Oxygen, a novel by anesthesiologist Dr. Carol Cassella, took my breath away. And not just because the story was gripping and the writing superb. This story brought into relief a growing fear of mine: the role of litigation in widening the disconnect between doctors and patients.
A 2008 review by Publisher's Weekly says, "...this nicely wrought debut follows the travails of an experienced Seattle anesthesiologist after an eight-year-old patient dies while under the knife. In the aftermath, Dr. Marie Heaton is entangled in both her grief and a malpractice lawsuit. ...the real hook is Cassella's knowing portrayal of the health industrial complex's inner workings; she knows the turf and doesn't spare readers the nasty bits."
Most media coverage of the current lititgious medical environment focuses on the sympathetic side of patients who've been hurt by incompetent and/or uncaring physicians. Oxygen brings into relief how dedicated, excellent physicians are negatively affected by lawsuits. Many resort to defensive medicine, routinely ordering extra tests and/or avoiding risky cases. Others leave medicine prematurely, deciding the risk isn't worth it.
Although Oxygen is fictional, I almost stopped reading 1/3 of the way through. I'm glad I didn't, because the surprise ending more than made up for my earlier emotional distress. If you want to talk about healing the rift between physicians and patients, consider reading this book and listening to this NPR interview with the author.