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Tag: Medical Practice

Why We Need Good Primary Care Physicians

By HANS DUVEFELT

I have made the argument that being the first contact for patients with new symptoms requires skill and experience. That is not something everybody agrees on.

One commenter on my blog expressed the opinion that it is easy to recognize the abnormal or serious and then it is just a matter of making a specialist referral.

That is a terribly inefficient model for health care delivery. It also exposes patients to the risks of delays in treatment, increased cost and inconvenience and the sometimes irreversible and disastrous consequences of knowledge gaps in the frontline provider.

UNNECESSARY SPECIALIST REFERRALS ARE COSTLY

Seeing a high charging, high earning specialist when the primary care provider can’t diagnose and manage the condition involves higher cost and, in many cases, a comprehensiveness that is based on the fact that the patient traveled 200 miles for their appointment. In such cases patents aren’t likely to come back for a two week recheck. Consequently, specialists tend to do more in what may be the only visit they have with a patient.

UNNECESSARY SPECIALIST REFERRALS CREATE TREATMENT DELAYS

For my patients, seeing a neurologist involves a one year wait for the out of state neurologist who does consultations almost 100 miles from my clinic, or a three to four month wait for an appointment more than 200 miles away in Bangor. The situation for rheumatology or dermatology is about the same.

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The Art of Prescribing (Or Not)

By HANS DUVEFELT

I have learned a few things about prescribing medications during my 42 years as a physician. Some are old lessons, and some are more recent. I thought I’d share some random examples.

First: I don’t like to have to use medications, but when they seem necessary, I choose, present and prescribe them with great care.

CHOOSING MEDICATIONS

Medications are like people. They have personalities. With so many choices for any given diagnosis or symptom, I consider their mechanism of action, possible beneficial additional effects and their risk of unwanted side effects when selecting which one to prescribe. To some degree that goes against today’s dogma.

Blood pressure medications, for example, have what I call an A-list and a B-list. The A-list contains drugs with a proven track record of not only reducing blood pressure, but also actual heart attack and stroke risk. Why we choose from the B-list, the drugs that don’t decrease cardiovascular risk or actually increase it, is a little beyond this simple country doctor’s ability to understand.

ACE inhibitors like lisinopril and diuretics like hydrochlorothiazide are the two recommended first choices in this country. But the A-list also contains amlodipine, a calcium channel blocker and, further down, metoprolol, a beta blocker. I make those less favored A-listers my initial choice in two scenarios:

Amlodipine is my choice when I see a hypertensive patient who prefers a set-it-and-forget-it treatment plan. No bloodwork is required after starting it to monitor for kidney or electrolyte problems, so even if the patient doesn’t come back for a year or more, there is no real risk involved.

Metoprolol, which blocks the effect of the stress hormone adrenaline on the cardiovascular system, is what I talked my own doctor into prescribing for me. That was back in the day, when I was a hard working, somewhat Type A personality with high blood pressure. With the passage of time, life experience, weight loss and my transformative relationship with my Arabian horses, my blood pressure normalized and I didn’t need medication anymore.

Years ago, we all selected blood pressure medications according to the “phenotype” (appearance or general impression) of the patient: metoprolol if intense, hydrochlorothiazide if swollen, nifedipine if cold-handed, lisinopril If naturally hypokalemic (low potassium).

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The Art of Explaining: Starting With the Big Idea

By HANS DUVEFELT

We live in a time of thirty second sound bytes, 280 character tweets and general information overload. Our society seems to have ADHD. There is fierce competition for people’s attention.

As doctors, we have so many messages we want to get across to our patients. How many seconds do we have before we lose their attention in our severely time curtailed and content regulated office visits?

I have found that it generally works better to make a stark, radical statement as an attention grabber and then qualifying it than to carefully describe a context from beginning to end.

Once a person shows interest or responds with a followup statement or question, you have a better chance for a meaningful discussion. Just starting to explain something without knowing if the person wants to hear what you have to say could just be a waste of time.

Here are some of my typical conversation starters – or stoppers, if you will:

“The purpose of a physical is to talk about stuff that could kill you, more than about symptoms that annoy.”

“Nothing makes a cold go away faster.”

“Urology is about plumbing, nephrology is about chemistry.”

“Most headaches are migraines.”

“Sinus headaches don’t exist in Europe.”

“I don’t care what your blood pressure is today if you’re scared or in pain.”

“A healthy lifestyle is at least as effective as taking Lipitor.”

“We now know that eating fat makes you lose weight.”

“Cholesterol only causes damage if there is also inflammation.”

“Fat free means high in sugar.”

“I don’t believe in vitamins.”

“Osteoporosis happens to every woman around 80, so is it really a disease?”

“You have to treat 35 men for prostate cancer to save one life.”

“You know how many cases of testicular cancer I’ve come across in 40 years? Three!”

“It takes 45 minutes of walking to burn 100 calories, but only 10 seconds to drink them.”

My brief experience as a substitute teacher for junior high school students as well as my many years as a scout leader taught me that you can’t assume you have people’s attention just because you’re standing in front of them. They will give it to you if they believe you have something interesting to say. You often have less than thirty seconds to prove that you do.

Is our medical knowledge alive enough in our minds that we can share it in a quick, easy and captivating way with our distracted patients?

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

There Are Three Kinds of Primary Care, Not to Be Confused With Each Other

By HANS DUVEFELT

Primary care doctors, the way things are organized in this country, perform three kinds of services. If we don’t recognize very clearly just how fundamentally different they are, we risk becoming overwhelmed, burned out, inefficient and ineffective. And, if we think about it, should we really be the ones doing all three?

SICK CARE

Historically, people called the doctor when they were sick. That service has, at least in this country, become more or less viewed as a nuisance in primary care offices. We keep a few slots open for sick people, in part because the Patient Centered Medical Home recognition process requires us to. But our clinics may worry that those slots go unfilled and lead to lost revenue.

Instead, sick people scatter toward emergency rooms with crowding, high overhead and liability driven testing excesses or to freestanding walk-in clinics that only sometimes are integrated with the primary care office but universally staffed by providers who don’t know the patient. These providers, due to staffing cost strategies, are sometimes the least experienced clinicians within their organizations, doing what I feel is the most challenging work in health care – sorting the very sick from the only moderately ill or even completely healthy but worried patients.

In the worst case scenarios, the walk-in clinic is freestanding, operating without any access to primary care or hospital records, starting from absolute scratch with every patient. Some of these clinics are well equipped, with laboratory and x-ray facilities and highly skilled staff. But some are set up in a room in the back of a drug store and staffed by a lone nurse practitioner with minimal equipment and no backup.

Because health care in this country has no master plan, this is what has emerged. If we had a national strategy for health care services, does anybody think it would look like this?

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This is Not Health Care

By HANS DUVEFELT

We use the word health rather loosely in America today. Especially the expression health care, whether you spell that as one word or two, is almost an oxymoron.

Health is not simply the absence of disease, even less the pharmaceutical management of disease. The healthcare “industry” is not the major portion of our GNP that it is because there is a lot of health out there, but the opposite. What consumes so much money and generates so much profit is, of course, sick care. The sicker people are, the more money is spent and earned in this market segment. It is a spiral, and a vicious one.

Health is a naturally occurring phenomenon, a state of perfection. Modern life has corrupted many natural, self-healing biological mechanisms and upended the natural order of things in our bodies – just the way it has altered our environment.

Our bodies are pretty ingenious in their ability to heal. When I crushed my finger in my garage door a few years ago, my disfigured fingertip, bisected nail and contused nail bed slowly regained their original shape, almost like a lizard grows a new tail. Yet in an opposite scenario, a person with scleroderma can lose their fingertip to gangrene without physical injury because of what we call autoimmunity – instead of self healing, our bodies can engage in self destruction. My fingertip could heal perfectly but some people’s skin or stomach ulcers fail to do so.

We intuitively seem to have accepted that, most of the time, nature takes care of itself if we don’t mess with it. And when temperatures rise, forests burn or species go extinct, we are quick to assume our industrial or agricultural processes are the cause.

Yet, we have this head-in-the-sand view of disease that it is a random occurrence, the sudden manifestation of ancient and rare genetic glitches or I don’t know what. The real answer is that much of it is a consequence of what we eat and otherwise expose our bodies to – how we produce and refine food, how we alter its natural properties and how we over- or under-consume basic nutrients.

Functional Medicine asks and answers many of these questions and promises to be the future of medicine. I believe in this, but I also believe that the sick-care industrial complex is powerful enough to severely slow down this revolution. I also believe the food industry will double down its efforts to continue misleading the public.

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Health Professionals Are Tomorrow’s Health Journalists. Here is a Code of Ethics to Guide Us and Trump’s White House Doctor.

By MIKE MAGEE

The patient/health-professional relationship is fundamentally grounded in science and trust, and involves the exchange of compassion, understanding and partnership. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged this relationship by acutely increasing the nation’s burden of disease, creating new barriers to face-to-face contact, and injecting high levels of fear and misinformation.

Dr. Sean Conley, Trump’s White House physician, in his dodgy and evasive management of legitimate questions from the White House press corps regarding the President’s health, has made matters worse.

As this week’s report on an analysis of 38 million articles on the pandemic revealed, much of the misinformation our citizens have experienced can be traced to a single individual who lacks any health credentials – our own President Trump. Sarah Evanega, the director of the Cornell Alliance for Science and lead author of the report stated, “The biggest surprise was that the president of the United States was the single largest driver of misinformation around Covid. That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications.”

The solution to that specific problem is only one month away – vote him out. But if Trump can be successfully sent packing, how prepared are our health professionals, in the face of these new and complex challenges? A President Biden health reform package will likely include expansion of health care teams, exponential growth of telemedicine, and increasing dependence on reliable information to advance personal health planning.

Today’s modern health professionals are tomorrow’s health journalists. What principles should guide them in their new and expanded role. As a guide, I offer the following:

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Physicians’ Communication Skills are Overlooked and Undervalued

By HANS DUVEFELT

Interviewing celebrities can make you a celebrity yourself, and it can make you very rich. So there’s got to be something to it or it would be a commodity. The world of media certainly recognizes the special skill it takes to get people to reveal their true selves. 

At the other end of the spectrum of human communication lies our ability to explain and also our ability to influence. These three aspects of what we do—elicit, explain and influence—are far from trivial, and in my opinion quite fundamental aspects of practicing medicine. 

Eliciting an accurate patient history or administering standardized depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, smoking and alcohol screenings are commoditized activities in today’s healthcare. There is little time allotted and these tasks are usually delegated to non-clinicians. 

A complicated patient’s clinical history seldom lends itself to straightforward, structured EHR formats. It can be more like a novel, where seemingly unrelated subplots converge and suddenly make complete sense in a surprising last chapter. 

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Talking Politics in the Exam Room: A Physician’s Obligation to Discuss the Political Ramifications of Science with Patients

By HAYWARD ZWERLING

I walked into my exam room to see a patient I first met two decades ago. On presentation, his co-morbidities included poorly controlled DM-1, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and a substance abuse disorder. Over the years our healthcare system has served him well as he has remained free of diabetic complications and now leads a productive life. Watching this transformation has been both professionally rewarding, personally enjoyable, and I look forward to our periodic interactions.

At this visit, he was sporting a MAGA hat. I was confused. How can my patient, who has so clearly benefited from America’s healthcare system, support a politician who has tried to abolish the Affordable Care Act, used the bully pulpit to undermine America’s public health experts, refused to implement healthcare policies which would mitigate COVID-19’s morbidity and mortality, and who minimizes the severity of the coronavirus pandemic every day. Why does he support a politician whose healthcare policies are an immediate threat to his health and longevity?

My brain says, “You are the physician this patient trusts to take care of his medical problems. You must teach him that COVID-19 is a serious risk to his health and explain how the President’s public health policies threatens his health. You must engage in a political conversation.”

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Meaningful U’s

By HANS DUVEFELT

Meaningful Use was a vision for EMRs that in many ways turned out to be a joke. Consider my list of Meaningful U’s for medical providers instead.

When electronic medical records became mandatory, Federal monies were showered over the companies that make them by way of inexperienced, ill-prepared practices rushing to pick their system before the looming deadline for the subsidies.

The Fed tried to impose some minimum standards for what EMRs should be able to do and for what practices needed to use them for.

The collection of requirements was called Meaningful Use, and by many of us nicknamed “Meaningless Use”. Well-meaning bureaucrats with little understanding of medical practice wildly overestimated what software vendors, many of them startups, could deliver to such a well established sector as healthcare.

For example, the Fed thought these startups could produce or incorporate high quality patient information that we could generate via the EMR, when we have all built our own repositories over many years of practice from Harvard, the Mayo Clinic and the like or purchased expensive subscriptions like Uptodate for. As I have described before, I would print the hokey EMR handouts for the Meaningful Use credit and throw them in the trash and give my patients the real stuff from Uptodate, for example.

I’d like to introduce an alternative set of standards, borrowing the hackneyed phrase, with a twist. MEANINGFUL U’S for medical providers:

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“When Blood Breaks Down”: It Can Break Your Heart

By CHADI NABHAN, MD, MBA, FACP

The goal for me and for my clinical and research colleagues is to put ourselves out of a job as quickly as possible”. This is how Mikkael Sekeres ends his book “When Blood Breaks Down” based on true stories of patients with leukemia. I share Mikkael’s sentiments and have always stated that I’d be happy if I am out of a job caring for patients with cancer. To his and my disappointment, this wish is unlikely to ever come true, especially when dealing with leukemia.

With almost 15 years of experience, Sekeres possesses a wealth of knowledge and patient stories making him the ultimate storyteller taking us along an emotional journey that spanned hospital rooms, outpatient clinics, and even his car. We get to know Mikkael the person and the doctor and immediately recognize how difficult it is to separate these two from each other. With hundreds of patients he has cared for, Mikkael could choose which stories to share. He decides on 3 patients, each with a unique type of leukemia and a set of circumstances that makes their story distinct. While I don’t know for certain, his selection likely reflected his ultimate goal of writing this book. It was about sharing life lessons he had learned from his patients–lessons that we could similarly learn—but it was also about giving us a glimpse of history in medicine and the progress that has been made in treating leukemia.

We get to know the three main characters of the book very well. David is an older man with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Joan is surgical nurse who suddenly finds herself diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), and Mrs Badway is a pregnant woman who was in her 2nd trimester when she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). While learning about their illnesses and family dynamics, Sekeres educates us about the various types of leukemia and enlightens his readers about so much history that I found fascinating. I did not know that the Jamshidi needle that I have used on so many patients to aspirate their bone marrows was invented by an Iranian scientist. Maybe I should have known, but I didn’t, that FISH was developed at Yale in 1980 and the first description of leukemia has been attributed to a French surgical anatomist, Dr. Alfred Velpeau in 1827. Somehow, I always thought that Janet Rowley discovered the Philadelphia chromosome, but Sekeres corrects me when he pictured Peter Nowell and David Hungerford who discovered that chromosome in 1961. As a reader, you might be more drawn to the actual patient stories, but the geek in me enjoyed the history lessons, especially the ones I was unaware of. Sekeres inserts these pearls effortlessly and with perfect timing. He does that so seamlessly and naturally that you learn without realizing you are being taught.

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