Doctor’s Day

Cute butterfly on a blossom

Doctor’s Day was yesterday. Did you know that?

Caught me completely by surprise.

It used to be a big thing ten years ago. The hospital hung banners up and handed out logo emblazoned umbrellas, bags, pens, and whatnot. My staff signed a big card the office manager picked up and a new potted plant would now sit on my desk. Drug reps dropped off cards and swag. There would be emails celebrating doctors sent from the suits. Well not really from the suits. From their secretaries. The point was, though, you just could not escape what day it was. 

To be honest, all of the hoopla back then made me feel very uncomfortable. 

This is not why I am doing this. I am not here for the accolades or the potted plants and I resent the insinuation that these things matter to me. Please leave me alone.

Each year it is less and less of a big deal. This year? Silence. Not a single frickin word from anyone. In fact, my only clue was a post from someone else on WordPress. 

Yesterday I told a woman she has metastatic ovarian cancer. I told a man that he now has diabetes and we developed a treatment plan together. I did a newborn visit on a precious two week old baby. I cried with a woman over her divorce and saw a man whose mother just died from the same disease he now has. Then I watched the last few minutes of my son’s karate class and picked up cupcakes for my daughter’s class party. 

This is life. My life. Every day. 

And you know what? Despite any bitching and complaining that I do here, I really, really love my job. It is such an honor and a privilege to care for people, to be there when they need help. THAT is what keeps us going… keeps me going.

In truth, I’d do this job for free. Just don’t tell the suits that I said that. 😉

Cash Flow

Fountain at the Alamo in San Antonio

“You tell that doctor to write me a prescription for something affordable!”

*Click*

My medical assistant glanced up at me with a shocked look on her face. There was no need to repeat the conversation. I had heard every word.

“That does not make any kind of sense. It is a generic medication. It should only cost $40. Max. Call his pharmacy and find out what that med is going to cost him there.”

Later in the day I read the computer message that said it was going to cost $340 for a one month supply. Hell. I wouldn’t even pay that. 

I typed out a quick message and routed it back, asking why it was going to cost that much.

It is the brand name. If you want them to fill the generic you have to write for the generic. 

Except that I HAD written for the generic. I always write for generic. 

I sent back a stongly worded message pointing this out and telling them to fill the frickin’ generic. 

This was followed by a string of other patients with similar complaints all from the same pharmacy chain. Insurance companies refusing to cover prescriptions that patients had been getting without issue because the pharmacy chain was filling brand name instead of the generic option. It makes them more money. I would have never known this was occurring if the insurance companies had not denied coverage. 

From a drug coverage standpoint we love to hate on insurance companies but pharmaceutical company and pharmacy shenanigans are one of the reasons healthcare costs in the US are skyrocketing out of control. 

So I tell patients to be aware of what they and their insurance companies are paying for. If there are significant changes, please ask questions. Shop around to other pharmacies. The variability of cost from one pharmacy chain to the other is astonishing. AND, talk to your doctor. The only way I find out about these kinds of things is from patient complaints.

Just maybe don’t yell at my staff… 

Veracity


He chuckled to himself. Potassium level?

Let’s make this one 6.5….

He hit enter then scanned down the list. 

Ahhh… a 90 year old woman. Perfect!

This time he picked the sodium level. 

126

In thirty minutes he had changed the results on over three dozen patients. Just one or two per provider, not enough to cause much of a stir…. Since none of the docs at the various system clinics spoke to each other.

*******************************

Potassium level 6.5? No eveidence of hemolysis noted. Damn.

She sighed and dialed the patient’s number, hoping he would pick up.

“Hello?” a male voice said

“Mr. James?”

“That’s me…”

“This is Dr. Stephens. I was calling to discuss your lab results. Do you have a second?”

“Sure, Doc!”

“Your potassium is showing as rather elevated. Most of the time this ends up being an error but at this level, if it is true, it can kill you. We need to get it rechecked. The best place to do that is the ER. They will recheck the levels and do an EKG and if it is really elevated they can bring it down.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, sir. I know going to the ER is not a cheap proposition but I don’t feel like at this level we have much of a choice.”

He sighed audibly. “Ok, Doc. If you say so. Should I go right now?”

“Yes. I’ll call ahead and let them know you are coming and why.”

She had alerted the lab to these abnormal results several times. Each and every time it seemed they were proven false. It had been occurring since the mandate that all providers had to use the system laboratory instead of sending their samples to an outside place. Invariably she was told it must be a problem with the way staff was drawing the blood. 

Only it wasn’t… She knew that was not possible.

*********************************

The board gave a standing ovation. Revenue for the system had reached an all time high. It had been a banner quarter. Things had been looking grim for so long….

A nondescript figure in a dark suit with a light blue silk tie sat silently in the corner, arms crossed, smiling to himself. 

The Cost of Protection

Carved flowers on a Victorian tombstone.
There have been several times over my career that I have had to step in to protect a patient from their family. Each and every time it gets nasty. It takes a certain kind of person to abuse their child or to molest a mentally challenged adult or neglect an elderly person to the point they have maggots in their wounds. Those kinds of people fight and they fight dirty.

I marvel at how some attorneys can look at the facts of a situation and defend it by attacking and terrorizing the physician who had to make the call. It is exhausting and terrifying and can leave you questioning yourself and your judgement throughout the process:

Surprise subpoenas summoning you to appear in court in 60 minutes, requiring you to cancel all of your afternoon clinic appointments at the last minute.

Threats of lawsuits.

Antagonist depositions. 

Lies and accusations made publically.  

Nothing in medical school prepares you for this sort of thing. Physicians have malpractice insurance but this is not malpractice. There is no one to walk you through it unless you hire your own expensive attorney.

Eventually you are vindicated but not before your life is made a holy living hell. It takes a toll on your family and friends as well, as you cannot discuss it with anyone else. The process can drag on for months or even years.

You are isolated and alone.

Fortunately, all of my experiences have been before social media. I have seen, of late, some unbelievably ugly online attacks made on physicians who are only doing their duty and trying to protect the vulnerable. It appalls me how quick the rest of the world is to jump onto the hate the doctor bandwagon when they do not know the whole story. Physicians are not allowed to defend themselves due to privacy laws. The rest of the world will never know the whole story.

What some people seem to forget is that our role as physicians is to assess the situation and make a recommendation. We are required by law to report suspected abuse. We are not omniscient super humans and maybe we don’t always get it right. All we can do is our best. In the end is up to the courts to decide guilt or innocence. 

The price we pay to do so is often very, very high….

Founders Keepers

There is a term in population genetics called the founder’s effect and I have caught myself thinking about it a lot lately.

Basically, in a founder’s effect a small subset of a population is isolated from the larger population. For instance, maybe seven people went on a three hour boat tour but instead ended up stranded on a deserted island. The Professor and Mary Ann mate and reproduce, as people are wont to do, and several generations later the resulting population on that island looks very different from the larger population that it originated from. There is a loss of genetic variation and certain traits get reproduced at a greater rate than you would find elsewhere. Sometimes this is benign, like with a greater proportion of blue eyes or brown hair. Sometimes it is bad, like when you have a higher predisposition to develop colon cancer or maybe a higher rate of growing an extra leg out of your backside…

EPIC is one of the largest electronic health record in the US. It is highly customizable. Therein lies its power AND its weakness.

Keep in mind that I have only a small part of the picture and I am making certain assumptions, but here is what I have gathered:

When a healthcare system decides to go with EPIC there is a build out, or personalization, that occurs. The EHR that I see is very different from the one used by a physician in another healthcare system across town or in one across the country even though they are all called EPIC. 

From that initial build out, there are changes made as the product is tweaked. For instance, when we went live, we had to enter our password to log in but then had to enter it again with each and every note we signed, every single order we placed. Hundreds of times a day I was typing in my password. Now? I only type it in to log on. Good thing, too, as I was at risk of destroying expensive equipment.

I have staff in my clinic who have worked for three other major hospital systems in the area who also use EPIC. What they describe is much, much easier to use than what we have currently. In fact, they regularly threaten to leave and go back to those other organizations so they can feel at peace again.

How does that happen? 

How do they have such different products? 

Because they are all starting with a basic product. It is thrown out onto a deserted island with a few people making decisions and then everyone waits to see what you get down the road. 

The founder’s effect.

No one from the other hospital systems is sharing what works for them from what I can tell. There is no collaboration. So each one has parts that work well and other areas not so much. Why can’t we help each other?

THEN you have smaller islands. We are a small clinic in a huge system. We did not get support staff who came out to help us after going live until the following week and then only for two days. The bigger clinics? They had trainers there on day one. Some clinics never got anyone. Training classes done before had very little to do with the reality of the EPIC we were presented with on day one. So we have muddled through figuring out our own work arounds. Some good. Some bad. We need an infusion of fresh genetic material to correct our problems. 

That only works well when you have someone visiting your island to add to your gene pool and that only works if that person is genetically diverse themselves. Getting people to leave their islands is difficult. Distance to travel, time constraints, don’t know how to swim, etc… 

So we get this perpetuation of problems and errors… fractured systems. It has been really interesting to watch from my vantage point at the bottom, looking up. I wonder what this will look like in six months.

Wavering

Boy making ripples in water of pond with a stick

Last week a physician shadowed me to see if there is anything I or my staff can do differently with my work flow with this new EHR. I was looking forward to having a forum to vent my complaints with the system and hopefully to have a way to fix it but nervous at the same time, not knowing what to expect, worried that they would have suggestions that would make me look a fool.

The physician who happened to come was one that had a hand in writing some of the new EHR templates. I was so disappointed in those templates that between you and me I actually cried in frustration in the first few weeks of our changeover. How could we be expected to do what we needed to do when these were the tools we were given to do it with? I told him that I did not like the templates, that I thought they S-U-C-K-E-D. 

Yes, I used the word sucked and I cringe even now at the recollection. With that one word I dismissed all of the considerable time and effort he had poured into those templates. 

Have you ever been so frustrated and nervous that unreasonable things just flow out of your mouth? 

Of course you have. 

Ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s frustration, as they vented like that? 

Sure you have…

At times, when I feel passionately about something, my filter just ups and disappears. After listening to him tell me that I should hire a staff member to approve or reject all of my refills instead of doing it myself, after having him say that my desire to take and enter my own past medical and surgical histories was a waste of time, after being lectured that writing a narrative history of present illness was silly that I should be clicking buttons instead… I was no longer really hearing his words to me or my own responses back to him. 

But I LIKE doing those things! Interacting with my patients is what makes medicine fun and rewarding for me.

It was not until days later that a realization hit me. He believes this stuff just as passionately as I believe that he is wrong. My response was not just unprofessional, it was mean. I try to have compassion and respect for all of my patients, even the difficult ones, but where was my compassion for him?

You need to be flexible. Medicine isn’t what it used to be. You have to adapt.

I don’t want him to be right. 

I hate that he might be right. 

And so I have spent this past week after reading his write up of our interaction licking my wounds, pondering the next step. What do I do from here?

The first thing, I believe, is to apologize. I don’t know that it will matter to him, but I need to apologize for me. I don’t want to be *that* person, the one who believes their rude behavior is justified.

And then? What then?

There is the question. 

Menorrhagia

Light in Boston art museum

She was new to me.

She was mentally challenged although I will admit that I don’t even know what the right PC word is anymore. Clinically I have tons of appropriate labels but speaking to all of you, I don’t know what term to use that will guarantee that I do not offend someone. 

On top of that, she had developed dementia. 

Her sister spent her entire life as her personal caretaker… never married, never had children. Out of her several siblings, she was the one who stepped up to the plate. She genuinely cared. She had watched countless times as the medical community wrote off her sister. She had watched the untold emotional and physical suffering and she felt the unfairness acutely. 

One of the toughest things to deal with in this population is menstrual problems. Periods by themselves are bad enough when you understand them. Imagine trying to deal with your period when #1 you don’t know why you are bleeding from between your legs and #2 that bleeding is irregular and excessive. 

As a physician, working up menstrual problems is especially hard when you have a grown person who is willing to slug you, who screams and cries and is so terribly, awfully afraid of what you are going to do to her. I don’t believe tying someone down, forcing myself upon them, should be necessary. That sort of thing only exacerbates and perpetuates fear but it took us 45 minutes just to draw her blood. I held her hand. Her sister held her other hand. Two other staff members worked together to do the draw. No one got hurt, most especially the patient, but it took us 45 minutes to get her calm enough to endure four sticks to find a good vein.

In fact, it had been years since anyone had even tried to draw her blood because of how much of a challenge it was. Still, it had to be done. And we did it. But for the rest of the day I was running 45 minutes late. I could not catch up to save my life. 

I cannot go in to each patient afterwards and explain what happened. Patient privacy. Takes too long. Etc. etc. etc. But to all of those patients who graciously accepted my ambiguous apology, thank you. Thank you for not slamming me on patient satisfaction scores. Thank you for giving me the freedom to take care of this one person who really needed me.

You made a difference. 

You helped save a life. 

You are all my heroes and I am lucky to have you as patients.

Reading Into Things


“I don’t want to see the oncologist you referred me to. I checked the online ratings and he got some pretty bad reviews. Find me someone else,” the phone message read.
The patient had multiple myeloma. The specialist I had picked was the best in the area for this condition. I had no idea what the reviews said. I just knew that this patient wanted to live. 

No amount of discussion would dissuade them. Even when I explained why I had chosen this specialist.

What do you look at when you are trying to pick a physician? What qualities are you looking for in a physician? Skill? Personality? What is the most important to you? How do you as a patient measure what is important? 

An interesting article I read the other day in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at cardiovascular surgeons in five states that allow reporting of outcomes data and compared the risk adjusted post-operative mortality rate with that physician’s online reviews from patients. 

Guess what?

There was no correlation. 

Now, here is something else provocative. In USA Today there is an article entitled, Don’t Want to Die Before Your Time? Get a Female Doctor. It is referencing a study published in JAMA today that found patients in the hospital who had female physicians were more likely to survive and less likely to be readmitted within 30 days of discharge.

“The researchers estimated that if male physicians could achieve the same results as their female colleagues, they would save an extra 32,000 lives among Medicare patients alone each year — a feat that would rival wiping out motor vehicle accident deaths nationwide.”

Practice differences between men and women translate into real, measurable differences in outcomes.

So, when we talk about income disparity between male and female physicians, one recent study showed that women are paid on average $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts

What a bargain, huh?

Getting Harder

Forge and anvil in black and white

“Doc, I just want to die.”

I nodded my head sympathetically. At a certain age, all patients say that. She was in her 90’s…. 

“I am so tired of hurting.”

She groaned and worked her way through her usual litany of aches and pains starting at her head and working all of the way down to her toes. She had pain medicine she could take for the arthritis so I knew that wasn’t really the issue. Not all of it, at least.

“I pray every day that the Lord just takes me away.”

She’d had a gentleman friend at the center. For a few months she positively glowed. He sent her roses for Valentine’s Day, bought treats for her little dog, left her love notes, told her she was beautiful. Never mind that he was twenty years younger than she was. 

At that age, what does twenty years mean? Nothing. It means nothing at all.

“I think they might be having sex…,” her granddaughter said. “Can’t you make them stop?”

My patient was not demented. She was not handing over her life’s savings. She was a consenting adult in an assisted living community who met another consenting adult and while there were significant physical challenges to a sexual relationship at her age if she really were having sex, who was I to meddle?

Then, he died. 

Here she was, left behind again. Sure, she had aches and pains but the real issue was this last man standing thing, or in her case last woman standing. She had already buried two husbands. Now this man. She could not bear to lose anyone else.

But what do you do? Give her a pill? Tell her to get counseling? Pat her on the hand and tell her the sun will come out tomorrow? What do you do for a grieving woman in her 90’s who wants to die but is not suicidal?

Outcomes

eileandoonancastle3cropped

His voice shook.

“She’s in ICU. I thought you should know.”

I felt my body grow cold. She and her family had been patients of mine for almost ten years. She was so young. Younger than me, in fact….

“They aren’t sure if she is going to make it.”

“What happened?” It was supposed to be a simple cyst removal.

“Her small intestine was perforated. They have her belly open, said they couldn’t close it yet.”

I had used a new surgeon, someone I had never used before, because the mass was blocking the tube from her kidney to her bladder, causing quite a bit of pain and endangering the kidney itself. She needed surgery quickly and no one that I typically used was available to work her in. 

“That’s just awful. Keep me posted on how she’s doing. I’ll be saying a prayer for her and for you.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

As I hung up, the guilt welled up. I felt personally responsible for the bad outcome, even though my hands weren’t the ones actually in her belly. MY hands had hit the referral button, signed the order. 

She trusted me. 

She ended up making it, but it took a huge toll on her both physically and emotionally and financially. It affected her relationship with her husband. It affected her kids. They had almost lost their mother and it left them all shaken and ungrounded for almost a year. Things are only now starting to look up.

I feel guilty when patients don’t like someone I refer them to. I feel that I have let them down. I feel guilty when I find a cancer, as if somehow it was my fault. I should have prevented it. Maybe I could have found it sooner somehow? And, yes, I feel responsible for surgical errors and outcomes.

So when I tell patients they need to see a different specialist than the one they picked out, I worry how far to push it when they aren’t agreeable. When I know a back surgeon is bad, how much do I tell a patient who is not listening to my gentle suggestions to seek a second opinion elsewhere? Where is the line professionally and legally? 

These are my thoughts on this Monday morning…..