The hackneyed windows phrase, about what a domestic employee will and will not do for an employer, represents a concept that applies to the life of a doctor, too.
Personally, I have to do Windows, the default computer system of corporate America, even though I despise it. But in my personal life I use iOS on my iPad and iPhone and very rarely use even my slick looking MacBook Pro. I use “tech” and machines as little as possible and I prefer that they work invisibly and intuitively.
In medicine, even in what used to be called “general practice”, you can’t very reasonably do everything for everybody. Setting those limits requires introspection, honesty and diplomacy.
In my case, I have always stayed away from dealing with machine treatments of disease. But I do much more than just prescribe medication. Since the beginning of my career, and more and more the longer I practice, I teach and counsel more than I prescribe.
I have decided not to be involved with treatment of sleep apnea, for example. It may sound crass, but I don’t find this condition very interesting: The prospect of reviewing downloads and manipulating machine settings is too far removed from my idea of country medicine.
Worse than CPAP machines are noninvasive respiratory assist devises. I won’t go near those.
The woman had a bleeding ulcer and required a blood transfusion. The hospital discharge summary said to see me in three days for a repeat CBC. But she had a late Friday appointment and there was no way we would get a result before the end of the day. She also had developed diarrhea on her pantoprazole and had stopped the medication. As if that wasn’t enough, her right lower leg was swollen and painful. She had been bed bound for a couple of days in the hospital and sedentary at home after discharge.
She could still be bleeding and she could have a blood clot. There were no openings for an ultrasound until almost a week later. Normally, with the modern blood thinners, we can just start anticoagulation until the diagnosis of a blood clot can be confirmed or disproven. But you don’t do that when somebody has a bleeding ulcer.
The radiology department solved my dilemma by pointing out that the emergency room can order an ultrasound and the department will call in an on-call technician. So that is where my patient had to go. Her blood count was stable and the ultrasound was negative. So now we just have to hope that lansoprazole, which she had taken in the past, but stopped because she didn’t have heartburn, would be effective.
Walter Brown’s blood sugars were out of control. Ellen Meek had put on 15 lbs. Diane Meserve’s blood pressure was suddenly 30 points higher than ever before.
In Walter’s case, he turned out to have an acute thyroiditis that caused many other symptoms that came to light during our standard Review of Systems.
Ellen, it turned out, was pretty sure her husband was having an affair with one of his coworkers. And, since this wasn’t the first time, she was secretly working on a plan to move out and file for divorce. She admitted she’d always had a tendency to stress eat.
Diane’s daughter had just announced that she was pregnant by a man she wasn’t sure wanted to be around in the long run.
How do we know whether a patient’s subjective symptoms, laboratory values or even their vital signs are caused by their known medical conditions, a new disease or their state of mind?
We are often tempted to proceed down familiar tracks and tackle seemingly straightforward problems with medications: More insulin would take care of Walter’s blood sugar. Ellen could use a couple of months of phentermine. Diane needed a higher dose of lisinopril or perhaps some hydrochlorothiazide.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”.
“I worry, so you don’t have to”, is how I explain to patients when something about their story or physical exam makes me consider that they may have something serious going on.
The worst thing you can do is give false reassurance without serious consideration. And the next worst thing you can do is be an alarmist and needlessly frighten your patient. Finding and explaining the balance between those two extremes is a big part of the art of medicine.
A few times in my career I have struggled with doubt or worry after a patient visit. Did I miss anything, did I order the right test? We all have those moments, but we have personal limits as to how much of such doubt we can handle in the long run.
During my training and early career in Sweden there was more tolerance for physician fallability. Doctors have not been sitting on any pedestals for a couple of generations there. Here, the climate is different: We may not be revered like we were in the past, but if we make errors in judgement, the personal consequences for us can be devastating.
The way to navigate this treacherous territory is first of all to not travel alone. Everything we do is for our patient, so we must maintain a partnership. We are the experts, but we should not make decisions that aren’t shared. I keep coming back to the notion that today’s doctors are guides.
Kelsey Mellard is CEO of Sitka, one of the emerging companies that’s providing specialty consults online to primary care docs. They’ve been building a specialty care network that can be accessed by asynchronous video, slightly different to some of their competition. Most of their customers are capitated medical groups, like ChenMed, trying to reduce their spend on specialty physician care (as Kelsey calls it the “unmanaged Part B spend bucket”). I asked her how it works, where the company is going (think virtual care integration), and whether it will be needed in the future. (You can guess her answer to the latter!)
A recent email that arrived in my in-box a few weeks ago from an academic hailed the latest “paradigm shift” in cardiology as it relates to the management of stable angina. (Stable angina refers to chronic,non-accelerating chest pain with a moderate level of exertion). The points made in the email were as follows (the order of the points made are preserved):
The financial burden of stress testing was significant (11 billion dollars per annum in the USA!)
For stable CAD, medical treatment is critical. We now have better medical treatments than all prior trials including ischemia. these include PCKS9 Inhibitor, SGLT2-i, GLP1 agonists Vascepa and others
CTA coronaries is by far the most important single test for evaluation of these patients
” the paradigm of ischemia testing may have come to an end”
For stable angina (not ACS!) in most cases, the decision on revascularization should be based only on symptoms alleviation (as no survival benefit).
The general public should find it interesting, and not a random coincidence that the first point immediately gets to the financial burden of stress testing in a communication that is supposed to assess the level of evidence for the management of coronary artery disease. Imagine a cardiologist enters your exam room to talk about the chest pain you get every time you run up a flight of steps, and starts off the conversation with how much the societal cost of stress tests are. The cost of care is certainly a relevant concern, especially if it’s to be borne directly by the patient, but it would seem that the decision of whether a therapy is effective or not should be divorced from how much some bean counter decides to price the therapy to generate a certain return on investment. As such, the discussion that follows will omit any consideration of cost when evaluating the new ‘paradigm shift’ in management of coronary disease that is apparently upon us.
This particular debate boils down to the relevance of diagnostic testing for coronary artery disease. The traditional approach to testing is a functional test that utilizes the uptake of radioactive isotope injected into a patient during stress and rest conditions to identify mismatches in blood flow in the two states to identify myocardial ischemia. The amount of ischemia can be quantified as percent of total myocardium, and has been well correlated with prognosis. Having lots of ischemia typically means a much shorter lifeline than having little or no ischemia. The accepted paradigm in Cardiology has been to use traditional stress testing to triage patients to ‘conservative’ medical therapy or an invasive approach to bypass or open arteries via stents or coronary bypass surgery.
My car takes me where I need to go, but it also gives me pleasure along the way. I have had it for just about ten years now and I have driven it almost 300,000 miles. It feels like an extension of me. Everything about it is just perfect for the way I drive and the things I need to do with it. From the sumptuously cavernous interior to the rugged all wheel drive features and the studded Finnish snow tires, it takes me pretty much anywhere, anytime. Why anyone would want to travel in a car without the sublime pleasure of driving it is beyond my comprehension.
My computers, on the other hand, are things I avoid whenever I can. My work laptop is an awkward Windows machine. Need I say more? Whatever it does happens stiltedly and unintuitively behind layers of barriers and firewalls that make me sign in again and again until I get to a pathetically clumsy EMR.
My MacBook Pro is slimmer and slicker but it gives me no pleasure to use it, I’m sorry to say.
Every word I have written and published – about as many words as I have miles on my car – has been put down on the virtual keyboard of my iPad. It feels more like an extension of my brain. I use it in bed, by the fireplace, in the barn or on the lawn. I can even talk into it without a microphone or any special software. I touch the screen and magic happens: Apps open, fonts and colors change and the world is at my fingertips, wherever I am.
Mr. Smith’s pneumonia was clinically shy. He didn’t have a fever. His white blood cells hadn’t increased. The only sign of an infection, other than his cough, was that his lung wasn’t as dark as it should be on the radiograph. The radiologist, taught to see, noticed that the normally crisp border between the heart and the lung was blurred like ink smudged on blotting paper. Something that had colonized the lungs was stopping the x-rays.
Hundred and twenty-five years ago, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, a German physicist and the Rector at the University of Wurzburg, made an accidental discovery by seeing something he wasn’t watching. Roentgen was studying cathode rays – invisible forces created by electricity. Using a Crookes tube, a pear-shaped vacuum glass tube with a pair of electrodes, Roentgen would fire the cathode rays from one end by an electric jolt. At the other end, the rays would leave the tube through a small hole, and generate colorful light on striking fluorescent material placed near the tube.
By then photography and fluorescence had captured literary and scientific imagination. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, the fire-breathing dog’s jaw had been drenched in phosphorus by its owner. Electricity and magnetism were the new forces. Physicists were experimenting in the backwaters of the electromagnetic spectrum without knowing where they were.
On November 8th, 1895, when after supper Roentgen went to his laboratory for routine experiments, something else caught Roentgen’s eyes. Roentgen closed the curtains. He wanted his pupils maximally dilated to spot tiny flickers of light. When he turned the voltage on the Crookes tube, he noticed that a paper soaked in barium platinocyanide on a bench nine feet away flickered. Cathode rays traveled only a few centimeters. Also, he had covered the tube with heavy cardboard to stop light. Why then did the paper glow?
Among those in the field, it’s been referred to as the Covid Tour of Duty. Doctors, nurses, and support staff working around the clock on high alert, in many cases seeing the worst effects of our world-wide battle against the pandemic. Even those non-hospital workers, especially those in primary care, are being pushed to their limits with no definitive end in sight.
Long before the pandemic, the alarm bells were sounded due to an aging population, which by nature requires more healthcare. That population was being met with shortage of physicians and nurses. Couple that with the pandemic—which has claimed the lives of many healthcare workers, and burned out those that remain—and the shortage becomes the next industry crisis.
Patients with post-Covid sequelae will need ongoing care and may require more visits to their primary care for years to come. Without an adequate push for educating more doctors and nurses, the American population will be met with a continued shortage, now of massive proportion. Opening borders during a pandemic is equivalent to pouring gasoline on the fire, as the country is currently short pressed to take care of their own.
A survey from Mental Health America ( https://mhanational.org/ ) that surveyed healthcare workers from June through September 2020 showed that more than 75% were frustrated, exhausted or overwhelmed. In addition, 93% were experiencing symptoms related to stress. Those same workers are still going full-speed-ahead five months later.
I have made the argument that being the first contact for patients with new symptoms requires skill and experience. That is not something everybody agrees on.
One commenter on my blog expressed the opinion that it is easy to recognize the abnormal or serious and then it is just a matter of making a specialist referral.
That is a terribly inefficient model for health care delivery. It also exposes patients to the risks of delays in treatment, increased cost and inconvenience and the sometimes irreversible and disastrous consequences of knowledge gaps in the frontline provider.
UNNECESSARY SPECIALIST REFERRALS ARE COSTLY
Seeing a high charging, high earning specialist when the primary care provider can’t diagnose and manage the condition involves higher cost and, in many cases, a comprehensiveness that is based on the fact that the patient traveled 200 miles for their appointment. In such cases patents aren’t likely to come back for a two week recheck. Consequently, specialists tend to do more in what may be the only visit they have with a patient.
For my patients, seeing a neurologist involves a one year wait for the out of state neurologist who does consultations almost 100 miles from my clinic, or a three to four month wait for an appointment more than 200 miles away in Bangor. The situation for rheumatology or dermatology is about the same.