Breaking Good: Could Walter White Have Been Saved By Patient Advocacy?

The series “Breaking Bad” kept TV audiences (including myself) enthralled with all the twists and turns—all fueled by the main character, Walter White, being diagnosed with terminal cancer that supposedly was only treatable through very expensive means. If only Walter had been able to access the intervention of a patient advocate!  

Patient advocacy is a new field in health care that helps people cope with the overwhelming fog of anxiety and fear that confronts them as they try to navigate towards the correct diagnosis and best possible treatment. 

If only Walter had been able to access the intervention of a patient advocate! 

“Breaking Bad” would have been shorter and much less dramatic with a happier ending had a patient advocate been involved. Not great for audiences wanting to see high drama, but much better for Walter and his family. 

Here’s a step-by-step process of how a patient advocate could have helped Walter along his way.

#1- Advocacy at Time of Diagnosis

After recovering from his collapse and initial symptoms, a trip to the ER, Walter sits in Dr. Belknap’s office getting his diagnosis: terminal, inoperable lung cancer. Walter goes into shock and the tragic events soon begin. 

Rewind to this scene: A patient advocate sits next to Walter and asks Dr. Belknap (very politely) how he can determine this terrible diagnosis and prognosis just from preliminary screening tests. 

A patient advocate would have also gently reminded Walter that a thoracic (chest) team of experts should be consulted: an expert radiologist to read any films from scans, an experienced doctor to do the appropriate biopsy, and a top-notch pathologist to study the biopsied tissue. 

Walter would have been reminded that such a serious and unexpected diagnosis shouldn’t be left to just one doctor’s opinion.

#2- Advocacy Before Treatment Starts

Once Walter’s family knew of his diagnosis, they insisted that he see Dr. Delcavoli, the super-star oncologist. Rewind again: A patient advocate would have carefully checked Dr. Delcavoli’s experience with treating Walter’s exact type of lung cancer and compared it against the experiences and outcomes of other oncologists. The University of New Mexico’s Comprehensive Cancer Center right there in Albuquerque (with no need to travel up to a hospital in Santa Fe to see Dr. Delcavoli) would have been considered.

#3- Advocacy Intervention Upon HMO Denial

Once the best possible treatment was agreed upon, it would be time to address the cost and insurance issues. As part of the plot twists, Walter’s HMO refused to pay for any out-of-network doctors or treatments, which caused Walter to sink deeper and deeper into his life of crime. 

Patient advocates can work out an agreement with the patient’s insurer...regardless of their network standing.

Rewind once again: the patient advocate intervenes and files a well-researched appeal stating the case for payment for Walter’s treatment documenting Walter's survival rate, and cost in the process. 

Many times, based on diligent ascertaining of the facts, patient advocates can work out an agreement with the patient’s insurer to access the best possible treatment with the best possible doctor, regardless of their network standing to create a devoted health plan that works for the situation.

#4- Patient Advocacy to Challenge the Cost of Surgery

Contrary to the first doctor’s original prediction of being an inoperable type of lung cancer, Walter’s tumor did shrink and was able to be removed via a lung surgery called a lobectomy. No more information than that was given, so it seemed to be a straightforward case. In another plot twist, Dr. Bravenec, the surgeon chosen to do this procedure, came with a price tag of $200,000, necessitating more illegal dealings by Walter. 

Rewind once more to this scene: The patient advocate gently inquires why the price of surgery is so high based on comparative costs by other thoracic surgeons. 

In addition, the advocate checks on the efficacy of this surgeon and his outcomes. Working with Walter and the insurance company, the advocate would be able to secure a very good surgeon at a reasonable cost. No need for Walter to stay on his destructive path and he’d be feeling much better, physically and financially.

Although a patient advocate could not have completely assured Walter that his cancer would be beaten back into remission, he would have been able to see the bigger picture...while saving his family from financial ruin. 

There you have it. Although a patient advocate could not have completely assured Walter White that his cancer would be beaten back into remission, Walter would have been able to see the bigger picture and know that he had the best possible treatment while saving his family from financial ruin. Walter’s life of crime would have been avoided and the TV show wouldn’t have lasted a season. Yet, anyone in a similar circumstance would probably rather skip the drama and call a patient advocate. That’s what we do, we’re here to help. 

(For a success story with similar obstacles, check out this blog!)