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.
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.
At the end of the year my patients and I will start over. That is what changing EMRs does to us. I have mixed feelings about data migration, if it even happens.
I will move into a new virtual environment and my patients will take on slightly different appearances, maybe even alter their medical histories. Some will perhaps be asking me to edit diagnoses that have haunted them since we went from paper to computer records almost a decade ago.
With our first EMR, we scanned in a few things from patients’ paper records – sometimes only a few pages from years or decades of first handwritten and later typed notes. Much got lost, because we were doing something we never really had thought through, and we had to do it with a clock ticking: “Hurry, before the Federal incentives go away”. The Feds wanted EMRs because the vision was that more data would help research and population health and also reduce medical errors.
This time, another factor is pushing us forward: The EMR we have will no longer be supported after a certain date, and for an EMR that requires continuous tinkering in order to do basic tasks consistently, that is an untenable scenario. Only yesterday, I was suddenly unable to send prescriptions electronically and it took the national headquarter’s involvement to get me up and running again.
In medicine, contrary to common belief, it is not usually enough to know the diagnosis and its best treatment or procedure. Guidelines, checklists and protocols only go so far when you are treating real people with diverse constitutions for multiple problems under a variety of circumstances.
The more you know about unusual presentations of common diseases, the more likely you are to make the correct diagnosis, I think everyone would agree. Also, the more you know about the rare diseases that can look like the common one you think you’re seeing in front if you, rather than having just a memorized list of rule-outs, the better you are at deciding how much extra testing is practical and cost effective in each situation.
Not everyone with high blood pressure needs to be tested in detail for pheochromocytoma, renal artery stenosis, coarctation of the aorta, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, hyperparathyroidism or thyroiditis. But you need to know enough about all of these things to have them in mind, automatically and naturally, when you see someone with high blood pressure.
Just having a lifeless list in your pocket or your EMR, void of vivid details and depth of understanding, puts you at risk of being a burned-out, shallow healthcare worker someday replaced by apps or artificial intelligence.
I would urge THCB-ers to read Reframing Healthcare by Dr. Zeev Neuwirth. While much of the territory he covers will be familiar to those of us with an interest in healthcare reform (meaning just about everyone reading this blog), Chapter 5 breaks new ground in the field of primary care.
Primary care is perhaps the sorest spot in healthcare, the
sorest of industries. Primary care providers (PCPs) are underpaid,
dissatisfied, and in short supply. (The supply issue could be solved in part if
employers didn’t pay employees
bonuses to get useless annual checkups or fine them if they don’t, of
They are also expected to stay up to date on a myriad of
topics, but lack the time in which to do that and typically don’t get
compensated for it. Plus, there are a million other “asks” that have nothing to
do with seeing actual patients.
For instance, I’ve gone back and forth three times with my
PCP as she tries to get Optum to cover 60 5-milligram zolpidems (Ambien)
instead of 30 10-milligram pills. (I already cut the 5 mg. pills in half. Not
fair or good medicine to ask patients to try to slice those tiny 10 mg pills
into quarters. And not sure why Optum would incentivize patients to take more
of this habit-forming medicine instead of less.)
This can’t be fun for her. No wonder PCPs burn out and leave
the practice faster than other specialties. What some of my physician
colleagues call the “joy of practice” is simply not there.