Health Care Renewal in the Sept.22,2006 posting referenced comments by the editor of The British Medical Journal,Leona Godlee, suggesting that physicians in the British NHS may have been so beaten down by their increasingly dysfunctional system that they seem unable to stand up and fight back as their medical professionalism demands. Roy Poses then links their behavior and some he has witnessed in physician's seeming inability to push back at the administrative forces that are squeezing the life out of American medical case to the concept of "learned helplessness."
From that reference and Google I learned that "Learned helplessness" is a term born in the 1960 psychology experiments in which animals "learned" that they had no control over a given experimental situation. Later, when the animals were placed in a different situation in which they had control, they remained passive and were unable to act . Actually only about 2/3 of the animals learned helplessness in that way, the others were able to solve a simple problem to escape a electric shock.(About 5 % of animals seemed to be rather helpless even before the conditioning.) That work by Martin Seligman lead to a theory of depression.
I have written before about some of the ways that Managed Care has damaged medical professionalism in this country. Examples abound. No longer are consultations routinely arranged by physicians based on their personal knowledge of the clinical expertise of the consultant but rather to someone on the patient's insurance plan. Medications sometimes are chosen more on the basis on the insurance company's pharmacy management's arm formulary than on the basis of the physician's judgment. Time pressures directly or indirectly shaped by HMO and Managed Care have placed physicians in the untenable situation of not having time to deal with the patient's problem(s). Approval for testing and procedures have to be pleaded for.More and more time is wasted checking off boxes purported to capture the "quality" of care that the health care professional delivers that is the future will be more determinative of the physician's compensation.
In an earlier posting, I considered the notion that not only have the practices of managed care-which would not have occurred if we had not agreed to go along with them-seriously eroded the physician-patient relationship but also the relationship between physicians.
Dr. Godlee's editorial was aimed at the British physicians but are U.S. physicians far behind in the areas of learned helplessness and diminishing professionalism? To not speak out against the practices and structures of managed care that clearly are detrimental to patient care, and to go along to get along would be about as antithetical to medical professionalism as anything I can think of. Some of the current behavior of physicians may well be characterized as learned helplessness but in the early days of managed care our failure to act must have had other origins as we had not yet had time to learn to be helpless Moreover the new Professionalism, as envisioned by the ACP and the ABIM and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation meshes neatly with the learned helplessness . By following guidelines physicians can work for the common good and further social justice all the while not feeling helpless at all.
Note: Obviously the reference to the BMJ article is not breaking news. In reviewing drafts of earlier blog commentaries I realized I had neglected to post this one.