Hospitalists around the globe have cared for their share of high profile patients, also known as very important people, or VIPs. Many of us dread the prospect of admitting a VIP to our service, knowing that such patients tend to be demanding and entitled and often want to dictate their care.
The term “VIP syndrome” was coined as early as 1964 by psychiatrist Walter Weintraub, who described how “the treatment of an influential man can be extremely hazardous for both patient and doctor.”1 He found, even back then, that the admission of VIPs to an inpatient setting was “often followed by considerable turmoil within the institution,” which can unfortunately undermine the quality of the care that the patient receives.
Some high profile—and controversial—deaths that have at least partially been attributable to VIP syndrome were those of Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers. In both cases, physicians veered from normal or usual standards to meet the apparent needs of their high profile patients. The Jackson case represented a violation of care standards: Dr. Conrad Murray administered propofol, midazolam, and lorazepam simultaneously without monitoring his patient, and this treatment resulted in cardiac arrest. The death was considered a homicide, and the physician was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison. In the Rivers case, the entertainer’s private ENT physician was involved in her care at a site in which he was not privileged to practice; it is unclear if the clinic was equipped to handle the complexity of her case, and she died after her airway was lost. Countless other examples of VIP quality care concerns signifying alterations in care standards based on the patient’s social status have resulted in less dramatically poor outcomes.
Some hospitals have carved out wings or floors to cater to VIP crowds. In these cases, the room and board charges are extraordinary and are billed directly “out of pocket” to the patient, bypassing insurance companies or payers. These wards or units are often staffed “ad hoc” by nurses and other care providers at very low staff-to-patient ratios, so that they can be at the beck and call of the VIP. Some of these admitted patients even bring along their private physicians and nurses, practitioners who are not privileged to practice on site but who may try to dictate the care being delivered.
The real issue, when VIP syndrome is in full swing, is that it violates many codes of medical professionalism, including those found in the Physician Charter of the ABIM Foundation, which emphasizes the guiding principles of patient welfare, autonomy, and social justice.2 Because there exists a whole cadre of patients who qualify as “VIPs” (celebrities, politicians, royalty, local board members, community leaders, and fellow physicians or healthcare administrators), it is extremely likely that each of us will be called upon to care for such a population at some point. As such, we need to have a plan for how we will manage the emotions and care of such patients, without violating any care or professionalism standards.
Roller Coaster of Emotions
My hospital recently had a VIP in for a protracted and complex illness. The patient and family became so demanding and time-consuming that we considered “rotating” them to various other units to give the physicians and staff a break. The typical emotions affiliated with such VIP cases are resentment and frustration, even hostility at times, especially when we recognize the fact that the care we are delivering is not better than average, and may actually be worse. The resentment stems from the fact that we all like to think we deliver the best care possible to all patients, regardless of their personal characteristics, because we all want and deserve the best care, regardless of our bank accounts or public popularity.