It is very early. I am running to the ‘clinical decision unit’ (CDU) to see a patient of mine sent in the night before from a local skilled nursing facility. Also known as clinical observation units, ‘obs’ units, or short stay observation units, these units were designed to help decompress busy emergency rooms and divert unnecessary, expensive inpatient admissions. The units are typically adjacent to emergency departments, and usually are run by emergency physicians.
My particular patient was admitted due to an episode of chest pain at her facility. A brief conversation the prior night with the emergency room staff revealed chest pain that clinically was not typical for any of the feared diagnoses of a heart attack, pulmonary embolism or an aortic dissection. An electrocardiogram and cardiac enzymes were also initially unremarkable. Regardless, the patient was elderly and had multiple other comorbidities, and was somewhat confused. I recommended a short stay to allow anything malignant to declare itself.
And so, here I was, at the observation unit, digging through pages upon pages of printed gibberish that clearly had achieved the nirvana stage of meaningful use (for those wondering, that’s after stage 3). Ironically, the most useful piece of information lay in a handwritten progress note describing the episode. I could see why the patient had been brought here to be further evaluated, but after 18 hours of negative biomarkers, electrocardiograms, and no recurrence of symptoms, I felt comfortable letting her go back to where she came from. I told the ER staff… who cancelled her stress test. A stress test? Yes, a stress test had been ordered prophylactically. We practice in a climate where every bad outcome has the potential for litigation – malpractice lawyers would have a field day with the case of anyone going to the ER, being discharged without some type of cardiac imaging study, and having a heart attack. My recommendation to discharge the patient shifts the liability of an adverse outcome from the ER squarely on to my shoulders, and thus, poof goes the stress test.