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Tag: Shirie Leng

Why a New Healthcare Technology Designed to Cut Costs and Increase Efficiency Probably Won’t Put Anesthesiologists Out of Work

The Wall Street Journal recently contacted me regarding an upcoming article on Sedasys, the new gadget that is supposed to be able to infuse propofol by computer while monitoring vital signs.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written previously, you’ll know that I am NOT a big proponent of technology as a means of “improving” patient care. To me, the more technology you put between the patient and the caregiver, the less medicine you’re practicing, and the more data-entry and computer programming you’re doing.

Sedasys is designed specifically to administer propofol.  Propofol is a milk-like substance that produces a range of effects from sedation to general anesthesia.  For sedation you just use less,  for general anesthesia you use more.  Its very quick onset and very quick recovery make it great for outpatient sedation.  It has to be given in a continuous drip because its effect goes away so fast.  GI docs love it because its so effective.  I suspect they also love it because propofol comes with an anesthesiologist to give it.

The only problem is the one Michael Jackson encountered: it has this pesky side effect of causing you to stop breathing.  And you can’t tell by looking at a person how much will sedate them and how much will make them stop breathing.

A little old lady with a million health problems might sedate at, say, 40 mg and stop breathing at 60 mg, while an 19-year-old could probably take 150 mg and still be fighting you.  It’s not necessarily weight-based.

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An Anesthesiologist Thinks Out Loud

Anyone who has read my work knows that articles like the one written in the New York Times on Sunday by Elisabeth Rosenthal will immediately get a response out of me.  If you haven’t read it, here’s the link.

Where do I start with this???  I’m going to let Ms. Rosenthal tell you about how many unnecessary colonoscopies we do.  I’ll let her tell you how much more it costs here than anywhere else.  I will address the anesthesia bit.  Let me tell you a little story.  When I was a baby anesthesiologist my hospital sent anesthesiologists “downstairs” to do anesthesia for GI procedures maybe once a week for a few hours.

This was in 2004 or so.  Now we send three board certified anesthesiologists to various GI units every day all day.  We do maybe 25 cases a day on average.  Now, some of this is due to the aggressive expansion of the advanced GI procedures unit as well as the addition of an outside private group that was recently folded into the greater hospital system.  It’s also because we’re there.  It’s no accident that as soon as we committed troops to the GI battle all of a sudden everybody needed anesthesia.

The NYT article uses Dierdre Yapalater as an example, a healthy 60-something.  Putting aside the ridiculous cost for the overall procedure, she was billed $2,400 for anesthesia.  But she didn’t need anesthesia.  There is absolutely no reason for her to have an anesthesiologist involved for that case.  None.

Anesthesia care used to be limited to very sick patients, not because they are harder to sedate (they’re actually often easier) but to monitor them closely because of their tenuous physiologic status.  Now everybody is getting it.  Why did she get anesthesia, why did the anesthesiologist give it, why does insurance pay for it?

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Did Angelina Do the Wrong Thing?

A woman’s mother dies at age 56. A blood test is done. The woman finds out she has a genetic pre-disposition to cancer. She takes what action she thinks she needs to take. A familiar story repeated over and over again every day. I’ve met many women who have made this choice. While not “normal”, it is a familiar situation. These women’s difficult choices go unheralded. But not Angelina. She has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it.

I am of two minds about Ms. Jolie’s announcement. Unlike double mastectomies for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which isn’t necessarily a cancer and can be treated with a lumpectomy, BRCA1 gene mutations can’t be treated any other way. Unless I hear differently from my breast surgeon friends, I’d say she probably did the right thing. Her decision to talk about it is probably encouraging to women who have or will have to make that choice. It raises awareness of the gene mutation. It puts breast cancer on the front page of the New York Times. Again.

Here’s my problem: double mastectomy is not a benign procedure. Ms. Jolie seems to have had a remarkably easy time of it. Yes, she says she was right back to her normal life soon after, but since Jolie’s life is not normal that’s hard to generalize. The truth is there is significant pain involved, a long period of waiting while the tissue expanders do their work, then there’s further procedures for the implants, which can develop capsules around them, or rupture, or get infected. If Angelina had chosen breast reconstructive surgery there would be the risk of the flap losing blood flow, multiple drains, overnight stays in recovery rooms or ICUs, and many many surgeries for revision, nipple creation, etc. And the results are not always beautiful. I understand that it is not Ms. Jolie’s role to scare people, but to encourage them. I would just warn against falsely rosy expectations.

I am not trying to discourage double mastectomy. Sometimes it is necessary. I do think that people who have extraordinary access to public attention must pay extraordinary attention to what they say. I wish Angelina all the best for a complete, and beautiful, recovery.

Shirie Leng, MD is a practicing anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She blogs regularly at medicine for real.

No Resident Left Behind

Yesterday at the faculty meeting, we learned that the first year residents in anesthesia will now have to take AND PASS a written exam at the end of their first year.  They will have a certain number of tries and if a resident can’t pass it by the third try they’re either out of the program or held back in some way.  Now, it used to be when I was a baby resident that the first year residents took the certification exam that the third years took, and it was graded on a curve based on year.  You didn’t have to pass it or get a certain grade; it was sort of a reality check, to see how you were doing.  I don’t know who’s brilliant idea this new test was, other than the people who administer and charge for the test.  It might be a solution in search of a problem, I have no idea.

Here’s the thing.  Testing freaks residents out.  They have been taking high-stakes tests their whole entire lives.  In high school they had to get As and score a 1400 on the SAT.  In college they still had to get As, but also had to ace the MCAT.  In med school the tests might have been pass/fail but USMLE Steps 1 and 2, both of which are taken during med school, certainly weren’t.  Results of those had bearing on what residency you got into.  The result of all this standardized testing is that every resident has PTSD about tests, and every resident has had years to figure out how he or she can most quickly cram in the amount of information necessary to do well on the test.  Residents are masters of this.  There is absolutely no reason to read the textbook, which is likely 8 years out of date anyway, when you can go straight to the review books and practice exams online.  Especially if the threat of expulsion or repetition, both of which are disasters on multiple foreign and domestic fronts, is held over their heads.

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I Was Told There Would Be No Math

Someone has been listening to me.  Or rather, to me and a growing number of voices that are questioning the requirements for admission to medical school.  I have argued in a past blog that you won’t get more good primary care doctors, who practice a lot of humanities in addition to the science, if the only people you admit to medical school are scientists.  Two medical schools and the American Association of Medical Colleges are beginning to agree.

Pauline Chen gives a good overview of what’s happening in this area here.  Essentially, Boston University and the medical school at Mt. Sinai have made pretty radical efforts to apply either more than the traditional evaluation points to their admissions process, or different ones altogether.  Mt. Sinai, in particular, has an extraordinary an early-acceptance program for college sophomores and juniors in which they can get into medical school without the MCATs, and without a few of the standard pre-med science and math requirements. In return, the accepted students have to continue to major in an humanities-related field and maintain an adequate GPA.  They also have to undergo intensive science enrichment courses prior to matriculation.  BU hasn’t gone quite that far, but they have included many more “holistic” data points into their admissions decisions, a process that is extremely labor intensive for the schools’ admissions staff.

Both schools have great ideas that are showing some promising results.  I see a couple potential problems:

1. Mt. Sinai seems to be sort of cramming in all the old science requirements in off-hours, allowing students to pursue wider studies in college. I would rather see a larger decrease in the science and math requirements.  Basic chemistry and biology are probably necessary, but no one has ever explained to me why you need physics.  Or calculus.  You don’t need most of this stuff in medical school.  All you need in medical school is the ability to put your head down and push through the memorization.  You don’t need math, you just need patience.  The thing is, the only way to get rid of the math and science is to get rid of the MCAT, because believe you me you can’t get through that behemoth with an english major.  Then, even if you do that, you eventually run into Step 1, the first of the three-part exam you take in medical school to pass medical school.  The Mt Sinai kids might need more “enrichment” courses to get through that.  If those hoops are eliminated, you might find some great doctors underneath those mountainous requirements.

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The Email I Want to Send To Our Tech Guys But Keep Deleting…

Dear Tech Guys:

So today I’m doing anesthesia for colonoscopies and upper GI scopes. Nowadays we have three board-certified anesthesiologists doing anesthesia for GI procedures every single day at my institution. I’ll probably do 8 cases today. I will sign into a computer or electronically sign something 32 times. I have to type my user name and password into 3 different systems 24 times. I’m doing essentially the same thing with each case, but each case has to have the same information entered separately. I have to do these things, but my department also pays four full-time masters-level trained nurses to enter patient information and medical histories into the computer system, sometimes transcribed from a different computer system. Ironically, I will also generate about 50 pages of paper, since the computer record has to be printed out. Twice.

No wonder almost everyone I know hates electronic medical records! I don’t know anything about computers, and I don’t know what systems other hospitals have. I may be dreaming of a world that doesn’t exist or that world is here and I haven’t heard about it. Nevertheless, here’s my wish list for a system that doctors would actually want to use:

1. Eliminate the User Names and Passords: You can’t tell me that in this day of retinal scans and hand-held computers that there isn’t a better way to secure data. What if each person had their own iPad that you only have to sign into ONCE a day that automatically signs your charts. If you’re worried about people leaving them sitting around use a retinal scan or fingerprint instant recognition system.

2. Eliminate the Paper: If you’re going to have full-time people entering data for you, why print it out? It’s on the computer for anyone to access.

3. All Data Systems Must Be Compatible: You can’t have patient data entered in one place that doesn’t automatically import into another place. If my anesthesia record can’t talk to the hospital OMR, I have to RE-TYPE everything in, which is completely ridiculous.

4. Everybody Has to Use the Same System: Everybody, state-wide. Right now, electronic records from a nearby hospital are not available at my hospital, even though the two hospitals are right across the street from each other.

5. Don’t Make Me Turn the Page All the important information about a patient should be on the first page you open when you look up a patient. I shouldn’t have to click six different tabs. Specific to anesthesia, all the relevant data about the patient including what medications they have received during the case should be automatically displayed on the screen when you start a case. Specific to primary care, all the latest labs and data, recent appointments with specialists, current med list and anything else the doctor wants to see commonly should be right on the first screen.

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“Did You Take Care of Tsarnaev?”

I am affiliated with the institution where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is currently hospitalized.  I am friends with people who have treated him.  I’m trying to stay away from those people; I would be unable to help asking them about him.  They might be unable to help talking about him.    There has been a flurry of emails and red-letter warnings cautioning people here not to talk about Mr. Tsarnaev or look him up on the EMR (Electronic Medical Record) system.  Despite this there have been leaks of information and photos from various sources.  It is virtually impossible to keep people from asking about him and talking about him.  Curiosity is human nature.  When human nature comes up against morals and laws, human nature will win a good percentage of the time.  The question is:  given what he has done, does this 19-year-old still have his right to privacy?

The answer, of course, is yes.  The American Medical Association includes patient confidentiality in it’s ethical guidelines:

“…the purpose of a physicians ethical duty to maintain patient confidentiality is to allow the patient to feel free to make a full and frank disclosure of information…with the knowledge that the physician will protect the confidential nature of the information disclosed.”

Threre are legal guidelines as well, most notably with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.  This law was originally passed in 1996 to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the health care system, allow people to switch jobs without losing their health insurance, and impose some rules on electronic medical information. Congress incorporated into HIPAA provisions that mandate the adoption of  the Federal privacy protections for health information.  The “simplified” administrative document for the privacy and security portions of HIPAA is 80 pages long.  Basically your health information cannot be shared with ANYONE. Of course, there are exceptions to HIPAA. Continue reading…