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What Is The Most Important Quality In A Physician?

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Medical errors are estimated to be the third leading cause of death in America’s hospitals. Though some of these errors are beyond physician control, many are the direct result of physician action and inaction. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to reduce these errors and I (like many of my peers) lose sleep over the mistakes I witness.

When you ask patients what quality is most important in a physician, they often answer, “empathy.” I think that’s close, but not quite right. I know many “nice” and “supportive” doctors who have poor clinical judgment. When it comes to excellent care quality, one personality trait stands out to me – something that we don’t spend much time thinking about:

Curiosity.

A physician with a curious mind doesn’t necessarily know all the answers. He may not be the “smartest” graduate of his medical school.  But he is a great detective, and doesn’t rest until problems are solved. This particular quality isn’t nurtured in a system that rewards partial work ups, rapid patient turnover, and rushed documentation. But some doctors retain their intellectual curiosity about their patients – and to the extent that they do, I believe they can significantly reduce medical errors.

Many of the preventable adverse events I have witnessed (outside of procedure-based errors) began with warning signs that were ignored. Examples include abnormal lab tests that were not followed up in a timely manner, medication side effects that went unrecognized, copy errors in drug lists, and subtle changes in the physical exam that were presumed insignificant. All of these signs trigger the curious mind to seek out answers in time to head off problems before they evolve into real dangers.

Of course, there are other qualities that make a physician excellent – wisdom, experience, kindness, and a grounding in evidence-based practice come to mind. But without an engaged mind fueled by genuine curiosity, it’s hard to retain the vigilance required for continued good outcomes.

Curiosity may have killed a cat or two, but I’ve seen it save a large number of patients!

Why It’s So Tempting To Over-screen: A Personal Perspective

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Health screening is part of good preventive care, though over-screening can lead to increased costs, and potential patient harm. Healthcare professional societies have recently developed excellent public service announcements describing the dangers of over-testing, and new research suggests that though additional medical interventions are associated with increased patient satisfaction, they also lead (ironically) to higher mortality rates.

And so, in a system attempting to shift to a “less is more” model of healthcare, why is resistance so strong? When the USPSTF recommended against the need for annual, screening mammograms in healthy women (without a family history of breast cancer) between the ages of 40-49, the outcry was deafening. Every professional society and patient advocacy group rallied against the recommendation, and generally not much has changed in the breast cancer screening world. I myself tried to follow the USPSTF guidelines – and opted out of a screening mammogram for two full years past 40. And then I met a charming radiologist at a women’s medical conference who nearly burst into tears when I told her that I hadn’t had a mammogram. Her lobbying for me to “just make sure I was ok” was so passionate that I simply could no longer resist the urge to get screened.

I knew going into the test that there was a reasonably high chance of a false positive result which could cause me unnecessary anxiety. That being said, I was still emotionally unprepared for the radiologists’ announcement that the mammogram was “abnormal” and that a follow up ultrasound needed to be scheduled. I must admit that I did squirm until I had more information. In the end, the “abnormality” proved to be simple “dense breast tissue” and I was pleased to have at least dodged an unnecessary biopsy or lumpectomy. Did my screening do me any good? No, and some psychological harm. A net/net negative but without long term sequelae.

My next personal wrestling match with screening tests was the colonoscopy. I was seeing a gastroenterologist for some GI complaints, and we weren’t 5 minutes into our conversation before he recommended a colonoscopy. I argued that I was too young for a screening colonoscopy (I was 42 and they are recommended starting at age 50), and therefore was doubtful that anything too helpful would be found with the test. My suggestion was that a careful history and some blood testing might be the first place to start. My gastroenterologist acquiesced reluctantly.

As it turns out the blood testing was non-diagnostic and my symptoms persisted so I agreed to the colonoscopy. In this case I felt it was reasonable to do it since it was for diagnostic (not screening) purposes. I was quite certain that it would reveal nothing – or perhaps a false positive followed by anxiety, like my mammogram.

What it did show was some polyps that had a 50% chance of becoming malignant colon cancer in the next 10 years. I was shocked. If I had waited until I was 50 to start screening, I could have missed my cure window. The uneasiness about screening guidelines began to sink in. As a physician I had done my best to apply screening guidelines to myself and resist the urge to over-test, even with a healthy dose of natural curiosity. Yet I failed to resist screening, and in fact, my life was possibly saved by a test that was not supposed to be on my preventive health radar for another 8 years.

Screening tests are recommended for those who are most likely to benefit, and physicians and patients alike are encouraged to avoid unnecessary testing. But there are always a few people outside the “most likely to benefit” pool whose lives could be saved with screening, and the urge to make sure that’s not you – or your patient – is incredibly strong. I’m not sure if that’s human nature, or American culture. But a quick review of Hollywood blockbuster plots (where tens of thousands of lives are regularly sacrificed to save one princess/protagonist/hero from the aliens/monsters/zombies) testifies to our desperately irrational tendencies.

I am now biased towards over-testing, because my emotional relief at dodging a bullet is stronger than my cerebral desire to adhere to population-based recommendations. Knowing this, I will still try to avoid the temptation to over-test and over-treat my patients. But if they so much as hint that they’d like an early colonoscopy – I will cave.

Does that make me a bad doctor?

How To Be A Bad Gastroenterologist

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I am a regular reader of patient blogs, and I find myself frequently gasping at the mistreatment they experience at the hands of my peers. Yesterday I had the “pleasure” of being a patient myself, and found that my professional ties did not protect me from outrageously poor bedside manners. I suppose I’m writing this partly to vent, but also to remind healthcare professionals what not to do to patients waking up from anesthesia. I also think my experience may serve as a reminder that it’s ok to fire your doctor when conditions warrant.

I chose my gastroenterologist based on his credentials and the quality of training and experience listed on Healthgrades.com I had no personal recommendations to rely upon – so I used what I thought was a reasonable method for finding a good local doctor. When I met him for our initial office consultation he seemed rushed and distracted, without genuine curiosity about my complaints, complicated history, or how to help me find the correct diagnosis. I brushed my instincts aside, presuming he was just having a “bad day” and hoping for more time to discuss things fully once a battery of blood tests had been completed.

Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to review the results with him – instead he instructed his nurse to read me the results over the phone and to schedule me for a colonoscopy. I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of the procedure and what he thought he might be able to rule out with the test. He did not provide me with basic informed consent information, nor was he able to articulate medical necessity for the scope. I decided not to have the test, and I didn’t hear another word from him or his office.

Months later my symptoms had worsened and so I decided that a colonoscopy might help to further elucidate the potential cause. I was not able to get through to my doctor via phone, so I scheduled the test via his nursing staff. I planned to be the first patient of the day, so that we would have time to discuss my symptoms and concerns.

On the day of the procedure my physician stormed into my surgical bay and began reading my medical history to me from the computer screen, without exchanging basic niceties or introducing himself to my husband. I confirmed the information and tried to offer some nuance since our last office meeting. He cut me off, and made me feel as if my observations were completely unhelpful and were getting in the way of our scope time. He left in a rush before I felt that he had any clear sense of what we were trying to accomplish or rule out with the procedure.

A jovial anesthesiologist then entered my curtained cubicle, and made genuine human contact with me. He inquired about the reasons for the procedure and expressed appropriate glee regarding my Mallampati grade I airway. I asked him if he would be so kind as to not position me directly on my left shoulder during the procedure as it was exquisitely tender from a recent orthopedic injury. He promised to do his best to protect the injury while I was sedated.

Cut to the endoscopy suite where the gastroenterologist enters with a grumble as the techs bustle around the scope equipment and the anesthesiologist explains the slightly altered positioning for my comfort. As the propofol anesthetic goes into my vein I feel the gastroenterologist push me fully onto my injury as I lose the ability to protest.

After the procedure I’m back in my bay with my husband, groggy but with more pain in my shoulder than anywhere else. The curtain is drawn back with a yank and in marches the GI doc, relaying the unanticipated abnormal findings. I ask (in a slightly slurred tone) for more information, to which he responds in a loud voice, “You’re not going to remember any of this so just be quiet and listen!”

I persist in my attempts to understand the details to which he shouts “Shut up and listen” with increasing decibels. When I say that the findings still don’t explain my symptoms and that I remain perplexed he says that I should “try probiotics.”  Finally he leaves the room, not offering any reassurance about the possibility of bowel perforation and stating that we’ll “Just have to wait for the pathology report, and it will take a while because of the July 4th weekend.”

I was dumbfounded, and not just because of my post-anesthetic stupor, but because of the open hostility showed to me by one of my peers. I asked my husband if I was out of line in my questioning and he said that I sounded “like a drunk person” but that the doctor was definitely being “an a**hole.”

As the nurses untangled me from the IV and EKG stickers and rushed me into a wheelchair and out to my husband’s waiting vehicle, all I could say was “Wow, my gastroenterologist was really mean to me.”

The nurses just nodded and suggested that I wasn’t the first to notice that.

As I recover from the whirlwind interaction with the healthcare system, I feel relief and anger. I’m relieved that my GI doc didn’t perforate my bowel and that we accidentally caught some very bad stuff early on, but I’m angry about how I was treated and feel no closer to an explanation for my symptoms than when I started investigating a year ago. My experience was probably fairly typical for many patients dealing with physicians who have lost empathy and compassion. I am sad that there are so many like that out there and I promise to do my best not to follow suit.

My bottom line on gastroenterologists (sorry for the horrible pun): Go with your gut. If your doctor displays jerk-like tendencies during your office visit, rest assured that they can bloom in time. Have the courage to find another doctor before you put your life in their hands and/or they get the chance to verbally abuse you in a post-anesthetic stupor. I am firing my doctor a little bit on the late side, but doing it nonetheless. I just hope that my orthopedist is a good egg (like my anesthesiologist) – because I’ve got one heck of a sore shoulder coming his way!

Federal Hospital Inspectors Miss True Dangers, Focus On Documentation Minutiae

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In an effort to promote transparency in healthcare, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) has published a database of recent hospital deficiencies discovered by Medicare and Medicaid  inspectors. They then highlighted 168 reports containing the phrase “immediate jeopardy.” This, of course, piqued my interest as I presumed that hospitals who were putting putting patients in “immediate jeopardy” must be some pretty bad actors.

After sifting through the hospital names, I saw no record of ones who should probably be on the list based on my personal experiences. I did find some surprises, including well respected academic centers (including Stanford, UCSD, and Intermountain Health). I did a “deep dive” on a hospital for which I have a good deal of respect and some familiarity. What I discovered was both funny and sad.

In the case of the hospital that I knew, the very grave concerns expressed by the inspectors turned out to revolve around patient signatures on HIPAA documentation, and physicians refreshing their electronic restraint orders on patients with traumatic brain injuries. These documentation mishaps had landed the hospital on the ominous list of institutions who are “putting patients lives in immediate jeopardy.”

What a waste of inspector time and hospital resources! Apparently, a hospital who passes CMS muster simply means that they are providing documentation correctness to patients. Forget the real sources of life-threatening dangers – medication errors, poor physician handoffs, unnecessary testing and treatment, and unsanitary conditions. What the safety police are focused upon is whether or not the sick and delirious signed their health information privacy paperwork.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to let patients know their rights, etc. But I’ve yet to see more than 10% of patients even read the HIPAA-related documentation that they sign.  Surely an absent signature or two shouldn’t land a hospital on a humiliating federal watch list.

True patient safety cannot be regulated. It is far too complex and nuanced, requiring collaboration between all members of a hospital’s staff. From frequent nursing surveillance, to careful medication review, to laboratory critical value alerts, to conscientious sanitation practices – hospital culture dictates whether or not a patient receives excellent care. Watch lists would be far more accurate if they were simply based on hospital employee questionnaires. As Dr. Marty Makary has discovered, complicated care quality algorithms are no more accurate at predicting hospital excellence than simply asking staff if they’d recommend the place to family members.

So next time you see your hospital flagged by the feds, don’t assume that there is a serious problem going on – better to ask someone who works there if it’s a safe place for care.

The Underbelly Of Vendor Management Systems And The Commoditization Of Physicians And Nurses

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In an effort to save on human resources costs, some hospitals have decided to make locum tenens* doctors and nurses line items in a supply list.  Next to IV tubing, liquid nutritional supplements and anti-bacterial wipes you’ll find slots for nurses, surgeons, and hospitalist positions. This depressing commoditization of professional staffing is a new trend in healthcare promoted by software companies promising to solve staffing shortages with vendor management systems (VMS). In reality, they are removing the careful provider recruiting process from job matching, causing a “race to the bottom” in care quality. Instead of filling a staff position with the most qualified candidates with a proven track record of excellent bedside manner and evidence-based practice, physicians and nurses with the lowest salary requirements are simply booked for work.

In a policy environment where quality measures and patient satisfaction ratings are becoming the basis for reimbursement rates, one wonders how VMS software is getting traction. Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures, and the challenge of filling employment gaps is driving interest in impersonal digital match services? Rural hospitals are desperate to recruit quality candidates, and with a severe physician shortage looming, warm bodies are becoming an acceptable solution to staffing needs.

As distasteful as the thought of computer-matching physicians to hospitals may be, the real problems of VMS systems only become apparent with experience. After discussing user experience with several hospital system employees and reading various blogs and online debates here’s what I discovered:

1. Garbage In, Garbage Out. The people who input physician data (including their certifications, medical malpractice histories, and licensing data) have no incentive to insure accuracy of information. Head hunter agencies are paid when the physicians/nurses they enter into the database are matched to a hospital. To make sure that their providers get first dibs, they may leave out information, misrepresent availability, and in extreme cases, even falsify certification statuses. These errors are often caught during the hospital credentialing process, which results in many hours of wasted time on the part of internal credentialing personnel, and delays in filling the position. In other cases, the errors are not caught during credentialing and legal problems ensue when impaired providers are hired accidentally.

2. Limitation of choice. The non-compete contracts associated with VMS systems typically prevent hospital physician recruiters from contacting staffing agencies directly to fill their needs. This forces the hospital to rely on the database for all staffing leads. At least 68% of staffing agencies do not participate with VMS systems, so a large portion of the most carefully vetted professionals remain outside the VMS, inaccessible to those who contracted to use it.

3. Extra hospital employee training required. There are hundreds of proprietary VMS systems in use. Each one requires specialized training to manage everything from durable medical equipment to short term surgical staff. In cases where hospital staff are spread too thin to master this training, some VMS companies are pleased to provide a “managed service provider” or MSP to outsource the entire recruitment process. This adds additional layers, further removing the hospital recruiter from the physician.

4. Providers hate VMS systems. As anyone who has read a recent nursing blog can attest, VMS systems are universally despised by the potential employees they represent. VMS paints professionals in black and white, without the ability to distinguish quality, personality, or perform careful reference checks. They force down salaries, may rule out candidates based on where they live (travel costs), and provide no opportunity to negotiate salary vis-a-vis work load. When a hospital opts to use a VMS system as a middle man between them and the staffing agencies, the agencies often pass along the cost to the providers by offering them a lower hourly rate.

5. Provider privacy may be compromised. Once a physician or nurse curriculum vitae (CV) is entered into the VMS database the agency recruiter who entered it has 1 year (I can’t confirm that this is true for all systems) to represent them exclusively. After that, the CV is often available for any recruiter who has access to that VMS to view or pitch to any client. There is a wide variety of agency quality in the healthcare staffing industry, with some being highly ethical and selective in choosing their clients (only quality hospitals) and providers (carefully screened). Others are transactional, bottom-feeders with all the scruples of a used car salesman. When your data is in a VMS, one minute you might be represented by a caring, thoughtful recruiter who understands and respects your career needs, and the next (without your informed consent) you’ll be matched to a bankrupt hospital undergoing investigation by the Department of Health by a gum-chewing salesman who threatens you with a lawsuit if you don’t complete an assignment for half the pay you usually receive.

6. No cost savings, only increased liability. In the end, some hospitals who have tried VMS systems say that their decreased hiring costs have not resulted in overall savings. While they may see a downward shift in salary paid to their temporary work force, they get what they pay for. Just one “bad hire” who causes a medical malpractice lawsuit can eat up salary savings for an entire year of VMS. Not to mention the increased costs associated with a slower hiring process, attrition from poor fits, and the inconvenience of having to re-recruit for positions over and over again. Providers also lose out on career opportunities while they’re “on hold” during a prolonged hiring process. And for those who layer on a MSP, they lose control of the most important hospital quality and safety line of defense – choosing your own doctors and nurses.

In summary, while the idea of using a software matching service for recruiting physicians and nurses to hospitals sounds appealing at first, the bottom line is that reducing care providers to a group of numerical fields removes all the critical nuance from the hiring process. VMS, with their burdensome non-competes, cumbersome technology, and lack of quality control are an unwelcome new middle man in the healthcare staffing environment. It is my hope that they will be squeezed out of the business based on their own inability to provide value to a healthcare system that craves and rewards quality and excellence in its staff.

Job matching requires thoughtful hospital recruiters in partnership with ethical, experienced agencies. Choosing one’s hospital gauze vendor should involve a different selection algorithm than hiring a new chief of surgery. It’s time for physician and nurse groups to take a stand against this VMS-inspired commoditization of medicine before its roots sink in too deeply and we all become mere line items on a hospital vendor list. So next time you doctors and nurses plan to work a temporary assignment, ask your recruiter if they use a VMS system. Avoiding those agencies who do may mean a much better (and higher paying) work experience.

*Locum tenens (filling hospital staffing needs with part time or traveling physicians and nurses) is big business. Here is a run down of the estimated market size and its key industry leaders (provided by CompHealth):

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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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