n=1

We are constantly talking about all of these people in this country who are dying from medical errors. According to a recent publication, it is the third leading cause of death in the US. But who is doing all this killing, because it's certainly not me, right? I haven't killed anyone because of any mistakes. But statistically, I have to be a part of this number. I made some little something somewhere, that when added up on a balance sheet, pushed someone from the "alive" column" into the "dead" column. But it's hard to know what to do about this, personally. As a system, there are lots of things that organizations do, like tracking and labeling, human factors engineering, checklists, etc. etc. But what can I do?

In medicine, we talk a lot about "n=1" studies. In a research protocol, n is the number of participants in a study. The bigger the n, the more powerful the study to make a conclusion. But in practice, it is those n=1 studies that influence our behavior. I missed a cholangiocarcinoma whose only significant finding was a mildly elevated alkaline phosphatase. That was my only clue, and I dithered. And now, I'm suspicious of every alk phos elevation, constantly wary of missing this diagnosis. But it is a fairly uncommon cancer. I'll see tons of breast and colon and prostate and lung cancers in order to see one more cholangiocarcinoma. Of the 454 cancers found yearly per 100,000 population, cholangiocarcinoma makes up 1-2 total. There will be 452+ other cancers that I am going to see before I see another one. But here I am, fretting about a mildly elevated alk phos, wondering if I should get an MRCP.

A friend of mine described being a doctor as being continuously haunted by ghosts. There is always some ghost of a previous patient hanging over you, reminding you of your mistakes and failings. And it takes a fair bit of bravery to count up those ghosts and look for any patterns.

The right thing

Recently, I had to go to a meeting where we reviewed our HCAPS scores and other quality metrics. If you don't know what these are, then you're lucky. And we've had industry experts come in and talk to us about "Here's how to get your HCAPS better!" or "Shaving down your length of stay" or some other talk, in order to game our numbers and earn ourselves a few extra nickels. Most of the time, I play on my phone the whole time, or zone out completely. I have open disdain for such talks, not because quality of care is important, because it is. Quality of care is extremely important. But average LOS and HCAPS and HEDIS and all these quality metrics are all surrogates. I can make those numbers better, but that doesn't mean that I'm a good doctor.

However, one of these speakers said something that reached me. "The most important thing," he started. "...is that we do what is right for our patients. That's job #1. Then, we should figure out how we can get paid better for it. But even if we can't get paid better, at least we know we did what is right."

I spend a lot of time doing what is right, rather than what is expedient or what gets me more money. And that sounds so estimable and noble, but in reality, that is hard work. That is spending time arguing with an insurance company over a refused prior authorization, or seeing that patient who came in so late to their appointment but with acute problems that can't wait till next week, or spending 5 extra minutes writing a good note that most likely no one will ever read.

I used to be a little bitter that here I was, doing the right thing, and getting no credit for it. As well, there were plenty of others doing a fairly terrible job, and no one was calling them out for it. And it took this line from this industry expert to remind me that the goal wasn't to get credit. The goal was to do the right thing. That's the reward. Getting credit is just a pleasant side effect, should it happen.

When I was in college, I was the proverbial "nice guy" who never got the date with the girl, and I was similarly bitter back then. Here I was, such a nice guy, but ignored by so many women. And I was reminded by a very wise old lady that goodness is its own reward. If you are being nice to women only for the expectation of a reward, then that's not chivalry. That's being a creep.

Too little, too late

Last year, I saw Mr S, a wonderful gentleman in his seventies who was wheelchair bound and required constant supervision. The reason I was seeing him wasn't his paraplegia, but his terrible cholesterol and triglycerides, despite medications. I met with him and his caretaker, and we talked about his diet. In a shining moment of shared decision making and patient centered care, I asked him to tell me about what he eats and where we thought we could make changes. He proceeded to tell me about his diet, but we never got past breakfast. Every morning, he ate sausage, bacon, and 2 donuts.

We discussed what changes he could live with (his caretaker was more than willing to make the changes since her own doctor was fairly critical of her own lab results), and he agreed that he was willing to change his breakfast. He would get rid of the pork products, the donuts, and would change to a hearty bowl of oatmeal and fresh fruit. And his cholesterol and triglycerides improved dramatically. I couldn't wait to see him back in the office for his follow up appointment at 3 months, but the day before the appointment, his family called. He had died.

I can't help but feel that I made this guy's life miserable. He only had a few months left on this earth, and instead of bacon and donuts, he died with a belly full of oatmeal and cantaloupe. If I had known that we were dealing with a few months, what was the point of getting his cholesterol better? In medicine, it's really hard to know when you've been successful. Everyone dies. So what does it mean when one of my patients die? Did they meet their projected life expectancy? Did they get to median survival? The goal posts aren't the same for everyone. Maybe Mrs J who has bad COPD and CAD will be lucky to make it to 75. Maybe Mr O will live to be 100, despite his terrible diabetes.

People tell me that they appreciate the care I deliver, but it is exceptionally hard to know if you are a good doctor. Because the most important metric, are my patients living longer/better, has no control group for comparison.

After Mr S died, I went out to breakfast that weekend, and had pancakes and bacon and sausage. And I poured out some bacon and syrup for him.

Pain of life

I've generally tried to avoid getting into trouble with opioid medications, but in primary care, it's difficult to avoid. There are a lot of people on pain meds. And there's a lot of chronic pain out there. And all the talk these days about inappropriate pain medications, I feel it's disingenuous.

When I was in medical school, it was hammered bluntly into our heads that pain is an important sign, so important that it should be considered the fifth vital sign. We need to treat pain, and we should be ashamed if we lacked the compassion to address pain. We were told that the likelihood of developing abuse was so paltry that it wasn't worth discussion. We were indoctrinated into a culture of pain control that was whimsical and optimistic and did not take any measure of reality. 

Now, we are told that patient satisfaction is critical to excellent care and best practices. If you know an inpatient doctor who has never heard of HCAHPS, then that's one blissfully ignorant dude. And HCAHPS even has several questions that directly deal with pain. As if patient satisfaction has ever correlated with good medical care. It's a hospital, not the Ritz-Carlton. 

But I think that we have a really poor understanding of pain. From both sides of the fence, people do not appreciate that pain is not simple. Pain is tremendously complicated and the factors that govern it are not easily appreciated. I pulled my back in the gym and actually passed out from the pain. I couldn't walk for two days. I didn't take anything because I knew that eventually, the pain would go away. But for my 50 year old patient who was abused as a child and raped as a teen, abused by her ex-husband and abandoned by her daughter, she has no such confidence that her back pain is going to get better, and guess what — it doesn't. And so pain meds make life just a tiny bit more bearable. Is that the appropriate goal of therapy? Is it okay that the pain meds are only there to make the day go by faster? I don't know what the right answer is.


The digital age

A while back, our EMR system went down. It happens to everyone eventually. Servers have downtime, and sooner or later, you have an outage. Sometimes it's brief, sometimes it's long, but without fail, when it occurs, the frustration is instantaneous and furious. And the old guard bemoans how terrible EMR's are, and how they cripple our ability to care. And that is ludicrous. So let's take a step back and remember the days of paper. I remember them well. There are a few wonderful events that everyone who remembers paper charts should recall, and then find themselves resigned to saying that electronic records really are better.

Handwriting is far and away the most obvious issue with paper charts. When I was in residency, there was a cardiologist with such bad handwriting that anyone who could read his handwriting was often called to interpret, whether or not they were on that patient's case or even whether or not they were in the hospital. I have uttered the words, "That loop looks like a H, so I think we should start heparin." I spent a measurable part of my day as a resident simply deciphering the terrible handwriting of other care providers.

Much more troublesome than handwriting was late charting where people would carry around their notes and then insert them into the chart later in the day, or even days later. I got into an argument with a patient before because he was convinced he saw the neurologist, but there was no note from him. Two days later, a chart note mysteriously appeared. Or nurses would chart an entire shift of vitals at the end of their shift. It was so much trouble fighting for the chart that it was just easier to chart your information some other time, and so it was often impossible to get up to date information. And that's not even accounting for paper reports, like labs or x-rays. It wasn't even worth referring to the chart for those. You'd go to the lab database or the radiology database, or if you were supremely unlucky, some poor loser sacrificed his morning by getting curbside reads on all the chest x-rays from the radiologist.

On the devious side, people would sometimes misrepresent their charting by where and how they did their notes. Some people would slip their note in several days beforehand, or date/time their notes to misrepresent when the work was done. I've seen things charted in different sections so that it would likely be ignored by medical/legal but would be safe for billing.

And then there's the missing pages that would inevitably occur, much more terrible in the outpatient setting where you might lose a note from 7 years ago that suddenly you need. However, I remember losing preliminary cardiac cath results so that we had to go down to transcription and put a rush on the dictation, since the cardiologist went home and we couldn't reach him, and needed the report to determine if we could discharge the patient.

But nothing was worse than the missing chart. I have had a student walk off with the chart to the study lounge for 2 hours and we were in full fledged hysterics. I had an intern take the chart to dictate a transfer note and the patient coded, and we had no idea what was going on or anything about the patient. I had outpatient encounters where another clinic was sitting on the chart (another doc hadn't done notes for weeks), and we sent people over to that clinic to get into a chart fight.

Sure I get frustrated with EMR systems that I've worked with. They all have their drawbacks. But thank God we don't use paper charts anymore. What absolute hell.

Authentic

How long does it take to know someone? How long does it take to be more than 'a doctor' and become 'my doctor'? I have a patient who I've seen for the past 7 years who tries his best to never see me. I have a patient who saw me one time 3 years ago, and he thinks the world of me.

I don't know what it is that I am doing. I don't actually know the recipe for good rapport. Is it listening? Is it patience? Is it time? Is it empathy? I do what I think is right, and is that it?

I know another doctor in town. She is a piece of shit. I have nothing but contempt for her. She is not incompetent. She is not fraudulent. She is lazy. She doesn't follow up on tests in a timely fashion. She doesn't educate her patients. She doesn't start meds when it's appropriate. She is careless and reckless because she cannot be bothered to do her job.

Being an internist requires a certain level of anal retentive behavior. It requires diligence and conscientiousness. It requires that you are, at least some sense, authentic. And maybe that's what people want from their doctor. That at the end of the day, they know that I gave a damn.

The Lord taketh away

Finding cancer is the worst. It never goes well. I remember one week in the hospital, I admitted 4 patients with new cancer diagnoses. There was the 80 year old with metastatic colon cancer with bowel obstruction. There was the family man with multiple myeloma. There was the young father with AIDS associated lymphoma. There was the college coed with AML. Everyone had a tragic story. Everyone had a bad hand to play.  

Last month, I found four cancers. Three of my patients thanked me, and I can't figure out why. Why are you thanking me? You have terminal pancreatic cancer. Why are you appreciative of my effort? You have metastatic breast cancer. This is not the time to thank me. This is not the time to be grateful. You should blame me. Why didn't I see this coming? Why didn't I stop this from happening? Don't thank me. Don't. You have every right to be wallow in self-pity. You have earned the right to be furious. Don't be grateful.

I realized that I really have no understanding of what it means to have cancer. I cannot understand why people are thanking me, as if there is anything to be thankful for. I am Job's messenger crying out 'All that you have and all that you love is lost, and I alone have escaped to tell you!'

And I watch as my patients rend their garments and worship, 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' And much as I imagine Job's servant, I am dumbfounded.