All of us have been to fast food establishments. We go there because we are in a hurry and it’s cheap. We love the convenience. We expect that the quality of the cuisine will be several rungs lower than fine dining.
We now have a fast medicine option available to us. Across the country, there are over 1000 ‘minute-clinics’ that are being set up in pharmacies, supermarkets and other retail store chains. These clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners who have prescribing authority, under the loose oversight of a physician who is likely off sight. These nurses will see patients with simple medical issues and will adhere to strict guidelines so they will not treat beyond their medical knowledge. For example, if a man comes in clutching his chest and gasping, the nurse will know not to just give him some Rolaids and wish him well. At least, that’s the plan.
Primary care physicians are concerned over the metastases of ‘minute-clinics’ nationwide. Of course, they argue from a patient safety standpoint, but there are powerful parochial issues worrying physicians. They are losing business. They have a point that patients should be rightly concerned about medical errors and missed diagnoses at these medical care drive-ins. These nurses, even with their advanced training, are not doctors. It is also true serious or even life threatening conditions can masquerade as innocent medical complaints and might not be recognized by a nurse who treats colds and ankle sprains.
I spent the entire last weekend with an attorney, not a desirable circumstance for most physicians. However, I wasn’t being deposed or interrogated on cross examination. This was a rendezvous that we both sought with enthusiasm.
Lewis is my closest friend, a bond that was forged since we were eight years old. We are separated now only by geography, and we meet periodically because we both treasure the friendship. Earlier this year we rolled the dice in Vegas. Last weekend, we sweated in the sweltering heat of the Mile High City. Next stop? Back to Denver with a few youngins’!
Lewis is the managing partner in a prominent west coast law firm that specializes in tax evasion. (Or is it tax avoidance? Am I confusing my terms here, Lew?) He has been redrafted to this position because he has earned the respect of his colleagues. Clearly, both Lewis and I have ascended to the highest strata of our professions. Lewis is in charge of a large law firm that has global reach; he travels all over the world cultivating business and negotiating deals; and he navigates clients through complex and labyrinthine legal conundrums. I, an esteemed community gastroenterologist, perform daily rectal examinations and counsel patients on flatulence.
Recently, nine patients died in Alabama when they received intravenous nutrition that was contaminated with deadly bacteria. This type of nutrition is called total parenteral nutrition, or TPN, and is used to nourish patients by vein when their digestive systems are not functioning properly. It is a milestone achievement in medicine and saves and maintains lives every day.
What went wrong? How did an instrument of healing become death by lethal injection? What is the lesson that can emerge from this unimaginable horror?
This tragedy represents that most feared ‘never event’ that can ever occur – death by friendly fire. No survivors. Contrast this with many other medical ‘never events’ as defined by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, such as post-operative infections, development of bed sores in the hospital or wrong-site surgery. Under the ‘never events’ program, hospitals will be financially penalized if a listed event occurs. Many physicians and hospitals are concerned that there will be a ‘never events’ mission creep with new outcomes added to the list that don’t belong there. Medical complications, which are unavoidable, may soon be defined as ‘never events’.
Do we need a new category of ‘never ever ever events’ to include those that lead to fatal outcomes?
The facts of the Alabama deaths have started to emerge. Apparently, a water faucet in the pharmacy was contaminated. Protocols and processes are violated every day in all spheres of professional life; and we usually get away with them. The absence of serious consequences breeds complacency, which is shattered by an occasional tragedy. Isn’t it after a horrible traffic accident that a local government decides to erect street lights that were requested by local residents for years? I read earlier today that the Federal Aviation Administration is requiring extensive inspections of a few hundred airplanes when small cracks were discovered in a few of them. This followed a near disaster when a 5 foot hole burst open in the roof of an airplane during flight. The plane landed and all survived. Of course, a very different outcome was possible.
So many folks express views that are obviously self-serving, but they try to masquerade them as altruistic positions that benefit some other constituency. These attempts usually fool no one, but yet these performances are common and ongoing. They are potent fertilizer for cynicism.
Teachers’ unions have been performing for us for decades. Their positions on charter schools, school vouchers, merit pay and the tenure system are clear examples of professional advocacy to protect teachers’ jobs and benefits; yet the stated reasons are to protect our kids. Yeah, right. While our kids are not receiving a top flight education, the public has gotten smart in a hurry on what’s really needed to reform our public educational system. This is why these unions are now retreating and regrouping, grudgingly ‘welcoming’ some reform proposals that have been on the table for decades. This was no epiphany on their part. They were exposed and vulnerable. They wisely sensed that the public lost faith in their arguments and was turning against them. Once the public walked away, or became adversaries, established and entrenched teachers’ union views and policies would be aggressively targeted. Those of us in the medical profession have learned the risk of alienating the public. Teachers have been smarter than we were.
The medical profession is full of ‘performances’ where the stated view is mere camouflage. For example, there is a turf war between gastroenterologists (GI) and anesthesiologists whether GI physicians can safely administer the drug propofol to sedate our patients before colonoscopies and other glamorous procedures. This drug may be familiar to ordinary readers as it was involved in the death of a superstar pop music legend in 2009. GI doctors insist that with proper training we can safely administer this drug to our patients. Indeed, there are numerous scientific publications that support this view. Anesthesiologists have pushed back hard and they have prevailed. “It’s too dangerous,” they warn. “No one can use this drug unless you have advanced anesthesia training,” Of course, the only physicians who have ‘advanced anesthesia training’ are anesthesiologists. I’m not claiming that my anesthesia friends don’t have a legitimate point. But, let’s be clear. Their position is not merely an effort to protect patients, it is also meant to protect their turf. Continue reading…
Many folks criticize pharmaceutical companies for providing physicians’ offices with free drug samples. They claim that this giveaway harms consumers because drug companies must raise their prices to cover the costs of these freebies. Of course, this is undeniable. Any business expense, such as payroll or advertising, has to be covered and is expectedly borne by the consumer. If a company chooses not to advertise, outsources manufacturing to a country with cheaper labor, offers limited benefits to its employees, then they can sell their product at a low price. In this hypothetical example, anemic sales may doom the company quickly.
Naturally, free samples are not really free. The rest of us pay for them. While this is true, I don’t think it is evil. Unlike the U.S. government, at least drug companies are covering their costs and not simply borrowing money every year to meet budget. Interesting concept.
Two of the community hospitals I work at have undergone transformations. One is owned by the dominant health care behemoth in Cleveland and has just completed a near $200 million renovation and expansion. The other smaller hospital is one of the few remaining Cleveland area hospitals that are still independent. I’d like to sneak there at night and hoist up a ‘Live Free or Die’ flag up the flagpole, to celebrate its independent streak, but I’m sure that there are video cameras everywhere and that I would be in violation of several bylaws. The apt punishment might be that I would have to spend a cold Cleveland night chained to the flagpole reading electronic medical record manuals out loud.Continue reading…
Readers know of my criticisms of the electronic medical record (EMR) juggernaut that is oozing over the medical landscape. Ultimately, this technology will make medical care better and easier to practice. All systems will be integrated, so that a physician will have instant access to his patients’ medical data from other physicians’ offices, emergency rooms and hospitals. In addition, data input in the physician’s office will use reliable voice activated technology, so that some antiquated physician behaviors, such as eye contact, can still occur. Clearly, EMR is in transition. I place it on the 40 yard line, a long way from a touch down or field goal position.
A colleague related a distressing meeting he had at the community hospital he works at. This hospital, like nearly every hospital in Cleveland, is owned by one of the two towering medical behemoths. I’m not a businessman, but I have learned that when something owns you, it’s generally better for the owner than the ownee. This meeting was about the hospital’s upcoming EMR policy. Sometimes, these hospital meetings are ostensibly to seek physician input, but the true purpose is to inform the medical staff about decisions that have already been made. In the coming months, this hospital will adopt a computerized ordering system for all patients. In theory, this would be a welcome advance. It would create a digital and permanent record of all physician orders that could be accessed by all medical personnel involved in the patients’ care. It would solve the perennial problem of inscrutable physician handwriting, including mine.