My first job after residency was in a small mill town in central Maine. I joined two fifty something family doctors, one of whom was the son of the former town doctor. I felt like I was Dr. Kiley on “Marcus Welby, MD.” I didn’t have a motorcycle, but I did have a snazzy SAAB 900.
Will was a John Deere man, wore a flannel shirt and listened to A Prairie Home Companion. He was kind and methodical. Joe didn’t seem quite as rural, moved quicker and wore more formal clothes. I never could read his handwriting.
They each had their own patients, but covered seamlessly for each other. They were like a pair of spouses in the sense that they answered to each other as much as to their patients. They had to make everything work for the benefit of their shared practice, their shared livelihood. Their mutual loyalty was essential and obvious, although allowing for their differences in temperament and personalities.
Invited to stay on and enter into a partnership, I hesitated. How did I fit in? Could I follow in their footsteps and become an equal partner, covering for them and doing things similarly enough to fit in for the long haul?
You’re running late and many things didn’t go right today. You knock on the door and enter the exam room with an apology. If you’re like me, you have a few papers and an iPad or a laptop in your hand. You sit down and open the patient’s chart in your device or perhaps on the big desktop, eyes not exactly locked on the patient.
Only after getting to where you need to be in the computer do you really look the patient in the eyes. Your body language has been one of hurry and distraction. Now you try to repair the damage of that, so you try to show you’re settling down now, at least for a few moments. You might sigh, move your arms in a gesture of relaxation and say something to get the history taking underway.
So far, you’re failing. I do that often, too.
Here’s what we all know we need to do, but often don’t; we should follow these ABCs:
A – Attention:
Clear your mind. It doesn’t matter what happened in the other room with the other patient, or on the phone with the insurance company or the smug specialist or ER doc who pointed out the diagnosis you missed. Open the door (I always knock first) and immediately look at the patient. Make eye contact and observe them. Pay attention to how they look, what they are signaling. The computer can wait; a few moments of focused attention will usually save you time in the end. After all, red or teary eyes, a leg cast, a big bruise or change in grooming can make the visit go in a direction you wouldn’t have expected from he listed chief complaint. How many times have we heard a patient comment about another doctor: He didn’t pay attention to me. Do we always do that ourselves if we’re rushed or preoccupied?
How long does it take to diagnose guttate psoriasis versus pityriasis rosea? Swimmers ear versus a ruptured eardrum? A kidney stone? A urinary tract infection? An ankle sprain?
So why is the typical “cycle time”, the time it takes for a patient to get through a clinic such as mine for these kinds of problems, close to an hour?
Answer: Mandated screening activities that could actually be done in different ways and not even necessarily in person or in real time!
Guess how many emergency room or urgent care center visits could be avoided and handled in the primary care office if we were able to provide only the services patients thought they needed? Well over 50% and probably more like 75%.
Primary Care clinics like mine are penalized if a patient with an ankle sprain comes in late in the year and has a high blood pressure because they are in pain and that becomes the final blood pressure recording for the year. (One more uncontrolled hypertensive patient.)
A lot of Americans think they should be able to make an appointment with a specialist on their own, and view the referral from a primary care provider as an unnecessary roadblock.
This “system” often doesn’t work, because of the way medical specialties are divided up.
If belly pain is due to gallbladder problems you need a general surgeon. If it’s due to pancreas cancer, you need an oncologic surgeon. If the cause is Crohn’s disease, any gastroenterologist will do, but with Sphincter of Oddi problems, you’ll need a gastroenterologist who does ERCPs, and not all of them do. Now, of course, if you’re a woman, that abdominal pain may actually be referred pain from an ovarian cancer, best treated by a GYN-oncology surgeon, which anywhere in Maine means a drive down to Portland.
The other day I saw an older man for a second opinion. He had been through one hand surgery for a small tumor many years ago in Boston, and another unrelated operation for a fracture in Bangor a few years ago. Then, after a non surgical injury, he developed stabbing pains in the same hand. Someone referred him to a neurologist for EMG testing, which was normal, and the man told me that was all the neurologist did, not a full consultation.
By SAMYUKTA MULLANGI MD, MBA, DANIEL W. BERLAND MD, and SUSAN DORR GOOLD MD, MHSA, MA
Jenny, a woman in her twenties with morbid obesity (not her real name), had already been through multiple visits with specialists, primary care physicians (PCPs), and the emergency department (ED) for unexplained abdominal pain. A plethora of tests could not explain her suffering. Monthly visits with a consistent primary care physician also had little impact on her ED visits or her pain. Some clinicians had broached the diagnosis of functional abdominal pain related to her central adiposity, and recommended weight loss. This suggestion inevitably led her to become defensive and angry.
our standard screen for safety at home had been completed long ago, I wanted to
probe further, knowing that many patients with obesity, chronic pain and other
chronic conditions have suffered an adverse childhood – or adulthood –
experience (ACE). Yet, I hesitated. Would a busy primary care setting offer enough
latitude for me to ask about a history of trauma when it can occur in so many
forms, in so many ways and at different times of life? Furthermore, suppose she
did report a history of trauma or adverse experience. What then? Would I be
able to help her?
I began: “Jenny, many patients with symptoms like yours have been abused,
either emotionally, physically, or sexually, or neglected in their past.
Sometimes they have suffered loss of a loved one, or experienced or witnessed
violence. Has anything like this ever happened to you?”
yielded our first breakthrough. Yes, she had experienced neglect, with parents
who were separated for much of her childhood, and then later divorced. She had
seen her father physically abuse her mother. With little parental oversight,
she had engaged in drug and alcohol use throughout her teenage years. But, she
wanted to be sure we understood that this was all behind her. She had gotten an
education, was in a committed relationship, and had a stable job as a teacher.
That part of her life was thankfully now closed.
On Episode 72 of Health in 2 Point 00, Jess and I give you a run down of the latest in health tech. At long last, the joint health care venture between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan has a name: Haven. In other news, Scott Gottlieb has decided to leave the FDA; we’ll just have to see what happens with the next FDA Commissioner. On the behavioral health front, AbleTo has acquired Joyable, a mental health coaching app. Finally, Crossover Health, which provides medical services to large employers like Facebook, acquired Sherpaa, a text messaging-based service—we’re seeing virtual services combining with a physical space more and more. And as mentioned, you can catch my talk from the 2017 HIC conference in Australia on how SMACK Health and Karl Marx will change health care here. —Matthew Holt
In this episode of Radiology Firing Line Podcast, Danny Huges and I discuss a JAMA paper: A comparison of diagnostic imaging ordering patterns between advanced practice clinicians and primary care physicians following office-based evaluation and management visits.
Listen to our conversation on Radiology Firing Line here.
Saurabh Jha is a contributing editor to THCB and host of Radiology Firing Line Podcast of the Journal of American College of Radiology, sponsored by Healthcare Administrative Partner
I pay $500 per year for UpToDate, the online reference that helps me stay current on diagnostic criteria and best treatment options for most diseases I might run into in my practice. They also have a rich library of patient information, which I often print out during office visits.
I don’t get any “credit” for doing that, but I do if I print the, often paltry, patient handouts built into my EMR. That was how the rules governing meaningful use of subsidized computer technology for medical offices were written.
If I describe in great detail in my office note how I motivated a patient to quit smoking but forgot to also check the box that smoking cessation education was provided, I look like a negligent doctor. My expensive EMR can’t extract that information from the text. Google, from my mobile device, can translate between languages and manages to send me ads based on words in my web searches.
When I do a diabetic foot exam, it doesn’t count for my quality metrics if I freetext it; I must use the right boxes. If I do it diligently on my iPad in eClinicalWorks, one of my EMRs, even if I use the clickboxes, it doesn’t carry over to the flowsheet or my report card.
Healthcare is on a different trajectory from most other businesses today. It’s a little hard to understand why.
In business, mass market products and services have always competed on price or perceived quality. Think Walmart or Mercedes-Benz, even the Model T Ford. But the real money and the real excitement in business is moving away from price and measurable cookie cutter quality to the intangibles of authority, influence and trust. This, in a way, is a move back in time to preindustrial values.
In primary care, unbeknownst to many pundits and administrators and unthinkable for most of the health tech industry, price and quality are not really even realistic considerations. In fact, they are largely unknown and unknowable.
The old doctors know. The practice of medicine has changed in a very basic way over the last 20 years. Physician relationships have lost their civility and have been replaced by a level of tension that takes the fun out of collegial interactions. I remember my first year of family medicine as the only doctor in Weeping Water, Nebraska. My personal medical community had gone from an entire medical school campus with limitless lectures and many physicians to share in “interesting cases” to an occasional phone call with a consultant in Omaha. These contacts became my primary source for medical education and updates for Weeping Water’s health care. The phone calls were collegial, respectful, and focused on what was best for my patients.
The RUC is the secretive committee of the AMA that has been CMS’s primary source of physician payment data over the past 20 years. It has elaborately articulated the complexity of medical procedures but ignores and confuses the cognitive work involved in patient care – collapsing it into a few evaluation and management codes. As a result, many medical specialties have found that their financial success is tied primarily to doing things TO patients, rather than caring FOR patients.
The RUC has shifted these physicians’ attention away from the hard work of knowing patients over time and fine-tuning their treatments based on subtle changes discovered by history and physical toward focusing on which procedure can be done to a patient and legitimized to an insurance company. Let the “primary” do that other stuff.