Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Choosing Your Doctor
March 26, 1999
(This column first appeared September 14, 1993)
Like all Americans, I am watching the news about the coming health care
debate with great interest and some trepidation. One issue, “choice of
physician” is being kicked around a lot as though somebody just thought
of it. This is far from being a new idea. My mother knew about it
nearly eighty years ago.
My parents had lived in Colorado for several years when my arrival was
imminent. Logically I should be a Colorado native. But no! My
mother’s father was a doctor and she used her choice option. My birth
certificate reads Decatur, Illinois and I didn’t get back to Colorado
until I was a month old. I have always thought that was carrying
“choice of physician” a little too far, but I had no say in the matter.
When I was a kid in Englewood we didn’t have a very wide choice of
doctors, but we did have a little. We could go to the one doctor in
town or skip the whole thing. As I remember it, his office was on the
second floor over the First National Bank. The flight of stairs was so
long and so steep that he probably lost lots of patients on the way up.
Fortunately time has dimmed the details of any treatment I may have
received, but I think it was limited to smallpox vaccination and the
repair of a couple broken arms.
Today it is a whole new world and I don't have to climb all those steps
to visit my doctor. I do most of the things he tells me to do as he
tries to keep me healthy, and I have all the routine exams and tests
that are recommended.
Last week I had my annual chest x-ray. As I sat there in that sterile
room in my little paper shirt, surrounded by huge, inhuman machines, and
friendly human technicians in lead aprons, I was thinking about the
difference between my grandfather’s practice and modern medicine.
My knowledge of medical history is almost nonexistent, but I do know
that by the end of the 19th century most of the basic principles of
medicine were known. Galen had discovered blood circulation in 200
A.D. Ligature, medical percussion, red blood cells, x-rays, sepsis, had
been discovered. Smallpox vaccine, aspirin, digitalis were known.
I don’t know how much of the available information was in use by the
late 19th century, when my grandfather started his medical practice, or
just how -- or how often -- doctors cured their patients in those
days. I don't know, of course, what was in Dr. Dudley's little black
bag, but I am sure that the sight and sound of his horse and buggy
clomping up to his patients’ houses in central Illinois was good
medicine in itself.
We don't know for sure what he would think if he could see the x-ray
room where I was sitting last week, but we do know what Dr. Seuss
“And the next thing you know, when you’ve finished that test,
Is somehow you’ve lost both your necktie and vest
And an Ogler is ogling your stomach and chest.”
The technical gulf between medicine as he practiced it in the last
century and today’s medical miracles is colossal, but I wonder whether
the true art of healing has changed that much. My grandfather knew, as
my doctor today knows, that a big part of the healing process is the
patient’s attitude. That attitude may have been helped as much by the
doctor with his horse and buggy and that little black bag, as by the
confidence we feel in our modern doctor in his well equipped office.
Thanks to my mother’s “choice of physician” I have to cheat a little
when I claim to be a true Colorado native, but she had the right idea.
Choose your doctor, wherever he/she may be. Whatever comes of the
health care battle, they’d better keep that.