Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Introduction

At a luncheon, I listened to one of my primary care colleagues explain the realities of the 20-minute office visit. She happens to be very knowledgeable in treating developmentally challenged pediatric patients but her problems apply to any patient with developmental, physical or intellectual challenges. Like most physicians who are employed by health systems, she has productivity quotas and goals that are set by people who are outside the realities of medicine, usually administrators/business managers.

Medicine is not a Business, even a Home Business

The reality of being the primary care physician who treats patients with cognitive, physical or some combination of both types of challenges is that these patients have needs that will affect every aspect of their office visit. Many times, their transport to the health care location will involve public transportation or some other means adapted for them. Sometimes just getting to the transportation source requires hours of planning by the patient/caregiver only to find that their transportation left early or did not show up at all.

Imagine if it takes 20 minutes for you to dress your special needs daughter, it’s going to take 20-minutes to get that same child undressed for vital sign measurement and evaluation in the physician’s office. Keep in mind, that many special needs patients have behavioral and cognitive issues that prevent them from understanding the vital nature of complete and comprehensive health care assessment. For them, they are out of their secure and familiar environment; in a place where there may be excess and unfamiliar stimulation that will affect their behavior for the rest of the day.

The other reality for the intellectually or physically disabled is that they may have very complex health problems that they may not be able to address or their caregivers may not be able to relate to the physician. Couple this with unfamiliarity of the physician in terms of the diverse needs of this population, just because that physician may not have more than one or two challenged patient sin their practice and the business of medicine has created a situation where problems may not be properly addressed. My solution in terms of wound care for these often fragile patients has been to go to their facility/home but my primary care colleagues do not have the luxury of leaving their clinic to do home visits with any regularity.

Why we entered medicine in the first place

Most of us were trained to solve patient problems by identification of those problems and application of extensive medical knowledge. With the emphasis on getting patients in and out of clinic as rapidly as possible, many problems are never addressed or solved. Imagine if you are not cognitively or physically challenged but are the appointment following or concurrent with the patient who has these issues. Not only will your visit be abbreviated or affected, much of the office staff will be spending time and resources on the patient who needs more help. As a result or dealing with possible frustrations on the part of the needy patient, the physician may not be able to focus on your needs or the needs of other patients in the office because they have been frustrated as they are attempting to give the best care possible to their impaired patients.

At this time, we are better in terms of identifying those with physical and intellectual challenges as opposed to addressing their medical needs. We know that great rewards come with treating these populations especially when we are able to prevent or slow any discovered disease processes. Providing the highest level of care is always paramount in the mind of the primary care physician. To this end, my primary care colleague said the the primary care visit should be longer, because it’s often more comprehensive and the specialist visit should be shorter, because it’s more focused. Regardless  of specialist or primary care, the office visit should reflect the needs of the patient and should not be limited by a “one size fits all” approach to office visit length. Rather than decrease the costs of health care by shunting more bodies through the door, the “numbers” approach likely ends of utilizing more health care dollars because of missed opportunities to address the comprehensive needs of patients.

Those Patients

On another occasion, I listened to a colleague speak about not wanting to treat any patient who would not fit in the chairs of her waiting room. This was her way of stating that she would not treat obese patients. “They bring down my productivity,” she said emphatically. I can’t afford to lose money on treating these types of patients so I made sure that they don’t fit in the chairs in the waiting room if they weigh more than 200 lbs. Imagine if you are a patient who is morbidly obese, more than 100 lbs overweight, who enters a physicians office and can’t find a chair that will accommodate you so that you can attend your office visit.

Imagine the embarrassment if you have to ask for a properly sized chair so that you can sit and even fill out the paperwork to prepare for that visit. Imagine how welcome you would feel if you receive less than respectful and comprehensive care.  The morbidly obese, the developmentally challenged and the mentally challenged individuals in society all have medical issues that need to be addressed. By its nature, morbid obesity is a chronic metabolic problem yet my colleague who makes sure the chairs in her waiting room discriminate against morbidly obese individuals, would treat them differently from the Type I diabetic or the patient with chronic obstructive lung disease. Is is ethically sound to discriminate against a population of patients who are simply seeking, and paying for your services by not accommodating them in your office?

Taking Back Medicine

Imaging a situation where patients get the care that they need without exception. In this situation, the physician determines the patient’s needs and has the time to address those needs. Rather than being pushed by time constraints, the physician (and office staff) would have plenty of time and resources to treat patients with special needs. In truth, patients do not come to physician offices to socialize but come because they need care. It is up to the physician to take back the delivery of that care and set the parameters in which that care is rendered. When a patient receives less than optimal care because of the time constraints placed on the physician, the physician bears the brunt of the criticism. “Those money-grubbing doctors didn’t take time to talk to me”.

As physicians, we need to set the standards of patient care, much the same as we set the standards of practice of medicine. One of those standards needs to be ensuring that the limited resources of primary care physicians are addressed. A good primary care physician can be the resource that decreases health care costs if giving the tools to address all problems in a comprehensive manner that reflects the individual needs of the patients. As specialists, we are often given an advantage at the expense of our primary care colleagues and their vital work. This leads to burn-out and frustration on their part but also leads to increases in health care costs because patient needs are not addressed.

These problems are not solved by increasing the number of mid-level practitioners who often lack the medical knowledge/training to lead the comprehensive care team. While mid-levels can assist with comprehensive patient care, they are not the solution to effective or efficient delivery of comprehensive care. It is the primary care physician who should and does leads the best comprehensive care team and who can provide the most cost-effective care if given the tools and resources for their work. The greatest and most needed resource right now is time to deliver care. The public enjoys greater satisfaction and those of us who are in specialties, are able to obtain the best information to perform our services when the primary care physician can expedite a sound referral. In short, we as physicians need to take back the management of health care and deliver the best health care on our terms as the patient needs not according to a general plan that is even frustrating for relatively healthy people let alone those who have multiple chronic problems.

15 January, 2016 Posted by | medicine, practice of medicine | 4 Comments

Holding Out For a Hero

Occasionally, I have an opportunity to do a case with my senior partner,  a surgeon who spent the first 15 years of his career in the United States Army, having graduated from West Point before attending medical school. He retains many of the armed forces characteristics; not the least of which would be his closely cropped grey crew cut/buzz, no facial hair, excellent physical condition and minimal chatter with a clipped mid-western accent. When he walks into any room, we all tend to “stand at attention”.

On this occasion, he asked me to place a vascular access port for chemotherapy, for this patient who had cancer. He had another portion of the case to perform with a resident but thought it would be more efficient for me to place the port while they completed their portion of the case. Of course, this was a chance for me to enjoy the pleasure of doing a case with another physician; always a pleasure for me.

As I entered the operating room, I heard the wonderful sounds of one of my holiday albums (I realized that he had purloined my “Come to the Celebration” CD by the Birmingham Southern College Alumni Choir) thus, the atmosphere in the room was joyous and wonderful. A twinkle in the eyes of all participants in this case (light anesthesia); positive sounds for the patient.

I set about the work of placing the chemo port, finished and then took a seat at the circulator’s table. The lights were then lowered; the laparoscopic portion of the case began. The resident was in the middle of his first year; still becoming comfortable with the mechanics of the operation of the foot controls for the electrocautery. My partner, ever patient and calm, spoke encouraging words as the resident struggled with nerves and the foot pedal a bit.

Here I sat, an opportunity to listen to soft and melodious holiday music along with observing a master teaching surgeon. “How about if you hold the cautery this way, you can have more control,” he spoke softly as he corrected the hand position of the resident. I could see the nervousness of the intern start to dissipate with the touch and words of the professor. The dimmed lights, the soft holiday music and voice of the professor.

“Try to keep the instruments in the center of the field”, he said to the physician assistant who was driving camera for the first time on this case. “Move slowly but follow the case,” he said. I was reminded of my first camera drive when I was a medical student. Certainly, my professor back at that point wasn’t as nice or as instructive. He took the time to correct the PA too.

As the case moved on, the professor and student took turns making the repairs that were needed; hundreds of moves in almost perfect choreography. It became time to close the small incisions from the procedure. “Have you closed these before?”, he asked. The intern said that he had watched but hadn’t actually closed. “Let me show you the technique,”, my partner said. He took the suture from the scrub nurse and explained every hand position, needle angle and move that he made.

“Now you close the other one,” he said to the resident. He softly talked the resident through the simple stitch to close the small incision. He adjusted the hand position and kept encouraging the young surgeon. “I will show you a couple of ways to practice this at home so you won’t forget what you have learned today. You are coming along fine.” he said.

I was lost in absorbing the encouragement, the teaching and the affirmation that the professor imparted to his trainee. I was reminded that surgery is taught from master to apprentice. The better we teach, the better our residents become. It was wonderful to watch this master at work and savor every moment!

I was listening to a couple of the senior residents talk about the confidence factor that every physician has to develop. “Sometimes you have just be a jerk in order to get respect,” one of them observed. As I watched my partner teach his intern, I realized that being a jerk is the last way to earn the respect of others.

Here was a surgeon who had spent time in Army hospitals in Europe and the Middle East. He had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before leaving the Army for the life of a civilian surgeon. He stood arrow straight most of the time with his 6’3-inch slender frame but readily adjusted the height of the operating table to accommodate the 5’7″ height of the resident.

As I watched my partner teach a relatively simple case to an inexperienced intern, I had nothing but infinite admiration for this father, husband and physician. I realized that with his day-to-day performance of his teaching and patient care, he is the “hero” that those of us in an academic practice should seek to become. With my years of experience, I had picked up a couple of new bits of knowledge by just observing  this case. I hadn’t said a word because the conversation from master to apprentice was a great instructive experience for me. “You still here?” he questioned when he finally looked up from the case.

There was never a time, even when the intern didn’t know the answer to a question, that this professor uttered a negative word. Perhaps it was the affirming holiday music, perhaps it was my presence in the operating room but I suspect that it was the result of just being an “everyday” hero.

 

9 January, 2016 Posted by | general surgery residency, intern, medical school | | Leave a comment

New Year and new things!

We have changed into a new calendar year and some of you will be taking on new challenges in academics or medicine. The important thing to remember is that challenges are to be looked upon as a chance to change anything that needs to be changed but keeping a good course if your course has been fine. Change is inevitable in life and medicine thus embrace the change/challenge and keep your perspective.

Your perspective must include facing each challenge/change as it comes and doing your best. If you need help, don’t be afraid or so caught up in your ego, that you don’t reach out if you need to reach out. At the first sign of a problem, analyze situation and take care of it, seeking help when you need help. I am always amazed when residents or students tell me that they were afraid of what I might “think” if they sought help.

What I actually “think” is that if you need my assistance, ask and it will be provided. No one was born knowing everything in medicine. I certainly seek the assistance of my colleagues when I need them and never give a passing thought because the welfare of my patient is my only concern.

This tactic applies in academics too as you need to seek the help of your faculty even if you believe you are on the right track. Check your understanding to make sure that you are on course. If nothing else, you make get a better perspective and do even better. Faculty office hours are there for you to get help, get an understanding check and to keep you on course for your best performance. I can’t emphasize this fact with any more emphasis.

Your faculty are experts in their subject matter without exception. Take full advantage of that expertise and strive to get the best instruction possible. You are paying good money for that expertise so get everything that you can. It is far easier to be proactive concerning your studies than to do “damage control” because your ego was in the way of your judgment.

If you are starting clinical rotations, remember that your evaluations will be subjective. A good first impression can often make more of a difference in your clinical grade than anything else. You don’t have to “fake” an interest in everything clinical but you do have to learn to perform your best in a clinical situation. Be enthusiastic about the learning even if you don’t plan on entering a particular specialty. There is a baseline clinical knowledge that every clinician needs thus you need to be sure that you are well above that baseline.

I entered medical school with the idea that I would be a pediatrician, as I had an interest in adolescent medicine. I savored all of my tasks on my pediatric rotation (my first). Midway through clinical year, I found that I loved surgery more than anything I would ever do but that pediatric, family medicine and psychiatric knowledge (the rotations that I did before surgery) have been very useful in my career as a surgeon. In short, while you may change your mind as you are getting clinical experience, everything clinical is useful. Listen, learn, read, learn and ask questions as you go.

My last clinical rotation was Neurology/Neurosurgery. I learned to perform an accurate and thorough neurological exam. These skills have proven to be invaluable in the treatment of trauma and burned patients. In short, all clinical knowledge is useful for a physician or a physician assistant. In the middle of the night, that sound clinical base may make the difference in a patient’s outcome.

Again, mastery of the knowledge of a discipline is useful at the pre-med or pre-PA level too. Don’t approach a course as just something that you have to get an “A” in but look upon those courses as learning practice and useful for your future patients. I remember when I remembered that exogenous insulin did not contain Peptide C (cleaved out when endogenous insulin is synthesized by the body) thus checking a Peptide C level is a good idea in a patient who appears to have high insulin levels. If the Peptide C levels are low and the insulin levels are high, that insulin is coming from outside the body and not from something like an insulinoma (insulin-secreting tumor). I learned about Peptide C as an undergraduate student at university; reinforced in medical school.

Also remember that your faculty, undergraduate, graduate or medical school is there to see you successful. No faculty member gets “points” by having a high number of students fail to navigate their coursework. As a faculty member, my job is to help my students and residents to become the best professionals that they can become, without exception. I can’t “dumb down” the curriculum but I can give you every strategy that I know, to help you get the material mastered. My only hope is that you seek out help and get any assistance that you need.

My next point is for you to try to put yourself in the place of your patient. They are putting their health and trust in you to give them the best care that you can achieve for them. For me, this is the honor of being able to practice. The trust of a patient is something that I cannot violate under any circumstances. I might not have all of the answers but I have the stamina and the resources to get those answers. As I said above, I do not hesitate to consult a colleague when I need their expertise for my patient.

Finally, take time on a regular basis, to relieve the stress of being in an educational system. As a faculty member, I place a premium on my stress relief. For me, physical activity in the form of running, has been great for stress relief. I use that time for meditation/prayer, problem-solving and for the sheer enjoyment of pushing myself to the limit of my stamina. When I feel as if I am too tired to exercise, I go to the gym (or for a run) and I always feel better. If you can’t do 30 minutes, do 10 minutes but do something physical.

Trust the process because the process will get you where you want to go. Trust yourself and your feelings along with the process. If you find that your anxiety level is too high, do something to alleviate the stress. School or residency is not torture but a chance to see something new or learn something new. I can promise you that even a jaded old surgeon as myself, learns something new everyday!

 

 

5 January, 2016 Posted by | medical school, physican assistant, residency, stress reduction | , | Leave a comment