I’m sure you get a lot of hate mail, especially from folks in my profession, so when you got this letter from me you probably assumed it was more of the same. Let me reassure you: I am not one of those docs. I do think patient privacy is important, and actually found you quite useful when facing unwanted probing questions from family members. I believe the only way for patients to really open up to docs like me is to have a culture of respect for privacy, and you are a large part of that trust I can enjoy. Yeah, there was trust before you were around, but that was before the internet, and before people used words like “social media,” and “data mining.”
But there have been things done in your name that I’ve recently come in contact with that make me conclude that either A: you are very much misunderstood, or B: you have a really dark side.
Assuming something regarding your own health care can cost you money, cause you pain, and yes, even kill you. Here’s my list of potentially harmful assumptions:
1. No news is good news
If you have a test done and don’t hear anything about the result, do not assume it is fine. This assumption kills people. I have too many patients with too much information flying at me every day for me to catch every important detail. Sometimes things are missed, but sometimes the results don’t come to our office. We have trained our patients to expect an email or letter with their results within a certain amount of time, so they sometimes call when the test results don’t come in. I tell them to do so in the clinical summary sheet I hand out at the end of each visit, but the assumption remains.
A few weeks ago I called a neurosurgeon to discuss a patient’s recent headaches. My patient had been seen in the emergency room several days prior with the worst headache of his life. A complete work-up had not revealed a cause for the headache. Although he was found to have a small aneurysm on CT angiogram, there was no evidence of bleeding by lumbar puncture. The story, however, was slightly more complex than this. There had been several other findings that remained unexplained. One of the findings led me to discuss the patient’s case with a cardiologist. My patient had also undergone cervical spine decompression surgery several months prior to treat cervical myelopathy. I wanted to engage the neurosurgeon and get his professional opinion about my patient’s headache, which had now recurred several days after his ER visit.
The surgeon was cordial, but about 5 seconds into my story he seemed inpatient and interrupted me. “I heard about this guy,” he said, “What he needs is to be seen by one of our neurovascular specialists.” I had more I wanted to say, but the doctor did not seem to want to listen. I raised my voice slightly, interrupted him before he had a chance to end the conversation, and bulldozed through, telling the rest of the story in about two minutes. “Now we’re talking,” he said, as I explained further about a family history of clotting and my concern about a dural thrombus as a potential etiology. Together we formulated a plan that I was satisfied with–though the interaction left me with a feeling of unease.
What happens when consumers are able to compare the performance of primary care physicians in their state using Consumer Reports, the magazine that’s so highly regarded for its ratings of thousands of products and services we all use every day? Well, for the first time ever, we’re about to find out.
A special Massachusetts version of July’s Consumer Reports magazine will feature a report entitled “How Does Your Doctor Compare?” along with a 24-page insert that includes ratings of nearly 500 primary care physician practices from across the state. The ratings are based on data from a comprehensive patient experience survey conducted by Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP), a coalition of consumers, physicians, hospitals, insurers, employers, government agencies, and researchers. The physician ratings report is also available online at www.mhqp.org.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk in the health care community about the importance of consumer empowerment and patient-centered care. This experimental collaboration between MHQP and Consumer Reports, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Aligning Forces for Quality program, helps move theory into practice, and will test some key assumptions about the value of transparency in the effort to improve the health care system. In many respects, ratings of primary care physicians are not new to Massachusetts. We at MHQP have been reporting the results of patient surveys and clinical quality data since 2006 and these reports have had a positive effect on health care in our state. But let’s face it, Consumer Reports adds a whole new dimension to the notion of transparency. Not surprisingly, their involvement has been met with both excitement and some trepidation in the physician community.Continue reading…
There was a night when I was in training that all the decisions, disasters and chaos, which are the practice of medicine, caught up to me. In those dark hours, I felt practically despondent. What I had seen left me in tears and overwhelmed by the tasks in front of me.
At that moment a wise attending physician took a moment to sit with me. Rather than tell me how wonderful a doctor I might someday become or brush away my errors, he validated my feelings. He said the best doctors cared, worked hard and sacrificed. However, that the basic driving force is fear and guilt. Fear for the mistakes you might make. Guilt for the mistakes you already had. How I handled those feelings would determine how good a doctor I became.
I have reflected on those words over the years and tried to use that sage advice to learn and grow. Focused properly, guilt gives one the incentive to re-evaluate patient care that has not been ideal. It drives the study and the dissection of past decisions. Nonetheless, excessive guilt can cause a doctor to avoid completely certain types of cases and refuse even the discussion of those medical issues.
Fear of error drives compulsive and exact care. It helps doctors study and constantly improve. Taken too far it can result in over testing, avoidance and over treatment. The art of medicine requires the practitioner to open his heart to criticism and be strong enough to build from failure.
Some years ago, I saw a patient who had leukemia. I concluded that the patient’s low blood count was because of this blood cancer. This was correct. I missed that in addition to the leukemia she was bleeding from a stomach ulcer. By the time another doctor spotted the ulcer, the patient was sicker than she might have been, had I made that diagnosis earlier.
The economic stimulus package passed in 2009 contained billions of dollars designed to encourage hospitals and doctors to install electronic health records (EHRs). At the time, an exceptionally small number of health care providers had computerized medical records. It is hard for those of us who are used to dealing with credit card companies, airlines, automobile service departments, utility companies, and the like to imagine that the medical world was living in the Dark Ages.
Here was an industry that hadn’t even arrived in the 20th century – much less the 21st century — in terms of computerization. Accordingly, the idea of the legislation was to both create jobs and also pull the industry up by its bootstraps.
Everyone understood that this would not be an easy task, but it was the right thing to do. Without EHRs, if you show up at a new hospital and the doctor there needs your medical history from your home institution, the file of paper records needs to be extracted from the archives. Then, believe it or not, it is faxed a page at a time to the doctor who is treating you. That’s if you are lucky. Many times, the process is just too burdensome and time-consuming. If you are waiting in an emergency room, chances are they will not even try to obtain this information. The result is that tests you might have had recently will have to be repeated, a high cost, when you enter the new facility.
But not having EHRs is a problem even if you go to your regular hospital. There, too, your doctor needs to put in a request for someone to dig up your files and have them delivered or faxed to his or her office. Not only does this create delays, it offers a high probability that your doctor will not have key information about you as he or she begins to diagnose and treat you.