Emergency Medicine

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There’s a war being waged on one of America’s most revered institutions, the Emergency Room. The ER, or Emergency Department (ED for the sake of this post) has been the subject of at least a dozen primetime TV shows.

What’s not to love about a place where both Doogie Houser and George Clooney worked?

Every new parent in the world knows three different ways to get to the closest ED. It’s the place we all know we can go, no matter what, when we are feeling our worst. And yet, we’re not supposed to go there. Unless we are. But you know, don’t really go.

Somehow, we’ve turned the ED into this sacrosanct place where arriving by ambulance is ok, and all others are deemed worthy based on their insurance rather than acuity. If you think I’m wrong, ask any ED director if they want to lose 25% of their Blue Cross Blue Shield volume.

But its true. I hear ED physicians openly express disappointment in people who came into the ED and shouldn’t have.

It’s just a stomach bug, you shouldn’t be here for this… Or, it’s not my job to fill your prescriptions…

Some history

The Emergency Department is a fairly modern invention. The first EDs were born of two separate, though similar, aims. At Johns Hopkins, the ED began as the accident room, place where physicians could assess and treat —wait for it —minor accidents.

Elsewhere, in Pontiac Michigan and Northern Virginia early EDs were modeled after army M.A.S.H. field hospitals. They were serving more acute needs.

Today, billing for emergency department visits is done on the E&M Levels where level 1 is the least acute (think removing a splinter) and level 6 is traumatic life saving measures requiring hospitalization (think very bad car wreck). Most EDs, and CMS auditors, look for a bell curve distribution, which means there are more level 3 and 4 incidents than most others. While coding is unfortunately subjective, solid examples of level 3 visits include stomach bugs requiring IV fluids, a cut requiring stitches, and treatment of a migraine headache.

Continue reading “Stop the War on the Emergency Room!!! (Fix the System Failure)”

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Dear Mr. President:

I served in your White House; to do so was among the highest honors of my life and an incomparable professional opportunity.

Since 2009, I’ve sought to return the favor by building on a decade as a journalist to write about the unsung innovation I saw happening beneath the public’s radar.  (The federal government has never been great about describing its positive achievements, but this unintentional “humility” is worsened by too much media reliance on muckraking to generate cheap content.) The prize for some of your Administration’s improvements will be billions of dollars’ worth of process efficiency and an ability to retain social-good programs while slashing redundancy and phasing out archaic ways of doing business.  All politics aside, I watched these mechanisms with my own wide eyes.

But if one is to deliver praise like I just did, then one must also be willing to highlight dangerous errors in the path ahead, especially when the potholes are avoidable.  As a subject matter expert on emergency medical technologies, I have a patriotic duty to point out correctible overstatements and oversimplifications that, if left uncorrected, could undermine your Administration’s objective to bolster the public’s senses of safety, security and comfort—especially as it simultaneously emphasizes the danger of man-made and natural disasters.

On July 9, 2013, your White House sent out a “marketing” email entitled “President Obama’s Plan for Using Technology to Make Government Smarter.” The email contained the following three bullets:

  • Increasing efficiency and saving money.  CHECK: A worthy goal, and one that I had the chance to see put in action from the inside-out, as part of the project team that relaunched USAJOBS.gov—the so-called “face of federal hiring.”  The White House email cited cost reductions of our $2.5 billion; that seems reasonable, considering how extensive an effort went into collapsing duplicative data silos and databases, and modernizing the federal government’s technical infrastructure.  Vivek Kundra, the visionary former federal Chief Information Officer, should be a central figure in every conversation about government’s meaningful gravitation toward efficiency; he earned more credit than he gets (but that’s not why people work in government).
  • Opening government data to fuel innovation and problem-solving: CHECK: The Administration claims that it is opening “huge amounts of government data to the American people, and putting it on the internet for free.”  There are many ways in which this is true, ranging from Data.gov to the Blue Button Initiative, to a (relative) simplification of the grant-making process.  (The latter is better than it was, but it still is eons from intuitive or fair.)  Much controversy now swirls around actions that the government still keeps secret, but that cannot detract from the fact that a veritable cornucopia of information has been released, and it is indeed spurring creativity.  Unfortunately, my own firm uncovered a challenging corollary problem that goes hand-in-hand with the release of oodles of data: at least some of those data are bad, faulty or incomplete, yet when we tried contacting the appropriate agency to close the gap and strive for accuracy, we were met with silence.

The last bullet in the White House’s email, however, does not deserve a “CHECK.” Rather, it is concerning and arguably more dangerous than whoever drafted the outreach piece likely realized.  It also touches on something I know a bit about.

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Injury to the brain continues to be a unique thing in medicine. These injuries are scary and unfamiliar to many health care providers. There is a finality to them. Their consequences are hidden a little bit; the asystole is easy to figure in the emergency room but the suppression and brain death isn’t something so easily recognized.

They’re what you might imagine, along with polytrauma, as poster child conditions for tertiarization and transfer to a higher level of care.

In truly catastrophic injury to the brain however, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

My institution has had a small discussion lately on just what ethics and the law requires of us as a place with full neuro specialty coverage.

I’ll make up an example:

A 61 year old man comes into a small community hospital’s emergency room. He was found down at home by his wife and last seen normal four hours previously. He wouldn’t wake up and he was breathing slowly and shallowly. The ambulance crew intubated him. In the emergency room his pupils are large and don’t react to light and he doesn’t do anything when the doctor hurts him. He’s in a very deep coma. If the physician working the emergency room felt comfortable doing a brain death exam, which he doesn’t, the patient might have some very primitive reflexes left but his condition is very serious.

Continue reading “Does It Matter Where You Die?”

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Monday’s massive tornado ripped through Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, devastating homes and businesses and killing at least two dozen people. The disaster came just over a month after an explosion at a fertilizer plant devastated the town of West, Texas, killing 15 people and injuring some 200 others. Just two days earlier the bombings at the Boston Marathon left three dead and more than 260 injured.

Three mass-casualty events occurring in three very different settings show that disaster preparedness should not be limited to large cities or “target” areas in the United States. One trait that is common to all such events—whether urban, suburban or rural—is the need for coordinated, responsive trauma care for victims.

Boston had an advantage over the rural community of West in that seven hospitals, including facilities with readily available, highly specialized trauma and burn care, were in close proximity to the site of the blast. In contrast, the majority of casualties in West had to be transported to hospitals in Waco, 20 miles away. The main receiving facility, Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, is a hospital with trauma care capability. Other victims were treated at Providence Hospital, which is not a trauma center, and Scott & White Memorial and McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple, Texas, about 50 miles away. Several patients were transported as far as 75 miles to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the closest facility with burn and highly specialized trauma units. Most of these victims had traumatic injuries. In the case of Moore, the tornado inflicted significant damage to Moore Medical Center, requiring 145 casualties, including 45 children with minor to severe injuries, to be taken to other area hospitals in and around Oklahoma City.

Continue reading “From Boston to Oklahoma -Lessons for the Regional Trauma Response System”

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There’s always been difference between “truth” and “marketing truth,” the former being the more stringent of the two.  The daily bombardment of media messaging plus occasional advertising extravaganzas (hello, Super Bowl!) has desensitized us to where consumers don’t mind the fine print that says “Do not try this at home,” “Professional driver on a closed course,” or “Screen images simulated.”  Many people appreciate that Minority Report was released before screens could be controlled with fingertips; and the Tricorder has taken decades to jump from Star Trek to the X Prize.

“Marketing truth” turns irresponsible when it opens up false expectations  – that is, when reality is conflated to the point that consumers can no longer distinguish between what is real and what “may be coming soon.”  Great, emotionally affective commercials can do that.  But emergencies – those critical moments when we feel life’s fragility  – are not when we should have to stop and ask “Can they really do that?”  This is precisely the burden presented by a variety of recent ads featuring Fire and EMS professionals, the most dangerous of which is produced by Verizon.  Verizon’s spot risks making the public think that EMS providers and firefighters currently have access to more advanced technology in the field than, by and large, they do.  The advertisement is disingenuous, which certain important facts flubbed for dramatic effect.  But that happens in the marketing world everyday—why should it be any different in the case of emergency medical services or health information technology?

Quite simply, because to do so risks inculcating in the public a false sense of comfort with the state of EMS technology today; and moreover—to those among us whom seek to bring long-overdue innovations to the industry—it risks the public asking, “Doesn’t this already exist?  We saw it on television, after all.”

Continue reading “A Dangerous Distortion: Verizon’s Foray into Emergency Medical Services”

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“The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”

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.
Continue reading “Not Knowing What You Don’t Know”

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It happened again.  I was talking to a particularly sick patient recently who related another bad experience with a specialist.

“He came in and started spouting that he was busy saving someone’s life in the ER, and then he didn’t listen to what I had to say,” she told me.  ”I know that he’s a good doctor and all, but he was a real jerk!”

This was a specialist that I hold in particular high esteem for his medical skill, so I was a little surprised and told her so.

“I think he holds himself in pretty high esteem, if you ask me,” she replied, still angry.

“Yes,” I agreed, “he probably does.  It’s kind of hard to find a doctor who doesn’t.”

She laughed and we went on to figure out her plan.

This encounter made me wonder: was this behavior typical of this physician (something I’ve never heard about from him), or was there something else going on?  I thought about the recent study which showed doctors are significantly more likely than people of other professions to suffer from burn-out.

Compared with a probability-based sample of 3442 working US adults, physicians were more likely to have symptoms of burnout (37.9% vs 27.8%) and to be dissatisfied with work-life balance (40.2% vs 23.2%) (P < .001 for both).

This is consistent with other data I’ve seen indicating higher rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide for physicians compared to the general public.  On first glance it would seem that physicians would have lower rates of problems associated with self-esteem, as the medical profession is still held in high esteem by the public, is full of opportunities to “do good” for others, and (in my experience) is one in which people are quick to express their appreciation for simply doing the job as it should be done.  Yet this study not only showed burn-out, but a feeling of self-doubt few would associate with my profession.

Continue reading “Burnout”

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