Nurses

“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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Six years ago, my husband saved my life.

I had a severe allergic reaction to a medicine in the hospital in the middle of the night; he ran for the nurse. As for me, despite being a doctor myself, I couldn’t even breathe, let alone call for help. And so, even before and certainly since, I advise my patients not to be alone in the hospital if they can help it. I don’t even think anyone should be alone for office visits. There is too much opportunity to misunderstand the doctor, forget to ask the right questions, or misremember the answers.

National organizations like the American Cancer Society give the same advice: when possible, bring a friend.

As a patient safety researcher and an advocate for high quality healthcare, however, I find giving this advice distasteful. Is a permanent sidekick really the best we can do to keep patients safe? What about those who are already vulnerable because they don’t have such a superhero in their lives, or that superhero just has to punch in at some inflexible job?

Let’s take another look at the circumstances that ended up with my husband shouting, panic-stricken, in the hallway. The medicine I was given is known to cause severe allergic reactions. It is so well-established, in fact, that the standard protocol for giving this medication is to give a small test dose first. It was the test dose that nearly did me in. The hospital followed standard procedure by giving me the test dose. But they chose to do it at midnight, when the hospital is staffed by a skeleton crew, even though the medicine wasn’t urgent. Strike one for safety. Continue reading “My Patient’s Keeper”

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This case is prompting a lot of comments, some of them taking issue with the concept of systemic failures and instead asserting that the young nurse was clearly incompetent, in that her error was inexplicable.  So, let’s turn from a clinic in Brazil to a recent case in a hospital in the US, cited in this article on AHRQ’s Web M&M.  A summary:

The order was written correctly in the electronic medical record (EMR) for phenytoin, 800 mg IV. The drug-dispensing machines stocked phenytoin in 250 mg/1 mL vials. The correct dose therefore would require 4 vials and be equal to 3.2 mL to be added to a small IV bag. The nurse misread the order as 8000 mg (8 g) and proceeded to administer that dose to the patient, which was a 10-fold overdose and 2 to 3 times the lethal dose. The patient died several minutes after the infusion.

This nurse had to work hard to make the error:

An audit of the pharmacy system revealed that the nurse had taken 32 vials out of 3 different pharmacy dispensing machines to accumulate 8 g of IV phenytoin. Moreover, the nurse had to use two IV bags and a piggyback line to give that large a dose.

Continue reading “Is the Nurse Incompetent?”

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Within the next two years, if federal healthcare reforms proceed as expected, roughly 30 million of the estimated 50 million uninsured people in the United States — 6.9 million in California — will be trying to find new healthcare providers.

It won’t be easy. Primary care providers are already in short supply, both in California and nationwide. That’s because doctors are increasingly leaving primary care for other types of practices, including higher paid specialties. As the demand increases, the squeeze on providers will worsen, leading to potentially lower standards of care in general and longer wait times for appointments for many of the rest of us.

Nurse practitioners can help fill this gap. We are registered nurses with graduate school education and training to provide a wide range of both preventive and acute healthcare services. We’re trained to provide complete physical exams, diagnose many problems, interpret lab results and X-rays, and prescribe and manage medications. In other words, we’re fully prepared to provide excellent primary care. Moreover, there are plenty of us waiting to do just that. The most recent federal government statistics show there were nearly 160,000 of us in 2008, an increase of 12% over 2004, and our numbers continue to rise.

Clinics like the one I direct in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — GLIDE Health Services — offer a hopeful glimpse into California’s healthcare future. We are a federally funded, affordable clinic, run almost entirely by nurse practitioners. At our clinic, we nurses and talented specialists provide high-quality, comprehensive primary care to more than 3,200 patients each year.

Despite the special hardships of our clientele, who daily cope with the negative effects on health caused by poverty, unemployment and substance abuse, our results routinely compare favorably with those of mainstream physicians. Our patients with diabetes, for example, report regularly for checkups, take their meds as directed and maintain relatively low average blood-sugar levels.

Continue reading “Healthcare Reform’s Missing Link — Nurse Practitioners”

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There are lots of losers in President Obama’s effort to remake the U.S. health care system, and chief among them are the doctors.  But there are also winners, especially nurses and physician assistants (PAs).  Indeed, nurses and PAs win big in part because doctors lose badly.

Surveys repeatedly show doctors are fed up with low reimbursement rates from Medicare and even lower from Medicaid, which have increasingly led doctors to no longer see new patients in those government-run plans.  For example, a recent Texas Medical Association survey found that “34 percent of Texas doctors either limit the number of Medicare patients they accept or don’t accept any new Medicare patients.”  Even more do not accept patients with Medicaid.

Then there’s the heavy-handed regulations and requirements from both government and private health insurers.  Complying with all those requirements and paperwork creates expensive and time-consuming administrative burdens.  And to top it off, there’s the looming shadow of a high-cost lawsuit if things don’t turn out well.

And that’s all before ObamaCare kicks in, which will exacerbate every one of those problems.  So it’s little wonder that there are physician shortages, especially in lower-paying primary care, and those shortages are only going to get worse if ObamaCare succeeds in getting an estimated 32 million more Americans insured.

The increased demand for medical care and lower reimbursements—which is one of the primary ways ObamaCare will try to hold down costs—is a recipe for a mass exodus of doctors willing to practice medicine.  As “Physicians Practice” reported in August from its physician survey: “Nineteen percent say they plan to move to another position in the same field.  An equal amount says they plan to leave medicine—not to retire, but to pursue something new.”

Continue reading “Health Care Future Bright for Nurses. Stinks for Doctors.”

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On December 15, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30) introduced HR 3679, The National Nurse Act of 2011.

The legislation, co-led by Rep. Peter King (NY-3), would elevate the existing Chief Nurse Officer of the US Public Health Service, to the National Nurse for Public Health, a new full time leadership position that can focus nationally on health promotion and disease prevention priorities.

Teri Mills, a Certified Nurse Educator at Portland Community College in Oregon and President of the National Nursing Network Organization (NNNO), introduced the idea of a National Nurse in a 2005 NY Times op/ed. Here is an excerpt from that article.

…Nurses are considered the most honest and ethical professionals, according to a recent Gallup poll. It’s the nurse whom the patient trusts to explain the treatment ordered by a doctor. It is the nurse who teaches new parents how to care for their newborn. It is the nurse who explains to the family how to comfort a dying loved one.

Now, I’m not saying that a National Nurse will become a household name immediately. But given all that’s at stake – the health of a nation – it seems to me that we should at least give nurses a try.

Continue reading “The National Nurse”

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After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, several hundred thousand refugees descended on Dallas, Houston and other Texas cities. Many of them needed medical care. Unfortunately, Texas wasn’t prepared.

If a natural disaster hit Oregon, the victims would have fared much better. The state’s 8,500 nurse practitioners (NPs) are free to come to the aid of people in need of care, with no legal obstruction. In Oregon, nurses with the proper credentials and licensure may open their practices anywhere they choose and operate in the same capacity as a primary care physician without oversight from any other medical professionals. They can draw blood, prescribe medications, and even admit patients to the hospital.

In Texas, which has some of the most stringent regulations in the country, however, a nurse practitioner can’t do much of anything without being supervised by a doctor who must:

  • Not oversee more than four nurses at one time.
  • Not oversee nurses located outside of a 75 mile radius.
  • Conduct a random review of 10 percent of the nurses’ patient charts every 10 days.
  • Be on the premises 20 percent of the time.

Note that under the rubric of “nurse,” there are a host of subcategories. In general, nurse practitioners have the skills to prescribe, treat and do most things a primary care physician can do. They generally must have completed a Registered Nurse and a Nurse Practitioner Program and have a Masters or PhD degree. In addition, there are physician assistants, registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and army medics. In most states, each of these categories has its own set of restrictions and regulations, delineating what the practitioners can and can’t do.

Continue reading “Why Not a Nurse?”

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All of us have been to fast food establishments. We go there because we are in a hurry and it’s cheap. We love the convenience. We expect that the quality of the cuisine will be several rungs lower than fine dining.

We now have a fast medicine option available to us. Across the country, there are over 1000 ‘minute-clinics’ that are being set up in pharmacies, supermarkets and other retail store chains. These clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners who have prescribing authority, under the loose oversight of a physician who is likely off sight. These nurses will see patients with simple medical issues and will adhere to strict guidelines so they will not treat beyond their medical knowledge. For example, if a man comes in clutching his chest and gasping, the nurse will know not to just give him some Rolaids and wish him well. At least, that’s the plan.

Primary care physicians are concerned over the metastases of ‘minute-clinics’ nationwide. Of course, they argue from a patient safety standpoint, but there are powerful parochial issues worrying physicians. They are losing business. They have a point that patients should be rightly concerned about medical errors and missed diagnoses at these medical care drive-ins. These nurses, even with their advanced training, are not doctors. It is also true serious or even life threatening conditions can masquerade as innocent medical complaints and might not be recognized by a nurse who treats colds and ankle sprains.

Continue reading “Minute Clinics Threaten Doctors: Who Wins?”

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The sad case of Kimberly Hiatt, a Seattle nurse who committed suicide months after being disciplined for administering a fatal dose to an infant, is starting to make the rounds. Josephine Ensign, for example, concludes her blog post on this by saying:

I am left with many questions. Why was the nurse treated so differently from the dentist or physician at the same hospital for similarly serious medication errors? If one in three hospital patients in the US experiences serious preventable adverse events and we know that it’s “the system, stupid,” why are most of our efforts put into educating patients to advocate for safer care? If nurses are simultaneously being told by hospital administrators to report errors and then facing serious retribution for making honest unintentional mistakes . . . what do I teach my students to do?

We can never know, of course, whether the suicide was related to the incident itself, the disciplinary action, or indeed, some other aspect of Hiatt’s life. But the sequence of events will cause many to draw the connection between the way Hiatt was treated after the accident and her death. In any event, though, the ambiguity as to whether or not it was connected does not take away from the kinds of questions raised by Ensign. Continue reading “I Wish We Were Less Patient”

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How many nurses does it take to care for a hospitalized patient? No, that’s not a bad version of a light bulb joke; it’s a serious question, with thousands of lives and billions of dollars resting on the answer. Several studies (such as here and here) published over the last decade have shown that having more nurses per patient is associated with fewer complications and lower mortality. It makes sense.

Yet these studies have been criticized on several grounds. First, they examined staffing levels for hospitals as a whole, not at the level of individual units. Secondly, they compared well-staffed hospitals against poorly staffed ones, raising the possibility that staffing levels were a mere marker for other aspects of quality such as leadership commitment or funding. Finally, they based their findings on average patient load, failing to take into account patient turnover.

Last week’s NEJM contains the best study to date on this crucial issue. It examined nearly 200,000 admissions to 43 units in a “high quality hospital.” While the authors don’t name the hospital, they do tell us that the institution is a US News top rated medical center, has achieved nursing “Magnet” status, and, during the study period, had a mortality rate nearly 40 percent below that predicted for its case-mix. In other words, it was no laggard.

As one could guess from its pedigree and outcomes, the hospital’s approach to nurse staffing was not stingy. Of 176,000 nursing shifts during the study period, only 16 percent were significantly below the established target (the targets are presumably based on patient volume and acuity, but are not well described in the paper). The authors found that patients who experienced a single understaffed shift had a 2 percent higher mortality rate than ones who didn’t. Each additional understaffed shift carried a similar, and additive, risk. This means that the one-in-three patients who experienced three such shifts during their hospital stay had a 6 percent higher mortality than the few patients who didn’t experience any. If the FDA discovered that a new medication was associated with a 2 percent excess mortality rate, you can bet that the agency would withdraw it from the market faster than you could say “Sidney Wolfe.”

The effects of high patient turnover were even more striking. Exposure to a shift with unusually high turnover (7 percent of all shifts met this definition) was associated with a 4 percent increased odds of death. Apparently, patient turnover – admissions, discharges, and transfers – is to hospital units and nurses as takeoffs and landings are to airplanes and flight crews: a single 5-hour flight (one takeoff/landing) is far less stressful, and much safer, than five hour-long flights (5 takeoffs/landings). Continue reading “Nurse Staffing, Patient Mortality, And a Lady Named Louise”

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