You will hear this statement not just from physicians, but from lots of other folks engaged in scholarly work of all stripes. That’s because it is not merely true; it is a deep and universal truth that permeates all of mankind’s intellectual endeavors.
The implication of this for the practice of medicine is that a little knowledge can be very dangerous.
What do I, as a fully trained, extensively experienced primary care physician bring to the evaluation of patients who seek out my care that cannot be matched by so-called “mid-level providers” (PAs and NPs)? It is not (always) my knowledge, but rather the experience to know when I do not know something. In short, I know when to ask someone else’s opinion in consultation or referral.
I had a scary experience lately with a PA who didn’t even know what she didn’t know (and who still probably doesn’t realize it.)
The patient had been bit on the hand by a cat. I saw the injury approximately 9 hours after it had occurred. The patient had cleaned it thoroughly as soon as it had happened, and by the time I saw it, it was still clean, bleeding freely, not particularly red or swollen, and only a little painful. Still; cat bites are nasty, especially on the hands. Therefore I began treatment with oral amoxicillin-clavulanate, and told the patient to soak it in hot water several times a day.
Six hours later (after one oral dose of antibiotic) the patient called me back: the wound was now much more painful, red, swollen, and there were red streaks going from the hand all the way up to his elbow. Frankly, I was a little puzzled. He was already on antibiotics; the single dose probably hadn’t had enough time to make much of an impact. And yet the infection was clearly progressing.
I called my handy dandy Hand man, my friend the hand surgeon I have on speed dial, whom I love because he answers my texts. This time, though, I picked up the phone and spoke to him. I explained the situation and my puzzlement. Here’s what he said:
Send him to the ER. He needs to admitted for IV antibiotics for 24 hours. If it’s not getting better by then, he needs a debridement [surgical procedure].
I called my patient and relayed the message. Just to be sure, though, I asked him to call me if they did NOT admit him.
On I went with my day.
Phone rings; it’s my patient calling from the ER:
They’re sending me home.
They’re giving me a dose of IV antibiotics and sending me home on the one you gave me. They gave me the number of a hand surgeon to call tomorrow if it’s not better.
I get on the phone to the ER, and ask to speak to the physician seeing my patient. Turns out it’s a PA, who proceeds to tell me that the hand doesn’t really look all that bad, she’s seen worse, and treated them like this before, sending them out with the blessing of the hand surgeon.
Hm. This is a fast moving infection that has worsened markedly in the last six hours while on oral antibiotics.
Did you consult Hand? I ask.
Long story short, I get the PA to call Hand Surgery (“Though I doubt they’ll come in,”) who successfully convinces the ER to admit the patient on 23 hour observation status with IV antibiotics. By morning (and 4 doses of IV antibiotics), the red streaks are resolving, the swelling and pain are decreasing, and the patient is good to go, to complete the course of orals.
I was concerned enough about this encounter to call the ER and speak to someone *in charge*. As part of our go-round, I was informed that there was always an ER physician available while the PA was seeing patients if there had been any concern, to whom the PA could turn. It was surprisingly difficult to convey the idea that the problem was that the PA did NOT have a concern. She did not believe that she needed to consult either with her supervising physician, or a specialist.
If I had not explained the (expected) plan to my patient, or specifically asked him to call if the plan was not carried out, or if I had meekly acquiesced to the “provider” on site since she was looking at the patient and I wasn’t (though the patient did take and send me a picture, which I was able to compare to one I took of the same injury 6 hours earlier), frankly I shudder to contemplate the outcome.
Primary care isn’t just about knowing stuff, and knowing what you know; more than that, it’s knowing enough to know what you don’t know.
Mid-level providers do not know enough to know what they don’t know. This makes them dangerous. Admittedly these situations are few and far between, which is what allows complacency to flourish. But make no mistake. Their education emphasizes what they know, leaving them with enormous blind spots of hubris into which more and more patients will fall, with predictably disastrous results.
Lucy E. Hornstein, MD is a solo-practitioner in Family Medicine. She is also a book author (Declarations of a Dinosaur) and posts frequently at her blog, Musings of a Dinosaur, where this post first appeared.