We’re in the throes of the holiday season, now, and for the most part, it’s a time of good cheer! Celebrations, family gatherings and an overarching sense of gratitude for all that we have, and for the love that fills our lives.
But for some of us, the holidays can be stressful. Maybe a family has been broken by divorce, or perhaps a friend or family member has died. Loss or illness is an inevitable part of life which we all must confront, at some point, but fortunately there are ways to soften the blows.
My sister Jennifer is an exemplar of Fortytude and a female warrior, who’s created a way to provide medical advocacy for those in need. Her new group, Good Medicine Consult & Advocacy helps patients keep from getting lost in the healthcare fray.
The following article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 21, 2011, detailing the good work Jennifer is doing.
When Carla Saunders went through 80 days of cancer treatment this year, the artist coped by drawing 450 abstract pastels – some depicting her get-well flowers, some depicting the pain she was going through.
But what really gave her peace of mind was a special team of medical warriors that she assembled to help her through her illness.
“When I was diagnosed, suddenly I had piles of mail and pamphlets and papers and bills, and it all just became too chaotic for me to deal with alone,” Saunders said.
She called Good Medicine Consult & Advocacy, a new private medical advocacy group in Hayes Valley, designed to keep patients from getting lost in the labyrinthine health care system.
The four nurses, two doctors and pharmacist who make up Good Medicine go with patients to medical appointments, help them ask the right questions, monitor their prescriptions, help with referrals, talk to the doctors and help patients write advance health care directives.
“It’s like we are your medical lawyers,” said Dr. Lael Conway Duncan. “You come in and you explain your situation, and we give you expert advice and a plan for how to approach that problem so you can move on alone or with us to the extent you need us.”
At the ready
Good Medicine is an all-female medical strike team at the ready. They work from an office in a Victorian on Hayes Street, with a nurse in Sonoma and one on the Peninsula.
When doctors from Saunders’ health plan suggested chemotherapy, physician Jennifer Brokaw and nurse Sara Stephens helped Saunders get a second opinion and then a quick appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for cutting-edge laser surgery.
“Jen and Sara would ask me if I wanted a list of questions for the doctor, and within an hour I’d have something in my e-mail,” Saunders said. “It took such a load off my shoulders.”
After a 14-year career doctoring and teaching emergency medicine, Brokaw, daughter of former NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw, saw a growing need for professional medical advocates to help patients navigate the increasingly impersonal health care maze.
“I just felt something was wrong with the system,” said Brokaw, who worked at UCSF, San Francisco General and California Pacific Medical Center.
Too many patients were in ER with preventable illnesses, she said, and those who were dying rarely had written down their health care wishes, leaving family members and doctors to make educated guesses.
“ER is all ‘Go, go, go, push, push, push, save, save, save,’ ” she said. “There has to be another point to medicine, to helping people go through the hard times and end life in a thoughtful and meaningful way.”
In 2008, Brokaw put out her own shingle. She started Good Medicine to help families hit with sudden medical crises or struggling with aging parents understand all their options and choose appropriate treatment.
She wanted to return to a medicine that was more like her grandfather’s house call doctoring in South Dakota, where he would deliver babies and then take care of them their entire lives.
While medical advocacy is a growing field, Good Medicine is a new player.
Unlike concierge doctors who charge up to $20,000 a year for special attention, Good Medicine doesn’t diagnose, write prescriptions or take health insurance. They have more medical knowledge than nonprofit medical advocacy groups run by lay people and can provide more individual attention than large elder care nonprofits and doctors who give phone consultations.
Good Medicine charges $600 for an initial consultation, and hourly rates thereafter: $300 for doctors, $200 for nurses and $150 for the pharmacist. They have had more than 100 clients so far, mostly referred by friends, but now they are reaching out to estate attorneys and conferences to advertise their services. The average client who hires Good Medicine spends $3,000 to $5,000.
Recently, pharmacist Alicia Sakai caught a major medical error while reviewing a client’s medicine cabinet. The hospital had switched the patient’s medications, but because the packaging on the bottles was identical, there was no way for her to distinguish the old from the new. If she had taken the wrong pill, her blood pressure could have dropped so low she would faint.
“I like to think because we are there as a team, we are making their doctors be the best they can be for the patients,” said nurse Stephens. “I believe every doctor wants to do what we are doing, but there simply isn’t time anymore.”
Doctors in the family
Brokaw, who comes from a long line of doctors on her mother’s side – an uncle, an aunt and three cousins in addition to her grandfather – is also married to one. She met Allen Fry, a Bay Area breast radiologist, at Dartmouth medical school.
When she isn’t with her patients or her two teenage daughters, she’s swimming in the frigid waters of Aquatic Park with the South End swimmers.
Recently, she bought an underwater camera that she can strap on her bicep to take pictures and video of herself swimming.
She sent a video to Saunders, who also loves open water swimming, to cheer her up during her radiation treatment.
“That was so great,” Saunders said. “It really made me smile.”
Good Medicine: www.goodmedicineSF.com
E-mail Meredith May at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle