Jeanette Brown had lost twenty pounds, and she was worried.
“I’m not trying,” she told me at her regular diabetes visit as I pored over her lab results. What I saw sent a chill down my spine:
A normal weight, diet controlled diabetic for many years, her glycosylated hemoglobin had jumped from 6.9 to 9.3 in three months while losing that much weight.
That is exactly what happened to my mother some years ago, before she was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that took her life in less than two years.
Jeanette had a normal physical exam and all her bloodwork except for the sugar numbers was fine. Her review of systems was quite unremarkable as well, maybe a little fatigue.
“When people lose this much weight without trying, we usually do tests to rule out cancer, even if there’s no specific symptom to suggest that,” I explained. “In your case, being a former smoker, we need to check your lungs with a CT scan, and because of your Hepatitis C, even though your liver ultrasounds have been normal, we need a CT of your abdomen.”
We do a lot of things in our head in this business. Once a patient reports a symptom, we mentally run down lists of related followup questions, possible diagnoses, similar cases we have seen. All this happens faster than we could ever describe in words (let alone type).
And, just like in math class, we are constantly reminded that it doesn’t matter if we have the right answer if we can’t describe how we got there.
So the ninth doctor who observes a little girl with deteriorating neurologic functioning and after less than ten minutes says “your child has Rett Syndrome” could theoretically get paid less than the previous eight doctors whose explorations meandered for over an hour before they admitted they didn’t know what was going on.
Does anybody care how Mozart or Beethoven created their music? Or do we mostly care about how it makes us feel when we listen to it?
I pay $500 per year for UpToDate, the online reference that helps me stay current on diagnostic criteria and best treatment options for most diseases I might run into in my practice. They also have a rich library of patient information, which I often print out during office visits.
I don’t get any “credit” for doing that, but I do if I print the, often paltry, patient handouts built into my EMR. That was how the rules governing meaningful use of subsidized computer technology for medical offices were written.
If I describe in great detail in my office note how I motivated a patient to quit smoking but forgot to also check the box that smoking cessation education was provided, I look like a negligent doctor. My expensive EMR can’t extract that information from the text. Google, from my mobile device, can translate between languages and manages to send me ads based on words in my web searches.
When I do a diabetic foot exam, it doesn’t count for my quality metrics if I freetext it; I must use the right boxes. If I do it diligently on my iPad in eClinicalWorks, one of my EMRs, even if I use the clickboxes, it doesn’t carry over to the flowsheet or my report card.
I’ve been toying with this dilemma for a while: SOAP notes (Subjective, Objective, Assessment, Plan) are too long; APSO just jumbles the order, but the core items are still too far apart, with too much fluff in between. We need something better – aSOAP!
Electronic medical record notes are simply way too cumbersome, no matter in what order the segments are displayed, to be of much use if we quickly want to check what happened in the last few office visits before entering the exam room.
It is time we do something different, and I believe the solution is under our noses every day, at least if we read the medical journals:
I can be aware of what’s going on in the medical literature without reading every article. How? Think about it…
Too many specific theories about physician burnout can cloud the real issue and allow healthcare leaders to circle around the “elephant in the room”.
The cause of physician burnout isn’t just the EMRs, Meaningful Use, CMS regulations, the chronic disease epidemic or any other single item.
Instead, it is simply this: Healthcare today has no clear definition of what a physician is. We are more or less suddenly finding ourselves on a playing field, tackled and hollered at, without knowing what sport we are playing and what the rules are.
Healthcare is on a different trajectory from most other businesses today. It’s a little hard to understand why.
In business, mass market products and services have always competed on price or perceived quality. Think Walmart or Mercedes-Benz, even the Model T Ford. But the real money and the real excitement in business is moving away from price and measurable cookie cutter quality to the intangibles of authority, influence and trust. This, in a way, is a move back in time to preindustrial values.
In primary care, unbeknownst to many pundits and administrators and unthinkable for most of the health tech industry, price and quality are not really even realistic considerations. In fact, they are largely unknown and unknowable.
I have seen the light. I now, finally, see a clear role for artificial intelligence in health care. And, no, I don’t want it to replace me. I want it to complement me.
I want AI to take over the mandated, mundane tasks of what I call Metamedicine, so I can concentrate on the healing.
In primary care visits in the U.S., doctors and clinics are buried in government mandates. We have to screen for depression and alcohol use, document weight counseling for every overweight patient (the vast majority of Americans), make sure we probe about gender at birth and current gender identification, offer screening and/or immunizations for a host of diseases, and on and on and on. All this in 15 minutes most of the time.
Never mind reconciling medications (or at least double checking the work of medical assistants without pharmacology training), connecting with the patient, taking a history, doing an examination, arriving at a diagnosis, and formulating and explaining a patient-focused treatment plan.
Health care in America is fracturing right down the middle, and doctors are going to have to figure out if or how long they can straddle the divide between what patients want and what the Government and Corporate America want them to have.
Up until this point, the momentum has been with the payers, Medicare and the insurance industry. But the more heavy-handed they become, the more inevitable the public backlash is becoming.
It will come down to this, a kind of “straight face test” for health care: Would patients pay for this?
The Annual Wellness visit, better named “Medicare’s Non-Physical” and some forms of “Population Management” are examples. Both are great ideas; an annual health review and planning session as well as doctors maintaining an overview of, and reaching out to, high risk groups of patients – in theory neither would be anything to argue with.
I’ve been a very good doctor all year. I have checked all my boxes and aced all my Meaningful Use requirements. This year, I’m not asking you for anything fancy. I just thought you might be able to instill some kindness and good will into the people who designed the user interface of my EMR. Maybe, with your help, they would come to see how a few minor tweaks could make the practice of medicine safer and more efficient, and my day a lot more enjoyable than it already is:
1) I wish I could see a routine laboratory panel, like a CBC or a CMP, in one view without scrolling inside a miniature window. That would save time and help me not miss abnormal results.
2) I wish the patient’s next appointment date was displayed next to any incoming report I have to review. That would help me decide if I need to contact the patient about the results or if I’m seeing them soon enough that I can talk about the report then.
3) I wish I could split my computer screen so I could see an X-ray or consultation report or a hospital discharge summary at the same time as I type or dictate the narrative of my office note. That would help me quote them correctly.
“I just want you to know, I won’t have a colonoscopy”, my new patient said with some amount of fervor in his voice. “And I don’t want to take a lot of medications.”
I looked him straight in the eyes and said “This is America, you don’t have to do anything, and I work for you. My job is to help you know your options.”
He seemed to relax. I reflected on the words I had just uttered, yet another time – it is the way I often try to set the tone as a non-authoritarian, patient focused physician.
“You don’t have to do anything”, of course, only applies to the patient.
The doctor has to do a lot of things, like document a treatment or follow-up plan for Medicare patients with a BMI over 30, or provide computer generated patient education to a minimum percentage of patients, and achieve a certain percentage of e-prescriptions. And right about now, we are starting to see financial consequences if too many of our patients, like the man I had just met, don’t want to take the medications that can bring their blood pressures or blood sugars below certain targets.