Losing Touch With the Patient
By PAULINE W. CHEN, M.D.
Published: October 21, 2010
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Several years ago I helped care for a man who had been hospitalized with a severe infection of the abdominal wall. When his primary doctors discovered that the bacteria responsible was resistant to most antibiotics, they quickly isolated him, moving him into a single room with a sign on the door proclaiming “Contact Precautions” and directing visitors to put on gloves, mask and gown before entering.
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But garbing up in all those items was not a straightforward exercise. The gowns, vast swaths of baby-yellow polyester, added an insulating and sweat-inducing layer. The masks were either so flimsy they fell off easily or so unyielding they muffled voices and steamed up eyeglasses. And the gloves had such generous finger pockets that the excess latex inevitably got tangled in the loops and ties of the gowns and masks or in the dressing materials and bedding of the patient.
None of these precautions made it easy to examine or even visit him. Most of us were loath to go through the process of gearing up more than we had to; and even his wife of more than 20 years occasionally groaned as she dutifully swathed herself in the protective coverings each day. As the weeks wore on, we clinicians found ourselves minimizing our interactions, designating one team member to suit up and complete the work needed or shouting out updates and questions to the patient from the sterile safety of the doorway.
Increasingly isolated in these ways, he began to withdraw from everyone except his wife. His once daily declarations that he was going to “beat this infection” became less vocal, dimming to whispers, then disappearing altogether. He stopped turning to face us when we called out to him, choosing instead to continue staring blankly at the ceiling.
As his lungs, heart and then kidneys began to fail, his room became crammed with life-support machines and metal poles and pumps metering out intravenous medications. The small space in which he was confined eventually became a space-age pastiche of beeping machines, plastic tubes and wires, and shrouded, faceless, hovering yellow figures.
When he finally died, from cardiac arrest, more than two months later, it was hard not to remember the weeks leading up to his death and to wonder about one thing. In trying so hard to contain the infection, had we lost sight of the person?
For nearly half a century, infectious disease experts and hospital epidemiologists have relied on various methods of contact precautions to contain increasingly widespread and often virulent multi-drug-resistant bacteria. These methods of infection control — hand washing, alcohol foams, physical isolation, gowns, gloves and sometimes masks and eye protection — are now a routine part of clinical life in hospitals across the country; up to a quarter of all hospitalized patients at any time are placed under such restrictions. But while contact precautions are generally not just accepted but expected by doctors and patients alike, what has not been acknowledged until more recently are the unintended consequences of such strict limitations.
In the current issue of The Annals of Family Medicine, Dr. Leif Hass, a family practice physician working as a hospitalist at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., eloquently describes some of these repercussions. After he and his daughter recuperate from mysterious arm and leg infections caused by the drug-resistant MRSA bacteria, Dr. Hass suddenly finds himself reaching for gloves every time he sees a patient in the hospital. He is torn between his sense of duty to reach out, gloveless, to “the people most in need of touch” and a gripping and not entirely irrational fear that “hospital wards that had been so familiar now seemed like uncontrollable pools of pathogens.”
Such fear of contagion among physicians, studies have shown, can compromise the quality of care delivered. When compared with patients not in isolation, those individuals on contact precautions have fewer interactions with clinicians, more delays in care, decreased satisfaction and greater incidences of depression and anxiety. These differences translate into more noninfectious complications like falls and pressure ulcers and an increase of as much at 100 percent in the overall incidence of adverse events.
“There is a misperception that infections are the single worst adverse event that can happen in a hospital,” said Dr. Daniel J. Morgan, lead author of a recent review of these studies and an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. “In getting overly focused on preventing one type of infection, we fail to see the overall picture for patients.”
What may help clinicians remain focused on the larger picture while still safeguarding patients and themselves from multi-drug-resistant bacteria are less restrictive but equally efficacious precautions. In two separate studies, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond found that the rate of infection was identical whether health care workers wore gowns and gloves with only the patients in isolation or whether they wore only gloves with all patients.
“Wearing gloves when examining all patients may become the reality of clinical medicine,” said Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, lead author of both studies and the associate hospital epidemiologist at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond.
All of this research points to one eventuality: that some type of contact barrier is in our future as doctors and patients, even though, as Dr. Hass noted when I spoke to him this week, “there are times when an I.C.U. looks like an assembly plant in Silicon Valley.” And while physicians will be forced to rely less on touch and more on other communication skills like listening and acknowledging, the risk remains that the presence of these physical — and technological — barriers will further eclipse some of the most effective ways in which doctors can alleviate the suffering of their patients.
“We just have to make sure,” Dr. Hass said, “that in the age of technology and rapid reforms, some of our best tools for healing — simple things like touching people and telling them you care and making them feel you are there for them — don’t get lost.”