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“…I remind myself that mercy, which is a willingness to enter into the chaos of another, is part and parcel of what I signed onto as a physician.”

Dr. Tim Daaleman, Vice Chair of the UNC Department of Family Medicine, shares his thoughts in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

[Reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association, November 12, 2014. Full text here.

The Quality of Mercy: Will You Be My Doctor?

Tim Daaleman, DO, MPH
Professor and Vice Chair, UNC Department of Family Medicine

I have noticed a troubling phenomenon in patients who are new to my practice and have multiple comorbidities. Joan (not her real name) first came to see me several months ago with a recent medical history that included an aggressive breast cancer, resulting in a double mastectomy, as well as a wide surgical resection of a melanoma that was discovered a short time after her first diagnosis. And if these misfortunes were not enough, just a few months out from her cancer operations, Joan was a passenger in a car that was struck by another vehicle, which eventually led to a rotator cuff repair of her right shoulder. Joan was still in a shoulder immobilizer when we first met, and she recounted each of these adversities in a measured, almost rehearsed way. Yet her emotion broke the cadence of our visit when she voiced one unaddressed concern at the end of the encounter:

“So will you be my doctor?”

Since first meeting Joan, I have been asked this question enough times by other patients that it has pushed me to find out why they are thinking this way. It has also raised concern that new patient appointments are turning into auditions for primary care. Perhaps, I reasoned, a previous physician had retired or moved, or maybe there was an insurance issue, particularly around Medicare or Medicaid, that triggered the search for a new health professional. This assumption was put aside when I found out that the percentage of physicians who report accepting new Medicare patients has actually been higher in recent years, when compared with those accepting patients with private insurance. More surprisingly, nonelderly Medicaid patients—typically those with a high number of medical and/or mental health comorbidities—have a usual source of care and a similar number of outpatient visits at rates that are comparable to patients with insurance.

These reports did not cast light onto what I was hearing in the examination room, so I queried several patients as to why they had asked my permission to be their doctor. All responded that their previous physician had pronounced them to be “too complex”—a term that they uniformly used—and that they needed to transfer their care to another doctor. This led me to speculate on some of the off-the-record diagnostic criteria that are used to mark the threshold of medically complicated patients as “too complex.” For some physicians, patients may cross that border when the social and economic hurdles in their lives make simple health care tasks, such as getting transportation for a scheduled appointment, formidable. For others I believe it is the administrative waterboarding of prior authorizations, disability determinations, medical leave forms, and the like that pushes them over the edge. This may be part of the reason why access to care markedly drops off for patients who have a higher burden of disability and for those who are more limited in their economic resources.2 The dividing line for me lies somewhere between a persistent, low-level frustration of just trying to get by managing patients who rarely see meaningful improvement, and the long-term emotional hazards of caring for those whose lives are permanently disrupted by illness or nonrecoverable injury.

I walk that line every week.

In my most exasperated clinical moments, I freely admit to wishing that several patients would magically find their way to one of my colleagues on follow-up. But when I get to that feeling state, I remind myself that mercy, which is a willingness to enter into the chaos of another, is part and parcel of what I signed onto as a physician. The image of chaos rouses the better angels of my nature by restoring a broader perspective of the patient in front of me as a person, beyond the suffering and despair that clouds my view and darkens my emotions.

Mercy is often attributed to a divine source and sounds like an outdated virtue in contemporary medicine, but it is a developed human capacity that involves hard, uncertain, and hidden work. For physicians, the difficult work of mercy draws on a personal fortitude that may call us to readily step into the emotional firing line of patients and family caregivers—from apathy to ire—in ways that eventually do not consume us. Mercy is frequently traveling blind with patients in prognostic and therapeutic uncertainty, without the roadmap of guidelines, evidence-based pathways, or new ideas and recommendations from consultant colleagues. A hallmark of mercy is hiddenness. Clinical works of mercy, such as unprompted phone calls to patients or social rounding on those who are hospitalized, are everyday events that are transparent but largely inconspicuous and do not translate into value- or production-measured activities. In my early years as a physician, I would often stick to my biomedical guns with complex patients, and this allowed me to wall off and look over the human turmoil that would be in the examination room. There is a greater pull for me these days to enter into the chaos. And I have discovered that the attraction is tied to a series of subtle, interior shifts—from helplessness to empowerment, from isolation to presence, from hard-heartedness to compassion—that inexplicably flows from walking the difficult road with patients. It is in practicing works of mercy that we, in turn, become merciful.

The quality of mercy will be severely strained in coming years if Joan’s question to me is a harbinger of where value-driven health care is headed. I do not know where mercy fits into future value streams, but I do know that mercy remains a prerequisite for caring, an individual and organizational capacity that needs to be awakened, deepened, and sustained. In current or emerging care settings, it is still during clinical moments—when patients seek help from physicians—that the actions of the individual physician and the larger health care system converge. These clinical moments lay bare the normative and moral work of physicians, endeavors that have historically provided the foundation for sustained therapeutic activity between patients and physicians.5 They also reveal a larger truth that if the arc of medicine is to ultimately bend toward healing, mercy will be its fulcrum.