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Category: Medical Practice

Patient Worries as a Central Feature of their Health Care Experiences

By JOHN JAMES, ROBERT R. SCULLY, CASEY QUINLAN, BILL ADAMS, HELEN HASKELL, and POPPY ARFORD

Political forces trying to shape and reshape American healthcare without hearing the voice of patients provided the rationale for this work. Our experiences as patients, caregivers, and users of media sources cause us to worry. The Patient Council of the Right Care Alliance developed 6 questions to form a national survey of Americans to guide policy makers. The questions and our rationale were as follows:

1) Finding a doctor I can trust. Trust in our doctors is not as high as it once was. There are stories of serious patient abuse that appear in the media; two of the more notorious examples include a neurosurgeon harming many patients before being stopped and an oncologist who was deliberately misdiagnosing cancer to sell chemotherapy. Patients perceive this as the reluctance of the physician community to effectively ‘police their own.’

2) I will be misdiagnosed. Misdiagnosis happens far too often at all levels of healthcare. The problem is so common that the National Academy of Medicine turned its attention to the problem and published Improving Diagnosis in Health Care in 2015. The solution to the misdiagnosis problem is complex and has yet to arrive at the clinician-patient interface.

3) I will get an infection while receiving treatment. Healthcare-associated infections have dropped somewhat in the past decade, yet there are still about 720,000 infections and 75,000 deaths per year from healthcare-associated infections. Many of these are becoming nearly impossible to effectively treat. The improper use of ordinary antibiotics continues to be a problem in clinical settings.

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The Social Context and Vulnerabilities that Challenge Health Care in the San Joaquin Valley of California

By ALYA AHMAD, MD

Call it what you want, white privilege and health disparity appear to be two sides of the same coin. We used to consider ethnic or genetic variants as risk factors, prognostic to health conditions. However, the social determinants of health (SDOH) have increasingly become more relevant as causes of disease prevalence and complexity in health care.

As a pediatric hospitalist in the San Joaquin Valley region, I encounter these social determinants daily. They were particularly evident as I treated a 12-year old Hispanic boy who was admitted with a ruptured appendix and developed a complicated abscess, requiring an extensive hospitalization due to his complication. Why? Did he have the genetic propensity for this adverse outcome? Was it because he was non-compliant with his antibiotic regimen? No.

Rather, circumstances due to his social context presented major hurdles to his care. He had trouble getting to a hospital or clinic. He did not want to burden his parents—migrant workers with erratic long hours—further delaying his evaluation. And his Spanish-speaking mother never wondered why, despite surgery and drainage, he was not healing per the usual expectation.

When he was first hospitalized, his mother bounced around in silent desperation from their rural clinic to the emergency room more than 20 miles from their home and back to the clinic, only to be referred again to that same emergency room. By the time he was admitted 2 days later, he was profoundly ill. The surgeon had to be called in the middle of the night for an emergency open surgical appendectomy and drainage. Even after post-operative care, while he was on broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotics, his fevers, chills and pain persisted. To avoid worrying his mother, he continued to deny his symptoms. Five days after his operation, he required another procedure for complex abscess drainage.

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Medical Records in Primary Care: Keeping the Story of Phone Calls and Medication Changes with Less than Perfect Tools

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

I need the right information at the right time (and in a place that makes sense to me) to make safe medical decisions.

Here’s another Metamedicine story:

In learning my third EMR, I am again a little disappointed. I am again, still, finding it hard to document and retrieve the thread of my patient’s life and disease story. I think many EMRs were created for episodic, rather than continued medical care.

One thing that can make working with an EMR difficult is finding the chronology in office visits (seen for sore throat and started on an antibiotic), phone calls (starting to feel itchy, is it an allergic reaction?and outside reports (emergency room visit for anaphylactic reaction).

I have never understood the logic of storing phone calls in a separate portion of the EMR, the way some systems do. In one of my systems, calls were listed separately by date without “headlines” like “?allergic reaction” in the case above.

In my new system, which I’m still learning, they seem to be stored in a bigger bucket for all kinds of “tasks” (refills, phone calls, orders and referrals made during office visits etc.)

Both these systems seem to give me the option of creating, in a more or less cumbersome way, “non-billable encounters” to document things like phone calls and ER visits, in chronological order, in the same part of the record as the office notes. That may be what IT people disparagingly call “workarounds”, but listen, I need the right information at the right time (and in a place that makes sense to me) to make safe medical decisions.

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Quantum Theory of Health

By KIM BELLARD

We’re pretty proud of modern medicine.  We’ve accumulated a very intricate understanding of how our body works, what can go wrong with it, and what are options are for tinkering with it to improve its health.  We’ve got all sorts of tests, treatments, and pills for it, with more on the way all the time.

However, there has been increasing awareness of the impact our microbiota has on our health, and I think modern medicine is reaching the point classical physics did when quantum physics came along.  

Image credit: E. Edwards/JQI

Classical physics pictured the atom as kind of a miniature solar system, with well-defined particles revolving in definite orbits around the solid nucleus.  In quantum physics, though, particles don’t have specific positions or exact orbits, combine/recombine, get entangled, and pop in and out of existence.  At the quantum level everything is kind of fuzzy, but quantum theory itself is astoundingly predictive.  We’re fooled into thinking our macro view of the universe is true, but our perceptions are wrong.   

So it may be with modern medicine.  Our microbiota (including both the microbiome and mycobiome) both provide the fuzziness and dictate a significant portion of our health.   

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Why Healthcare Needs Designers

By TINA PARK, MFA

Designing a functional lamp is simple. Building the Mars Rover is complex. Getting a doctor to ask the right questions so that a patient feels confident about their care in a highly regulated and time constrained environment? That’s complicated.

Healthcare is filled with complicated challenges. Increasingly, healthcare companies and institutions are attacking these challenges with cross-disciplinary teams — doctors, data scientists, marketers, quality officers, financial experts, information technologists, and more. An often missing member of these teams are design leaders. Designers can provide an invaluable role in healthcare, but too often healthcare does not take advantage of all that design can offer.

Good design is invisible. Think about the last time you obtained or purchased something that was well designed. When you get a new blender, you plug it in and turn it on without looking at the user manual, and it works. You don’t necessarily think “Wow, they put that on button right where I thought it would be.” You use it and get on with your day. And every day you use that blender, putting in new mixtures of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes you get a delicious jackpot mix and think this is the best blender ever. Sometimes you get something brown and sticky and you make a mental note never to try that one again, even as you choke it down.

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Asinine, Backasswards Colonoscopy Insurance Rules Make Patients Decline Medically Necessary Testing

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

I’ve had several telephone calls in the last two weeks from a 40-year-old woman with abdominal pain and changed bowel habits. She obviously needs a colonoscopy, which is what I told her when I saw her.

If she needed an MRI to rule out a brain tumor I think she would accept that there would be co-pays or deductibles, because the seriousness of our concern for her symptoms would make her want the testing.

But because in the inscrutable wisdom of the Obama Affordable Care Act, it was decided that screening colonoscopies done on people with no symptoms whatsoever are a freebie, whereas colonoscopies done when patients have symptoms of colon cancer are subject to severe financial penalties.

So, because there’s so much talk about free screening colonoscopies, patients who have symptoms and need a diagnostic colonoscopy are often frustrated, confused and downright angry that they have to pay out-of-pocket to get what other people get for free when they don’t even represent a high risk for life-threatening disease.

But, a free screening colonoscopy turns into an expensive diagnostic one if it shows you have a polyp and the doctor does a biopsy – that’s how the law was written. If that polyp turns out to be benign, or hyperplastic, there is no increased cancer risk associated with it, but you still have to pay your part of a diagnostic colonoscopy bill because they found something.

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A Letter to Ms. Judy Faulkner & Mr. Tommy Thompson

By GRACE CORDOVANO PhD, BCPA

Being a patient or a carepartner can be a lonely, powerless place.

There’s no high powered legal or lobbying team to help support you in your or your loved one’s health care journey. There’s no PR team at your beck and call. There’s no advisory board, no executive committee, no assistants, no chatbots or AI-powered technology coming to the rescue. There’s no funding or a company sponsoring your efforts.

There’s no course in how to be a professional patient or carepartner.

There’s no one there in the stillness and dark of the night, when you are in the quiet of your thoughts, the privacy of your personal space, where there are fleeting moments that you don’t have to be strong and courageous. There is no one there to console you, support you as you lay there willing to make a deal with the devil for the slightest glimmer of hope, the slightest bit of clarity, or slightest bit of peace.

As a the carepartner to a loved one who is sick or disabled, many wouldn’t second guess charging head first through a thousand wielded swords if it meant a hope or a cure.

As an advocate, the majority of the work you do is self-created, self-supported, and unpaid. A calling. An undeniable, magnetic force that pulls you in because you cannot turn a blind eye no matter how hard you try. Because you cannot bear witness to human suffering and not do anything. Because you’ve been there and you can relate to another’s pain, grief, and sense of hopelessness and it is unacceptable to not help ease the heaviness of another’s burden.

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Low Value Testing and Unmet Cascades

By ANISH KOKA, MD

Mr. Smith has a problem. 

He can’t see. 

Even this cardiologist knows why.  The not so subtle evidence lies in the cloudy lens in front of his pupils.  He is afflicted with cataracts that obstruct his vision to the point he can’t really do his job refurbishing antique furniture safely.  His other problem is that he hates doctors. He hasn’t had reason to see one for more than a decade.  He’s 68, takes no medications, smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, and is a master of one word answers. He’s in my office because he needs a medical evaluation prior to his cataract procedure. Someone needs to attest to medical safety. I’m it.

He just wants to get out of here.

His annoyance of being in the office is justified.  Cataract surgery is very low risk.  Unless he’s having an acute medical problem, there is little to do.  The problem is that in an age of high volume, super specialized care, the eye doctor can’t attest to this, and the anesthesiologists have little interest in finding out the morning of his procedure that Mr. Smith has been having more frequent episodes of chest pain over the last two weeks.  Perhaps the chest pain is just acid reflux, or maybe it’s because of a pulmonary embolism related to the tobacco induced lung malignancy no one knows about. It’s possible, and highly likely, Mr. Smith will survive his cataract surgery even if he has a pulmonary embolism.  Cataract surgery really is pretty low risk.

But the doctor’s ethos has never been to ‘clear a patient for a cataract’, it is to commit to the health of the patient.  Mr. Smith deserves the opportunity to receive good medical care that isn’t made threadbare just because of the cataract surgery on the horizon.

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Why Do We Have Residency Training?

By BRYAN CARMODY, MD

Surely every resident has had the experience of trying to explain to a patient or family what, exactly, a resident is. “Yes, I’m a real doctor… I just can’t do real doctor things by myself.”

In many ways, it’s a strange system we have. How come you can call yourself a doctor after medical school, but you can’t actually work as a physician until after residency? How – and why – did this system get started?

These are fundamental questions – and as we answer them, it will become apparent why some problems in the medical school-to-residency transition have been so difficult to fix.

In the beginning…

Go back to the 18th or 19th century, and medical training in the United States looked very different. Medical school graduates were not required to complete a residency – and in fact, most didn’t. The average doctor just picked up his diploma one day, and started his practice the next.

But that’s because the average doctor was a generalist. He made house calls and took care of patients in the community. In the parlance of the day, the average doctor was undistinguished. A physician who wanted to distinguish himself as being elite typically obtained some postdoctoral education abroad in Paris, Edinburgh, Vienna, or Germany.

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“I Want Complete Labs Ordered Before My Physical”

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

Many patients make this or similar requests, especially in January it seems.

This phenomenon has its roots in two things. The first is the common misconception that random blood test abnormalities are more likely early warning signs of disease than statistical or biochemical aberrances and false alarms. The other is the perverse policy of many insurance companies to cover physicals and screening tests with zero copay but to apply deductibles and copays for people who need tests or services because they are sick.

It is crazy to financially penalize a person with chest pain for going to the emergency room and having it end up being acid reflux and not a heart attack while at the same time providing free blood counts, chemistry profiles and lipid tests every year for people without health problems or previous laboratory abnormalities.

A lot of people don’t know or remember that what we call normal is the range that 95% of healthy people fall within, and that goes for thyroid or blood sugar values, white blood cell counts, height and weight – anything you can measure. If a number falls outside the “normal” range you need to see if other parameters hint at the same possible diagnosis, because 5% of perfectly healthy people will have an abnormal result for any given test we order. So on a 20 item blood panel, you can pretty much expect to have one abnormal result even if you are perfectly healthy.

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