Sunday, June 7, 2009

If All Doctors Had More Time to Listen -

When Dr. José Batlle met his 93-year-old patient in her small Bronx apartment, she didn't have much furniture beyond a small TV, a sofa and a wheelchair. What she did have in abundance were pills — 15 types from a variety of doctors, including a pulmonologist, a cardiologist and a gerontologist. He discovered that some medicines had expired, others were unnecessary and some were dangerous if taken together.

Sitting with his patient and her son, Dr. Batlle cut the number of her medicines to four. He also gave the family his personal cellphone number.

Before coming to see him, the woman had endured several emergency-room visits and hospital stays. With Dr. Batlle, she was able to avoid all of that.

Calling a doctor on his cell? No waiting for an appointment? It's the type of service that Dr. Batlle tries to offer to all of his 1,500 patients. "I prefer to keep them healthy than treat them when they are sick," he says.

The efforts of Dr. Batlle and other primary care physicians may get a boost at the federal level. The Obama administration is considering ways to persuade medical students to pursue careers in primary care by raising their pay, and is channeling them to work in underserved rural areas. And the White House has already set aside $2 billion for community health centers through the economic stimulus package.

But more far-reaching health care reform remains an uncertainty, and in the interim a small but growing number of doctors are trying to take matters into their own hands.

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