Don't just do something; stand there!"
It's one of those phrases that attending physicians will spout off to their medical students while on rounds, trying to sound both sagacious and clever at the same time. It sometimes grates, but it does make a valid point, because so much of medicine is about "doing something."
Sore throat? Prescribe an antibiotic.
New headache? Get a CT scan.
P.S.A. at the upper limit of normal? Get a biopsy.
Blood pressure still high? Add on another medication.
Doctors tend to want to "do something" whenever they note something amiss. And patients, by and large, want something done when they have a symptom. Few people like being told just to watch and wait.
Of course, every "thing" a doctor does also has side effects — rampant bacterial resistance from antibiotic overuse; major increases in radiation exposure from unnecessary CT scans; incontinence or impotence from prostate cancer treatments that may do nothing to prolong life; toxic drug interactions from multiple medications, particularly in the elderly.
The admonishment "Don't just do something; stand there!" reminds us that we should stop and think before we act, that there are many instances in which doing nothing is greatly preferable to doing something.
In fact, there are some doctors for whom "doing nothing" is the dominant way of thinking, who are not reflex "do-ers." They tend to lean toward the status quo: If the patient is doing fine right now, why rock the boat?
There's a term for this in the medical literature — clinical inertia — a term with a distinctly negative connotation. It describes the doctor who, for instance, sees a patient with cholesterol levels that are not optimum but who does not prescribe a statin. Or the doctor who notices that a diabetic patient's blood sugar levels are still not normal but refrains from increasing the patient's medication.
Of course, this is not black and white: There is a continuum of practice styles, just as there is a continuum of personalities in general. At one end are doctors who jump on the merest hint of a borderline lab value; at the other are doctors who avoid making changes unless absolutely necessary.
I like to think of myself as perfectly balanced in the precise middle of this spectrum, but if I take a hard look in the mirror I can see that I tend toward the clinical inertia side, always hesitating before I write a prescription or order a test. I tell myself that this arises from the august wisdom of my clinical experience, from having witnessed my fair share of side effects and adverse outcomes due to medical meddling. But I have to be honest and recognize that it reflects my personal tendency to be slow in making major decisions of any sort, to need a strong sense of how things are likely to play out before I act.
Every time I prescribe a medication — or order an invasive test, or refer a patient to a surgeon — it always feels like I'm placing a stone on a balance scale. Intellectually, my goal is to place the stone on the side of the scale that benefits my patient. But in my heart, I fear that it could end up on the other side, the side that harms, and the weight and permanence of the stone give me pause.
Many make the argument that deciding not to act is as momentous as deciding to act. Except that it never feels that way. My hesitation induces guilt; it makes me ask myself if I am harming my patients by not acting as fast or aggressively as some of my colleagues would.
An essay I came across in The Journal of the American Medical Association called "Clinical Inertia as a Clinical Safeguard" offered some food for thought. The authors postulated that doctors who tend toward inertia might actually benefit their patients by protecting them from overzealous medical intervention.
They focused on three common medical conditions — diabetes, elevated cholesterol and hypertension — for which there are established clinical guidelines for doctors to follow and "quality measures" that evaluate medical care. For all three illnesses, "lower is better" is the dominant mantra.
But while "lower is better" is probably true for large populations, that is not always the case for individual patients. In fact, there are some clinical trials in which aggressively lowered blood sugar or blood pressure have been associated with higher rates of dying.
The authors weren't saying that these medical conditions shouldn't be actively treated, but they did caution that standard clinical guidelines tend to favor overaggressive treatment in pursuit of "good numbers." In the stampede toward good numbers, individual patients can be harmed by the side effects of these treatments. Clinical inertia might actually act as a safeguard for such patients.
No one, of course, wants doctors who fail to act when action is necessary. And medical emergencies are a different story altogether. But most chronic illnesses, luckily, are not emergencies, so there is room for deliberation before action. And while insurance companies won't reimburse for deliberation, and report cards pointedly penalize, it's interesting to consider that there are many patients who may have been saved by inertia.