“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.
“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.
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…
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).
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”.
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).
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.