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Dejected Views on Family Hating

Posted By Barry Jacobs, Dave Seaburn, Tuesday, September 03, 2013

This is a post in a series of "blasts from the past". These classic posts will highlight issues that are just too important to collect dust in the archives. The series will be off and on for the next several weeks. Enjoy!

(This piece was originally posted on March 6th, 2012)


Dejected Views
on Family-Hating

Barry J. Jacobs

The surreptitious eye-roll is bearable. The low groan is regrettable but not worth reproaching. But what irks me most about the occasional reactions of my family medicine residents to their patients’ relatives is the smug, dismissive, professionally rendered character assassination, complete with technical terminology. "The spouse is in denial,” they point out to their fellow inpatient team members when an overwhelmed and grieving husband or wife is unwilling to change a patient’s code status. "The daughters are being manipulative,” they observe about adult children who are urging their mother to resist physicians’ recommendations to undergo surgery or take a new medication. "They’re over-stepping boundaries,” they claim about family members who call them repeatedly or accost them with concerns in the hospital or office hallway.

It’s not that other healthcare professionals are substantively more family-friendly. For many of my mental health colleagues, hate of (or at least discomfort with) families is a many splendored thing. They focus on individual dynamics and prerogatives, invoking the delicateness of the therapeutic alliance or the sanctity of confidentiality as justifications for eschewing family contact. They cringe at the prospect of family meetings. They regard family systems thinking as a relic of the ‘60s, unsupported by current research or modern expediency.

I’m incredulous at these attitudes; I take them personally. From my teenage years caring for my father with brain cancer to my middle-aged years caring for my aging mother and demented step-father, I know in my gut how families affect patients’ clinical outcomes and how patients’ illnesses affect family caregivers. Others, clearly, don’t share the same visceral conviction. So what do I make of the widespread phenomenon of family-hating? Here are some over-the-top theories:

We operate in evidence-reinforced comfort zones: Much of healthcare practice and consequently research is focused on individual patients. In an era when clinicians are reminded at every turn to treat according to evidence-based principles, family-centered practices—lacking the same degree of empirical support—therefore seems the riskier clinical gamble. This is compounded by the fact that many healthcare professionals do not receive much training in the nuts-and-bolts of working with patients’ family members—e.g., running family meetings, addressing family conflicts. The seemingly prudent and comfortable treatment approach is centered on patients, leaving family members in the wings.

We are rats in templated, encoded mazes: Medical care, especially primary care, is being increasingly shaped by the clinical pathways that are the basis for the templates of our electronic medical records. By clicking through those templates, physicians not only have the assurance of following the so-called highest standards of care but are also working toward completing their progress notes for medical sessions as quickly as possible. It should come as no surprise that those EMR templates reflect bias toward individually-focused treatments. Family-centered healthcare is off-the-templates.

At the same time, clinicians are under enormous pressure to maximize reimbursement for healthcare services. The billing codes—aka CPT codes—they use have a powerful effect on practice. CPT codes for individually-oriented treatments are reimbursed by insurance companies. CPT codes for meeting with patients’ family members are generally not. We follow the money and avoid the family members.

Beaten and bedraggled, we cling to our authority: I don’t need to tell you that every year healthcare providers are worked harder, blamed more for rising healthcare costs, and disparaged more frequently by angry patients and aggressive lawyers. Evoking Rodney Dangerfield, all we want is a little respect. Now comes the dawning age of the patient-centered medical home with its emphasis on team-based care and who wants a place at the decision-making table as partners in care? Family caregivers do. (For example, see this recent AARP Public Policy Institute report). I think it’s tough for us to give up some of our remaining power to family members. When I hear professionals complain that patients’ family members somehow obstruct the treatment plans of the healthcare team, I infer that they don’t want their scant authority challenged any more than it already has been.

We are all adolescents at heart: Many of us give lip service to the importance of family members to patients’ care. But in our own lives, in our heart of hearts, we feel ambivalently about families. We want their support but don’t want them to encroach on the individual’s rights and independence. It reminds me a little of the sentiment captured in the title of the 2002 book on teenager psychology, Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall. We want family members to drive our patients to our offices but then don’t make a fuss in the exam rooms. We want them to help our patients adhere to our treatment plans but not have input into those plans. That’s not family-centered care. That’s not even respectful of what family members know and have to offer. It marginalizes families. It’s reflexively oppositional and hateful.

For more on this general subject, check out the seminal article, "The Trouble withFamilies: Toward an Ethic of Accommodation” by Carol Levine and Connie Zuckerman in theAnnals of Internal Medicine, 1999, vol. 130, pages 148-152.

Also please see "Interacting with Patients’ Family Members During the Office Visit” in the Oct. 1, 2011 issue ofAmerican Family Physician; it’s a tepid, timid approach to incorporating family members into primary care but at least represents some effort to do so. 

I Beg to Differ

David B. Seaburn

 I beg to differ with my good friend Barry Jacobs’ blog posting entitled, "Dejected View on Family-Hating.” Not only is he (uncharacteristically) off-base, but he may not even be on the playing field.

He notes that family-hating is rampant in the medical field as well as in most mental health disciplines. While I don’t espouse family-hatred, I doubt that any well-trained family-oriented mental health professional isn’t at least ambivalent about families from time to time. They are messy and confusing and inconsistent and wonderfully Resilient in their efforts to get us to respect their integrity. Non-family-oriented healthcare professionals are not the only ones to unfairly label families. In moments of frustration, I have considered whether "borderline” might be an apt relational diagnosis, especially when I don’t know what to do with a family.

Which brings me back to Jacobs’ criticism of residents. If as an experienced family therapist (35 years), I, at times, label and very nearly hate a family, what can be expected of residents. Remember---these are medical professionals who have been trained almost exclusively in a paradigm that focuses on the life and death of an individual patient; who have been acculturated to think reductionistically ("Let’s find the single cause of this patient’s symptoms”); who then enter a healthcare system that mitigates against inclusion of families due to time (see what it’s like to care for four or more patients per hour), diagnoses and healthcare reimbursement. If that were my professional background, my professional culture, I would run the other way when I saw a complex, demanding, needy family coming my way, as well.

I was a residency educator for almost twenty years. Early in my tenure I learned that I was a visitor in a different culture and, as such, I needed to enter that culture with respect and an eye to learning as much as I could to be of value. At first I thought I needed to convert the heathens to a family systems paradigm. If they could only become like me! Soon I realized that that wasn’t what was needed. More than anything else, residents needed help with their most difficult patients. As a family systems professional, my help with challenging patients often (but not always) included involvement of the family as a resource to the resident or as an important source for understanding the patient’s problems. Once residents saw that family could be integral to care and that involving family in challenging patient situations made their lives easier, residents often caught the family system’s bug. For me the lesson was---Don’t preach family-systems, just do it. Making it work in the exam room is the best evidenced-based example you can provide.

The challenge for family-oriented residency educators is to be comfortable and creative taking a one down position (yes, even after all these years!) in a system that is slow to accept differences, let alone change. That means wielding power and influence differently, if, at times, not equally. Becoming a recalcitrant adolescent ourselves is not the answer. Instead, we must recognize that as a maturing member of the medical education family, family-oriented healthcare educators must demonstrate the capacity to be systems-oriented in our clinical, research, educational, administrative and policy-making endeavors. We must leave "evidence” of who we are everywhere we go. I think that the better angels of Dr. Jacobs’ nature recognize this.

Barry Jacobs
Dave Seaburn
Barry Jacobs and Dave Seaburn are family medicine educators and long-term collaborators. Barry is the Director of Behavioral Sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency in Springfield, PA and the author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers—Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent. Dave recently retired from a distinguished career as the behavioral science faculty in the University of Rochester Family Medicine Residency and has taken to writing novels, including Charlie No Face.

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