You Can’t Handle the Truth
A Q&A with Waqas Khan, MD
Waqas Khan, MD, is a real doctor who also plays one on TV. He stars as “Dr. I Am Sorry,” the main character of “Healthcare NOT Fair,” a controversial, yet popular, satirical film series with physicians and patients alike. After watching several of his provocative short films, we just had to meet Dr. I Am Sorry face-to-face. We couldn’t wait to hear what motivated this busy hospitalist to jump into showbiz. We caught up to him just after his shift, and weren’t sure if the white coat was hospital dress code or if he was already in character…
Would you prefer to be addressed as Dr. Khan or Dr. I Am Sorry?
Dr. Khan: Dr. I Am Sorry is a bit of an alter ego that developed over six years of practice working as a hospitalist. He reflects a typical modern day physician plagued by overwhelming work and inefficient systems — he can’t seem to do anything but apologize for everything happening around him. So, if you want me to say what you would like to hear, then call me Dr. Khan. But if you’re looking to hear the truth, then Dr. I Am Sorry is probably your best bet.
Speaking of overwhelming work, not many physicians would turn to scripting new episodes of their very own film series after a long day juggling patients and the EHR. What in the world prompted you to create “Healthcare NOT Fair?
Dr. Khan: The life of a physician is always a busy run-around. From studying in medical school, to training in residency and now working full capacity, this was the life that I knew I was getting into ever since I committed to being a doctor. I knew that this responsibility comes with the pride, joy and privilege of serving my patients, and the fulfillment that comes from all the labor. Shortly after residency, I realized this was not actually happening. My colleagues and I were getting burnt out — much of it coming from the system. We were being told how to care for patients by people other than doctors, documentation dictated by billers and coders, and even feeling at risk to speak truthfully with our patients. This led me to dig deeper to better understand these pervasive problems. What better way to express and explain to those willing to listen than through a satirical, comical and educational short-film series.
It’s interesting you bring up the almighty “F” word. The importance of doing “fulfilling” work is what got most of us here in the first place. Can’t help but wonder if that’s your goal with Healthcare NOT Fair — to help regain a little bit of that lost fulfillment? Is it your hope that these films help us get beyond the anger and acceptance stages of healing, and use humor as a way to get back to what’s important?
Dr. Khan: Simply put, yes. Fulfillment is lacking nowadays in the medical community. First, we need to come to grips with the challenges that can drain that sense of fulfillment away from us. This is why the show focuses on the subjects it does — giving us the chance to take a closer look at the issues and work required to improve our own experience (and ultimately that of the patient). We’d like to think of Healthcare NOT Fair as the root cause analysis needed to make the right diagnosis and, hopefully, giving us a way to look at things a little differently by using humor to get there.
Your films certainly get at recurring challenges such as patient adherence, malpractice concerns, payer constraints, etc. And without a doubt, a dose of humor must be a part of the treatment plan if we are to move from simply admiring the problem to fixing it. How has the show had an impact on you personally and, what is Dr. Khan learning about himself as a clinician?
Dr. Khan: Playing Dr. I Am Sorry gives me the opportunity to see the issues from other perspectives and speak up for both patients and physicians simultaneously. We physicians certainly can’t be bystanders…we need to play our part fixing the system. It has inspired me to step up and speak on our patient’s behalf. As physicians, we are their true advocates.
I’d like to think that Dr. I Am Sorry is teaching me the importance of developing a sense of teamwork with my patients. As a busy physician, I often forget that asking patients to comply with recommendations requires a huge deal of trust. On the other hand, physicians also need to help patients understand their limitations in this current system with countless regulatory barriers and sometimes sabotaging the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship. One of our hopes for the show is to help both physicians and patients think about the part they need to play to achieve healthy outcomes. I make my patients realize that I am their true advocate and my only goal is to look out for their best interest.
“Ms. Fatty,” “Ms. Stupid Taxpayer,” and “Mr. Smokie,” are just a few of your episode titles. Certainly not the most politically correct titles one could have chosen. Why create a show that’s as provocative as Healthcare NOT Fair?
Dr. Khan: Our Healthcare system is going through a crisis. It’s about time that we come out of our political correctness closet and face realities. The purpose of Healthcare NOT Fair is to bring attention to the real, prevailing issues in healthcare. Every episode carries one simple message of individual responsibility. We want every patient to understand that you can have the best insurance, the best physician and the best medical facility, but if you’re not going to play your part then eventually no one can help you. There’s a common misperception in the general public that physicians have supernatural healing powers. Dr. I Am Sorry helps us realize that doctors are human beings with emotions who have limited healing powers. I’m hoping that those watching the shows begin to see both the physician and patient role more clearly, and realize that we’re on the same team.
Aside from any hate mail you may have received, what feedback are you getting from your colleagues, hospital staff, and patients?
Dr. Khan: The response from my colleagues and healthcare professionals has been overwhelmingly positive. The many physicians and clinical people that contact me have encouraged me to keep going and ask me to speak out on their behalf. They feel like this is long overdue. On the other hand, patients have been appalled to see what physicians have to go through to be their advocates. People in general are very uninformed or misinformed (thanks to TV shows and soap operas) about a physician’s real life. I believe the show gives viewers a unique platform to truly see some of the challenges we are up against and begin asking the right questions.
Where do the ideas for the episodes and characters come from?
Dr. Khan: Mostly from personal experiences and stuff I hear in the doctor’s lounge. These are everyday encounters of a physician’s life. I wanted the characters to be appealing, but at the same time easy to understand by the general public without getting them too involved in medical jargon.
Do you have a personal favorite?
Dr. Khan: I guess my personal favorite is Ms. Fatty since it’s also loosely based on my own personal experience when I was myself overweight at around 220 pounds. I never knew it would generate so much attention. I was simply emphasizing the problem of obesity and role of personal responsibility. I guess that episode hit the nail on the head. It not only addresses the epidemic of obesity, but deals with the concept of “The Miracle Pill.” It shows how sometimes patients get lured into looking for some magic solution by the media. It’s the job of the physicians to counsel their patients and inform them about the harms of such imaginary approaches out there.
What can we expect to see in Season Two of Healthcare NOT Fair?
Dr. Khan: Season Two has a little more serious tone compared to the first season. It deals with issues surrounding big pharma, insurance companies, etc. — you know, all the folks that have the biggest say and control over our healthcare. These entities can often hijack the doctor-patient relationship, and we must educate the general public on what can be done to get it back.
What issues are you most passionate about exposing through the show?
Dr. Khan: For me it’s about personal responsibility and accountability which, in my view, is lacking in the current state. We all need to understand that there are extrinsic factors that we need to fix, but we also need to start looking at ourselves and see what we can fix in us. We can’t blame the government, fast food or insurance companies if doctors and patients aren’t playing their respective parts. As for us, physicians, our true role is to be our patients’ advocate.
Meet Dr. I Am Sorry for yourself at Healthcare Not Fair