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Tag: Dinosaur MD

Huddle of One

There’s nothing new under the sun, or in medicine. I’m not talking about monoclonal antibody targeted chemotherapy; I’m talking about taking care of patients, and specifically about running a medical practice. Not even the incursion advent of all our fancy new electronics has (or should have) a fundamental effect on how we take care of our patients.  The latest thing to come down the pike is the so-called Patient Centered Medical Home, a collection of policies, procedures, and practice re-structuring (webinars, templates, guidelines, etc. all available at low, low prices, of course) that essentially makes large group practices function like a solo doc from the patient’s point of view.

Because the buzzword of this new model is “teamwork”, we’re all supposed to begin the day with a brilliant new concept called the “huddle“:

The team huddle is promoted by many clinicians and practice coaches as an innovative approach to support medical home transformation through visit pre-planning, team building and communication, and workflow redesign.

Radical!

One problem: how do I do that all by myself? I mean, here’s what I generally do every day:

  • Make sure to arrive at least 30-60 minutes before the first scheduled patient
  • Look over the schedule to get a sense of the day, who’s coming, who may need extra time, any new patients
  • Double-checking that rooms are re-stocked with key supplies (ie, three paps on the schedule; wasn’t the speculum drawer low the other day? Couple of well baby visits; enough needles for all their shots? Better top up the bin from the supply closet.)
  • Looking over the charts (now electronically; previously the paper ones — adding pages, seeing whose insurance info needs updating, etc.)
  • Go over all the above with staff whenever they arrive (usually after me)

I’ve always just called it “getting ready for the day,” an organizational strategy for business management that’s called “being prepared” in most other occupations. But now it has a new name: the Huddle. Complete with instructional videos, for chrissakes.

As far as “patient-centered-ness” goes, I’ve used a somewhat different set of concepts from Day One called “Customer Service”. Having people instead of machines answering the phone, same-day appointments, personally communicating test results; all Disney-level customer service, now re-named things like “Open Access”, have been integral to my practice from the git-go.

Why is it happening? One of the oldest reasons in the world, of course: money to be made. I’m sure there are too many doctors and medical practices out there who, sadly, need this kind of help. Sadder still, they have to be force-fed it under the guise of running a “more efficient” practice.

Whatever happened to good old common sense? Next thing you know they’ll be all over us making sure we wash our hands. (Joke intended.) Seriously, though. This whole thing about co-opting perfectly sensible things from other industries for medicine — checklists, for example — and carrying on as if having re-invented the wheel is getting old.

Guidelines are in the Eye of the Beholder

Cancer. Just the word is scary. Actually, that’s the problem. Once you say that word, the average American will do anything — ANYTHING! — to just get it out of my body!!! Whether or not they have it, whatever the actual numerical chances of their ever developing it, no chance for detecting or treating it should ever be neglected. EVER! Ask any Med-mal lawyer. Better, ask any twelve average people off the street (ie, the ones who are going to wind up on a jury). “The doctor didn’t do every possible test/procedure, and now the patient has CANCER? String him up!”

Hence we have the new guidelines for PSA testing. (Given that many patients with prostate cancer have normal PSAs and lots of patients with high PSAs don’t have prostate cancer, it doesn’t seem semantically correct to call it “prostate cancer screening”.) Surprise! Turns out that not only does PSA testing not save lives, but that urologists don’t really care. Certainly not enough to stop recommending PSAs to just about everyone they can get their hands on.

Nor do breast surgeons have any intention of modifying their recommendations, not only in light of new understandings of the limitations of mammography, but even as their own treatment recommendations contract, becoming ever more targeted and less invasive. I recently heard a local surgeon speak about the progression from radical mastectomies to partial mastectomies to lumpectomies; from axillary node dissections to sentinel node sampling; from whole-breast radiation to intra-cavitary seeds. Listening to him, breast cancer therapy is becoming downright minimalist.

Yet at the end of the talk, when asked about the new recommendations for biennial mammography, his response was, “Every woman should have an annual mammogram starting at age 40. I mean, there are no downsides to mammography.” Never mind the psychological stress of extra views, ultrasounds, and false positives, not to mention the bruising and even skin tearing that I see far more often than I’d like. “No downsides”? Not for him, that’s for sure. When will they realize that mammography catches slower-growing cancers that would be treated just as easily if they were found a year later? Women die of aggressive tumors that pop up between annual mammograms, which by definition would not be detected by standard screening.

The gynecologists are no better. They all still insist on annual visits for paps to find cancers that take 10 years to grow (and then only in the presence of HPV) and pelvic exams that detect, well, nothing. Whether driven by legal concerns or patient insistence, scientifically unnecessary medical care is running rampant in this country, playing a pivotal role in bankrupting us in the Orwellian name of “the best medical care in the world”.

What to do, though?

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Not Knowing What You Don’t Know

“The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”

You will hear this statement not just from physicians, but from lots of other folks engaged in scholarly work of all stripes. That’s because it is not merely true; it is a deep and universal truth that permeates all of mankind’s intellectual endeavors.

The implication of this for the practice of medicine is that a little knowledge can be very dangerous.

What do I, as a fully trained, extensively experienced primary care physician bring to the evaluation of patients who seek out my care that cannot be matched by so-called “mid-level providers” (PAs and NPs)? It is not (always) my knowledge, but rather the experience to know when I do not know something. In short, I know when to ask someone else’s opinion in consultation or referral.

I had a scary experience lately with a PA who didn’t even know what she didn’t know (and who still probably doesn’t realize it.)

The patient had been bit on the hand by a cat. I saw the injury approximately 9 hours after it had occurred. The patient had cleaned it thoroughly as soon as it had happened, and by the time I saw it, it was still clean, bleeding freely, not particularly red or swollen, and only a little painful. Still; cat bites are nasty, especially on the hands. Therefore I began treatment with oral amoxicillin-clavulanate, and told the patient to soak it in hot water several times a day.

Six hours later (after one oral dose of antibiotic) the patient called me back: the wound was now much more painful, red, swollen, and there were red streaks going from the hand all the way up to his elbow. Frankly, I was a little puzzled. He was already on antibiotics; the single dose probably hadn’t had enough time to make much of an impact. And yet the infection was clearly progressing.
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Doctorology: Communication. It’s All Good

“Doctor’s office; please hold.”

You’ll never hear that when you call me. Never. You’ll also never get an automated answering system (I’m just referring to office hours, of course. Evenings and weekends the phone goes to Google Voice. More on

that below.) We are also in the middle of a communication revolution. There are now so many other ways patients can contact me other than the telephone, the silly thing is almost becoming obsolete. I took amoment the other day just to go through all the various ways patients contact me.

Telephone

Still the most reliable fallback. Most synchronous form of communication: both parties willing and able to talk in real time. After hours, Google Voice (free) transcribes messages and texts them to my smart phone. As a rule, patients do not call my cell phone, although I’m not shy about giving out the number. Then again, those who have my cell number usually use it for…

Texting

At the moment, it’s just a few patients, but I anticipate more and more of them will partake as time goes on. It doesn’t happen very often, and so far it’s never been inappropriate. Med refill requests and pictures of kids’ rashes have been the mainstay so far. I like it. By it’s very nature, the people choosing to text me understand the limitations of synchronicity, ie, they don’t get bent out of shape if I don’t answer them right away, and they understand that it’s just for relatively minor issues. I also use it to communicate simple quick questions to specialists with all the same mutual understandings (minor issues only; response time unimportant).

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The Ethics of Stupidity: Should a Good Doctor Refuse to Treat an Obese Patient?

Several folks have been kind enough to point out this story, and suggest that I may have an opinion on it:

[A woman from] Shrewsbury, Mass., claims that Dr. Helen Carter, a primary care physician at the UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worchester, refused to treat her because she is clinically obese…

It seems the good doctor has decided not to care for anyone (it is unclear if the prohibition applied to all patients or just to females) weighing over 200 lbs. Apparently there was a nearby specialty facility capable of caring for obese patients, so no one was being sent away with no resource to medical care.

There is nothing either illegal or unethical about this policy, according to the AMA and others. Much hullabaloo has ensued in the various comment trails, with many people stating that it should be (illegal. unethical, or both.) They are wrong. The only thing this physician has done is set her weight limit unreasonably low.

Here are the magic words: Scope of Practice. It means that doctors have not only the right but the ethical and legal responsibility to limit the care they provide based on their capabilities, their training and their experience, which together also translate to “comfort level”.

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Pay for the “A”

Medicine is simple and straightforward; except when it’s complex and nuanced.

Medical diagnosis is a simple matter of taking a history, performing an examination, and reviewing the results of ancillary testing; except when it’s a complicated case of eliciting subtle nuances from the patient in both the interview and the exam, and interpreting multiple pieces of conflicting data.

Medical treatment is a straightforward affair of providing appropriate treatment; except when there are multiple treatment options with unclear risks and benefits, technically challenging surgical or other procedures to perform, not to mention fully informing the patient and family about all of those treatment options, risks, and benefits, plus eliciting and answering all their questions.

Nothing to it.

Notice, though, that the key ingredient here is DIAGNOSIS. Performing a flawless appendectomy won’t do a thing for an ovarian cyst, nor will a PPI prescription do much for an acute coronary syndrome. Performance measures that look at treatment without addressing diagnosis are somewhere between misguided and ludicrous.

Why does American medicine have this so bass-ackwards? Follow the money. Thanks to the specialty-heavy RUC, the commission that sets fees for various procedures, doing something — anything — is paid far more handsomely than thinking (even thinking about what to do).

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Meaningful Use Requires Meaningless Data

Race is a medically meaningless concept.

Spare me the few tired cliches about prostate cancer, diabetes, and sarcoidosis being more common in blacks than whites, or even the slightly increased risk of ACEI cough in patients of Asian descent. We screen Jews of Ashkenazi descent for Tay Sachs without any racial labeling. All that information is readily accessible under the Family History section of the medical history. It is no more than custom which dictates the standard introductory format including age, race, and gender. It turns out I’ve blogged about this before at some length (pretty good post, actually). What is new is the advent of electronic medical records.

Much hullabaloo has been made about federal stimulus funds allocated to doctors as payments for adopting EMRs; “up to $44,000!” Here’s the problem with that figure, though, including how it breaks down (source here):

[M]aintaining [an EMR] costs multiple thousands of dollars a year. Bear in mind that they’re not talking about a lump sum payment of $44,000. It’s $18,000 the first year, $12,000 the second year, $8000 the next, $4000 the next, and then $2000, for a total of $44,000 spread over five years. FOR A SYSTEM EXPECTED TO COST AN AVERAGE OF $10,000 PER DOCTOR PER YEAR, not counting the start up costs, which run in the vicinity of $50,000. $44,000 over five years for something that will cost us $90,000 over the same period? And that’s even if they actually get around to giving out the money in the first place! According to this, in order to qualify for “meaningful use,” EMRs must be used for ePrescribing, for communicating with other EMRs like labs and hospitals, and for transmitting information on performance measures (the paternalistic proxy for “quality”) to the government.

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