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Don’t believe everything you read in a medical chart

Continuing on with the car accident theme… A patient came to see me in the clinic. She had been run down by a bike messenger (could it have been my friend with the bleeding leg?) when attempting to step out of a bus onto a cement curb. She had a lot of pain in her shoulder and side, and was taken to the ER where a chest XRay was unremarkable. She was released with a prescription for extra strength Tylenol.

Still in pain, she made an appointment at the hospital’s orthopedic clinic for the next available time slot (she was covered by Medicaid) where she met with a young resident who suspected that she was a drug seeker and sent her away with “reassurance” and more Tylenol.

The woman, knowing that if she came back to the clinic again, she’d probably see a different physician (and could therefore get a second opinion) – made another appointment. The next orthopedic resident read her chart (where the previous resident had written that the patient exhibited drug seeking behavior) and barely listened to the woman’s story. But after the patient insisted he do something, the orthopedist did what most do with “chronic pain patients” – send them to the rehab doc.

And so, nearly 6 weeks after the accident, I met the woman in the rehab clinic. I had read the ortho notes prior to seeing the patients and was nearly convinced from their descriptions that she was a belligerent, drug-seeking nightmare.

The woman was thin and irritable. I asked her why she had come to see me, and she said she thought I was going to do some physical therapy with her. I asked if she could recount the events in her own words, and explain what exactly was troubling her. As the story unfolded, I was saddened by what she described – the endless frustration of being in pain, of being bounced around from one young physician to another in clinics overflowing with patients, and of being labeled as a drug seeker. And all this after a very painful encounter with a hit-and-run bike messenger.

I asked her to describe her pain and point to it exactly. She said it had been slowly improving, but that it hurt most when she breathed in and there was some point tenderness over her 8th, 9th, and 10th ribs. I asked her if she had had a rib series… nope just a chest XRay.

I told the woman I thought it was likely that she had fractured her ribs, and that rib fractures are often hard to see on XRays, especially chest XRays. I also told her that there wasn’t any real treatment for rib fractures, except pain management and time to heal. Her face lit up.

“So you believe me? I’m not crazy?”

“Sure I believe you,” I said. “I’ve fractured ribs in the past and I know how painful it is. When it happened to me no one believed me either. My chest XRay was normal.”

“So what did you do about it,” the patient asked, looking at me compassionately.

“The truth is, I had to sleep sitting up for a week or so, and I breathed very shallowly for a while. Eventually, though, the pain went away on its own.”

“Thank you for listening to me, doc,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Even though there’s nothing I can do about the ribs, I’m glad to know what the pain is from, and that I’m not crazy.”

I wrote a short note in the chart, documenting my impressions. I did not recommend physical therapy for the patient, but to follow up if needed.

Apparently, the woman had one more clinic appointment with the orthopedic team. They read my note and ordered a rib series to confirm the diagnosis. The rib series showed healing fractures of ribs 8, 9, and 10.

I never saw the patient again, but I’m quite sure that explaining her diagnosis was the most therapeutic thing that we did for her.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

A tale of two car accidents

A few years ago I was walking home from the hospital after a long shift, when I witnessed a bicycle messenger struck by a taxi cab. The cyclist was riding at high speed across a crowded intersection and the cabbie was accelerating through a stale yellow light. THUD. The man flew across the pavement, the cabbie screeched to a halt, horns honked, a crowd gathered… I ran up to the man to check him out. His right shin was bleeding (he was wearing shorts), but I didn’t see any obvious deformities or broken bones.

The man was panting, his adrenaline pumping. I asked him to stay down for a moment while I checked him out. “F-off,” he snarled, “I don’t need your help.” Since I saw him fall, I knew that he hadn’t sustained a head injury that could explain his potential disorientation and poor decision making. I called 911 on my cell phone and gave them the scene coordinates while I tried to get the man to agree to get checked out. “I don’t need a f-ing ambulance, don’t call them!” he screamed, blood dripping down his leg. I did my best to reassure him, but he was adamant. He got up and started limping towards his bike (which, quite miraculously, was not bent out of shape from the blow). I continued to plead with him to just wait a moment to let the paramedics take a look at him, but he would not be detained. Short of using brute force to keep him down, there was nothing I could do. Distant sirens sounded, he hopped on his bike, muttered “I don’t have insurance” under his breath, and rode off. The taxi driver appeared extremely relieved. The crowd dispersed, the taxi left the scene.

When the fire truck arrived, I explained the situation. They asked which direction he’d driven off in, and they pursued. I don’t know if they ever found him, but catching a cyclist with a fire truck on the crowded streets of Manhattan is unlikely.


A few weeks ago I was walking down a narrow street in DC. An ambulance was parked in the middle of the street, a small SUV was in front of it, and a middle aged woman in a dark suit was sitting on the asphalt appearing angry but unharmed. I heard from an onlooker that she had darted out behind the SUV while it was moving slowly in reverse. She had been struck lightly, but was speaking loudly about suing the driver, and was demanding that she be taken to the ER for a full check up. The EMS team interviewing her was hesitant to put her on a stretcher since it was so obvious that she could walk. The woman was refusing to get up, and they were trying to figure out how best to carry her.

I gritted my teeth and walked away, wondering what kind of legal torture the SUV driver was in for.

These two car accidents left an impression on me – the uninsured will go to extremes to avoid costly medical care, while the personal injury lawyers rack up serious cash on trumped up claims. What’s the point of this post? I guess it’s a reminder to look both ways before you cross the street, drive carefully to avoid pedestrians, and make health insurance a priority!

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Why are people so angry about doctor salaries?

In a really engaging recent post, ER doc Edwin Leap (via GruntDoc) discusses why it seems that the general public is outraged at reports of the occasional specialist who makes $500,000 and yet do not flinch at the much larger salaries of football players, musicians, or media tycoons.

I posted a response to Dr. Leap’s blog post, explaining my take on why people are so angry. Let me know if you agree:

You are right that there is a lot of anger towards physicians – it is the collateral damage of the broken physician-patient relationship. When third parties (insurers) got between us, and reimbursement dwindled with drastic cuts in Medicare/Medicaid, physicians had to make up the difference in volume. When you see 30+ patients/day none of them feels as if they’ve had a valuable interaction with you. And the physician’s memory of each individual patient (and their psycho-social context) becomes dim.

When we lose the sacred, personal, physician patient relationship – we lose the best of what compassionate individualized medical care has to offer. This is why patients believe that a government sponsored system can give them the same level of care that they currently receive. I shudder at the idea of handing over medical decision making to a distant bureaucracy that only knows what’s right for a population, not for the individual. But if doctors continue to treat patients like a commodity, the patients are actually receiving nothing more than population-based care anyway. Quality care is personal, and the physician-patient relationship is a trusted bond that cannot be easily broken. We need to know our patients well so that we help them to make the best possible decisions for their personal situation. I believe that the IMP movement (see Gordon Moore’s work) – where PCPs use IT to drastically reduce overhead costs so they can afford to see fewer patients – is one of the best ways to improve healthcare quality.

As far as Emergency Medicine is concerned – we need to get the non-sick patients out of the ER and back to the PCPs. Easier said than done – but if the patients have a real relationship with their PCPs they’re less likely to substitute an ER doc inappropriately.

My 2 cents! :)

Patients are angry about physician salaries because they know instinctively that they are not getting the quality care that they are paying so much for… Moreover, the major cost causers (hospitals that cost shift unpaid bills to the uninsured and take large cuts for hospital administrator salaries, and for-profit insurance companies) don’t have a name and a face to the patient.  So docs take a double dose of anger on the nose, further damaging the already strained relationship.  We must go back to our roots – and support the personal doctor patient relationship that has been a pillar of American medicine.  Revolution Health can be our meeting place… the new digital medical home, supporting the old physician-patient team decision-making approach!This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Pay for performance – more red tape without improved quality of care

We all agree that improving healthcare quality is a critical goal, but there is no real consensus on how to achieve that goal. In recent years, a “Pay for Performance” or P4P strategy has been put forth by the US government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The gist of the strategy is to pay physicians more or less based on certain disease outcome measures of the patients they treat. So if a physician treats a large group of patients with diabetes, that physician would be paid more/office visits if, on average, those patients demonstrated lower blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, and less evidence of end-organ damage on various tests.

P4P assumes that a patient’s chronic disease outcomes are completely dependent upon the physician. To me, this underlying assumption (that the patient is not involved in his/her own health) is offensive. It is offensive because it assumes that patients are not in control of their lifestyle choices, that their circumstances can be summed up by lab tests, and that their doctor takes all the credit for their hard work to control their disease. It also assumes that patients and families need not be partners in the quest for optimum health – no, that is solely the responsibility of the physician. Ultimately, P4P is disrespectful to patients – it takes them out of the health equation, it presumes that they’re passive participants, and it depersonalizes medicine.

And it gets worse. If physicians are paid more for patients who do well, they will be tempted to “cherry pick” the most motivated and privileged patients. How does this help the patients who need the most help? It will further earmark them for lower quality care.

One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Richard Reece, echoes my sentiments, further explaining how ludicrous it is to assume that doctors are in full control of patient health outcomes:

People spend 99.9 percent of their time outside of doctors’ offices and hospitals. This time gap is particularly important in patients with chronic disease. Your outcomes depend on how and where you live and work…

Many patients don’t follow doctors’ orders. Many never fill prescriptions, fail to get refills and avoid exercise.

Half-way technologies–stents, coronary bypasses, joint replacements, statins, etc.–don’t eliminate underlying diseases or change their basic pathophysiology. The problem here, of course, is many patients have overblown expectations at what these technologies will accomplish and often return to the behavior that led to the problem in the first place.

Even CMS recognizes the limitations of P4P:

Pay-for-performance is in its early stages of development and a great deal of work still must be done to determine the best method of approaching a comprehensive program.

But that doesn’t stop them from promoting the program to states that are in desperate need of federal funds:

CMS will provide technical assistance to those states that voluntarily elect to implement pay-for-performance programs. We also plan to work with states to encourage that evolving pay-for-performance programs include an evaluation component to provide evidence of the effectiveness of this methodology.

For some further examples of how P4P doesn’t work, check out the following blogs: 1) disaster in the nursing home setting and 2) a summary of recent research studies on the ineffectiveness of P4P by Dr. Poses (via KevinMD).

Then what is the real issue that we’re trying to get at?

Quality care is dependent upon the regular application of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to clinical situations. What is EBM? Every medical decision that physicians make should have a good reason behind it – and that reason, whenever possible, should be based upon scientific evidence that the decision has worked in the past. What I mean is that we spend billions of dollars on medical research to learn the difference between truth and error, and doctors should do their level best to apply the research findings to the care decisions they make each day. Now, keep in mind that there are about 6000 research articles published each day in the medical journals world-wide… so it may come as no surprise that (as Dr. Reece explains):

It’s well-documented doctors only follow preventive and treatment guidelines 50 percent to 55 percent of the time. Moreover, doctors could do a much better job communicating with and educating patients, deploying the Internet (for example) to reach patients when they are outside of the immediate care setting.

So what we really need to do, is support physician education efforts to incorporate the very best research findings into their clinical practice of medicine. How can a physician keep up with all the latest research? I maintain that the government’s efforts would be better spent on hiring physician task forces (to summarize the very latest evidence for the treatment of every disease and condition – and then supply simplified guidelines to docs across the country) than on scheming up ways to penalize physicians for treating patients who are sicker and less willing or able to take control of their health. It would be great if physicians were incentivized to use the latest clinical guidelines in their care of patients – but basing the incentives on outcomes (rather than on applying the guidelines) cuts out the patient’s responsibility as a partner in the treatment. As Dr. Feld rightly points out, quality care based on EBM could be vastly improved through a central EMR.

And what can patients do?

In this new era of consumer directed healthcare, patients need to understand that they really are co-partners with their doctors. A doctor can give you all the best possible advice, but if you don’t take the advice, then that doctor’s work on your behalf may be in vain. I believe that patients should be aware of the care guidelines that doctors use to treat them – and have access to a simple check list to track their own progress. I am personally helping to translate clinical guidelines into consumer-friendly lists for patients so that they can actively participate in, and follow along with, their care plan (so stay tuned for that). Revolution Health is committed to empowering consumers – and helping them to be a full partner on the road to wellness. In fact, we are developing a full suite of su
pportive services (including health coaches, chronic disease management programs, insurance advocates, nurse call lines, physicians available via email, and more) that will make it much easier for them to stay on track. In addition, we are enabling physicians to customize educational information for their patients, and participate (via IT) in a broader relationship with them.

There are many exciting improvements in healthcare currently under development. The Internet will play a central role in connecting patients and physicians to the scientific information that will help them get the best care no matter where they are or which doctor they see. I don’t believe that P4P is anything more than another misguided attempt to “improve healthcare quality” by creating more of the red tape that keeps doctors and patients from meaningful personal interactions.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Young and uninsured in Manhattan

My friend forwarded an article to me from New York Magazine. It is about the fact that many of the “20-somethings” in Manhattan choose not to buy health insurance. They reason that nothing really bad is likely to happen to them, so why pay the $167-300/month in health insurance?

Here are some of the strategies that these young uninsured use to stay out of harm’s way:

  • “I carry an expired Blue Cross card in my wallet. You never know, maybe they’ll think I have insurance and I’ll get better care.”
  • Rebekah takes vitamin C and echinacea.
  • “I do yoga to stay loose. I drink a lot of water so I don’t get sick, and vitamins.”

Ironically, Echinacea is actually a cousin of rag weed, and can create a cross-reactivity that may cause cold-like symptoms (leading the user to believe that she averted a more severe cold by taking the supplement). Vitamins are unregulated, and previous studies have shown that up to 50% of bottles do not contain the actual levels of vitamins and minerals displayed on their labels. Dangerously high lead levels have been found in popular multi-vitamins as well. Of course, there was a recent bottled water scare – with a certain brand found to contain high levels of arsenic. Yoga can be harmful to those who push themselves too hard, and to my knowledge there is no convincing evidence that high levels of vitamin C can retard viral illnesses.

Why don’t the young adults buy health insurance? Here’s what one young man said:

“What’s ironic is that I would never live without my cell phone, but I won’t consider buying health insurance. It sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but the fact is insurance is just too expensive. If it was the same price as my phone”—$150 a month sounded reasonable to him—“I’d buy it in a second.”

The article goes on to describe a nightmare case of an uninsured young man who developed appendicitis. He ended up requiring surgery, and a prolonged hospital stay due to infection. His total bill was $37,000.00. He explained to the hospital that he couldn’t afford to pay, he discovered that he made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, so he sent them a nasty letter, threatening to sue them for malpractice. The hospital reduced the charges to $1,700.00.

A year later when asked if he now carried insurance, here is what the man said:

“Oh, no, I still don’t have any insurance,” he said, rolling his eyes to indicate that, yes, he knows how it sounds. “I think about it, but it’s not like I have a consistent income right now. I think about paying $300 a month on top of my other expenses, and it’s like, God, when’s it going to end?” He paused. “But, really, it’s more than that. I was just so disillusioned with the process. I wanted nothing to do with it, you know? And maybe because, in the end, I kind of managed to get away with it, I end up thinking …” He trailed off, not finishing the thought, but the sentiment was clear: He is still young, he runs, he does yoga, he takes all the vitamins. And it’s not like you can get appendicitis twice.


New York hospitals alone provide $1.8 billion in uncompensated care annually.


Are you sympathetic to the uninsured’s plight, or do you feel annoyed by their attitude?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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