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Beating the Numbers Racket

Thuy D. Bui

“What’s my number?” shouted Betsy as I entered the examination room one day last fall.

“Oh, you mean your A1C? It’s nine-point-four!” I answered. A sentence sped through my mind: “The hemoglobin A1C number tells how well a patient’s diabetes is controlled–seven or less is good.” In my seven years as Betsy’s primary-care doctor, I’ve repeated this information at visits and included it in appointment reminders as well.

Betsy is a pale, stocky woman in her sixties, with short, neatly cropped hair. Her rather tentative smile, to me, always seemed a bit forced, as if covering up for underlying pain. And she’s had plenty of pain in her life.

Her medical record displays many problems besides her diabetes–overweight, high blood pressure, arthritis and, tellingly, a history of recurrent liver inflammation, most likely from alcohol abuse.

She used to work as a home health aide, but now collects worker’s compensation after an injury on the job left her with a herniated disk.

Improving her health has been a struggle for Betsy. Her chronic back pain and arthritic aches make it hard to exercise. For various reasons–habit, stress, lack of motivation–she’s found it difficult to follow the standard low-calorie diet. And for years she couldn’t afford to buy the insulin and the hypertension medications that I prescribed.

Her medical record listed only one family contact, an estranged son. “At my age, I prefer to keep to myself,” Betsy asserted. “I don’t trouble anyone, and I like it that way.”

Thanks to comments like this, I’ve always viewed Betsy as a remarkable person; despite her many medical and psychosocial difficulties, her humor, grit and unsinkable spirit shine through.

I’ve sometimes felt bad about taking her to task for her health shortcomings, because I imagine there’s already plenty of self-blame in her life. But, in fact, I’ve also felt my own self-blame. Often, while reviewing Betsy’s dismaying A1C numbers, I’ve remembered my own mediocre performance data in the clinic’s quality-improvement reports. 

If only these numbers could reflect Betsy’s real-life challenges, I’ve thought. And it wouldn’t hurt if they reflected some of my struggles to help her, too.

That was how we went on, for the first five years or so.

About eighteen months ago, things took a turn for the better. Betsy began attending AA meetings and managed to abstain from alcohol, and her Medicaid kicked in, so she could afford to take her hypertension medications and insulin regularly.

In Betsy’s eyes, achieving abstinence was her greatest accomplishment. Lowering her A1C number–by controlling her blood sugar–was secondary. So I was delighted when she asked, “What’s my number?”

Hearing my answer, she chuckled. “So you want my A1C to be less than seven?” 

“Yes, or else I don’t get paid,” I answered teasingly. “You know, if you don’t look good, I don’t look good.” This elicited Betsy’s usual half-smile.

Clearly, though, my preoccupation with numbers had finally seeped into her awareness. In our subsequent visits, she tried to follow along as I pointed out her blood-pressure and A1C readings. Still, it was a torturous process.

Once, seeing my obvious anguish over her elevated A1C, she said consolingly, “Numbers are only skin-deep.”

After about six months of this, I realized that she was right. 

Honestly, I thought, our fifteen-minute visits would be better spent if I quit obsessing over the numbers.

I pushed the computer keyboard away.

“Betsy, what would you like to do with the rest of your life?” I asked. “What’s the one thing you wish you could do right now?”

To my pleased surprise, she replied, “I never finished high school. I want to be a writer.”

So I devoted time in our next few visits to gently encouraging Betsy to take the classes required for a general educational development (GED) diploma. To my delight, she enrolled in those classes and also signed up for a writing course at the local library.

Needless to say, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“I’m thinking of quitting,” she told me one day.

Oh, no! I racked my brains for ways to keep her from dropping out.

Finally, I blurted out desperately, “Poor and less educated people die younger!”

At the time, Betsy’s only response was a puzzled silence; but she stayed in her classes. Not only that, but this marked the beginning of a change in her overall mood and mindset.

She started to ask about a different set of numbers: the data that link health outcomes to socioeconomic status. For instance, we discussed the difference between the heart-disease death rates in the county’s upper- and lower-income areas, which she’d read about in the newspaper.

She’d always had some inkling, it seemed, that her living situation–a dilapidated old apartment located in a noisy, high-crime neighborhood with few amenities and low walkability–might be bad for her health. But, until now, no one had helped her connect the dots.

A heartening step forward came when Betsy reconciled with her son. It was unclear who reached out to whom, but I suspect that Betsy, inspired by her writing class, may have sent him a letter. Betsy learned that her son’s wife had recently given birth; Betsy was now a grandmother.

Although the ups and downs of Betsy’s blood pressure and A1C numbers still kept me guessing, now she’d come up with solutions: “I’ll cut down on the salt,” or “I need to stop snacking at night.” These statements always squeezed a half-smile out of me; though I still felt concerned, I also saw Betsy’s increasingly upbeat mood and assertiveness as evidence of a growing transformation.

Her most recent milestone brought a full-fledged, elated smile to my lips. Over the years, I’ve completed many necessary but rather depressing forms for Betsy–requests for shuttle service for disabled persons, petitions to reverse threatened utility shut-offs. This time, Betsy wanted me to endorse a letter to the local housing authority, asking that she be allowed to move into a new, low-income housing unit far from her current neighborhood.

And her doorknob moment at our latest visit set my heart pounding with joy. 

“Doc, you know about the thirty-five percent cut in the bus service? Well, I’m going to a hearing to protest that,” Betsy said. “I’m going to tell them how that will be bad for my health!”

Pondering the reasons for Betsy’s newfound hope and energy, I know that her schooling and her writing class have helped a lot. Her new grandbaby is another wonderful incentive to live a long and healthy life.

I also know that once I stopped crunching Betsy’s numbers and started focusing on who she was and how she might realize her goals and dreams, that opened the door to new perspectives–for both of us.

Betsy’s medical record has no numbers or quality benchmarks that reflect this positive change. The proof is in our smiles.

About the author:

Thuy (“Twee”) D. Bui is an associate professor of medicine and medical director of the Program for Health Care to Underserved Populations at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “My life’s passions are humanism in medicine and addressing the social determinants of health. I also try to cultivate reflective writing by my trainees in local and global settings.” Check out her Social Determinants of Health portal.

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


10 thoughts on “Beating the Numbers Racket”

  1. I love this piece. As I get older, I value community more and more, and I feel my community widening to include everyone I encounter. Dr. Bui stepped into her patient’s community when she asked that important question. She did not let go of being her careful doctor, but her personal caring changed two people for the better. Brava!

  2. william reichert

    That is a nice and important story and Dr. Bui is a nice person. However if her numbers don’t get better she will not get paid.
    Someone else will take her place. Quality is the name of the game and if the government can’t measure it with numbers it does not exist.
    Smiles are not a quality benchmark .Medicine is changing and we must accept and welcome the change
    or else.

    1. Yes, we do need to pay attention to quality benchmarks. We all want the best outcomes for our patients, and there are many paths to get there. Social and environmental variables affecting prevention and management of diabetes are well documented. The alternative path to the medical model is one that embraces shared decision making and addresses social determinants of health and empowerment. It is not just about individual responsibility but collective responsibility. It has less to do with niceness than preserving the core values of medicine.

      1. I agree that “social and environmental variables”
        affect diabetes outcomes. I do not agree that “the paths
        to get there are “well documented” however. Even if they were , the management of these variables is not the
        responsibility of the physician but , as you say , is a
        “collective” responsibility”, a cultural responsibility.The physician can no more define and insure the nature of this collective than he or she can prevent terrorism, war, hunger, poverty, genocide, illiteracy or income inequality. It is nice to understand how these forces affect our patients. But the physicians task ( his core value in medicine) is to offer medical solutions to offset these forces, not to seek to change the world as it exists . Attempting the later is folly. Practicing the former is, in reality, all we have to offer. Lose sight of this and you are no longer practicing medicine.

  3. Wow!! What a great story!!

    Betsy’s story is so true, I know many elderly people that say they go to their Dr and they dont seem to care or only look at their results, but not at person itself. We need to care about the person as a whole, I hope that dr spend more time w/ their patient and get to know them more !!

  4. Sally Warmington

    Thanks for sharing this story, Thuy. What I like most is the moment where you took a step back and realised you could do more to help this person have a healthier life by listening more closely to her. We could all do this better and I will take care to keep this story in mind next time I feel I am in some kind of battle with a patient.

    Great story!

  5. That’s a wonderful story – really well written and told – thank you. Keep doing what you’re doing and inspire our next generations of MDs. Some day America will realize that you can’t pay enough (literally) for caring, humanistic primary care providers.

    It reminds me of talking with my patient, Tom, about the details of managing his asthma when he said “do you know that you’re the only person in the world I can speak honestly with?” That has changed everything..


  6. Dear Thuy.
    Love this story. How wonderful that you and Betsy ‘got it’ , even after years – and years ….:) But you got there and the quality of her life and your practice are the better for it. Congratulations on a good story and even better practical outcome.

    1. There is no greater gift than for one to reach out to the other with love and compassion. That is what makes us human.

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