Time’s Up for Sexism in Medicine

I would venture to say that medicine is one of the fields with the most blatant, widespread sexism in the workplace. In watching women in Hollywood stand up to the injustices that women in their industry face, I feel empowered to share the struggles that female physicians face. I wrote about this several months ago but deleted my post in the setting of fellowship interviews as I was concerned that it would seem too controversial or that I would seem as if I were complaining.

I grew up believing that I could be anything and anyone I wanted to be. I excelled in many aspects of life including academics. However, once I entered medicine, I encountered on an almost daily basis people who wanted to strip me of my hard-earned title. Administrative assistants and operators from other institutions on the phone who ask me what my first name is after I introduce myself as “Dr. Villasante.” Not because they want to write my full name but because they want to only write and address me by my first name. Patients who cannot understand that I am a physician even when I introduce myself as such. Who confuse the male nurse as the doctor and me as the nurse.

Our society has such deeply ingrained assumptions that “doctors are male” and “doctors are authoritative” and “women are not authoritative” and “women cannot be doctors.”

Here are some examples.

-We were discharging a patient, Ms. A, on a specialty service. We were talking to Ms. A about setting up follow-up, and she stated “I would like to fellow up with that girl from yesterday. She’s not a doctor though, the therapist that was here.” In fact, she was referring to Dr. J. Our current (male) attending Dr. Y explained that Dr. J was one of his colleague attendings in that specialty and that she had, in fact, trained at this fine institution and was an excellent doctor.

-At a community hospital that we rotate at, I was rounding with Dr. H, a petite blonde female attending. She had laser-sharp precision and was very efficient. We were visiting one of our patients and had a whole conversation with her about her medical care. As we were about the leave the room, she asked, “so when’s the doctor coming to see me?”

-Patient who thought I was his interpreter rather than his doctor, despite the fact that I was the physician who was most involved in his care and made the most management decisions for him.

-It feels that patients and families are much more likely to ask me for directions, some ginger ale, or help to the bathroom than they are of my male colleagues.

-“Can you close the door on your way out, Miss?”

-“Thanks ladies!”

-“As I was telling the girls…”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

“Good morning Doctress”—one of my personal favorites. A well-intentioned but odd greeting a received daily from a maintenance employee at the Veteran’s Hospital my intern year. I just smiled and nodded back.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” – asked by an attending subspecialty surgeon in the middle of the OR during medical school. [A statement like this is not just sexisim but sexual harrassment.]

-“All of my clinic patients are crazy. That’s because I have 70% female patients,” said by a [female] resident physician, overheard a few years ago. “It is hard for me to hear them complain. Just put your big girl pants on already,” she added.

These are just a few examples. These occurrences have become so commonplace for me that I mostly forget them and keep going. I can recall some positive comments as well, like the 96yo woman who told me I was “wonderful” and that she felt so proud that there were so many young women in medicine. Better yet, often gender does not come up at all.

Thinking back to grade school, I remember people being stumped by the following riddle: “A father brings his son into the hospital after they both got into a car accident. The surgeon sees the boy and says, ‘I cannot operate on this boy, as he is my son.’ How is this possible?” The surgeon is the stepfather? The grandfather? The biological father while the other is adoptive? No, the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Yet, as recently as the summer between college and medical school I was at a party when a young man my age asked with doubt, “but do you really think a woman could be as good of a surgeon as a man?”

Though I encounter wonderful humans who make the daily grind a little bit brighter, from my co-residents to attendings to nurses to patients, I also encounter at least one message every day that says “your status as a female is incompatible with your status as a physician.” I do not blame the individual messengers as, for the most part, they are sending it unintentionally, and not maliciously. They have just been programmed to operate under certain assumptions, and they have not learned to override those assumptions. I am more frustrated with the system that programmed them and continues to program us. And I am hoping to change it.

We can do it

Red snapper fish for dinner

A Day in the Life of an Intern

She blinked forcefully as she parked her car in the resident lot, fending off her tiredness. She stepped out into the 6am darkness. The morning dew had frozen over, leaving a carpet of frost between her car and the hospital doors. As the cold air crept under her scrubs, she held herself tightly as she briskly walked to the entrance. Once inside, she walked to 1 East, the general medicine floor, unzipping her jacket amid the smothering heat.

Gggguuuaaahhggg….

A guttural scream was heard as she walked through the automatic doors to 1 East. It was the patient in room 15, who had been in the hospital for over 300 days. He had frontotemporal dementia, a form of dementia that causes disinhibition, and he required an enclosed net bed to restrain him. No nursing facility in the area “had the capabilities to care for him,” and the hospital could not push him out. So he stayed. In his cage, in the hospital, for as long as he lived. And he screamed. Every day.

The nurses went on with their business without flinching at the sound of his jarring, spontaneous outbursts. Sienna still jumped every time. She was an intern, or a first-year resident physician, in internal medicine.  She was new to the hospital and to rural New England, having graduated from medical school in New York City six months prior.

Walking into the workroom, Sienna put her backpack under her usual seat and her jacket around her chair and opened up her laptop. She paged the night float intern who called her back to let her know she’d be there in five.

“Hey Sienna,” said Ali, as she walked into the small, windowless workroom.

“Hey Ali, how was your night?”

“Not bad, got a bunch of ridiculous pages throughout the night, but no one crumped, so it was a good night.”

“Awesome. How did my peeps treat you?”

“Not bad. Mr. Martin had some shortness of breath around 10pm that got better after he got his nebulizer…” Sienna received signout on the remainder of her 10 patients, learning about the events that had occurred the previous night. None of her patients were actively sick at the moment, so after she signed into the team pager, she skimmed through the electronic chart to follow up on studies she was waiting for, and glanced at the vitals and labs of her sickest patients. She donned her white coat, her badge, and her pager and placed her stethoscope around her neck.

Grabbing her laptop, she began her process of “pre-rounding,” or seeing all of her patients early in the morning before official team rounds, a ritual that interns everywhere perform daily. She had about two hours left to dedicate to her 10 patients before 8:30am. Taking into account the time needed to walk between rooms, this left her less than 10 minutes per patient, of which she spent about 7 minutes in the room and 2-3 minutes outside the room reading the chart. Within that time, she was supposed to not only gather information, but also formulate her assessment and plan for each patient, and prepare to defend her plan to her senior resident and attending.

Who should I start with? She thought. She decided to do gravity rounds, starting on the 4th floor and working her way down to the 1st. But I’ll leave Aaron for last, she thought. Aaron very medically stable. Interacting with him was also challenging. He was a transplant patient who was stuck on the medicine service for weeks because of an ileus, or slow moving bowels. He was about her age. She had to remind herself to be aware of transference and counter-transference, of the fact that he splits the healthcare staff, and that he often does not respond well to women. That no matter what he says to her, she cannot take it personally, but instead must let it roll off so that she can focus on his care.

No, maybe I’ll leave Betsy for last. She’s so cute and pleasant. She’ll brighten up my day. I’ll see Aaron 2nd to last. Betsy was a 90-year-old lady with cellulitis, a skin infection, on her leg. A typical encounter was as such:

“Good morning Betsy! How are you feeling?”

“Oh I’m fine, better than I’ve been all week! Now how are you doing, dear?”

“I’m doing well, Betsy, thanks for asking. How’s your leg feeling?”

“Oh the leg is doing okay, it looks like it’s getting better with these antibiotics they’re giving me.”

Sienna performed a review of systems and a physical exam. After examining her heart, lungs, abdomen, and legs and taking a peek in her mouth, she asked Betsy if there was anything I could do for her before the rest of the team comes by to see her.

“Oh no, I’m just fine, thank you so much. You all are doing such a fine job taking care of me. Now you go on and have a good day!”

Betsy was the only patient who asked Sienna how she was feeling, and who wished her a good day, and the kindness made Sienna smile.

As Sienna saw each of her patients, she asked them how they were feeling, asked them specific questions related to their conditions, examined them, and studied their charts.

Sunlight began to creep in through the window in the hallway as Sienna power-walked from the staircase to the patient rooms on the third floor. Her stomach grumbled loudly, as she had not had breakfast. For just a moment, she turned her head towards the window, inhaling and exhaling the dim sunlight, her feet never pausing.

By the end of her prerounding, her stethoscope weighed heavily on her shoulders. She placed it in her pocket as she entered the workroom again, sitting down as she waited for her senior resident to arrive from morning conference.  Her pager had begun to buzz incessantly, with nurses calling to ask questions or update her on patient information, and with case managers calling to coordinate patient discharges. She called the pages back, phone held up to her ear by her shoulder, all the while her fingers busy typing notes. She inserted the overnight events, the things her patients said to her, and her exam. She jotted down a couple of key phrases in the plan section of her note to jog her memory of what she wanted to discuss during the assessment and plan component of the presentation—the part she dreaded the most.

Giving presentations made Sienna feel like she was on display, and like everyone was judging her abilities. This was perhaps because she was her own harshest critic. More than carrying the pager, more than writing notes, perhaps even more than having to wake up at 5am, the task that she disliked the most required of her as an intern was giving daily presentations. Even though she had spent the last four years of her life in medical school and the four years prior to that as a premedical college student, she often felt like she knew nothing. Although she had always been one of the brightest kids in the room growing up—highest grade point average every year, valedictorian, magna cum laude at a top ten university, and winner of awards at the national level—in medicine she questioned her own intelligence daily. When pressed by a superior to answer a question about patient data, an academic fact, or her reasoning for proposing a plan, her mind often drew a total blank, no matter how much she knew. Subsequently, all she could think about were her evaluations, and what the program director would think, and how she would fare in the next step of her training. What she liked the most about medicine was talking to patients, and thinking about how their diseases worked and what to do about them. She wished she had more time to interact with and think about her patients. While the team rounded, Sienna presented and then stayed outside of the room to answer pages and enter orders while the attending, senior resident, and medical student spoke to and examined the patient.

By noon, Sienna’s team had finally finished rounding. By that point, all she could think about was lunch. Leaving her stethoscope at her desk, she walked over to the noon conference where a lecture was about to take place for the senior residents and free sandwiches were available. She grabbed a plate to bring back to her cave, as she had two patients to discharge and was likely to have a new admission coming soon. Not to mention all of her progress notes she had yet to finish.

She snuck into the nursing conference room off the floor to do her work and eat her lunch, as that room had a window and more space, and was more often than not empty. She checked her phone, and smiled at a message from her husband wishing her a nice day. Thank God for this man, she thought. She met him while she was doing research, and they fell instantly in love. He agreed to go on this adventure with her, uprooting his life so that they could start their new life together. I hope you have a great day too. I love you.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. She had to coordinate discharges for two patients and write their discharge summaries, and she also got two new admissions. One was very sick, a man with liver cirrhosis and a gastrointestinal bleed, who would be on her team but staying in the step-down unit, where he would receive closer nursing monitoring and be in closer proximity to the intensive care unit.

By 5:30 pm Ali was back, but Sienna had not yet finished her work, having an admission note still to finish. Although it was not her late call day, it was her day where she could get new admissions between noon and 4pm, and she received two admissions in the last hour.

At 7:15 pm, she was finally heading to her car. As she stepped out into the darkness of the evening, she noticed that the frozen morning dew had melted and the sidewalk was wet but not icy. It was early November but winter had started early this year.

Aaaah. A sigh of relief as she sat in her car. She plugged in her phone and turned on her favorite playlist. She was looking forward to dinner with Jake, and was also thinking about her plan for tomorrow and what she had to follow-up on in the morning. She was calculating that by the time she was home, she had give or take an hour and a half to shower, eat, and spend time with Jake if she wanted to get 8 hours of sleep before the next day. Ha, she thought, slim chance of me being in bed by 9pm.

As Sienna entered the apartment, she could smell the delicious dinner Jake was cooking.

“Hey babe!” she called, as she walked into their apartment.

“Hey sweetheart. How was your day?”

“Eh, it was okay. How was your day?”

Jake loved to cook, which made Sienna’s life so much easier.

Sienna hung her jacket and placed her bag and shoes in the coat closet. She caught a glimpse of herself—dark hair pulled back, no makeup on her face, glasses on. Do I still look like me?

She threw her scrubs in the hamper and got in the shower. Ever since third year of medical school when her clinical rotations began, she developed a daily ritual of showering first thing when she got home. She let the stream of water wash away all of the events of the day. All of the sins of the hospital. In the shower, she had time to reflect, and time to forget, depending on what she needed that day.

Another day down. And it’s only Monday.

Red snapper fish for dinner

Written by Alexandra Villasante Fricke, MD in 2015.

Hand Washing

How To Avoid Cold and Flu

The winter chill is in the air and everyone around you is sneezing. What can you do to steer clear of cold and flu viruses this season?

Hand Washing
Prevent illness by washing hands frequently!

The best medicine is prevention.

The first step is to avoid getting sick in the first place. Here are my tips:

  • Wash and sanitize your hands frequently. This is the best way to avoid getting sick. In the hospital there are Purell dispensers in front of every patient room and sinks easily accessible. I sanitize my hands before and after every patient encounter. I also wash my hands before eating or before touching my face. I carry hand sanitizer in my purse and in my car.
  • In fact, I avoid putting my hands near my face unless freshly washed. (This is no easy task for a former nail biter!)
  • Avoid people who are sick, especially if you are immunocompromised. If you must come in to close contact with someone who is sick (e.g. your child), wash your hands after any contact with them and before eating or putting your hands near your face. Consider wearing a mask.
    • If you are in close contact with someone with documented influenza, discuss with your PCP whether you should take prophylactic oseltamivir (Tamiflu) medication.
  • GET YOUR INFLUENZA VACCINE! Everyone. Even if you have never had the flu. Even if you are otherwise healthy. I cannot stress this enough to my patients. The influenza vaccine saves lives. Some myth busting:
    • You cannot get influenza from the injected influenza vaccine. You may develop a day or two of malaise and even a low-grade fever as your body creates antibodies to the vaccine. However, you cannot develop influenza.
    • Vaccines do NOT cause autism. More on this in a later post, but read this for more.
    • The vaccine is not 100% effective (nothing is in medicine). However, it significantly reduces the incidence of influenza.
    • See the CDC website for more.
  • Get your pneumococcal (“pneumonia”) vaccine if you meet criteria (eg. if you are above the age of 65 or if you smoke, have diabetes, or a variety of other chronic illnesses). This will help protect you from one of the common causes of bacterial pneumonia. Discuss with your PCP.

But why should I care about avoiding getting a respiratory infection in the first place?

  • According to the CDC, about 36,000 people die of influenza each year.
    • In my ICU rotation my intern year, I took care of an otherwise healthy 45 year old man who developed acute respiratory distress syndrome from the flu and was on a ventilator for 5 weeks.
    • I personally got the H1N1 flu in 2009 and, though I was otherwise perfectly healthy at the time, I was completely out of commission with a high fever for 11 days. This was followed by another week of so of pneumonia and a pleural effusion. The flu is no joke!
  • It’s bad for the economy. No, seriously. According to the CDC, influenza alone causes workers in the US to lose up to 111 million workdays, totaling to an estimated $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity.
  • Even a simple “cold” (a viral upper respiratory infection) can be fatal for people with chronic conditions such as asthma and COPD, people who are immunosuppressed (eg. people with cancer on chemotherapy, people with autoimmune disorders on immunosuppressing medications, people with HIV/AIDS).
  • You can pass it on to other people, including people with the above conditions.
  • It’s a hassle! Whether you are the one who is sick or your child, spouse, or loved one is, respiratory infections are a nuisance.

I’ve caught a cold (or flu)! Now what?

  • If you have a fever (temp > 100.5F), consider getting tested for influenza with your PCP or at an urgent care center, as you may qualify for receiving oseltamivir (Tamiflu). You must present within 48hr of symptoms to have any benefit from Tamiflu. This medication can reduce symptoms and shorten duration of illness by 1-2 days.
  • If you have fever and cough productive of sputum (of any color), or symptoms that do not get better within a week, seek medical examination as you could have a lower respiratory infection such as pneumonia.
  • For all other viral upper respiratory infections (symptoms such as sore throat, runny or stuffed nose, runny eyes, sneezing), no medication is needed. You may take supportive medications (i.e., medications to make you feel better). Your body will fight the virus on it’s own.
  • Get rest, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid close contact with other people in order to prevent passing the virus on.
  • If you have malaise, muscle aches, headache, or fever, ibuprofen (the active ingredient in Advil and Motrin) and/or Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) can help relieve those symptoms.
    • Discuss with your doctor whether these medications are safe for you. For example, those with kidney problems and those at increased risk of bleeding should not take ibuprofen without OK from your doctor. Those with liver problems should check with doctor before taking acetaminophen.
    • Seek medical care if you have a severe headache, especially if you do not typically have headaches or if it is the worst headache of your life.
  • If you have a stuffy or runny nose, consider saline nasal spray or using a Neti Pot. Decongestants such as DayQuil can help (contains 3 ingredients: acetaminophen, a cough suppressant, and a nasal decongestant) though I personally never use these myself. Ask your doctor before using decongestants (ingredients such as phenylephrine) especially if you are prone to a racing heart, high blood pressure, or glaucoma.
  • If you primarily have phlegm and a productive cough, you may benefit from a cough suppressant such as Mucinex (tablets) or Robitussin (liquid). I order them frequently in hospitalized patients.

Using these tips I have avoided getting sick so far this season (knocking on wood!). Stay healthy and be well!

See my About page for all disclaimers.

PCPs, PPOs, and Premiums: De-coding Health Insurance Terminology

Hello, blogosphere. In light of changes with Marketplace insurance plans (i.e. Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” plans), the purpose of today’s post will be to define all of the terminology commonly used regarding health insurance.

I will be using a fictional family, the Waytes, for illustration purposes. The Waytes family consists of husband Bill, wife Sandra, and young children Timmy and Susie.

Healthcare Provider (or Provider): your physician (medical doctor, MD or DO), nurse practitioner (NP), physician assistant (PA), podiatrist (DPM), or other similar professional who provides you with medical care.

Primary Care Provider (PCP) vs. Specialist: A PCP is a physician or other provider who is your “main” doctor or provider. He or she is a generalist and can evaluate and address most of your healthcare needs. When you have a more complex health issue, your PCP will refer you to a specialist, who is more extensively trained in a particular field.

  • Sandra and Bill regularly go to see their PCP, Dr. Garcia, an MD who is board-certified in family practice. She performs their annual wellness exams, coordinates immunizations, manages Bill’s hypertension, and prescribes antibiotics for Sandra when she has a UTI. Sometimes, however, Dr. Garcia consults specialist providers for the Waytes’ care, for example referring Sandra to dermatologist for a funny-looking mole.

Referral: the directing of a patient to a medical specialist by a PCP or other provider, usually requiring documentation of such (eg. a paper slip signed by the provider). Some plans require you to have a referral from your PCP to see a specialist, while others do not.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient: you become an inpatient when you are admitted to the hospital. You are an outpatient at any other point, including while being seen in the emergency room before admission, and while having outpatient surgery (i.e. not spending the night in the hospital). If you go to see your PCP and then go home, you are an outpatient.

Coverage: when a bill is “covered” by the insurance, that means that it will be paid for by the insurance, after your deductible is met (see below for “deductible”).

Claim: a bill for medical services. The provider usually sends the claim directly to the insurance company.

Subscriber vs. Member: a subscriber is the policyholder (can be a person or an organization) whereas a member is anyone who is covered under the plan.

  • Sandra receives great insurance benefits from her job, so she signs up for a health insurance plan through her employer that will cover her spouse, Bill, and their dependent children. So Sandra would be the subscriber, and Sandra, Bill, and the kids would all be members. Alternatively, Sandra’s employer may be the subscriber, and she, Bill, and the kids still members.

In-Network vs. Out-of-Network: insurance plans make contracts with a wide range of providers, hospitals, labs, radiology facilities, and pharmacies in which they agree on special rates and assure a certain quality of care—these providers, hospitals, etc. are “in-network” with those insurance plans. All others are “out-of-network” and may charge higher rates. The member will have to pay whatever the difference with out-of-network costs (or, in the case of an HMO, the entire cost. See below).

PPO or an HMO? A preferred provider organization (PPO) plan allows more flexibility in choosing providers. With a PPO, a member can visit an out-of-network provider and still receive coverage. Staying in-network, however, provides more consistent coverage. A health maintenance organization (HMO) plan, on the other hand, is more restrictive and will only cover in-network providers.

  • Sandra thinks her insurance benefits are “really great,” so they are more likely a PPO than an HMO. She and Bill appreciate being able to see a wider range of providers.
  • PPOs are also known as Point-of-Service (POS) plans
  • HMOs are also known as Exclusive Provider Networks (EPOs)
  • HMOs will generally cover out-of-network care in the case of an emergency

Private vs. Hospital-based: when a provider has a private practice, claims will be sent to the insurance from his or her office (eg. The Office of Dr. Patel). When a provider is a hospital-employee and is seeing a patient at that hospital’s clinic, claims will usually be sent from that hospital (eg. Baxter Memorial Hospital).

  • This is relevant especially for HMO plans were the hospital might be in-network, but providers are not, so you can go see Dr. Patel when he staffs Baxter Memorial Hospital’s diabetes clinic, but you cannot see him in his private office.

What is a premium? This is what you pay every month in order to maintain your insurance coverage.

What is cost sharing? These are costs, other than your premium, that you will have to pay in order to use medical services. These cost sharing methods include deductibles, copays, and coinsurances (see below).

What is a deductible? This is the dollar amount of out-of-pocket expenses that your insurance requires that you pay before they will begin to pay for claims.

  • Sandra and Bill’s deductible is $500. That means that they will have to pay the first $500 of medical bills before their insurance will begin its regular coverage. So when Timmy falls and breaks his arm at the beginning of the year and goes to see an orthopedist in his private office for diagnosis (involving a consult, x-rays) and treatment (a cast), Sandra and Bill will have to pay the first $500 of bills before their insurance company starts to pay.

What is a copay? A copay is a fixed dollar amount that you pay every time you use a particular type of healthcare service.

  • Sandra has a $10 copay to see her PCP and a $25 copay to see a specialist. She has a $10 copay to fill a prescription for a generic drug and a $30 or $50 copay for a brand-name drug (depending on it’s “tier,” which is a category of price difference determined by the insurance company for drug coverage).

What is a coinsurance? This is the percentage of a medical bill that you will have to pay. Usually, an insurance company does not bill both a copay and a coinsurance for the same service, so it would apply to services outside of outpatient physician consults and drugs.

  • Sandra and Bill have a 20% coinsurance for lab tests, diagnostic imaging (i.e. x-rays, MRIs, CTs), and inpatient services. If little Susie is hospitalized for an asthma exacerbation, Bill and Sandra will have to pay for 20% of the bills, up to a certain maximum level.

What is an out-of-pocket maximum? The most you will ever have to pay out of pocket for deductible and coinsurance in a given year. Once this maximum is reached, the insurance company will pay 100% of the covered costs. This maximum does not include premiums, copays, or services that are not covered (eg. out-of-network services with an HMO plan).

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”, abbreviated here as ACA): a federal statue signed into law by President Obama in March 2010. The law expanded public and private insurance coverage and introduced mandates, subsidies, and health exchanges. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA in June 2012, but held that states cannot be forced to participate in the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. As a result, changes vary by state.

  • Click for the full law
  • Nice video summarizing the ACA by the Kaiser Family Foundation

Some changes proposed by the ACA include: Read more “PCPs, PPOs, and Premiums: De-coding Health Insurance Terminology”