Sunday, June 12, 2011

Guest Blogger Jesse: When Patients Don't Pay

Dinah asked that I “blog on what you do when patients don't pay.” I’ll try to put that question in a larger context. If a patient is seeing a physician for treatment of a mole, or of a fever, the treatment of those illnesses has no relation nor is affected by when or how the doctor is paid (other, of course, that the doctor might refuse to treat the patient). In psychodynamic therapy, where the therapist is helping the patient with relationships, anxieties, attitudes, and conflicts, everything that occurs is potentially helpful if it is understood. Observing and thinking about actions and feelings is a part of the treatment, as important a tool to the therapist as a stethoscope to a cardiologist.

Money is something loaded with meaning to most people. What does it mean that the patient forgets to pay? Does it mean “if you really cared about me you would not charge me”? Is it a reflection of anger for something that occurred in the last session? Is it a displacement of feelings from something else (“my boss didn’t give me the raise I expected”)? Is it completely inadvertent (Freud famously said “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar”)?

There are so many possibilities, and the psychodynamic therapist wants to understand them. How the patient relates to the therapist is some part of how he relates to others. The patient hopefully starts to watch his own actions and attitudes, and also tries to understand them. A nonjudgmental stance helps the patient do this.

The therapist himself needs to be comfortable dealing with the subject of money. Sometimes beginning physicians fluctuate between feeling they are too inexperienced to be paid and feeling that they deserve anything they ask. We physicians might even (unfortunately) take on the attitudes of the insurance companies themselves (“Identification with the Aggressor”).

There are times when the treatment needs to be discontinued, or the patient referred for other care. Clearly, if the therapist has allowed a patient to go a long time without paying, without good reason thoughtfully discussed, both doctor and patient have unwittingly colluded in avoiding very important issues.

Many therapists believe it is important for the patient to pay something, regardless of his economic state. It is part of the patient’s self-esteem. It indicates a professional relationship, one in which the patient essentially is employing the therapist (physician, lawyer, accountant, et al) and in which the therapist has professional obligations to the patient. It is therefore part of the professional boundaries.

There is a curative aspect to the attitude I’m describing. To the extent that the patient can increase his ability to examine his own actions and feelings in a nonjudgmental manner he gains control over areas of life which may have been becoming increasingly difficult for him.

What have others experienced in this regard, and how do you think of these issues?