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Over-Reliance On Tests: Why Physicians Must Learn To Trust Themselves And Their Patients

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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.

Why Physicians Must Not Skimp On The Physical Exam

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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.

6. Melanoma.

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.

11. Thrush.

12. Cataracts.

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.

Physicians: It Doesn’t Matter Where You Work, It’s All About The Team You’re With

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Moose, A Therapy Pet In Idaho

As a traveling physician, I’m often asked if I have a favorite place to work. Since I have licenses in 14 states, I have an usual vantage point from which to compare hospitals. I know that people who ask this question presume that my answer will be heavily influenced by the town where the job is located, and all the associated extra-curriculars, environmental peculiarities (ocean, mountains, desert), and potential amenities. The truth is that very little of that is important. Over the years I’ve found that it doesn’t matter so much where you are, as whom you’re with.

As I’ve argued previously, true quality health care is not always predicted by reputation or academic prowess. It has a lot more to do with local hospital culture, and how invested the staff are in giving patients their all. In my experience, some of the very best institutions (in terms of reduced medical error rates, evidence-based practices, and an avoidance of over-testing/treating) are in rural areas. They are not on the America’s Best Hospitals list, but are hidden gems scattered throughout the country. Of course, I’ve also seen some abysmal care in out-of-the way places. My point is that hospital location and reputation is not directly correlated with career satisfaction or excellent patient care.

My favorite hospital is populated by perpetually cheerful staff. Their energy, enthusiasm, and constant supportiveness is remarkable. I once commented that I felt like a therapy pet when I arrived on the unit – everyone was so happy to see me, it was as if I were a golden retriever who had shown up for play time. That feeling can carry me through the most difficult work hours or complicated patient problems. It is so emotionally sunny in that hospital that the surrounding environment could be an Alaskan winter and I’d be ok with it.

Alternatively, there are hospitals where I’m regularly greeted with all the affection that Jerry shows Newman in the Seinfeld sitcom. You know, the eye-rolling, sarcasm-dripping “Helloooo Newman…” Yeah. In those hospitals where I’m made to feel like an unwanted nuisance, time goes by so slowly I can barely stand it. I fight to keep my spirits up for my patients’ sakes, but in the end, the negativity takes its toll. I could be located in the middle of northern California wine country at harvest season and want to get the first flight out. Seriously, your micro-environment is so critical to your happiness. Do not underestimate the importance of liking your peers when you choose your job.

Which leads me to my final point – if you’re thinking about relocating, but aren’t sure if you’ll be happy, why not “try before you buy?” Become a traveling physician (aka locum tenens) for a while to gain some exposure to different places and work environments. Your pre-conceived notions may be off-base. You may fall in love with a place you wouldn’t have thought twice about based on a state map…  Because a map won’t tell you where you’ll be welcomed with open arms, versus ostracized by hostile peers. Find out if you’ll be a Newman or a therapy pet at your next hospital. It makes all the difference in the world.

Knee Arthritis Treatments Ranked By Relative Effectiveness

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Wear and tear on the knee joints creates pain for up to 40% of Americans over age 45. There are plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription (Rx) osteoarthritis treatments available, but how effective are they relative to one another? A new meta-analysis published by the Annals of Internal Medicine may shed some light on this important question. After 3 months of the following treatments, here is how they compared to one another in terms of power to reduce pain, starting with strongest first:

#1. Knee injection with gel (Rx hyaluronic acid)

#2. Knee injection with steroid (Rx corticosteroid)

#3. Diclofenac (Voltaren – Rx oral NSAID)

#4. Ibuprofen (Motrin – OTC oral NSAID)

#5. Naproxen (Alleve – OTC oral NSAID)

#6. Celecoxib (Celebrex – Rx NSAID)

#7. Knee injection with saline solution (placebo injection)

#8. Acetaminophen (Tylenol – OTC Synthetic nonopiate derivative of p-aminophenol)

#9. Oral placebo (Sugar Pill)

I found this rank order list interesting for a few reasons. First of all, acetaminophen and celecoxib appear to be less effective than I had believed. Second, placebos may be demonstrably more effective the more invasive they are (injecting saline into the knee works better than acetaminophen, and significantly better than sugar pills). Third, injection of a cushion gel fluid is surprisingly effective, especially since its mechanism of action has little to do with direct reduction of inflammation (the cornerstone of most arthritis therapies). Perhaps mechanical treatments for pain have been underutilized? And finally, first line therapy with acetaminophen is not clinically superior to placebo.

There are several caveats to this information, of course. First of all, arthritis pain treatments must be customized to the individual and their unique tolerances and risk profiles. Mild pain need not be treated with medicines that carry higher risks (such as joint infection or gastrointestinal bleeding), and advanced arthritis sufferers may benefit from “jumping the line” and starting with stronger medicines. The study is limited in that treatments were only compared over a 3 month trial period, and we cannot be certain that the patient populations were substantially similar as the comparative effectiveness was calculated.

That being said, this study will influence my practice. I will likely lean towards recommending more effective therapies with my future patients, including careful consideration of injections and diclofenac for moderate to severe OA, and ibuprofen/naproxen for mild to moderate OA, while shying away from celecoxib and acetaminophen altogether. And as we already know, glucosamine and chondroitin have been convincingly shown to be no better than placebo, so save your money on those pills. The racket is expected to blossom into a $20 billion dollar industry by 2020 if we don’t curb our appetite for expensive placebos.

In conclusion, the elephant in the room is that weight loss and exercise are still the very best treatments for knee osteoarthritis. Check out the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery’s recent list of evidence-based recommendations for the treatment of knee arthritis for more information about the full spectrum of treatment options.

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

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I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project, an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students, residents, and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery.  I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to help patients take control of their health. Dr. Marissa Camilon (MC) is an emergency medicine resident at LA County USC Medical Center, Dr. Craig Chen (CC) is an anesthesiology resident at Stanford Hospitals and Clinics, and Dr. Elaine Khoong (EK) is a resident in internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. Here’s what they had to say:

1. How would you characterize the patients who are most successful at “taking charge of their health?”

MC: They are usually the the patients who aren’t afraid to ask questions about everything- possible treatments, pathology, risk factors.

EK: I think there are several traits that make patients successful at modifying their health: 1) Understanding of their disease: patients need to understand how their actions impact their health and be able to clearly identify the steps they need to take to achieve their desired health. 2) Possessing an internal locus of control: patients need to feel that their health is actually in their control. Oftentimes, patients who come from families that have a history of chronic diseases simply assume certain diseases may be their fate. But in reality, there are things that can be done to manage their disease. 3) Living in a supportive, nurturing environment: behavior changes are difficult. It is often not easy to the right thing for your health. Patients that take control of their health have a support system that helps ensure they take the steps they need. 4) Having realistic expectations: improving your health takes time and thus it requires patience. Individuals must be able to identify the baby steps that they’ve taken towards improving their health.

CC: Patients must collaborate with their physician – the best patients come in motivated, knowledgeable, and educated so they can have a meaningful dialogue with their doctor. Medical decision making is a conversation; patients who are invested in their health but also open to their doctor’s suggestions often have the best experiences.

2. What do you see as the main causes of non-adherence to medical advice/plans?

MC: Not fully understanding his or her own disease process, denial/shock, inability to pay for appointments/rides/medications.

EK: I think there are several reasons that patients may be non-adherent. These reasons can largely be grouped into three main categories — knowledge, attitude, and environmental factors. Some patients simply don’t understand the instructions provided to them. Providers haven’t made it clear the steps that need to be taken for patients to adhere. In other cases, patients may simply not believe that the advice provided will make an impact on their health. Probably most frequently, there are environmental factors that prevent patients from adhering to plans. Following medical advice often requires daily vigilance and strong will power. The challenges of daily life can make adherence difficulty.

CC: In my mind, non-adherence is not a problem with a patient, but instead a problem with the system. Modern medicine is a complex endeavor, and patients can be on a dozen different medications for as many medical problems. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to keep up with that kind of regimen. Socioeconomic factors also play a big role with adherence. Patients who are poor struggle to maintain housing, feed their children, hold a job; how can we expect them to be perfectly medically compliant? Tackling the issue of non-adherence requires engagement into the medical and social factors that pose challenges for patients.

3. Could mobile health apps help your patients? Do you think “there’s an app for that” could revolutionize patient engagement or your interaction with your patients now or in the future?

MC: Apps, not necessarily. Most of patient population has limited knowledge of their mobile phones (if they even have mobile phones). If they do have a phone, its usually an older model that doesn’t allow apps.

EK: I absolutely think that mobile health apps could help my patients. I work at a clinic for an urban underserved population. For patients that work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet, it is difficult to ask them to come into see a healthcare provider (particularly if the commute to see us requires 2+ bus rides). Unfortunately the patients who are working multiple jobs are often patients in their 40′s and 50′s when they start manifesting the early signs and symptoms of our most common chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease). Mobile applications have great potential to simplify the way through which patients can receive medical guidance especially helping the patients who don’t have the luxury to seek medical advice during normal work hours.

CC: I think there is a role for technology in the delivery of modern medical care. However, we have to keep in mind that not everyone has access to smartphones, and often the most medically disadvantaged populations are those who need support the most. Although initially, technology seemed to put a barrier between the clinician and the patient, I think as devices become more prevalent and we become better at using them, we’ll be able to use these collaboratively. The main advantage of an “app” or device is giving the patient more control over their health; they can track their sleep, diet, exercise, medication adherence, and other aspects of their health and work with their doctor to optimize it.

4. Do you know of any programs to improve health literacy that have been particularly successful or innovative? If so, describe. If not, what kind of initiative do you think could make a difference for your patients?

MC: I know that some of the primary care clinics in the county have started using texting for appointments reminders. Texting seems to be more accessible to our county population.

EK: Unfortunately, off the top of my head, I cannot think of any great programs that have increased health literacy. Part of the reason for this is that we really don’t have a great sense of what levers increase literacy. Any initiative that will work best honestly depends on the individual patient — each patient has different barriers that limit their health literacy. For some patients, their limited English proficiency is the greatest barrier. For other patients, there are cultural beliefs that must be considered in delivering health content. And for some patients, numeracy or general literacy is an issue. Unfortunately, I think there is no one size fits all solution for addressing health literacy.

CC: I don’t think there’s any magic bullet for health literacy. Different communities, patient populations, and clinical settings merit different interventions. For example, tackling child obesity in a neighborhood with lots of fast food requires a different program than ensuring prenatal health in an immigrant community.

5. Are there generational differences in how your patients interact with the healthcare system? Describe.

MC: I tend to see older patients since they usually have more medical problems. They are more likely to have a primary care doctor; whereas younger patients don’t come in as often, but don’t usually have access to primary care.

EK: I think more than a generational difference there is actually a cultural and socioeconomic difference. Traditionally, we are taught or somehow led to believe that older patients are more likely to simply adhere to medical advice whereas younger patients question. But in my limited experience, I have seen affluent patients more engaged with providers (bringing in their own resources, asking about health advice they’ve heard or read about). Some of my less wealthy patients seem more passive about their health and during visits. Furthermore, patients from certain cultural backgrounds are more or less likely to view healthcare providers as an authoritative figure rather than a partner in shared decision making.

6. Do you use digital systems (EMR/Social Media/Mobile) to interact with your patients in any way? Do you think you should do more of that, or that there is a desire for more on the part of your patients?

MC: We do have an EMR but don’t really use it to interact with patients. As I mentioned before, mobile texting may encourage patient interaction.

EK: The main way that I currently use digital systems to interact with patients is via email. Our clinic has a somewhat difficult-to-navigate telephone prompt system, so some patients email me directly re: changing their appointments, medical advice, or medication refills. Unfortunately our EMR doesn’t currently have a patient portal (although it will be rolling this out soon). I think a patient portal is a great tool for helping patients stay more engaged in their healthcare.

I think there is a role for SMS messaging to remind patients about appointments, important medications, or other healthcare related notices. For the right patient population, I think this could make a big difference.

In general, I am a big proponent of technology. I don’t think it’s going to be a panacea for our many problems in the healthcare system, but I think there are very specific shortcomings that technology can help us address.

7. What would your patients say they needed in order to be better educated about their health and have more successful healthcare experiences?

MC: More time with their physicians, mainly.

EK: Almost certainly simply more time with healthcare providers to better explain their health issues as well as more time to explore shared decision making.

CC: There is a lot of information out there about common illnesses and diseases, but not all of it is accurate or up-to-date. One challenge for patients is identifying appropriate resources written in a manner that can be easily read and understood with content that has been reviewed by a physician or other health care expert.

8. If you could pick only 1 intervention that could improve the compliance of your patients with their care/meds, what would it be?

MC: Increase the amount of time physicians have to answer questions with patients and discuss medical treatment options with them.

EK: Wow, that’s a hard one. I struggle to answer questions like this because I strongly believe that each patient is so different. Any non-adherent patient has his or her own barrier to adherence. But I suppose if I had to pick something, it might be some form of weekly check-in with a health coach / community health worker / health group class that intimately knew what the most important steps would be to helping that one patient ensure better health.

CC: I think that social interventions make the most difference in the health of underserved populations. For example, stable housing, healthy meals, job security, and reduction in violent crime will improve health including medical compliance far more than any medicine- or technology-based intervention.

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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