By HANS DUVEFELT
This may come as a surprise for people with business degrees:
Doctors don’t really care when a test was ordered. We care about our patient’s chest X-ray or potassium level the very moment the test was performed. We also don’t care (unless we are doing a forensic review of treatment delays) when an outside piece of information was scanned into the chart. We want to know on which day the potassium was low: Before or after we started the potassium replacement, for example.
In a patient’s medical record, we have a fundamental need to know in what order things happened. We don’t prefer to see all office visits in one file, all prescriptions in another and all phone calls in a third. But that seems to be how people with a bookkeeping mindset prefer to view the world. In some instances we might need that type of information, but under normal clinical circumstances the order in which things happened is the way our brains approach diagnostic dilemmas.
Yes, I have said all this before, but it deserves to be said again. Besides, only 125 people read what I wrote about this six weeks ago, while almost 10,000 people read my post about doxepin.
Patients’ lives are at stake and, in order to do our job, we need the right information at the right time, in the order we need it, even if the bookkeepers prefer it a different way.
By HANS DUVEFELT
Almost every day I catch a suspicious fax needing my signature. Often it is an out of state vendor who wants my permission to provide a back brace for a diabetic patient, a continuous blood glucose monitor for a non-diabetic or a compounded (custom made) ointment of some sort that makes no sense from what I know of that patient’s history.
Often, I get a fax appearing to be from Walgreens, just asking me to sign and certify that so-and-so is under my care. Those faxes have Walgreen’s logo, my patient’s correct address and my own DEA and NPI numbers already printed. The problem is that 90% of my patients don’t use Walgreens 20 miles north or south of my clinic, but the local Rexall pharmacy. Once, I called the phone number on the fax and it just rang and rang.
I am convinced that his is just an illicit way to collect physician signatures, so the scammers won’t even have to get my signature on one form at a time. This way it’s like they’ve got their own rubber stamp to use again and again.
I suspect these scams are successful often enough to be quite profitable. I know this because I sometimes sign these forms almost automatically before I catch myself and toss them in the shred box under my desk.
One of the many dirty little secrets in medicine is that doctors get so many papers to sign that there is actually no way we could read them all before scribbling our signature if we still want to see patients, meet clinic revenue projections and match our own productivity quotas.
By HANS DUVEFELT
Every patient is unique, with some common basic and measurable features and parameters. For a couple of decades now, healthcare has professed to be patient centered. But the prevailing culture of “quality” (and the reality of getting paid for what you do) has us spending at least half our time documenting for outsiders, who are non-clinicians, the substance and value of our patient interactions. That means our patients get half of our attention and others get half.
But of course, if you really wanted to be patient centered, you’d have to ask what patients actually care about, like their blood pressure or their cholesterol, their anxiety or their sore knees. Their answers may not align with the payers’ priorities. And then what…
Parents raise their children and never have to file any reports on how they do it. I believe clergy can still counsel their parishioners without filing reports. But doctors, nurses, nurses aides and physical therapists are trapped in the tyrannical dichotomy of “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen”, which actually forces us to do less for our patients just so we will have time to document what we did do. We are, to varying degree, robotniks in a big, inhumane corporate and federal healthcare billing machine these days.
Perhaps the most striking example of the micromanaging and patient-uncentered mandates we are subjected to is the Medicare Annual Wellness Visit: Miss one thing, like offering HIV screening to 80 year old devout French speaking, monogamous Catholics in Van Buren, Maine and risk getting your payment retracted. But we are not mandated to ask about personal life goals or how to balance seniors’ independence with reliance on their children.
Which is more real? The work we do, face to face or even screen to screen, behind closed doors with our patients, or the EMR documentation we produce as a result of those encounters? I know many providers generate voluminous notes that don’t reflect in any way what happened in the visit. That is where the money is.
Right now I am reading a Swedish book by philosopher Jonna Bornemark, titled (my translation) RENAISSANCE OF THE UNMEASURABLE – battling the pedants’ world domination. Much of it is about how the professions of caring for others have been reduced to protocols and reporting systems that make it harder to do what we were trained and developed a passion for. It talks about how checklists and workflows devalue and discourage the powerful creativity that arises when professionals interact with their unique clients and with each other. She anchors all this in the writings of philosophers Cusanus, Bruno and Descartes. It talks about the unknowable, which is something pedants usually don’t want to think about.
By HANS DUVEFELT
A “frozen shoulder” can be manipulated to move freely again under general anesthesia. The medications we use to put patients to sleep for such procedures work on the brain and don’t concentrate in the shoulder joints at all.
An ingrown toenail can be removed or an arthritic knee can be replaced by injecting a local anesthetic – at the base of the toe or into the spine – interrupting the connection between the body and the brain.
An arthritic knuckle can stop hurting and move more freely after a steroid injection that dramatically reduces inflammation, giving lasting relief long after any local anesthetic used for the injection has worn off.
The experience of pain involves a stimulus, nerve signaling and conscious interpretation.
Our brains not only register the neurological messages from our sore knees, shoulders, snake bites or whatever ails us. We also interpret the context or significance of these pain signals. Giving birth to a long awaited first baby has a very different emotional significance from passing a kidney stone, for example.
I have written before about how we introduce the topic of pain to our chronic pain patients in Bucksport. Professor Lorimer Moseley speaks entertainingly of he role of interpretation in acute pain and also explains the biochemical mechanisms behind chronic pain.
TREATING PAIN WITH ANALGESICS
Even when we are awake, we can reduce orthopedic pains with medications that work on the brain and not really in our joints. A common type of arthritis, such as that of the knees, is often treated with acetaminophen (paracetamol), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen or even opioids.
By HANS DUVEFELT
A while back I was able to completely stop my mastocytosis patient’s chronic hives, which the allergist had been unable to control.
I did it with a drug that has been on the market since 1969 and is taken once a day at a cost of 40 cents per capsule at Walmart pharmacies.
Hives are usually treated with antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl). My super drug has a 24 hour duration of effect and is about 800 times more potent than diphenhydramine, which has to be taken every fours hours around the clock.
Histamine is involved in allergic reactions, but it also plays a role in stomach acid production. The allergic response happens mostly through stimulation of Histamine 1 receptors and the stomach acid output is regulated mostly via Histamine 2 receptors. Typical antihistamines are blockers of the H1 receptor, or binding site; they don’t do anything except sit there and prevent the real histamine from attaching and starting the allergic chain reaction. While diphenhydramine sits there for 4 hours, loratadine and the other modern, nonsedating (and less itch-decreasing) antihistamines work for 24 hours. Because there is some overlap between H1 and H2 blocking effects, H2 blockers like famotidine can boost the antiallergy effect of the typical H1 blockers. My mastocytosis patient still had hives on diphenhydramine, loratadine and famotidine combined.
But, wait, there’s more…
By HANS DUVEFELT
The timeline of a patient’s symptoms is often crucial in making a correct diagnosis. Similarly, the timeline of our own clinical decisions is necessary to document and review when following a patient through their treatment.
In the old paper charts, particularly when they were handwritten, office notes, phone calls, refills and many other things were displayed in the order they happened (usually reverse chronological order). This made following the treatment of a case effortless, for example:
3/1 OFFICE VISIT: ?UTI (where ciprofloxacin was prescribed and culture sent off)
3/3 Clinical note that the culture came back, bacteria resistant and treatment changed to sulfonamide.
3/5 Phone call: Patient developed a rash, quick handwritten addition on left side of chart folder, sulfa allergy. New prescription for nitrofurantoin.
3/8 Phone call: Now has yeast infection, prescribed fluconazole.
Each of these notes took virtually no time to create and you could see them all in one glance.
By HANS DUVEFELT
The faxes keep coming in, sometimes several at a time. “Your (Medicare) patient has received a temporary supply, but the drug you prescribed is not on our formulary or the dose is exceeding our limits.”
Well, which is it? Nine times out of ten, the fax doesn’t say. They don’t explain what their dosage limits are. And if it isn’t a covered drug, the covered alternatives are usually not listed.
So the insurance company is hoping for one of a few possible reactions to their fax: The patient gives up, the doctor tries but fails in getting approval, or the doctor doesn’t even try. In either case, the insurance company doesn’t pay for the drug, keeps their premium and pays their CEO a bigger bonus.
First problem: This may be in regards to a medication that costs less than a medium sized pizza. And the pharmacy generally doesn’t even bother telling the patient what the cash price is.
Second problem: A primary care physician’s time is worth $7 per minute (we need to generate $300-400/hour). We could spend half an hour or all day on a prior authorization and there is absolutely zero reimbursement for it.
By HANS DUVEFELT
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.
By HANS DUVEFELT
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.
By HANS DUVEFELT
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”.