Although misdiagnosis may kill up to 80,000 annually—more people each year than firearms and motor vehicle accidents combined—you won’t find it on the list of the country’s leading causes of death.
Most Americans don’t realize how frequently well-meaning medical providers get it wrong. Just last year Johns Hopkins researchers found that one in 12 ICU patients die from something other than what they were being treated for. Aside from a handful of instances covered by the national media, misdiagnosis hasn’t received much attention from the public or the medical community. One such tragedy is the death of Rory Staunton, a 12-year-old boy who was treated for an upset stomach and dehydration instead of sepsis, a severe response to infection that requires immediate treatment with antibiotics. To make a complex diagnosis like sepsis, a doctor may need to assess a couple dozen different factors.
One solution is to arm clinicians with better problem-solving tools and improved IT systems to help them identify possible diagnoses faster and more accurately, especially for conditions that are commonly confused or missed altogether. This week at Johns Hopkins, a team of researchers shared some promising results about a new way for emergency medicine doctors to accurately detect stroke in patients with dizziness.
Continue reading “Ruling Out the Wrong Diagnosis”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: David Newman-Toker, Hospitals, ICU, JHU, Misdiagnosis, Patient Safety, Peter Pronovost, Physicians, Rory Staunton
Mar 7, 2013
My father, sister and I sat in the near-empty Chinese restaurant, picking at our plates, unable to avoid the question that we’d gathered to discuss: When was it time to let Mom die?
It had been a grueling day at the hospital, watching — praying — for any sign that my mother would emerge from her coma. Three days earlier she’d been admitted for nausea; she had a nasty cough and was having trouble keeping food down. But while a nurse tried to insert a nasogastric tube, her heart stopped. She required CPR for nine minutes. Even before I flew into town, a ventilator was breathing for her, and intravenous medication was keeping her blood pressure steady. Hour after hour, my father, my sister and I tried talking to her, playing her favorite songs, encouraging her to squeeze our hands or open her eyes.
Doctors couldn’t tell us exactly what had gone wrong, but the prognosis was grim, and they suggested that we consider removing her from the breathing machine. And so, that January evening, we drove to a nearby restaurant in suburban Detroit for an inevitable family meeting.
Continue reading “How Mom’s Death Changed My Thinking About End-of-Life Care”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Charles Ornstein, Dartmouth Atlas, Death panels, Elliot Fisher, End of Life Care, ICU, Medicare, Medicare spending
Feb 28, 2013
It wasn’t until I had read this.
A national shortage of critical care physicians and beds means difficult decisions for healthcare professionals: how to determine which of the sickest patients are most in need of access to the intensive care unit. What if patients’ electronic health records could help a physician determine ICU admission by reliably calculating which patient had the highest risk of death?
Emerging health technologies – including reliable methods to rate the severity of a patient’s condition – may provide powerful tools to efficiently use scarce and costly health resources, says a team of University of Michigan Health System researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“The lack of critical care beds can be frustrating and scary when you have a patient who you think would benefit from critical care, but who can’t be accommodated quickly. Electronic health records – which provide us with rich, reliable clinical data – are untapped tools that may help us efficiently use valuable critical care resources,” says hospitalist and lead author Lena M. Chen, M.D., M.S., assistant professor in internal medicine at the University of Michigan and an investigator at the Center for Clinical Management Research(CCMR), VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
The UMHS and VA study referenced in the article finds that patients’ severity of illness is not always strongly associated with their likelihood of being admitted to the ICU, challenging the notion that limited and expensive critical care is reserved for the sickest patients. ICU admissions for non-cardiac patients closely reflected severity of illness (i.e., sicker patients were more likely to go to the ICU), but ICU admissions for cardiac patients did not, the study found. While the reasons for this are unclear, authors note that the ICU’s explicit role is to provide care for the sickest patients, not to respond to temporary staffing issues or unavailable recovery rooms. Continue reading “Building a Better Health Care System: Electronic Health Records Could Help Identify Which Patients Most Need ICU Resources”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Brian Ahier, Costs, critical care, EHR, EHR Incentive Programs, ICU, Kaiser Permanente, Meaningful Use, NEJM, Patients, VA Medical System
Feb 4, 2013
Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”
She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”
Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit.
We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband.
You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.
Continue reading “End of the Line in the ICU”
Filed Under: Commentology, THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Cancer, DNR, DNR tattoos, End of life decisions, futile care, ICU, Kristen McConnell, Nursing, Palliative Care
Nov 16, 2012
On a snowy night in February 2001, Josie King, an adorable 18-month-old girl who looked hauntingly like my daughter, was taken off of life support and died in her mother’s arms at Johns Hopkins. Josie died from a cascade of errors that started with a central line-associated bloodstream infection, a type of infection that kills nearly as many people as breast cancer or prostate cancer.
Shortly after her death, her mother, Sorrel, asked if Josie would be less likely to die now. She wanted to know whether care was safer. We would not give her an answer; she deserves one. At the time, our rates of infections, like most of the country’s, were sky high. I was one of the doctors putting in these catheters and harming patients. No clinician wants to harm patients, but we were.
So we set out to change this. We developed a program that included a checklist of best practices, an intervention called CUSP [the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program] to help change culture and engage frontline clinicians, and performance measures so we could be accountable for results. It worked. We virtually eliminated these infections.
Then in 2003 through 2005, with funding from AHRQ, we partnered with the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. Within six months in over 100 ICUs, these infections were reduced by 66 percent. Over 65 percent of ICUs went one year without an infection; 25 percent went two years. The results were sustained, and the program saved lives and money, all from a $500,000 investment by AHRQ for two years.
Continue reading “Health Care’s Man on the Moon Moment?”
Filed Under: Hospitals
Tagged: AHRQ, central line-associated bloodstream infection, CUSP, ICU, Johns Hopkins, Medical errors, Michigan Health & Hospital Association, Patient Safety, Peter Pronovost, Preventable harm
Sep 12, 2012
I recently cared for Ms. K, an elderly black woman who had been sitting in the intensive care unit for more than a month. She was, frail, weak and intermittently delirious, with a hopeful smile. She had a big problem: She had undergone an esophagectomy at an outside hospital and suffered a horrible complication, leading her to be transferred to The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Ms. K had a large hole in her posterior trachea, far too large to directly fix, extending from her vocal cords to where her trachea splits into right and left bronchus. She had a trachea tube so she can breathe, and her esophagus was tied off high in her throat so oral secretions containing bacteria did not fall through the hole and infect her heart and lungs. It is unclear if she will survive, and the costs of her medical care will be in the millions.
Ms K’s complication is tragic—and largely preventable. For the type of surgery she had, there is a strong volume-outcome relationship: Those hospitals that perform more than 12 cases a year have significantly lower mortality. This finding, based on significant research, is made transparent by the Leapfrog Group and several insurers, who use a performance measure that combines the number of cases performed with the mortality rate. Hopkins Hospital performs more than 100 of these procedures a year, and across town, the University of Maryland tallies about 60. The hospital where Ms. K had her surgery did one last year. One. While the exact relationship between volume and outcome is imprecise, it is no wonder she had a complication.
Ms. K is not alone. Of the 45 Maryland hospitals that perform this surgery, 56 percent had fewer than 12 cases last year and 38 percent had fewer than six.
Continue reading “See One, Do One, Harm One?”
Filed Under: Physicians, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Costs, esophagectomy, ICU, Outcomes, Patient Safety, Peter Pronovost, surgery complications, The Leapfrog Group, tracheostomy
Aug 14, 2012
My recent post on end-of-life care issues, “What if they had had to pay?,” generated a lot of comments in the blogosphere and beyond. One intensive care doctor sent me a particularly poignant note. It gives a good sense of what it is like on this person’s side of the bed. The note re-emphasizes the need for better end-of-life planning, for the sake of patients, families, and providers.
Here’s my day so far. This is my first day of a 7-day stretch in a tertiary ICU. The average census in this ICU is 10, but today we have had to surge to 15.
Let me stop right there. This is doctor (and nurse) shorthand for, “I expect to be very busy, very tired, and very stressed out. I am going to have to make some highly critical clinical judgments, sometimes with very little time to react. I don’t know anything about these patients beyond what is in the charts and what our care team sees and hears for themselves.”
Two patients today coded in our hospital. One family wants “everything” done, and seemed shocked to learn that I don’t think it is right to provide “everything.” The other family wished someone from the healthcare team had bothered to ask them what their 89 year old dad would really like to accomplish from his hospital stay before he tried to die. We decided to let him finish dying.
Continue reading “Two Patients Coded”
Filed Under: Uncategorized
Tagged: End of Life Care, Hospitals, ICU
Jan 13, 2012
Something I learned as a medical intern is that there are worse things than dying.
As I recall, it was sometime in April, 1988. I was putting a line in an old man with end-stage kidney disease, cancer (maybe), heart failure, bacteria in his blood and no consciousness. Prince was on the radio, loud, by his bedside. If you could call it that – the uncomfortable, curtained compartment didn’t seem like a good place for resting.
An attending physician, a smart guy I respected, approached me as I completed the procedure.
“It’s kind of like Dante’s seventh circle,” he noted.
Indeed. A clear, flexible tube drained greenish fluid from the man’s stomach through his nose. Gauze covered his eyes, just partially. His head, hands and feet swelled with fluid. A semi-opaque hard-plastic instrument linked the man’s trachea, through his paper-taped mouth, to a noisy breathing machine. His skin, barely covered by a stained hospital gown, was pale but blotchy from bleeding beneath. An arterial catheter inserted by his wrist, just where I might have taken his pulse had he been healthier. A fresh adhesive covered the cotton gauze and brownish anti-bacterial solution I’d placed over his lower right neck.
“Yeah,” I said as we walked out of the room to review another patient’s chart.
Continue reading “How to Avoid Death in the ICU”
Filed Under: Hospitals, THCB, The DC
Tagged: Advanced directive, Elaine Schattner, End, End of Life Care, ICU
Aug 26, 2011