Thursday, February 14, 2019

Pack 'Em In


Lecture Hall at an Italian Medical School, 2014

When I first moved to Italy, any high school graduate who thought they might like to be a doctor had the right to give medical school a whirl. Because of this open admissions policy, ten times more physicians were churned out each year than the country needed. And because there was no way those hordes of students could get individual attention from their teachers, and far too few bodies for them to learn on, you could graduate from med school without having ever touched a patient. Literally. Italian medical training was so notorious that when the European Union started recognizing degrees and specializations across borders, Italy risked being the only country excluded.

The threat of that humiliation goaded Italy to begin a minor revolution. By the turn of the century a system of selection for medical school had been introduced (based on a multiple-choice test), freshman classes had been slashed by 90%, and students were starting to be taught at patient bedsides instead of only from books. Italian medical training was making giant strides toward joining the rest of Europe.

Now, twenty years after Italian doctors began their Long March from laughingstocks to world-class clinicians, the Italian Health Minister, Giulia Grillo—a physician previously known mainly for waffling on the need for vaccination—has been crusading to turn back the clock by bringing back open admissions for medical school. No more tests. No more selection process. Anybody who made it through high school would again be welcome. Come one, come all!

Dr. Grillo, from the Five-Star Movement, has even added a sour cherry on top: the downgrading of postgraduate training. She points out, correctly, that due to sloppy planning Italy has gone from too many prospective General Practitioners to too few, and trains far too few specialists in emergency medicine to keep hospital Emergency Rooms properly staffed. Her proposed solution? Stop requiring docs hired for those jobs to have any residency training. Instead, she says, hospitals should be able to employ anybody with experience, such as night coverage (Guardia Medica) on the National Health Service, assuming they’ll have picked up their trade by osmosis. Even worse, she’s suggested maybe those ER docs and GPs could be hired fresh out of medical school. Anywhere in the world that would be a mistake, given the complexity of modern medicine, but in Italy—where medical school is still relatively weak on the practical—it would be madness.

Already many young Italian medical graduates flee the country, headed for nations where they expect superior specialty training, higher stipends, and eventually a better chance at real jobs. And already Italian specialty training is uneven, turning out specialists whose levels of competence range from superb to iffy. If even that spotty training is turned into an optional, with self-taught doctors handling heart attacks and accident victims . . . poor Italy!

Pardon my rant. I’ve never been good at buddhistic acceptance, and the coronation of Donald Trump reset my indignation threshhold even lower. By now even a considerably less dangerous Italian Minister of Health can trigger it.

P. S. The picture of a medical school lecture hall at the top of this post was from 2014, when the admission process was highly selective. Imagine how packed those halls used to be when ten times as many students were enrolled, and how they will be again if Dr. Grillo gets her way.

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Thursday, January 31, 2019

United We Fall


drawing by Suzanne Dunaway
Doctors have professional organizations in both Italy and the US, but their purposes are light-years apart. Where the American Medical Association is basically a lobbyist for doctors, the equivalent on this side of the Atlantic, the Ordine dei Medici, is more like a police force. I’ve visited their Rome office exactly five times, and I remember every one:


 1)    In 1979, to find out how to get my American internal medicine specialty recognized. That didn’t take long: “You can’t.”

2)    In 1998, to peddle an old pulmonary function testing machine by tacking up a For Sale notice on the Ordine’s cork bulletin board. No buyers materialized, but some employee with nothing better to do noticed the words “Diplomate, American Board of Internal Medicine” on my letterhead, and sent me a registered letter enjoining me to remove them. Turns out you’re not allowed to mention foreign specializations. I took the appropriate action for any old Italy hand, i.e. I did nothing whatsoever. The ABIM is still on my letterhead – they never followed up.

3)    In 2004, to buy passes to drive into the center of Rome, a prerogative reserved for residents and for docs on house calls. We had always had free dashboard permits, but suddenly City Hall announced it would start charging for the privilege. I lined up at the Ordine dei Medici along with hundreds of other colleagues dumb enough to take the initiative seriously, forked over a 10 euro note that they said would be good for ten single entries, and received a receipt that stated the passes would come in the mail. Did any passes come in your mail? No? Well none arrived in mine either. Good thing I hadn’t thrown out my old dashboard permit.

4)    In 2005, to try putting my first Aventino Hill office on a more formal legal footing. My two partners and I partners trooped over to the Ordine for an hour-long briefing from their lawyer, taking careful notes on his advice. Fortunately we didn’t act on it – we learned later from unimpeachable sources that he had been wrong from A to Z.

5)    In 2010, to defend my second Aventino Hill office, soon after we moved in. Our neighbors sicced the Ordine on us, after sending around the Carabinieri, the Health Department, and the Lazio Region, as part of their unsuccessful campaign to kick us out of the building. (The one agency they never snitched to was the IRS – fearful of drawing attention to their own tax returns?) The Ordine called us in for interrogation, and then mailed a ten-point accusation in impenetrable legalese to which we promptly, humbly, and painstakingly replied. A year later, when we hadn’t heard back, we phoned to make sure they’d dropped the charges. No, they just hadn’t gotten around to looking at our letter yet. They finally did read it, and grant their absolution . . . in 2013.

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

An Interview


I enjoyed answering Claudia Landini's queries about Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome, the book that, as you know, is coming out in just four months. You might like to check out her super questions and my attempts at answering them at her website, ExpatClic.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Home Sick In Rome


drawing by Suzanne Dunaway
After moving to Rome it didn’t take me long to figure out that my friends’ grandparents had all been either peasants or aristocrats, and that for the latter classes a doctor was expected, if illness struck, to come when called. Like in the 19th century, when they used the back entrance – the doctor was a tradesman, like a carpenter only cheaper. Read some short stories by Chekhov, whose day job was General Practitioner, and you’ll get the idea.

Once in the ‘90s, over dinner at an oak table on the high-ceiling piano nobile of a baroque palace, under an oil portrait of my hostess’s granddad, a new acquaintance tossed a spanner in the works of a previously pleasant conversation: “Do you make house calls?” Which led to twenty minutes of shifting uneasily in my seat while my highborn tablemates complained about how difficult it is nowadays to find a doctor willing to come to your place when you have a sore throat.

When Italians are ill their rest is sacrosanct. I’ve seen many a workplace dynamo relish the theatrics of the sick role, unashamed to hide under the covers safe from the menace of outdoor air. It’s easier, of course, when you have a right to six months of paid sick leave…

drawing by Suzanne Dunaway
I hear house calls have been making a small comeback in the States. They never went out here, though as the years have passed and I have reached do-not-disturb maturity fewer patients expect me to make one personally. One benefit is that setting up an elaborate sickroom in the home is a breeze. Laboratories are happy to send around a technician to draw blood, you can enlist your aunt or your portiere to give injections, some young doc will be willing to come and hang an intravenous drip if one is needed, and a radiologist will trot in with marvelous briefcases that open out into x-ray machines – in pre-digital days, they’d hang up the films over the bathtub to dry.

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