Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Slow Getting Up

Over the weekend, I read Nate Jackson's Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile in almost one sitting, a rare thing these days with my attention span getting ever shorter. Jackson was an unlikely success story, someone who beat the odds by making it to the NFL and playing for six seasons despite not being drafted after playing for a Division III college.

Jackson very vividly captures the bravado of the professional athlete: the pride in his extraordinary physical prowess, the adrenaline rush of stepping onto the field, the agony of being in the purgatory of NFL Europe, the fear of appearing weak, the drunken cash-burning Vegas partying, the frenzied testosterone-fueled cracking of helmets.

The book is wickedly funny in parts, such as when Jackson described having to be at practice early because he was part of the special teams unit:
Forty-five minutes later the rest of the team shows up. Starters don't come to special teams meetings. They're happy not to play during the ritual sacrifice of kickoffs and punts, but maybe they're also a bit envious. We're a tight-knit group. We know things the other guys don't. We know about fifty-yard dead-spring head-on collisions. We know about snot bubbles. We look at the game differently. [p. 101]
The gallows humor pervades much of the book, but the most jarring passages are when Jackson quotes from his own extensive medical record. The dry technical language belies the horrible ravaging that his body has suffered. From one of his later injuries:
MRI findings:

High-grade complete tear and stripping of proximal left adductor longus and brevis, with distal retraction and about 5cm tear defect gap with intervening edema and hemorrhage. Strain of the adjacent pectineus and obturator externus and gracilis muscles and attachments.

Moderate proximal hamstring tendinosis and/or strain and scarring are seen, with longitudinal thinning and possible tearing of the proximal deep margins at the ischial tuberosity attachments bilaterally. [p. 185]
From my viewpoint, Jackson's interactions with the team doctors take on a surreal quality. They ostensibly warn him of the risks and benefits of procedures such as steroid or NSAID injections, but it's a foregone conclusion that he would do whatever might get him back onto the field the fastest. Of course, the doctors were serving the team more than the players: one passage describes how Jackson's injuries were first reported to the team's management and the coach before he himself found out what was going on. The long-term health of the player did not factor much into the equation.

Ultimately, what I got out of the book is that the NFL is a profit-generating industry, which like all others, seeks to maximize its profits. It treats the players as replaceable cogs in a machine, parts that can easily be replaced when broken. Sure, coaches and general managers are frequently hired and fired as well, but it is the bodies and minds of the players that pay the ultimate price for our entertainment. Yet at the same time, players enter into this arrangement willingly (at least in the beginning), attracted by the money, the glory, the desire to be compete with the best in the world.

And that brings me to perhaps why I wrote this post today. There was an article in The Daily Beast making the rounds: How Being a Doctor Became the Most Miserable Profession. The article highlights a litany of woes, including the high suicide rate amongst doctors, the fact that 9 out of 10 doctors would discourage others from joining the profession, and how doctors have to see so many patients now that "the average face-to-face clinic visit lasts about 12 minutes."

Just as the NFL uses its players for profit maximization with little regard for their well-being, the healthcare system uses doctors in the same way. I tend to believe that what keeps most doctors in the profession is not the quest for money or status, but a sense of duty, of wanting to help patients and not abandon them. So in this way, doctors might actually be worse off than NFL players. There's no collective bargaining agreement. Doctors – in the U.S., at least – don't go on strike. The associations that are supposed to represent doctors often seem to collude with the business forces of medicine rather than look out for the interests of practicing clinicians. Doctors are not so easily replaced, and since there's already a big doctor shortage in the U.S., we've been sucking up physicians from the rest of the world's supply.

Compared to primary care, psychiatrists have it relatively good. Many are still in solo private practices, not on insurance panels and seeing a manageable number of patients per day. Others work in public-sector roles. Yet with every passing year, the system creeps closer to requiring psychiatrists to participate, ostensibly to help contain costs with measures like integrated care. What can be done to change it for the better? The current path is clearly not sustainable. Cost containment is clearly being targeted at the wrong level. How about containing costs here, or here? Now that would be a great start!