractice litigation.

Is it any wonder that highly trained physicians leave the profession? “The current system is crazy, ruinous and unfair,” Krauthammer continued. The all-purpose, house-call doctors have vanished, and in their place: AI robotic surgery, formulaic diagnosis, and the Zoom telehealth conference call. Technology will further the distance between doctor and patient.

Chronic depression from the constant stress they suffer drives psychiatrists and physicians to suicide. A doctor commits suicide in the U.S. every day — the highest suicide rate of any profession. And the doctors and nurses suicide rate, at 28 to 40 per 100,000, is more than twice that of the general population. In recovery, one said, “I wanted it all to stop.” These days, if I were a physician — and in my youth I strongly considered becoming one — I would escape that treadmill rat-race and aim to practice with autonomy and dignity.

The medical profession is sick and in serious trouble. Physician, heal thyself (Luke 24:3).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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