Thursday Thoughts From The Throne

Interior chandelier Grand Central Terminal

I spent a few free hours this morning doing some CME (Continuing Medical Education). Part of the requirement was listening to real physicians have “difficult” simulated conversations with “difficult” simulated patients. 

It was awful.

The only redeeming factor is that at least I get to claim two hours of CME credit. Otherwise I would feel I had utterly wasted my time. 

Seriously.

Real life “difficult” patients are not that calm and polite when you are telling them you will no longer give them prescriptions for their controlled substances….

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Emergencies 

Sunset reflected in a road puddle
“I want a wart removed this Friday”

“The doctor does not have any openings for a procedure this week. We are short staffed and she is completely booked. We can get you in on Monday if you like.”

“I am going on vacation next week. The doctor always accomodates me! You tell her I want to have this removed on Friday.”

I do try hard to get people in when they need it. But sometimes…

Honestly, it has been a rough week. 

With one of my partners out, our nurse practitioner out, AND it being the week before school starts back for many kids in the area… the clinic has been crazy. Finding time to blog/breathe/pee has been hard to come by.

“Fine! You tell her I am finding another doctor.”

It is like this every year. 

Next week it will be a ghost town around here but for now those emergency wart removals are killing us. 

Dread 

Morgue at Ellis Island hospital

I dread going back to work after being off for a vacation, even if it was only for a few days. 

I know, I know. I’m not alone, am I? 

The thing is, I never know what my in basket is going to look like. After a regular weekend I can walk in to find 50-70 items on my virtual EHR (electronic health record) desktop. After a week of vacation it may be 150 or more. 

Please God, let it be manageable!!!!

When one of my partners is off, it is a full on life/death struggle to keep my head above water and I am certain they have experienced the same frantic craziness trying to keep up with my stuff while I’m out. 

Patients get crabby when their physician is gone and there will invariably be several fires to put out. Did the clinic roof leak again? Did my office manager actually reschedule the patients that I saw were on my schedule last Monday? Did that woman’s MRI get done? What did it show? 

It was not enough that I worried about everything all week. Oh, no. Now I have to face up to it in the morning.

Gah.

I won’t be sleeping well tonight.

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

The photo above is what is left of the morgue inside the ruins of the hospital on Ellis Island. It was a teaching hospital so autopsies were done in this theater. On the left is where the bodies where stored. I took the hard hat tour and got some really great images. I wish I could have gotten to see some of the upper floors, like where the ORs were. Maybe someday…. 

Recognizing Patterns

“I did an internet search for my symptoms and after doing a bunch of reading, this is what I think I have….” She pulled a sheaf of papers from her large purse and passed them over to me. 

Erythromelalgia.

I scanned through it quickly.

It wasn’t anything I had ever heard of before, but then her symptoms were not something that I recognized either. Hands that turned red and burned like they were on fire. They got better when she raised them up overhead or ran them under cold water. It had been going on for years. The pain was excruciating and now occurred at a more frenzied rate to the point she was afraid to leave her house.

“I think you might be right,” I told her. 

Now, if I were honest with you and with myself, I would admit that my pride didn’t want her to be right. I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be the one with the answers, not her and certainly not Dr. Google, but here we were anyway. 

We did bloodwork to make sure it was not caused by something more serious and she started aspirin. Like magic, the pain was gone. Somehow, she still considered me her hero even after I told her I probably never would have figured it out on my own…

Several months later, a new patient showed up in my clinic telling me of the pain she was experiencing in her hands and feet. The pain came and went with no rhyme or reason. It burned terribly, kept her for doing things for fear it would appear.

“Do your hands and feet change colors?”

 “YES! They turn red and I have to elevate them or run them under cold water to get them to stop.” Over the years she saw half a dozen specialists and was diagnosed with all manner of things: Fibromyalgia. Anxiety disorder. Neuropathy. Malingering. 

She cried. She had clearly suffered and I suspect the implication that she was crazy was just as excruciating as the physical pain itself. 

This time I got to be the full on hero. “You are NOT crazy. What you are experiencing has a name and a treatment!”

And by golly, she got better.

I have patients who come in all of the time and say sheepishly, “I know I shouldn’t be reading online but…” 

But what if that first woman had not? 

Maybe I would have referred her to someone who could eventually figure it out. Maybe she would have ended up like the second patient spending years suffering, passed from one specialist to the the next, always told it was all in her head. Then when that second patient showed up, I wouldn’t have had an answer for her, either. 

Patients teach me new things every day, sometimes it is something simple… like keeping my pride in check so I can actually hear what patients are saying.

Fulfilling

“When was the last time you saw a doctor?”

“Three years ago.” 

I looked at his blood pressure reading and cringed.

“How long have you been out of your blood pressure medication, then?”

“Out? I haven’t been out. My old doctor just kept refilling it.”

Our clinic recently instituted a protocol for allowing staff to authorize patient medication refills. It is a system wide thing, across our healthcare organization, so it is being utilized in every practice. Supposedly it is to free physicians up for more important things, like seeing patients, generating revenue. Isn’t that nice.

I hate it, though. 

I hate the whole idea.

Sure, I have trust issues. That is the first problem: Trusting that staff is always doing the right thing is hard for me in this case because these are drugs. Drugs can kill people if used wrong. Doing my own refills gives me oversight. Then, there is the self importance issue. If a medical assistant can refill meds, then what does my degree really mean? Less then it did before. And most importantly, if I don’t have time to handle simple refills for my patients, then am I too busy? 

I enjoy keeping tabs on my patients, doing their refills. Maybe I am crazy? I really do enjoy it. Taking refills away from me makes me feel less useful, less fulfilled. But I am going to try it. I’ll give it a go for a bit and see…. I don’t want to be labeled an old fogey. Yet. 

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… 

Elongated Shadows

Carved wood totem

Suddenly, the exam room was plunged into darkness.

Thinking that the energy saving motion sensor had somehow felt the room was empty, I was placing the sutures with my back to the door and the patient was lying very still since I was stitching up his face, I raised my hand and waved.

Nothing.

“Well, that’s a first…”

The patient made a nervous laugh. 

I stood and using the glow of the light visible from the battery powered laptop that was perched on the countertop, I made my way to the door. Sticking my head out, it was clear the entire clinic was without power. Other patients and staff stood in the hallway, waiting expectantly. 

But the power never came back on.

For the next hour we saw the remaining patients by the light of our cell phones, doing the best we could. I was not able to look inside ears or do EKGs. I could not order any tests or X-rays. Our clinic phones did not work. We had to *gasp* handwrite our prescriptions. The centrifuge could not spin our blood vials before transport to the lab.

In fact, almost the entire city was without power thanks to an accidental severed line somewhere… according to reports from the power company.

Tens of thousands of dollars worth of vaccines in our fridge/freezer could potentially go bad as the ETA on the power coming back on was maybe 12 hours away. Some of the staff graciously packed up the vials boxes and drove them to another clinic with power for safe keeping.

The movie theater cleared out next door. None of the traffic lights worked and the backed up intersections were utter mayhem. My kids’ school was pitch black and they had runners bringing to the front kids for pick up since the intercom system did not work.

You know what, though? It was fun! A dry run for the zombie apocalypse… We’ve got this! 

It was a glorious feeling.

And then? 

I spent the entire evening when I got home trying to catch up on the charting and patient calls that I could not get to from the office. Why is it that ONE hour without power turns into THREE frickin’ hours of work? How is that even possible?

Grrrrrrrr…..

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….

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.