CYA and Healthcare Reform

September 27, 2009

Ok, so I know that I haven’t written a post for some time now and you are about to understand why. About one month ago, my dad called me to tell me that his primary care doctor had instructed him to go to the ER immediately because his routine EKG showed a change from last year. She had in fact stressed him out to the point of probably giving him a heart attack with her behavior which included wanting to call 911 to take him directly to the ER from the clinic.

Was he having symptoms (chest pain, shortness of breath, diaphoresis, decreased exercise tolerance)? No. In fact, he felt totally normal. Was he having ST elevation or depression on his EKG (findings typical of heart attack or diminished blood flow to the heart respectively)? No. He had “nonspecific t-wave changes”. Were his vital signs concerning? No. His blood pressure was 128/72, heart rate was 88. So why call 911? Because the primary care physician wanted to practice CYA (cover your arse) medicine.

For some reading this post, the term CYA medicine might be something of a novelty. Certainly one never sees Dr. House, MD or Dr. Cox from “Scrubs”, or even Dr. Green and Carter from “ER” practicing this type of medicine. What exactly is this type of medical practice?

It basically involves the most limited degree of mental commitment possible in a medical encounter, where you are asking yourself only one question, “How can this patient hurt me later?”.  Based on the medical provider’s answer to that question, they then proceed accordingly. It doesn’t matter how much this will cost the patient – insured or not. It doesn’t matter how many needless tests you have to order at the patients physical, financial and emotional expense. It also doesn’t really matter if the patient agrees with you or not, especially if they are insured – because you can always threaten them with an AMA (against medical advice) discharge where their visit will not be covered by their insurance. They are your prisoner so you can strategize your defense from a medical malpractice lawsuit.

As an ER physician myself, I cannot always blame providers who practice medicine this way. I don’t believe that anyone graduates residency intending to practice medicine this way. Its after someone comes after you for something only God could have forseen that you get gun-shy. At the end, it becomes a vicious cycle of abuse from both ends.

This is the biggest problem with Healthcare reform – the hidden nooks that politicians can’t see the way we, as healthcare providers, see them from within. There are too many groups mining in the medical gold mine – malpractice lawyers, insurance companies, drug companies, etc. – and they each have powerful lobbies to back their interests. The purity and simplicity of the doctor-patient relationship with all that it used to contain of trust, friendship, understanding and forgiveness has been plundered and I personally am not sure we can return to that after having let in the greedy pirates mentioned above.

So, back to my dad. He asked me to come with him to the ER – in my car and not the ambulance – to make sure they didn’t rape him there with unnecessary tests and procedures. He had me stand behind the ER provider who was practicing CYA and give him thumbs up or down depending on whether I agreed with the management or not. They of course told him that he could die if he wasn’t admitted for “further testing”, but he did just fine at home until his next follow-up appointment.

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Coping Skills Don’t Come in Pill Form

July 9, 2009
Just swallow

Just swallow

OK, I promise to write more often (thank you all for the kick). June and July are always mega-busy as everyone tries to go on vacation, and then you get a Dumass doctor fired and it just makes things that much harder on everyone.

One of the saddest commentaries on the modern world that I see on an all too regular basis is the absolute lack of coping skills in the growing generation. We had generation X and then Y, and I guess they’ll need to call this generation W for whiners. Too pampered while growing up that they have no idea how to manage their own problems after they very effectively create them.

Case in point. This past weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of seeing LT on three separate occasions for what he described as “anxiety or a panic attack”. LT was a promising college football recruit out of his competitive high school district. I have no doubt that he was getting his bum kissed all the way through high school and well into college until he blew out his knee.

He went to surgery for his ACL, but being that LT had always had others to take care of him, he ended up with an infected knee and a PIC line. The nurses in the ED came to know him well as he would often roll into the ER for his scheduled IV antibiotics after midnight while drunk and with a different girl on his arm. And things would only get worse …

Soon after, one of his girlfriends got pregnant and decided she didn’t want him in her, or the newborn boy’s, life. On one of his drunk escapades, he got into a fight with some guys on a street corner. For some reason though, he was the one arrested (they were all the same ethnicity by the way). Since his knee was no good now, he also lost his scholarship and with it, the stream of girls who had followed him around.

So now he had only one girl left and a growing list of problems. So poor LT thought he was going crazy and came to the ER. There he received an rx for Paxil and some Ativan to help him calm down. Little did I know that he would be back a short 10 hours later. He told the nurse that the doc he had seen earlier “hadn’t taken the time to talk to him”. He was surprised to see that it was still me though and quickly backtracked by saying that what he meant was that he hadn’t had enough time to fully explain his problems.

So, I listened patiently to him as he told his sob story. Afterward, I explained to him once again that he was not crazy but that he had several issues that he would need to address one at a time (just like the rest of us mere mortals). He didn’t seem to like my suggestion as that entailed actual effort on his part. I resisted the urge to ask him if his girlfriend wipes his butt for him as well.

The next day he showed up yet again, this time saying that he felt chest pain. I was obligated to do more of a work-up this time – which was completely negative 80 minutes and $5000 later. I had no desire to see him again in what remained of my ridiculously long shift and hit him with the B-52. When his mother, I mean girlfriend, came to pick him up he was already half-way to his “happy place”.

Thinking I was done, I actually rested. But less than 2 hours later the police showed up with an inmate who had swallowed shampoo and some toothpaste in a suicide attempt. I asked him why he had done that, and he said that he couldn’t handle being in jail anymore. He was put in jail 3 days earlier for DUI. I thought to myself, “you really don’t know what being uncomfortable is all about – yet.” Then I got out the gastric lavage.

I don’t think he had bargained on getting a garden hose put into his stomach without sedation. But he just couldn’t get it through his mind that he needed to find a way, other than medicine to “knock him out”, to cope with prison life. The whole “do the crime, do the time” thing just didn’t compute in his mind.

The future scares me.

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Healthcare Administrator Salaries and the French Fireplace

June 5, 2009

stress salary

A few days ago, I had the great pleasure to visit some good friends from the hospital for lunch. They are good, hard-working people; salt of the earth. It bothered me how hard they work and how they seem to get so little back for their work, and I mentioned that to them. It led us into an interesting conversation about how much the admin people are making at our local community hospital – I think I hurt my jaw when it hit the floor.

I am not naive when it comes to the outrageous salaries that health-care administrators (CEO’s, CFO’s, COO’s and all the other acronyms they make up to take more money for nothing) seek to justify to themselves, but most people tend to think of these overblown salaries as belonging to Wall Street types in big cities; not your run of the mill smaller town.

So, I was quite surprised to learn that the CEO at our hospital pays himself close to a half million dollars per year. All while cutting nursing hours, chastising docs about overtime hours and outright terminating other direct patient care personnel positions for “cost savings”. The CFO also gets a healthy paycheck, closer to a quarter million though. He once told the hospital staff that they always have to go for the best in patient care, kind of like when he couldn’t decide on importing an $80,000 fireplace from France or buying an American one for under 10 grand. He decided that he should go for the “best” and went ahead and imported the French one in the end. He probably should have ordered a mail-order brain and conscience while he was at it.

This prompted me to look into the whole issue of the hospital administrator fleecing of America. I found many intriguing details that just nauseated me in general, but none better then the following concise post written by Dr. Ira Kirschenbaum on his Mad About Medicine blog. I will quote just one paragraph here for your benefit:

… the next time you want to argue with your Primary Care doctor’s front desk about a $5.00 co-pay, remember that he makes an average of $149,000 per year. On the other hand — using United Healthcare as an example — your insurance company paid their CEO — one man — [324 million dollars] over a recent five year period.

He then goes on to list 23 health-care CEO’s salaries – mostly those of insurance companies and drug manufacturers – and their published 2005 salary as well as 5-year combined income. The “poorest” guy in the bunch, James Tobin of Cardinal Health, made “only” $1.1 million in 2005, but he had a good 5-year period over-all, making $33.5 million (or just under $7 million/year). Poor James, what ever will he do to keep up with the Joneses?

Inevitably though, discussions like this lead to some people praising the wonders of capitalism and warning against the evil of “socialism”. At the end of the day though, it is balance and moderation which saves a society.

Our hospital will certainly go down, as it eventually must with these crotch stains at the helm. At that time, I seriously doubt that the hundreds of people out of the job will be giving a damn one way or the other about political ideologies as they join the masses screwed out of their job by corporate greed as they try to figure out how they will put food on the table.

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Death and ATV’s

May 24, 2009

Sorry for the recent absence, but I’m back now. And what better way to get back into gear after being on vacation than to work Memorial Day Weekend! I should have my head examined.

ATV – All Terrain Vehicles, or as I like to call them, four-wheeled death machines. I hate ATV’s and wish they would be banned. I have seen too many tragic consequences from them and think the risk-fun ratio is just way too high. I like to have fun as much as the next person, but when people start dying, we need to take a time out and reassess. My first bad patient experience was my first year out of residency when the respiratory therapist that i work with brought her son in DOA (Dead on Arrival) after he was riding behind his brother who hit a tree. Unfortunately no helmets were worn. This weekend though brought on more sadness.

23 year old woman, drunk, riding an ATV at night runs into a barbed wire line at speed. The wire cut into her belly, removed the right kidney from its blood supply (a big hose), lacerated her liver and spleen and cut some intestine. She went immediately to surgery and bled to death on the table.

30 year old woman, majorly drunk, riding an ATV in daylight and rolls it in a field. She suffers multiple spine fractures, lacerated spleen and liver as well and dislocates her hip. Ouch! She survives surgery, but quality of life after this accident will be questionable. She will have pain everyday for the rest of her life I imagine.

Please, if you read this post and either ride an ATV or know someone that does, make sure they always wear a helmet and that they don’t drive after even one drink. If you can send the whole thing to a junk heap to be crushed that would be even better. You can have fun in far safer ways. Have a safe weekend please.

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Contributing Factors to the Current Physician Shortage

May 16, 2009

As early as 2005, predictions were being made of a coming shortage of medical providers for the United States. The reason that was primarily referenced for this coming shortage was a lack of adequate forecasting for an aging baby boomer population as stated here in a 2005 USA Today article:

The country needs to train 3,000 to 10,000 more physicians a year — up from the current 25,000 — to meet the growing medical needs of an aging, wealthy nation, the studies say. Because it takes 10 years to train a doctor, the nation will have a shortage of 85,000 to 200,000 doctors in 2020 unless action is taken soon.

Certainly, there is truth to this idea. I personally get numerous job offers on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis. But there is something that these studies and articles are missing. A number of doctors are also getting so fed up with medicine that they are choosing non-clinical careers; careers where they don’t do patient care.  This includes working for drug research companies, writing/editing, educating and even leavingmedicine altogether. I read an interesting article on-line by Dr. Kent Bottles in a Physician’s News Digest from 1999 that discussed some of the discontent doctors are feeling these days:

There’s a 1998 survey by Levin of 6000 physicians in 22 different cities that revealed that 46% of all American clinicians often think about leaving clinical practice. That’s over 300,000 physicians in the United States that seem to be unhappy with the state of affairs. There are other indications about physician discontent that you might not think of readily. The number of disability claims by physicians has increased so much that some insurance companies no longer are writing disability insurance for physicians. Recently the AMA, one of the more conservative organizations of physicians, has voted to form a union. And another example I saw was an article that said that physicians are actually moonlighting by selling cleaning products and herbs out of their homes. So, for a lot of statistical reasons and for a lot of those more soft reasons, it looks like physician discontent is widespread and happens throughout the whole country.

I am also personally one of the aforementioned doctors who has thought of doing something else with my life. Medicine has changed so much that it has become unrecognizable to some of the older docs, and it can sometimes be down-right depressing for younger ones like me. Sure, all jobs have the good and the bad right? But to me it seems somewhat different when you dedicate 10 years of your life to learn a skill and then have someone accuse you of intentionally and knowingly trying to harm them.

I posted an article yesterday about how we, as medical practitioners, had misled people regarding the “threat” of Strep throat. I stated that, statistically speaking, the risk of serious side effects from antibiotic use for this condition outweighed the benefit. And in turn, I received comments that reflect what we all unfortunately hear in medicine from time to time. That we “don’t care”, or that we diabolically “want people to suffer”.

To me, this arrow stings the most. That someone would really think that because I make a certain medical decision, that this means that I intentionally wish to harm them or cause them to suffer needlessly. Maybe I’m too young and haven’t yet developed skin thick enough to deflect these barbs. And then again, maybe I never want to develop such thick skin. If I did, then I wouldn’t be able to muster the compassion for other people who do trust us and don’t want to just give us orders.

Overall, I think it is a global phenomenon of lack of manners that has developed. As a doctor, I am humble enough to say that I will not be right all the time, and I don’t have to be. What I am charged with doing though, is not harming my patient. If you are a patient and reading this, please remember one thing. You can always get a second opinion. You don’t have trash someone just because the one snippet you heard on Oprah or read in Time magazine seems to contradict your doctor’s decision or advice.

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You Don’t Need to Come to the ER at 3am for “Strep Throat”

May 15, 2009

Among the more frustrating ER visits that you will never see on your favorite TV medical drama of choice is that of the 3am visit for possible “Strep Throat”. The sad reality though, is that this is something that we as a medical community have contributed to in a potentially large way. Some people are afraid of Strep because of the supposed connection to Rheumatic fever, while others are just uninformed (putting it nicely) and think that getting that holy prescription for Amoxicillin will make their discomfort go away in a space of hours (which it doesn’t). I guess I should be glad that most of them don’t come in trying to get Percocet to kill the pain (which doesn’t work well in this case either).

Regarding the whole strep and rheumatic fever issue though, I came across an article a few months back that addresses this issue. I will reproduce it at the end of the post for whoever would like to read it, but since it is medical speak to a degree, I thought it might be thoughtful to at least summarize it for those who don’t have the time or medical background to read it.

Basically, the article states that our current understanding that untreated Strep results in Rheumatic fever comes from only one large study that appears to be an anomaly. Two more recent and rigorous medical studies show that there is actually a relatively low risk of Rheumatic fever connected to Strep, and that the number of cases of serious side effects from our overly generous use of antibiotics far outweigh the risks of the limited number of cases of Rheumatic fever in this matter. It recommends against use of antibiotics in this case, but I wonder if the damage is already done? Trying to explain this to the average soccer mom would more likely result in a complaint than a “Oh thank you Doctor for looking out for our best interests!”.

In today’s internet society, too many people come to the doctor looking to get an order filled as opposed to getting an evaluation and medical advice. We keep saying that it is Burger King and we are not here to fill your order, but that message seems to have been missed by Hospital Administration and the general public.

For those who may be interested, here is the article:

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Antibiotics for Strep Do More Harm Than Good
By David H. Newman, MD

Military and civilian medicine have always been intertwined, but nothing compares to the strange tale of Warren Air Force base in the 1940’s. Perched on the high plains outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the combat training center was, mysteriously, a bacterial cauldron. For more than a decade virulent strains of group A streptococcus caused unprecedented rates of pharyngitis among the trainees, and history’s worst epidemic of rheumatic fever.

A small cadré of military researchers at the base seized the moment, executing a provocative series of trials that tested the potential of antibiotics to prevent post-streptococcal rheumatic fever. Roughly 2% of the trainees given placebo in their studies developed rheumatic fever, while under 1% of trainees given antibiotics experienced the disease. For every 50-60 trainees treated with antibiotics, the researchers had successfully prevented one case of rheumatic fever. It was a small, but decisive victory.

Prior to the epidemic at Warren Air Force base there was little interest in ‘strep throat’. During the twenties and thirties in the Unites States, sore throat care focused on diphtheria, “the strangling angel.” The characteristic ‘bull neck’ and the dreaded grey pseudomembrane led to a gruesome, asphyxiating death for thousands of children each year. Comparatively, strep throat was a minor nuisance that often received little more attention than the common cold. But by the 1940s vaccination programs had nearly eradicated diphtheria, and antibiotics were becoming widely available. When the Air Force studies were reported in the early 1950s, they resonated. Rheumatic heart disease was common among adults, making its prevention seem immediate and intuitively important, and antibiotics for a bacterial infection made good sense. Identifying and treating ‘strep throat’ quickly became a staple of medical education, and little has changed.

The problem, of course, is that one can only prevent rheumatic fever where it may plausibly occur. Outside of Warren Air Force base in the 1940s, is rheumatic fever a plausible risk? Apparently not. There have been only two other cases of rheumatic fever ever reported in a pharyngitis study, both in 1961. In fact, despite large, contemporary studies tracking tens of thousands of strep throats in the general community, many of whom received placebos or no treatment, there hasn’t been a case of rheumatic fever reported in a study for nearly fifty years. When the incidence dropped to less than one per million in the general population in 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking rheumatic fever entirely.

At Warren Air Force base only 50-60 recruits were treated to prevent one case. Today, preventing one case would likely require antibiotic treatment for hundreds of thousands of strep throats, making it a mathematical certainty that antibiotics will do more harm than good. For each case of rheumatic fever prevented in modern practice, a few dozen patients either die or suffer near-fatal anaphylaxis, toxic epidermal necrolysis, colitis, or other antibiotic reactions, and many thousands more suffer diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections.

Fortunately, rheumatic fever has been declining for a century, starting well before the introduction of antibiotics. While strep throat is no less common today, ‘rheumatogenic’ strains have dwindled, leading epidemiologists to conclude that antibiotics have little or nothing to do with rheumatic fever’s disappearance. Changes in hygiene, nutrition, population crowding, access to care, and changes in the bacterium are all felt to be important factors, which explains why the disease is now typically seen most in third world settings.

There are, arguably, other reasons to consider antibiotics for pharyngitis, but the evidence does not rise to support them. The Cochrane group estimates a 16-hour reduction in symptoms with antibiotics, but ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or a single dose of corticosteroids is as good or better, with fewer side effects. And while peritonsillar abscess may be minimally reduced by antibiotics, abscesses typically present primarily rather than after strep throat, and in most cases are easily treated. No studies have shown that antibiotics reduce the transmission of strep or reduce other complications.

The administration of antibiotics for strep throat, endorsed universally by practice guidelines and professional societies, is based exclusively on data from the world’s most concentrated epidemic of rheumatic fever. Using this to guide modern therapy is like administering antibiotics to prevent bubonic plague.

The essence of evidence is its ability to point us toward truth, and we must first understand what truth we seek. We do not ask whether antibiotics may be useful during a military epidemic of rheumatic fever. We ask a different question. We ask if antibiotics are beneficial for every day strep throat. Those who have written our guidelines and crafted our recommendations have, unfortunately, failed us. The strange tale of Warren Air Force base is a lesson in evidence: The only way to get an answer right is to pay attention to the question.

David H. Newman is the author of
Hippocrates Shadow (Scribner $26)

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Daddy It Hurts: A Poem About Child Abuse

May 14, 2009

One of the most difficult aspects of working the Emergency Room is seeing abuse. We see domestic violence (spouse beating), rape and the most difficult of all, child abuse. Someone sent me this poem that I wanted to share with you – and even though you have may have seen it before, I encourage you to read it again. Child abuse is one of those things which is 100% preventable. Maybe you might know someone that you could help and maybe this might encourage you to do something about it.

———————————————————————

My name is Chris

I am three,

My eyes are swollen

I cannot see,

I must be stupid

I must be bad,

What else could have made

My daddy so mad?

I wish I were better

I wish I weren’t ugly,

Then maybe my mommy

Would still want to hug me.

I can’t do a wrong

I can’t speak at all

Or else I’m locked up

All day long.

When I’m awake I’m all alone

The house is dark

My folks aren’t home

When my mommy does come home

I’ll try and be nice,

So maybe I’ll just get

One whipping tonight.

I just heard a car

My daddy is back

From Charlies bar

I hear him curse

My name is called

I press myself

Against the wall

I try to hide

From his evil eyes

I’m so afraid now

I’m starting to cry

He finds me weeping

Calls me ugly words,

He says its my fault

He suffers at work

He slaps and hits me

And yells at me more,

I finally get free

And run to the door

He’s already locked it

And I start to bawl,

He takes me and throws me

Against the hard wall

I fall to the floor

With my bones nearly broken,

And my daddy continues

With more bad words spoken,

‘I’m sorry!’, I scream

But its now much to late

His face has been twisted

Into a unimaginable shape

The hurt and the pain

Again and again

O please God, have mercy!

O please let it end!

And he finally stops

And heads for the door

While I lay there motionless

Sprawled on the floor

My name is Chris

I am three,

Tonight my daddy

Murdered me

And you can help

Sickens me to the soul,

And if you read this

and don’t pass it on

I pray for your forgiveness

Because you would have to be

One heartless person

To not be affected

By this Poem

And because you are affected,

Do something about it!

  • Children ages 0-3 are the most likely to experience abuse. About 1 in 50 U.S. infants are victims of nonfatal child abuse or neglect in a year, according to the first national study of the problem in that age group done by the CDC  along with The Federal Administration for Children and Families.
  • 1,500 children die every year from child abuse and neglect. That is just over 4 fatalities every day.
  • 79% of the children killed are younger than 4.

To learn more about Child Abuse click here.

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