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Demystifying Medicine One Week at a Time

Category: medical education (page 1 of 14)

Triage

The following is a guest post from Dr. Sarah Fraser:

During my surgery rotation as a third year medical student, my resident sends me to the Emergency Department to assess a new consult. She tells me to “make it quick” and I hustle down to meet my patient.

Mr. Jones is a 64-year-old male who rarely goes to the doctor. He has been vomiting for two days and has a fever. His heart rate is up and his blood pressure is low; his belly is swollen up like a beach ball. When I examine his abdomen, he winces in pain with even the lightest touch. The x-ray shows a bowel obstruction and free air in the belly, a sign of intestinal perforation. I know he needs surgery.

Stat.

I text my resident who tells me I have five minutes to get the paperwork in order before transporting him to the operating room. As I am about to start writing my note, a frail, elderly woman emerges from a different room with a troubled expression on her face.

“I need help. My husband’s IV is beeping and we need to shut it off.” There is fear in her voice.

I quickly decide that her problem is not an urgent one. The IV is probably beeping because the fluid is done dripping in, or maybe the line is kinked. But the man with the busted bowels–that is urgent. I need to devote every ounce of my attention toward finishing my note and getting that man into surgery.

“I’m dealing with an emergency right now, but your nurse should be back shortly.”

“We need to stop the beeping!” She is on the verge of tears.

“It’s probably nothing serious. I’m really sorry but I can’t help you right now.” I put my head down and continue writing.

“The help here is awful,” she says, returning to her room with her sick husband and his beepy IV.

A knot forms in my stomach as I continue with my note.

Was there time to have helped her? Maybe, but I had a short deadline and was feeling the pressure. Relieving the concerns of this elderly lady would have taken away from the care I was providing for a the very sick Mr. Jones. So I prioritized, and in doing so, I failed to address her request, leaving her disappointed and probably scared.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, when I ignored one person and prioritized a sicker patient, I was doing something called triaging. Every day in the Emergency Department, doctors and nurses are forced to choose who needs help and attention more critically.

Before entering the field of medicine, I remember sitting in the Emergency Department as a patient with a fever and chills, watching others who came in hours later being treated before me. Nobody likes to feel ignored. What the general public does not always realize is that there is a triaging system, where patients are given a score from one to five based on how sick they are. It is a system that helps us deal with the sickest first, though it can lead to long wait times for those with less serious issues.

Though I postponed dealing with the concern of the elderly woman that day, I also learned an important lesson. In medicine, you need to assess and assign degrees of urgency, and in doing so, you can’t please everyone all the time. And you have to be okay with that. What matters most is that you prioritize to the best of your ability, and do your part to keep everybody healthy, and most importantly, alive.

Dr. Sarah Fraser is an author, family physician and human rights activist in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is author of Humanity Emergency, a poetry collection about the need for more compassion in the field of medicine. Her work appears in the Canadian Family Physician, Ars Medica and the Journal of Academic Psychiatry, The Coast, Capital Xtra and on kevinmd.com

Match Day 2017

Click on the link below to see an essay from NPR on learning from and working with foreign medical graduates.

All in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which this year is also Match Day — when medical students learn where they will match for residency — the next chapter in their training.

Medical Revolution(s)?

9780465050642This week an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine asks if our collective learning to handle uncertainty should be ‘the next medical revolution.’ It caught my eye because many of the medical educators I follow on social networks were abuzz about it.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a fuller-length exploration of medical uncertainty, a book called “Snowball in a Blizzard,” by Steven Hatch, an infectious diseases doc at UMass.

Both the essay and the book remind us to have humility: though medical technology and scientific knowledge have leapt ahead and continue to hurtle forward, our profession’s abilities to diagnose, treat, or predict future health outcomes with precision remain stubbornly elusive.

The metaphor of the ‘snowball in a blizzard’ comes from the world of radiology–in particular mammograms. That’s what radiologists who read mammograms are looking for on the images they see. It’s challenging and inexact work. Often they miss tumors that are cancerous; to correct for this, it’s natural that radiologists need to be extra cautious and have women with anything even remotely suspicious follow up for more images and possibly biopsies. [With negative biopsies, such mammograms become known as ‘false positives.’]

I agree with the thesis that we should all become more comfortable with uncertainty. But it will be challenging.

As patients, we want our doctors and scientists to be able to give us predictions that are accurate.

  • Is this the right diagnosis?
  • Will this treatment work?
  • How long have I got?

As doctors, we wish we had greater ability to answer these questions.

As ‘consumers,’ we are fed an unending stream of media that tell us what we ‘should’ do, what we ‘need’ to be healthy, and what will make us live longer. Much of it never offers the necessary caveats about the inexactness of the science. This will be an uphill battle.

I was pleased to see a chapter in Hatch’s book devoted to health media, featuring Gary Schwitzer and his website HealthNewsReview.org. Gary has devoted his latter career to debunking medical hype. His site is well worth perusing.

The Evolution of Hospitals

I-love-Lucy-assembly-line-300x223Once upon a time, a hospital was a place you went if you were sick. Doctors would (ideally) figure out what was wrong, offer treatment, and you would convalesce.

The longer you stayed in a hospital, the more the hospital could charge you (your insurance, really — if you had it).

This all changed in 1983, with the advent of the DRG system (it stands for Diagnosis-Related Group). Almost overnight, the incentives for hospitals changed. With DRG payment, the hospital would get one ‘bundled’ payment for the whole hospitalization based on the patient’s diagnosis. Average length of stay for hospitalized patients went from thirty days (imagine: a month(!) in a hospital). Hospital executives saw the need to minimize length of stay — depending on the payment for each diagnosis, there would be an inflection point when a patient staying beyond a certain number of days would result in financial loss.

‘Throughput’ became the term of art. (Like widgets on an assembly line.)

Now the average time someone spends in a hospital is a little more than four days. (Of course, for mothers with normal births, this is even less — about 2 days. Many surgeries that used to necessitate several days in the hospital are now done on an outpatient basis. Length of stay in those situations: zero.)

A recent essay on this topic in the New York Times by Dr. Abigail Zuger brought back memories for me. I once had a teacher tell me, “No one should ever need to be in a hospital. Except for some cardiac conditions that require immediate care, the only people winding up in hospitals are frail elders, and those with social problems and no place to go — the mentally ill, the destitute, the homeless.” I remember feeling a bit shocked by this, but as I reflected on it, I realized he had a point. I should start with the assumption, he told me, “that almost no one really needs to be there and they’re better off at home.”

The modern condition leads us to keep people in hospitals for as short a duration as possible. But something is clearly lost. As Dr. Zuger writes:

Hospitals were where you stayed when you were too sick to survive at home; now you go home anyway, cobbling together your own nursing services from friends, relatives and drop-in professionals.

Patients often go home feeling brutalized by all the blood draws, hospital food, and lack of sleep. Rare is the patient who says, “I feel better now — can I go home?” Often we send them home before they feel ready.

It sounds a bit cruel, and like there’s a perverse incentive at play. But keeping people in the hospital is also inherently risky. Hospitalization can cause infections, loss of muscle and coordination (especially in older folks), falls, and delirium. So getting people out as quickly as possible is in many ways the right thing to do.

The truth, however, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Column Laurel

Good news dept:

2016-Column-Contest-560x469Dear loyal GlassHospital readers–

GlassHospital was recently recognized by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists as a finalist for columnist of the year in the Online, Blog, and Multimedia Category with >100,000 readers. This is for work published on the world’s best health care site, NPR’s Shots blog [to which I attribute such high readership — you loyalists on this site are in much more select company].

I was awarded third place, behind a Reuters columnist who works to bring broader understanding of Islam to a large general readership, and a columnist from The Street who writes frequently to expose scams and complicated investment schemes that over-promise and under-deliver. Given all that’s going on in the news cycles of late, I think this makes perfect cosmic sense.

I do my best to share NPR work on this site to attract you over there, but if you’re interested in the columns for which I won the award, links to them are below.

  1. From August 2015 — Suicide: not a natural cause of death
  2. From April 2015 — How should we educate 21st century doctors?
  3. From September 2015 — For older folks, pruning back prescriptions can bring better health

Thanks for reading!

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