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Healthcare Has a Moral Injury

By KIM BELLARD

The term “moral injury” is a term originally applied to soldiers as a way to help explain PTSD and, more recently, to physicians as a way to help explain physician burnout.  The concept is that moral injury is what can happen to people when “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  

I think healthcare generally has a bad case of moral injury.  

How else can we explain physicians practicing surprise billinghospitals suing patientshealth plans refusing to pay for pre-authorized treatments, or pharmaceutical companies charging “skyrocketing” costs even for common, essential prescription drugs?  There are people involved in each of these, and countless more examples.  If those people haven’t suffered a moral injury as a result, it’s hard to understand why.  

Melissa Bailey, writing for Kaiser Health News, looked at moral injury from the standpoint of emergency room physicians.  One physician decried how “the real priority is speed and money and not our patients’ care.”  Another made a broader charge: “The health system is not set up to help patients. It’s set up to make money.”  He urged that physicians seek to understand “how decisions made at the systems level impact how we care about patients” — so they can “stand up for what’s right.”

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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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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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Doctoring in 2020: Why is the Patient Here? Whose Visit is it Anyway?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

A new decade and a new EMR are making me think about what the best use of my time and medical knowledge really is. The thing that stands out more and more for me is the tension between what my patients are asking me for and what the medical bureaucracy is mandating me to do. This is, to be blunt, an untenable, crazy-making situation to be in.

Many of my patients with chronic diseases don’t, deep down, want better blood sugars, BMIs or blood pressures – nor do they want better diets or exercise habits. People often hope they can feel better without fundamentally changing their comfortable, familiar and ingrained habits – that’s just human nature.

I went to medical school to learn how to heal, treat and guide patients through illness, away from un-health and toward health. I didn’t go to school to become a babysitter or code enforcement officer.

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“Chasing My Cure”: A Book Review

By CHADI NABHAN, MD, MBA, FACP

Have you thought about your own mortality?

Who hasn’t, given the frequency of seeing death and grief depicted in the media or through real life encounters with friends, relatives, neighbors, or patients? These incidents trigger uncomfortable and sometimes uneasy thoughts of how we might personally deal with potential illness and disease. The same thoughts are soon displaced by the busyness of living. 

Despite dealing with the death of his mother from a brain tumor, we learn David Fajgenbaum was healthy, living life to its fullest, and a future doctor in the making. He may have thought about his own mortality as he grieved the death of his mother, but likely never imagined anything dire would happen to him. Fajgenbaum was pushing forward on several fronts, including leading a non-for-profit organization for grieving college students, symbolically named “Actively Moving Forward” or “AMF” after his mother’s initials, all while first playing college football and then attending medical school. By all accounts, this was a vigorous young man, meticulous about his diet and physicality.  When he became ill, it was a blunt reminder that life is unpredictable.

In his book “Chasing my Cure”, Dr. Fajgenbaum takes us back to the time when he first got ill.  He vividly describes his physical symptoms and various scans which detected his enlarged nodes. Interestingly, we learn how long he was in denial of these symptoms, thereby delaying medical attention in favor of studying. This neglect of self-care highlights part of his personality, but also represents the pressure and expectations placed upon a majority of medical students. 

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