Photo By Danny Kim
The short answer, in my opinion, is yes.
The long answer is slightly more nuanced. As it turns out, studies suggest that one’s relative risk of death is increased in teaching hospitals by about 4-12% in July. That likely represents a small, but significant uptick in avoidable errors. It has been very difficult to quantify and document error rates related to inexperience. Intuitively we all know that professionals get better at what they do with time and practice… but how bad are doctors when they start out? Probably not equally so… and just as time is the best teacher, it is also the best weeder. Young doctors with book smarts but no clinical acumen may drop out of clinical medicine after a short course of doctoring. But before they do, they may take care of you or your loved ones.
It has been argued that young trainees “don’t practice in a vacuum” but are monitored by senior physicians, pharmacists, and nurses and therefore errors are unlikely. While I agree that this oversight is necessary and worthwhile, it is ultimately insufficient. Let me provide an illustrative example.
When I was a new intern I was assigned to a patient with curious eyelids. He was a mildly obese, middle aged man with a beard who spoke in hushed tones. What struck me the most was that he had voluminous upper eyelids. They were so strange that I couldn’t stop staring at them. He didn’t have any hives or red blotches on his skin, and his eyeballs were clear and white. There was no pus or discharge of any kind. I was so perplexed that I began to search through his medical record for answers before I embarrassed myself by asking for a consult. After many hours of digging, I discovered the smoking gun.
Apparently, he had been given repeat boluses of 1 Liter of IV normal saline by dutiful interns and residents who had not communicated with one another about who would write the order. So they all did. This man was so fluid overloaded that his eyes were literally bugging out of his head. No one had noticed the edema because of his size, and because (thank God) his heart and kidneys were young and healthy enough to handle the load without going into outright failure. Also, normal saline is such an innocuous medication that it didn’t flag any concerns by the nurses (who were also rotating through the service and busy swatting the more obvious mistakes being made by the fresh crop of interns).
If this poor patient had congestive heart failure or kidney disease, he could have been killed by well-meaning, diligent interns with salt water. Fortunately for him, he made a full recovery – and because there was technically “no harm done” I don’t even think this case was discussed in M&M (morbidity and mortality) conference, and I also doubt that anyone was reprimanded. Sounds crazy, but there are bigger fish to fry in July.
So my point is this: rookie mistakes are not always tracked, documented, addressed, or perhaps even noted. But they are real. They are scary. And they are lurking at every teaching hospital in this country. We must all remain on high alert – and question everything. Because even eyelids offer important clues, and water can kill.
If you or a loved one insist on falling ill in July, I recommend finding a hospital with a culture of carefulness or bring a patient advocate with you.
In a recent Forbes editorial, conservative commentator John Goodman argues that the Texas Medical Board is sending the state back to “the middle ages” because they are trying to limit the practice of medicine in the absence of a face-to-face, doctor-patient relationship. He believes that telemedicine should have an unfettered role in healthcare – diagnosis and treatment should be available to anyone who wishes to share their medical record with a physician via phone. This improves access, saves money, and is the way of the future, he argues.
He is right that it costs less to call a stranger and receive a prescription via phone than it does to be examined by a physician in an office setting. But he is wrong that this represents quality healthcare. As I wrote in my last blog post, much is learned during the physical exam that you simply cannot ascertain without an in-person encounter. Moreover, if you’ve never met the patient before, it is even more likely that you do not understand the full context of a patient’s complaint. Access to their medical records can be helpful, but only so much as the records are thorough and easy to navigate. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out. And with EMRs these days, auto-populated data and carry-forward errors may form the bulk of the “narrative.”
Telemedicine works beautifully as an extension of a previously established relationship. Expanding a physician’s ability to connect with his/her patients remotely, saves money and improves access. But bypassing the personal knowledge piece assures lower quality care.
I currently see patients in the hospital setting. I run a busy consult service in several hospital systems, and I have access to a large number of medical records, test results, and expert analyses for each patient I meet. Out of curiosity, I’ve been tracking how my treatment plans change before and after I meet the patient. I read as much as possible in the medical record prior to my encounter, and ask myself what I expect to find and what I plan to do. When medical students are with me, we discuss this together – so that our time with the patient is focused on filling in our knowledge gaps.
After years of pre and post meeting analysis, I would say that 25% of my encounters result in a major treatment plan change, and 33% result in small but significant changes. Nearly 100% result in record clarifications or tweaks to my orders. That means that in roughly 1 in 4 cases, the patient’s chief complaint or diagnosis wasn’t what I expected, based on the medical record and consult request that I received from my peers.
If my educated presumptions (in an ideal setting for minimizing error) are wrong 25% of the time, what does this mean for telemedicine? The patient may believe that they need a simple renewal of their dizziness medicine, for example, but in reality they may be having heart problems, internal bleeding, or a dangerous infection. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the patient is correct about their needs up to 75% of the time. Are we comfortable with a >25% error rate in healthcare practiced between strangers?
Goodman’s cynical view of the Texas Medical Board’s blocking of telemedicine businesses for the sake of preserving member income does not tell the whole story. I myself have no dog in this fight, but would side with Texas on this one – because patients’ lives matter. We must find ways to expand physician reach without eroding the personal relationship that makes diagnosis and treatment more customized and accurate. Texas is not returning healthcare “to the middle ages” but bringing it forward to the modern age of personalized medicine. Telemedicine is the right platform for connecting known parties, but if the two are strangers – it’s like using Facebook without access to friends and family. An unsatisfying, and occasionally dangerous, proposition.
Like most physicians, I feel extremely rushed during the course of my work day. And every day I am tempted to cut corners to get my documentation done. The “if you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen” mantra has been beaten into us, and we have become enslaved to the quantitative. It’s tempting to rush through physical exams, assuming that if there’s anything “really bad” going on with the patient, some lab test or imaging study will eventually uncover it. Just swoop in, listen to the anterior chest wall, ask if there’s any new pain, and dash off to the next hospital bed. Then we construct a 5-page progress note in the EMR, describing the encounter, our assessment, and plan of care.
Focused physical exams have their place in follow up care, but I strongly urge us all to reconsider skimping on our exams. A fine-toothed comb should be used in any first-time meeting – because so much can be missed as we scurry about. Some examples of things I discovered during careful examination:
1. A pulsatile abdominal mass in a woman being worked up for dizziness.
2. New slurred speech in an edentulous gentleman with poorly controlled hypertension.
3. A stump abscess in a 2-year-old leg amputation.
4. A bullet lodged in the scrotum.
5. Countless stage 1 sacral decubitus and heel ulcers.
7. Rashes that were bothering the patient for years but had not previously been addressed and cured.
8. Early cellulitis from IV site.
9. Deep venous thrombosis of the calf.
10. New onset atrial fibrillation.
13. Peripheral neuropathies of various kinds.
14. Lateral medullary syndrome.
15. Surgical scars of all stripes – indicating previous pathology and missing organs of varying importance.
16. Normal pressure hydrocephalus in a patient who had been operated on for spinal stenosis/scoliosis.
17. Parkinson’s Disease in a patient with a fractured hip.
18. Shingles in a person with eye pain.
19. Aortic stenosis in a woman with dizziness.
20. Pleural effusions in a man complaining of anxiety.
Oftentimes I don’t find anything new and exciting that is not already a part of the patient’s medical record. But a curious thing happened to me the other day that made me reflect on the importance of the physical exam. After a careful review of a complex patient’s history, I discussed every scar and “abnormality” I discovered as I did a thorough head-to-toe review of his physical presentation. His aging body revealed more than he had remembered to say… and as our exam drew to a close, he reached out and offered me a fist-bump.
It was charming and unexpected – but made me realize the true importance of the thorough exam. I had gotten to know him in the process, I had earned his trust, and we had built the kind of therapeutic relationship upon which good healthcare is based. No EMR documentation effort was worth missing out on this interaction.
You may not uncover a new diagnosis on each physical exam, but you can gain something just as important. The confidence and respect of the patient.