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Tag: practice of medicine

Ode to the Fat Man

Here is a sweeping generalization: When doctors write for the lay public they tend towards tiresome self-flagellation.

Samuel Shem’s House of God is an exception; a refreshing read.

Perhaps he wrote for physicians so he wrote with such open face honesty.

In today’s politically correct world, Shem would have been castigated as an ageist for his brilliant acronym, GOMER (Get out of My Emergency Room), for peri-ninety year olds with advanced dementia who are skirting that narrow zone between St. Peter’s Gate and fractured ribs post-CPR.

Time for a pronouncement for medical students: There are two things you must do before starting your internship. Pass your USMLEs and read House of God.

I have read Shem’s classic twice. I remember the Rules of House of God more reliably than I recall the names of the carpal bones.

My first read was a few days in to my internship in elderly care medicine. The hospital was a rickety establishment in Britain’s National Health Service, not quite the Best Medical School that Shem described. But I seemed to share the same clinical experiences as Roy Basch, Shem’s Gomer-phobic protagonist.

There was a deluge of Gomers on New Year’s Eve; the old practice of granny dumping. I had to justify admission by finding nitrates in their urine for suspected urinary tract infection (grandson attending New Year’s bash still does not have an ICD code), or the vaguest T wave changes on EKG (unstable angina is a useful bet in a 90 year old).

If medical taxonomy could not be clinically justified there was always “acopia.”

Shem was remarkably prescient.

Take rule 13:
“The delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible.”  This was before physicians were inserting stents through rock hard femoral arteries to give patients an aggregate of two extra hours of survival.

Basch’s elderly patients would do the best precisely because his caring was the least aggressive. He would occasionally forget to prepare them with laxatives for a barium enema, saving them from dehydration and its cascade.

If Shem realized in the seventies that nothing was more futile than an investigation leading to a futile treatment, God knows what he would have written today.

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PCMH Certification and Designing the Perfect Car

The Porsche Citroen 911Our clinic is now a Certified Patient-Centered Medical Home. The whole process leading up to this reminds me of one of my favorite subjects – buying cars. Specifically, buying cars based on technical specifications in color brochures. It takes real, on-the-road experience to know if a car is right for you.

When I moved to this country in 1981, I bought a 1980 Chevrolet Citation. Back in Sweden I had owned a Volvo wagon, but secretly admired the front-wheel-drive SAAB 900. Once in America, I figured I’d buy American. My wife’s relatives sent me car brochures to help me prepare for my choice of car.

The Citation sounded like America’s answer to the SAAB: a front-wheel-drive car with a powerful engine, quirky interior and a hatchback design. A car magazine at that time ran a comparison test between the Citation, the SAAB 900 and one of the German sports sedans, and the Citation almost won. I pretty much walked onto a used car lot and bought a silver Citation with red vinyl seats.

What does this have to do with PCMH certification?

Well, I bought a Citation based on a checklist of features that on paper made it look comparable to a SAAB. Once I owned it, I noticed the cracks between the door panels, the uneven paint and the awkward positioning of the controls, some of which felt like they could break if I wasn’t careful.

Not long afterward, I found myself hitting the front bumper on the pavement in sharp turns; I heard the rear shock absorbers snoring on dirt roads; I watched the dashboard dry out and crack in the temperate Maine summer weather, and I realized with the first frost that my car did’t have a rear defroster, and it never seemed to warm up in the winter.

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How Clinical Guidelines Can Fail Both Doctors and Patients

Any confusion over the recent news of cholesterol guidelines in the U.S. is perfectly understandable. On the one hand, the guidelines suggest that nearly half the population should use statins to stave off heart attacks and strokes. On the other, use of the drugs is not with potential side effects and, to many, will offer no substantive benefits. The controversy highlights a problem mired in an outdated way of thinking about health care and the doctor-patient relationship.

Guidelines came about after generations of physicians wanted to bring something more than “opinion and experience” to the patient’s bedside. In the late 1960s legislation for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was amended to call for a demonstration of efficacy and an assessment of benefits and risk as prerequisite to the licensing of any pharmaceutical. Modern clinical science resulted, first slowly and now with an avalanche of clinical trials, each pouring forth outcome data galore.

The Burden of Clinical Data

Clinicians are expected to stay current with this wealth of information. The modern medical curriculum instructs all budding physicians on how to evaluate the quality and the clinical relevance of all such contributions to the body of clinical science. Because some (or perhaps many) find this exercise overwhelming, there are organizations—many academic and some without any discernible relationships with purveyors that could pose a conflict of interest—that attempt to bundle the information in a fashion that might be relevant to particular physicians or physicians in particular specialties. Some of this bundling is quite systematic, some quite helter-skelter.

Occasionally there is a contribution to the literature that offers an unequivocal advantage for a particular patient group. More often, the bundlers are faced with a heterogeneous literature that often demonstrates little, if any, efficacy. Faced with these circumstances, biostatistics has offered up many a method to impute more value to the literature than is apparent at first blush. The result is that all this bundling adds to an enormous and ever-expanding secondary literature.

What is the clinician to do?

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Fee for Service vs. Fee for Serving

In a previous blog we demonstrated how guidelines can compromise the care of individual patients when designed to serve the health care system.

Why should treating physicians defer to guideline committees at all, we asked? For decades medical students have been taught to read and understand information from published papers.

We are all trained in critical appraisal and can keep up with the clinically meaningful literature, the literature that is relevant and accurate enough to present to patients. Just because there are nearly 20,000 biomedical journals does not mean that any, let alone all are replete with meaningful information. We can discern the valuable from the not valuable; why do we need others to tell us?

In fact, we even argued in our last post that patients can and should judge the value of medical information. After all, they face the consequences of misinterpreting the likelihoods of benefit and of harm associated with various options for care.

No one remembers the numbers that describe the chances for benefit and harm or ask more questions about the veracity of information than a patient who must choose. The smartest information managers we have ever encountered are our patients; when informed, they quickly determine the validity of the information and apply their personal values to the estimations of the chances for benefit and harm.

Patient Empowerment

Take the example of a patient who recently entered into a therapeutic dialogue with one of us, RAM. This was not the traditional clinical interview. This patient had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was scheduled for an approach to treatment that the diagnosing physician had offered as the most sensible. However, the decision did not rest easily.

The appointment with RAM was scheduled because the patient sought a dialogue that might offer a chance to reflect on the rationale for the approach he was about to initiate. Two hours into the dialogue, the patient, a 40ish year old African-American man accompanied by his wife, were mulling over the marginal benefits and harms of the options for treating an early stage prostate cancer.

The wife asked how many African-Americans were in the study under discussion. “None”. The husband perked up and then asked, “How many people in the study was my age?” “None”. They then asked if the difference in benefit was a certain, fixed amount? “No, it varies over this range.” – examining the descriptive statistics.

They then asked when the study was started and did it pertain to the present day. “It started over 15 years ago” and the stage of disease of the men in the study was generally more aggressive than in this particular case.

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A Message To My Patients

Thank you.

Thank you, my patients for all you have done for me.  Thank you for the encouragement and support. Thank you for believing in me enough to join me in this crazy new way to do health care. Thank you for giving me the honor of being the one you call “my doctor.”

Your trust motivates me to work harder to justify that faith in me – a faith I often don’t have and, one I certainly wouldn’t have without you.  I hope and pray this holiday season is a blessing to you. May you find peace in this time of year so often without peace.

May you also have a happy and healthy new year. May you stay out of the ER, away from the hospital and, yes, away from doctors. May you have no need for lab tests, procedures, x-rays and medications (and if you must have medications may they be very cheap.)

If, however, you do get sick, remember that I am here to help you get well, feel better or avoid getting any worse. And if I cannot do any of these, I will still be there to stand by your side through the hard times, and to offer whatever comfort I can give. Doing these things is what it means to me when you call me “my doctor.”  It is why that is such an honor.

Again, thank you for all you do for me. God bless you.

Dr. Rob

Rob Lamberts, MD, is a primary care physician practicing somewhere in the southeastern United States. He blogs regularly at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind),where an earlier version of this post first appeared.

In Medicine, More May Not Be Better

The dull whir of the computer running in the background seemed to have gotten louder as the patient fell quiet. She was a young woman, a primary-care patient of mine, seeking a referral to yet another gastroenterologist. Her abdominal pain had already been checked out by two of the city’s most renowned gastroenterologists with invasive testing, CAT scans and endoscopic procedures.

But she wasn’t satisfied with her diagnosis — irritable bowel syndrome — or the recommended treatment and wanted a third opinion. I tried to reason with her but failed to convince her otherwise. Even when I acquiesced and gave her the referral, she walked out visibly unhappy. I sat there listening to the whirring, feeling disappointed.

Physicians love being liked. They also love doing their jobs well. With other incentives, such as monetary returns, dwindling, the elation we get from satisfying a patient as well as providing them good care is what still makes being a doctor special. But is keeping patients satisfied and delivering high-quality care the same thing? And more important, can patients tell if they are getting good care?

Policymakers certainly think so. In fact, under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid hospital reimbursements are now being tied to patient satisfaction numbers.

But the association between patient satisfaction and the quality of care is far from straightforward, and its validity as a measure of quality is unclear.

In fact, a study published in April and conducted by surgeons at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine showed that patient satisfaction was not related to the quality of surgical care. And a 2006 study found that patients’ perception of their care had no relationship to the actual technical quality of care they received. Furthermore, a 2012 UC Davis study found that patients with higher satisfaction scores are likely to have more physician visits, longer hospital stays and higher mortality. All this data may indicate that patients are equating more care with better care.

Although patients and their physicians generally have similar goals, that is not always the case. As a resident, who is not paid on a per-service basis, I have no incentive to order extra testing or additional procedures for my patients if they’re not warranted. But one study found that physicians who are paid on a fee-for-service basis and therefore have an incentive to deliver services — needed or not — are more likely to deliver these services (such as an MRI for routine back pain).

On top of that, as another study found, they also are more liked by their patients. It is no wonder then that the number of patients with back pain, one of the most common reasons for physician visits, are increasingly being overmanaged with MRIs and narcotic pain medications.

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Should We Sacrifice Medicine’s Sacred COW?

Chicago Cubs fans of a certain vintage will never forget broadcaster Harry Carey’s signature line, “Holy cow!”  Some have speculated that the exclamation may have originated in Hinduism, one of the world’s major religions, whose adherents worldwide number approximately one billion.  Hindus regard cows as maternal, caring figures, symbols of selfless giving in the form of milk, curds, butter, and other important products.

One of the most important figures in the faith, Krishna, is said to have been a cowherd, and one of his names, Govinda, means protector of cows.  In short, cows are sacred to Hindus, and their slaughter is banned in virtually all Indian states.

Medicine, too, has its sacred cows, which are well known to physicians, nurses, and patients visited by medical teams on their hospital rounds.  In this case, the cow is not an animal but a machine.  In particular, it is the computer on wheels, or COW, a contraption that usually consists of a laptop computer mounted on a height-adjustable pole with a rolling base.  It is used to enter, store and retrieve medical information, including patients’ diagnoses, vital signs, medications, and laboratory results, as well as to record new orders.

As the team moves from room to room and floor to floor, the COW is pushed right along. The COW is often treated with a degree of deference seemingly bordering on reverence.  For one thing, people in hallways and patients’ rooms are constantly making way for the COW.  As an expensive and essential piece of equipment, it is handled gingerly.  Often only the senior member of the medical team or his or her lieutenant touches the COW.

Others know that they have said something important when they see the chief keyboarding the information into the COW.  Sometimes it plays an almost oracular role. When questions arise to which no one knows the answer, such as the date of a patient’s admission or the time course of a fever, they often consult the COW. Just as cows wandering the streets of Indian cities often obstruct traffic, so healthcare’s COWS can and often do get in the way of good medicine. Continue reading…

What Kind of Ancestor Will You Be?

Is excellent good enough?

As physicians, we are trained to diagnose and treat disease. We dedicate ourselves to searching for cures and perfecting procedures that will restore the health of our patients. Over the last 50 years, we’ve made some remarkable progress. We’ve reduced the death rate from heart disease by 32.5% with a better understanding of primary and secondary prevention and advances in treatment. We’ve made similar progress in cancer care with better treatment options through radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, and genomics. We’ve changed an HIV diagnosis from a hopeless death sentence with limited treatment options to a manageable, chronic condition.

These truly excellent accomplishments in medicine have been life-changing for millions of people. But is excellent good enough?

While we have made great strides in clinical care, the American dream is faltering. Americans are more obese, more medicated and more in debt than at any other time in the history of our nation. One-third of our nation’s total health-care spending, about $750 billion per year, is wasted on unnecessary treatments, redundant tests, and uncoordinated care [1]. Health Care Reform will have limited impact on this waste. While the rate of increase of health care spending has slowed in recent years, the United States still spends 2.5 times more than most developed nations on health care [2]. U.S. health care spending is on track to reach $4.8 trillion in 2021, almost 20% of our gross domestic product [3].

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Pathologizing the Human Condition

The American Psychiatric Association recently published a new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM-5 is what medical, mental health, and chemical dependency professionals use to diagnose developmental, mental health, substance abuse and dependence, learning, and personality “disorders.” Now in its 5th edition, the DSM was first published in 1952. At that time, the DSM was 129 pages containing 106 diagnoses.

Now, 61 years later, the DSM-5 consists of approximately 950 pages and roughly 375 diagnoses. The DSM-5, while researched far more than previous editions, is based on the medical model or the model of disease. Simply put, the medical model finds the causes of disease and illness and then prescribes a treatment to cure the disease or illness. This means a person has a pathology or pathogen that needs to be treated and cured.

The questions that eat at me during my day as a psychologist and at night as a person searching for answers are:

  • Is it possible to accurately identify mental health “issues,” “illness,” or “disorders?” versus extreme ranges within the sphere of the human condition?
  • Even if it is possible to identify these conditions, does it determine the course of “treatment” or “intervention?”
  • If so, is there a “treatment” for every identified “condition?”
  • Does it mean there is a treatment that works?
  • Do you need a diagnosis to get help?

Over the years, many have been critical of this approach to mental “health” issues. Referring to mental “health” is actually a newer name as people have historically been thought to have mental “illness.” This makes more sense for people who are unfortunately compromised by severe conditions termed schizophrenia, bi-polar (manic-depressive), and severe depression and anxiety. But does this make sense for children, adolescents, and adults who are challenged with some other, and possibly less severe, aspect of their functioning and development? Do all human problems warrant a medical or mental health diagnosis? When did a weakness become a “disorder” that requires “intervention” and/or “treatment?”

To be fair, the DSM provided structure and guidelines for approaching the complicated business of determining who had a “problem” that required help. However, it seems things have gone too far. Critics of the DSM believe that this latest edition has taken the business of diagnosing to a new level, one where approximately 50% of the population can be diagnosed with something. Critics also believe that this pathology finding approach supports the continued trend of medication prescribing as the number one mode of treatment, and continued trend of increased health care costs and premiums with increased utilization of individuals who need a “diagnosis” to meet “medical necessity” to receive services. What does that mean? It means if you don’t have a diagnosis, you don’t get help. It means you have to have a problem (pathology) to get help (treatment and intervention).

Without going into detail about some of the changes in the newest edition of the DSM, some diagnostic categories have been added and some diagnosis “thresholds” have been lowered. This means that you need fewer symptoms to “meet diagnostic criteria.” Here are some examples of concerns with the new DSM-5:

  • Temper tantrums will now be diagnosed as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
  • Normal forgetting will now be diagnosed as Minor Neurocognitive Disorder
  • Gluttony will be diagnosed as Binge Eating Disorder
  • Grief will be diagnosed as Major Depression
  • First time substance users and college partiers will get a diagnosis of Substance Use Disorder
  • Everyday Worry will be diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety DisorderContinue reading…

Why Doctors Should Stay Out of the Business of Building EHRs

The original Hipoocratic Oath states:

I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.

One modern version reads:

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

The idea here is that a doctor needs to recognize when another practitioner has a skill that they do not, and that they must refrain from “practice” when another person has demonstrable expertise in that area of practice.

It is now 2013. It is time for doctors to stop “writing their own EHR” from scratch. They need to bow out of this in favor of people who have developed expertise in the area.

I just found out about another doctor who has decided to write his own EHR, because he has not been able to find one that supports his new direct pay business model adequately. In the distant past I encountered a doctor who believed that his “Microsoft Word Templates” qualified as an EHR system. This is a letter to any doctor who feels like they are comfortable starting from-scratch software development for an EHR in 2013 or later.

You might believe yourself to be an EHR expert.

Are you sure about that? Are you sure that you are not just an EHR expert user?

This difference is not unlike your relationship with your favorite thoracic surgeon. Or for that matter, your relationship with the person who built your car. The fact that you are capable of expertly evaluating and using EHR products does not mean you are qualified to build one. Just like the fact that you are qualified to treat a patient who has recently had heart surgery or to discern when a patient might need heart surgery does not make you qualified to perform that heart surgery. Similarly, the fact that you can drive, or even repair your automobile, does not provide you with the expertise you need to build a car from scratch.

The ethical situation that you are putting yourself in by developing your own EHR is fairly tenuous. Performing heart surgery without being a heart surgeon, building and driving your own car without being an automotive engineer and a doctor coding their own EHR system from scratch all have the same fundamental problem: You might be smart enough to pull it off, but if you don’t you can really mess up another person’s life. Make no mistake, you can kill someone with a shoddy EHR just as easily as by performing medical procedures that you are not qualified for or by driving a car that is not road-safe.

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