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A Cat Playing Whack-A-Mole
Medication non-adherence is a hot button topic in healthcare. Physicians lament patient “non-compliance” with their medical advice, and policy wonks tell us that more than half of patients do not take their medications as directed. Missed opportunities to control chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer surely do cost us untold billions of dollars and millions of quality life years lost annually in the U.S. But there is a flip side to the equation that no one is talking about. The costs of polypharmacy (over medication).
In my opinion, many Americans, especially those over 65, are taking far too many medicines. The unwanted side effects and medication interactions (both known and unknown) can be devastating. In my line of work (inpatient rehabilitation) I receive a steady stream of patients who have fallen and injured themselves or have been involved in serious accidents. An astonishing number of these incidents are related to drug side effects.
Take, for example, the elderly woman who had mild hypertension. Unbeknownst to her physicians, she was not compliant with the diuretics she had been prescribed. Each successive visit it was presumed that she was taking her medicines as directed, and that they were not sufficient to control her blood pressure. So the dosing was increased. Her husband dutifully picked up the new prescriptions from the pharmacy, and she collected them (unopened) in her desk drawer.
One day this spirited lady caught pneumonia and required a couple of days of inpatient monitoring and antibiotics at the local hospital. Her son decided to assist with her transition back home and stayed with her for a week, taking on both cooking and medication administration duty from his dad. He found all of her pills in her desk drawer and began to give them to her as directed.
Several days later the distraught son told me that his mother’s health had taken a nose-dive, and that she was hallucinating and acting uncharacteristically hostile. He took her to a more distant specialty hospital, where their initial impression was that she had advanced dementia, which had probably gone unnoticed by a son who hadn’t lived nearby for years. She would benefit from hospice placement.
The reality was, of course, that this poor woman was as dehydrated as a raisin and was becoming delirious from excessive diuretic use. Once I figured out that her son’s sudden, and very well-intentioned, medication adherence program was to blame, we stopped the blood pressure medications, gave her some water and she returned to her usual self within 24 hours.
On another occasion, I admitted a closed-head injury patient who had lost her front teeth after fainting and falling head first onto the asphalt in a grocery store parking lot. This was her third head injury in 6 months. A review of her medications revealed no less than six medications (that she was dutifully taking for various diseases and conditions) that carried a known side-effect of “dizziness.” We were able to discontinue all of them, and to this day I have not heard of another fall.
Just last week a wise, elderly patient of mine declined to take her blood pressure medicine. I explained to her that her blood pressure was higher than we’d like and that I wanted to protect her from strokes with the medicines. She smiled kindly at me and said, “I know my body, and I get dizzy when my blood pressure is at the levels you doctors like. The risk of my falling and hurting myself when I’m dizzy is greater than the benefit of avoiding a stroke. I’ve been running at this blood pressure for 80 years. Let’s leave it be.”
What I’ve learned is that although there are costs to not taking medicines, there are costs to taking them too. It is hard to say how many injuries are accidentally prevented by patient non-adherence. But we all need to take a closer look at what’s in our desk drawers, and pare down the prescriptions to the bare minimum required. I consider it a great victory each time I reduce the number of medications my patients use, and I would urge my peers to join me in the pharmaceutical whack-a-mole game that is so sorely needed in this country.
The American Geriatrics Society provides a helpful list of medications that should be avoided whenever possible in older individuals.
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If you have not read the latest essay and editorial about scandalous physician behavior published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM), you must do so now. They describe horrific racist and sexist remarks made about patients by senior male physicians in front of their young peers. The physicians-in-training are scarred by the experience, partially because the behavior itself was so disgusting, but also because they felt powerless to stop it.
It is important for the medical community to come together over the sad reality that there are still some physicians and surgeons out there who are wildly inappropriate in their patient care. In my lifetime I have seen a noticeable decrease in misogyny and behaviors of the sort described in the Annals essay. I have written about racism in the Ob/Gyn arena on my blog previously (note that the perpetrators of those scandalous acts were women – so both genders are guilty). But there is one story that I always believed was too vile to tell. Not on this blog, and probably not anywhere. I will speak out now because the editors at AIM have opened the conversation.
When I was a third-year medical student I was assigned to tag along with an ophthalmology resident serving his first year of residency as an intern in general surgery. We were to cover the ER consult service one night, and our first patient was a young Hispanic girl with abdominal pain. It was suspected that she may have had appendicitis. Part of the physical exam required that we rule out a gynecologic cause of the pain. And so a pelvic exam was planned for this young girl of about 12 or 13. She was frightened and clinging to her grandmother. She had never seen a gynecologist before and had explained through her grandmother that she was a virgin – making a gynecologic cause of her abdominal pain less likely. I offered her some reassurance with my broken Spanish and held her hand as we wheeled her on a stretcher to a private examining room. The resident whispered in my ear, “This is going to be fun.”
The resident was creepy at every stage of the exam. He was clearly relishing the process, slowly instructing the poor girl to position herself correctly on the table. He held her knees apart as she whimpered and cried. He pretended to have difficulty positioning the speculum, inserting and reinserting it an unconscionable number of times. All-in-all it probably took ten minutes for him to get a cervical sample (this usually takes under 60 seconds). He performed the bi-manual portion of the exam in a bizarre, sexualized manner. I was furious and nauseated.
The patient was finally returned to her grandmother and the resident took me aside to ask how I thought he did. The perverted expression on his face was not lost on me. I looked at him with daggers in my eyes, but I knew that if I confronted him head-on it could trigger an investigation and in the end I had no hard evidence to prove that he had done anything wrong. It would wind up being a “he said, she said” scenario. I mustered the courage to say, “I think you were slow.”
For a fleeting moment he was taken aback by my insubordinate criticism and then he said the sentence that still haunts me today, “Well it was her first time.”
Each time I think of this interaction I feel sick to my stomach. I wonder what more I could have done.* I wonder if he is still out there violating his patients, and if anyone has ever confronted him. My only consolation, I suppose, is that he did not go on to become an Ob/Gyn. As an ophthalmologist one would hope that he had fewer opportunities for sexual abuse of patients.
I guess you could say that in my medical training, I witnessed a child rape. I don’t think it gets much worse than that… and I don’t know what to do with this horrific memory. I am forever changed.
It is my hope that these sorts of situations become true “never events” and that we create a protective environment where there are no career consequences for medical students thrust into the unfortunate position of whistle blower. Maybe the courageous AIM editorial is the first step towards redemption and healing.
*Note that I never saw this resident again. Our paths did not cross after the incident, and it was only at the end of the exam that I fully recognized the evil of his intent.
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A wrist graft similar to what my friend's husband required.
I watched helplessly as a dear friend went through the emotional meat grinder of a new cancer diagnosis. Her husband was found to have melanoma on a recent skin biopsy, and she knew that this was a dangerous disease. Because she is exceptionally intelligent and diligent, she set out to optimize his outcome with good information and the best care possible. Without much help from me, she located the finest specialists for her husband, and ultimately he received appropriate and state-of-the-art treatment. But along with his excellent care came substantial (and avoidable) emotional turmoil. The art of medicine was abandoned as the science marched on.
First came the pathology report, detailed and nuanced, but largely uninterpretable for the lay person. She received a copy of it at her request, but without any attempt at translation by her physician. In his view, she shouldn’t be looking at it at all, since it was up to him to decide next steps. She brought the report to me, wondering if I could make heads or tails out of it. Although I am not trained in pathology, I did know enough to be able to translate it, line-by-line, into normal speak. This was of great comfort to her as the ambiguity of prognosis (rather than certainty of metastasis and or mortality, etc.) was clearly outlined for the trained eye.
Then came the genetic testing and node biopsy. She was told that the tests could identify variants that would portend poorer outcomes, though it would take 6 weeks to find out if he had “the bad kind of melanoma.” Those 6 weeks were excruciating for her, as she planned out how they would manage financially if he needed treatment for metastatic disease, and if his life were shortened by various numbers of years. At week 6 they received no word from the physician, and so she called the office to inquire about how much longer it would take for the genetic testing to come back. She was rebuffed by office staff and was instructed to be patient because the lab was “processing an unusual number of samples” at this time.
Another week of anguish passed and she decided to contact the lab directly. As it turned out, they were eagerly awaiting the arrival of her husband’s sample, but it had been “lost” in hospital processing somehow. She called the hospital’s facility and someone found the tissue under a pile of other samples and tagged it appropriately and sent it on to the genetics lab. The hospital apologized for the delay via email – and she forwarded the note to her oncologist, so that he could sort out the potential processing bottleneck for other patients going forward.
The result was reported to the oncologist within a week’s time and in turn, the physician called (at 6:30am on a Monday morning) to discuss the result with my friend’s husband. He missed the call as he was in the shower getting ready for work, and wound up playing phone tag with the physician’s office for 3 more days. My friend had her heart in her mouth the entire time. She continued to imagine a world without her husband. If the disease stole him from her, how would she manage? What about the children? Could she make enough money alone to support her family?
“Why didn’t the physician leave any hint of the result in the phone message? If it was good news, surely he would have mentioned that.” She presumed. The physician required his patient to come into the office to discuss the results. And so they booked the next available time slot, another couple of days later. My friend was certain this was a bad sign.
As they arrived at the oncologist’s office, the staff forbade my friend to accompany her husband to the meeting. “Clinic policy” they stated. My friend’s mind was now spinning out of control – maybe my husband needs to be alone with the doctor because the results are so devastating that he must hear it by himself?
She insisted, nonetheless, to accompany him – and the staff felt obligated to clear it with the oncologist before they allowed her to enter the examining room with her husband. They whispered to him in another room before giving her the irritated nod that she could proceed. You could have cut the tension with a knife… she was certain that a death sentence was about to be handed down.
Once the oncologist entered the room, he spent the first 10 minutes making excuses for the delay in genetic tissue results. He argued that the hospital lab was actually not at fault for the delay and listed all the various reasons why nothing had been done incorrectly. His was so single-mindedly focused on the email he received weeks prior (simply describing the delay — as if it were some kind of assault on his own competency) that he almost left the room without telling them the results of the genetic test and biopsy sample.
As an afterthought at the end of the meeting, he announced: “Oh, and the tests suggest that you have a melanoma that is extremely unlikely to metastasize. The wide excisional biopsy is likely curative.”
And off he swished, white coat flowing behind him as he flung wide the door and moved on to the next patient.
The irony is that my friend’s husband got “great” medical care with a large helping of unnecessary suffering. His initial biopsy, wide excision and skin grafting, lymph node testing, and genetic lab studies were all appropriate and helpful in his diagnosis and treatment. But the way in which the information was presented (or not presented) was what made the entire process so painful. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time as physicians focused on the technicalities of what we do, rather than the emotional consequences they have on our patients and their families.
As we continue to “deliver healthcare” to our patients, let’s remember not to serve up any sides of unnecessary mental anguish. Clear and timely communication makes a world of difference in patient anxiety levels. And reducing those is part of the art of medicine that is so desperately needed, and disturbingly rare these days.
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I met my newly admitted patient in the quiet of his private room. He was frail, elderly, and coughing up gobs of green phlegm. His nasal cannula had stepped its way across his cheek during his paroxsysms and was pointed at his right eye. Although the room was uncomfortably warm, he was shivering and asking for more blankets. I could hear his chest rattling across the room.
The young hospitalist dutifully ordered a chest X-Ray (which showed nothing of particular interest) and reported to me that the patient was fine as he was afebrile and his radiology studies were unremarkable. He would stop by and check in on him in the morning.
I shook my head in wonderment. One look at this man and you could tell he was teetering on the verge of sepsis, with a dangerous and rather nasty pneumonia on physical exam, complicated by dehydration. I started antibiotics at once, oxygen via face mask, IV fluids and drew labs to follow his white count and renal function. He perked up nicely as we averted catastrophe overnight. By the time the hospitalist arrived the next day, the patient was looking significantly better. The hospitalist left a note in the EMR about a chest cold and zipped off to see his other new consults.
Similar scenarios have played out in countless cases that I’ve encountered. Take, for example, the man whose MRI was “normal” but who had new onset hemiparesis, ataxia, and sensory loss on physical exam… The team assumed that because the MRI did not show a stroke, the patient must not have had one. He was treated for a series of dubious alternative diagnoses, became delirious on medications, and was reassessed only when a family member put her foot down about his ability to go home without being able to walk. A later MRI showed the stroke.
A woman with gastrointestinal complaints was sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation after a colonoscopy and endoscopy were normal. After further blood tests were unremarkable, she was provided counseling and an anti-depressant. A year later, a rare metastatic cancer was discovered on liver ultrasound.
Physicians have access to an ever-growing array of tests and studies, but they often forget that the results may be less sensitive or specific than their own eyes and ears. And when the two are in conflict (i.e. the patient looks terrible but the test is normal), they often default to trusting the tests.
My plea to physicians is this: Listen to your patients, trust what they are saying, then verify their complaints with your own exam, and use labs and imaging sparingly to confirm or rule out your diagnosis. Understand the limitations of each study, and do not dismiss patient complaints too easily. Keep probing and asking questions. Learn more about their concerns – open your mind to the possibility that they are on to something. Do not blame the patient because your tests aren’t picking up their problem.
And above all else – trust yourself. If a patient doesn’t look well – obey your instincts and do not walk away because the tests are “reassuring.” Cancer, strokes, and infections will get their dirty tendrils all over your patient before that follow up study catches them red handed. And by then, it could be too late.