My first job after residency was in a small mill town in central Maine. I joined two fifty something family doctors, one of whom was the son of the former town doctor. I felt like I was Dr. Kiley on “Marcus Welby, MD.” I didn’t have a motorcycle, but I did have a snazzy SAAB 900.
Will was a John Deere man, wore a flannel shirt and listened to A Prairie Home Companion. He was kind and methodical. Joe didn’t seem quite as rural, moved quicker and wore more formal clothes. I never could read his handwriting.
They each had their own patients, but covered seamlessly for each other. They were like a pair of spouses in the sense that they answered to each other as much as to their patients. They had to make everything work for the benefit of their shared practice, their shared livelihood. Their mutual loyalty was essential and obvious, although allowing for their differences in temperament and personalities.
Invited to stay on and enter into a partnership, I hesitated. How did I fit in? Could I follow in their footsteps and become an equal partner, covering for them and doing things similarly enough to fit in for the long haul?
You’re running late and many things didn’t go right today. You knock on the door and enter the exam room with an apology. If you’re like me, you have a few papers and an iPad or a laptop in your hand. You sit down and open the patient’s chart in your device or perhaps on the big desktop, eyes not exactly locked on the patient.
Only after getting to where you need to be in the computer do you really look the patient in the eyes. Your body language has been one of hurry and distraction. Now you try to repair the damage of that, so you try to show you’re settling down now, at least for a few moments. You might sigh, move your arms in a gesture of relaxation and say something to get the history taking underway.
So far, you’re failing. I do that often, too.
Here’s what we all know we need to do, but often don’t; we should follow these ABCs:
A – Attention:
Clear your mind. It doesn’t matter what happened in the other room with the other patient, or on the phone with the insurance company or the smug specialist or ER doc who pointed out the diagnosis you missed. Open the door (I always knock first) and immediately look at the patient. Make eye contact and observe them. Pay attention to how they look, what they are signaling. The computer can wait; a few moments of focused attention will usually save you time in the end. After all, red or teary eyes, a leg cast, a big bruise or change in grooming can make the visit go in a direction you wouldn’t have expected from he listed chief complaint. How many times have we heard a patient comment about another doctor: He didn’t pay attention to me. Do we always do that ourselves if we’re rushed or preoccupied?
How long does it take to diagnose guttate psoriasis versus pityriasis rosea? Swimmers ear versus a ruptured eardrum? A kidney stone? A urinary tract infection? An ankle sprain?
So why is the typical “cycle time”, the time it takes for a patient to get through a clinic such as mine for these kinds of problems, close to an hour?
Answer: Mandated screening activities that could actually be done in different ways and not even necessarily in person or in real time!
Guess how many emergency room or urgent care center visits could be avoided and handled in the primary care office if we were able to provide only the services patients thought they needed? Well over 50% and probably more like 75%.
Primary Care clinics like mine are penalized if a patient with an ankle sprain comes in late in the year and has a high blood pressure because they are in pain and that becomes the final blood pressure recording for the year. (One more uncontrolled hypertensive patient.)
A lot of Americans think they should be able to make an appointment with a specialist on their own, and view the referral from a primary care provider as an unnecessary roadblock.
This “system” often doesn’t work, because of the way medical specialties are divided up.
If belly pain is due to gallbladder problems you need a general surgeon. If it’s due to pancreas cancer, you need an oncologic surgeon. If the cause is Crohn’s disease, any gastroenterologist will do, but with Sphincter of Oddi problems, you’ll need a gastroenterologist who does ERCPs, and not all of them do. Now, of course, if you’re a woman, that abdominal pain may actually be referred pain from an ovarian cancer, best treated by a GYN-oncology surgeon, which anywhere in Maine means a drive down to Portland.
The other day I saw an older man for a second opinion. He had been through one hand surgery for a small tumor many years ago in Boston, and another unrelated operation for a fracture in Bangor a few years ago. Then, after a non surgical injury, he developed stabbing pains in the same hand. Someone referred him to a neurologist for EMG testing, which was normal, and the man told me that was all the neurologist did, not a full consultation.
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.