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Much has been made about physicians’ tendencies to interrupt patients. Studies have shown that patients are permitted 12-18 seconds of talk time before they are redirected (or interrupted) by their doctor. This leads to patients feeling that the physician didn’t listen or didn’t care. I believe that there is a way to solve the problem without wasting time or being rude. I have used this technique with great success over the years and it works especially well in the inpatient setting, when beginning a formal “history and physical exam.” In three simple words:
Physician goes first.
Before I enter the patient’s room, I perform a careful review of their medical records and imagine what it must have been like for them to experience the events leading up to our meeting. I reconstruct the emotional time line in my head and figure out which pieces of information I need to complete my assessment and plan. Then when I meet the patient (often for the first time) I begin by greeting them warmly and then telling them what I have gleaned from their medical records, and how I think they may have felt during the process leading up to their hospitalization. This establishes that I have taken the time to get to know their background, that I genuinely care about how they’ve been dealing with things emotionally, and that I am determined to correct the record if there are any gaps or errors. I then rely on the patient to fill in the details or clarify results that are unclear.
This strategy saves the patient from having to review historical information that the physician already knows about (which usually leads to the classic interruption at second 12-18 of the interaction), and provides structure for patient participation and input. It establishes trust with the new physician, and conveys empathy. It corrects the medical record when necessary, and maximizes the efficiency of the information exchange. To drive home the concept, let me provide you with two hypothetical conversations with “Mrs. Smith” – in the first case the physician will approach her in the traditional manner, and in the second, with the “physician goes first” method.
Establishing the “chief complaint” with Mrs. Smith – Traditional method
Dr. Jones: (entering hospital room where Mrs. Smith is sitting alone in her bed in no acute distress): “Good morning, Mrs. Smith. I’m Dr. Jones, the attending physician for this unit. What brings you here today?”
Mrs. Smith: (eyeing Dr. Jones with some degree of confusion). “Well, I just had surgery, and I guess I’m still a bit weak so they said I needed to come to rehab but I still don’t really understand why I had to change rooms. Did you know I had surgery? Yes, I was walking my dog on the sidewalk and he pulled a little too hard to lurch at a squirrel and the next thing I knew I was on the ground and my hip was hurting and I was all scraped up and I saw this man in the distance who started running towards me and then I think I passed out and when I got to the hospital, I don’t know, they were worried I had a seizure and then they did a CAT scan and then when I….”
Dr. Jones: “I see. But what I need to know from you now is what is your chief complaint. In other words, why are you here in the rehab unit?”
Mrs. Smith: “Well aren’t you the doctor? You’re supposed to tell me what to do when I’m here aren’t you?”
Dr. Jones: “Yes, of course. But I was hoping you could tell me in your own words.”
Mrs. Smith: Sighs heavily. “Well, I’m here because I fell down and broke my hip and then they found out that I hit my head too and then I guess they were trying to figure out if they needed to put a drain in or just give me seizure pills and I’m not sure how they decided but I don’t remember a drain so I guess… Isn’t all this in my records somewhere? Can’t you figure out what happened?”
Dr. Jones: “Yes, it’s all in your chart but…”
Mrs. Smith: “Well then why don’t you just read it instead of asking a poor old lady with a bad headache to tell you what happened all over again. Everyone keeps asking me for the same old story and I’m just so tired…”
Dr. Jones: “So you’re here in rehab because you’re tired?”
Mrs. Smith: “Well, I guess that’s it.”
Establishing the chief complaint with Mrs. Smith – “Physician goes first” method:
Dr. Jones: “Hello Mrs. Smith, I’m Dr. Jones, the rehab physician who will be taking care of you on this floor. I read through your chart very carefully and learned that you fell down on the sidewalk when walking your dog about a week ago. It looks as if you broke your hip as well as hit your head during the fall. I see that you had your hip repaired surgically, and that fortunately you didn’t need any treatment for your head injury because it didn’t bleed very much internally, but as a precaution you were given some anti-seizure medicine. I imagine that this sudden hospitalization was an unwelcome surprise for you – there you were just walking your dog on a normal day, minding your own business and whammo – now you’re here in the hospital with me!? Well, my goal is to get you back home as soon as you’re ready and steady enough. What is your main goal for rehab?”
Mrs. Smith: “Yes, well it certainly was a shock to get the wind knocked out of me. You hear about little old ladies falling down and breaking a hip but I never thought it could happen to me. Now all I need to do is be able to walk safely so I can go home.”
Dr. Jones: “Well, the good news is that you were very active prior to your fall so I bet you’ll do very well here because you have a good baseline fitness level. My goal is to help control your pain so you can make the fastest gains possible. I bet your hip bothers you and you may have headaches too.”
Mrs. Smith: “Yes, well that’s just it. I’m in quite a bit of pain when I stand up but I’m afraid of becoming a drug addict so I try not to take the pills…”
As you can see, the second conversation was much more successful in establishing a relationship with the patient and getting to the meat of what the doctor needs to know (the patient’s primary goal, her pain level, and what the barrier to treatment might be) without the frustration caused by traditional “open ended questions” and lack of structure – leading to interruptions and perceived lack of caring on the part of the physician.
In my experience, doing a little up front chart review and taking the lead in the first patient encounter results in a dramatic decrease in wasted time and need for redirection. So in the case of avoiding rude patient interruptions – taking the conversation lead may be the best bet.
This is an unusual case where putting the patient first involves letting them talk second.
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Most hospitalized patients and families don’t realize that life-threatening medication errors are regularly thwarted by pharmacists. They are truly the unsung heroes of patient care. I just finished a locum tenens assignment at a hospital that uses EPIC as their electronic medical records system, and I was stunned by the impossibly complex medication reconciliation process. Each time a patient is admitted to the hospital, or transferred to another part of the hospital, a physician must review, approve, and re-order their medications. While this may seem like a good way to insure that medication errors are avoided, it actually has the exact opposite effect.
Because EPIC keeps lists of home meds, discontinued meds, and current meds available for review and reactivation, it takes little more than one misplaced check box to order the wrong dose or type of medication. Physicians who transfer a patient to another service can indicate their intended medication list and keep it “on hold” for the receiving physician to review and approve. Unfortunately, the software’s tab system is so complex that it’s extremely difficult to find that list and activate it. Lost in a sea of admissions tasks and order boxes in different fonts, colors, and drop down menus, one often accidentally reviews and approves discontinued types and doses of medicines. The only protection against such errors is the hospital pharmacist.
With each new admission to the inpatient rehabilitation unit, I had to resort to calling a pharmacist for help. I was terrified that I would accidentally insert medication errors into the patient’s order set by carrying forward discontinued meds. The long-suffering pharmacists explained to me that “most physicians make medication order errors in EPIC with each admission.” They said that they regularly had to talk physicians out of throwing their computer out the window in a state of extreme frustration. They also said that their EPIC user environment looked very different (and less confusing) than what the physicians used, so that they couldn’t even provide real-time phone guidance regarding order entry process.
The scary thing is that EPIC has the largest market share of any EMR in the United States. It is also (in my experience) the most prone to medical errors due to its overly complex medication reconciliation process. I have used other EMRs that have far simpler and more intelligent medication order entry processes. Soarian (Sieman’s EMR, just sold to Cerner) has, for example, an outstanding order entry system. So my complaint is not that “all EMRs are bad” – it’s that some have particularly flawed designs that are causing real harm to untold millions of patients. We just haven’t documented the harm yet. I tremble at the thought of what we’d find.
Until electronic medication reconciliation is made safer, pharmacists will be working overtime to correct records and protect patients from carry over errors. I thank my lucky stars that I have had vigilant, determined pharmacists by my side as I cared for very complex, sick patients who were exceptionally vulnerable to dosing errors. There has never been a more important time to exercise caution when entering hospital medication orders, or to express your appreciation for pharmacists. Without their help we might all be experiencing medication errors of EPIC proportions.
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I recently treated a patient who was hospitalized with paraplegia. During some routine lab testing I noticed that his liver function tests were elevated, and so I began looking for a cause. I discussed the patient’s drinking habits (he rarely drank alcohol), risks for viral hepatitis (no IV drug use or exposure to those with known hepatitis), and general medical history (nothing relevant to liver disease). I reviewed his current medication list, and found little to explain a potential drug-induced hepatitis. He denied any history of acetaminophen use.
Next I ordered a hepatitis panel – all normal. And finally a liver ultrasound (which showed some non-descript “fatty liver” changes). My next best guess was that the patient was a heavy drinker who was simply not telling me the whole story about his history. I hated to have to press for more information, and worried that the patient would be annoyed that I didn’t seem to believe his vehement denials of regular alcohol use.
So I asked him again. “Are you SURE you don’t drink ANY alcohol? Nothing that could have alcohol in it that you might not realize?”
“Well, maybe there is alcohol in the cold medicine that I drink?” he said.
“Why are you drinking cold medicine? Do you have cold symptoms?” I asked.
“I use it to get to sleep at night.” He responded.
“How much do you use?”
“I use it every night. I just drink it out of the bottle.”
“So you don’t use the measuring cup?”
“No. I just drink it out of the bottle.”
Suddenly, I had my answer. There is a significant amount of acetaminophen in many different cold syrup formulations, which is why it is so important to use the dosing cup and not exceed the recommended daily amount.
“So is there alcohol in the cold medicine?” The patient asked.
I explained to him that it was very likely that he was over-dosing himself on cold medicine and that his liver was being harmed as a result of the acetaminophen (not alcohol) it contained. It was a good thing that we had caught the damage in the rehab unit – just an incidental finding on a blood test that could have saved him from eventual liver failure (and even death) if we hadn’t course-corrected.
This experience was a cautionary tale for us both – I realized how easy it was for patients taking liquid drug formulations to overdose themselves, and not be aware of the active ingredients that they contained. My patient didn’t believe he was taking any acetaminophen when I originally interviewed him, and it was my persistent nagging on the alcohol front that finally revealed the cause (again quite accidentally).
Acetaminophen toxicity is the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States. Better education is needed regarding over-the-counter medications and their potential harms if used incorrectly. I will certainly spend more time asking my patients about their OTC medication use, including sleep aids and liquid formulations. Perhaps I’ll be able to avoid ordering unnecessary liver ultrasounds with better history taking in the future!
For more information on safe use of acetaminophen, see my article at OTCSafety.com.
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Occupational Therapy Environment, Saint Luke's Hospital, WA
For most physicians who practice inpatient medicine, acute inpatient rehabilitation facilities are mysterious places with inscrutable admissions criteria. This is partly because physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) has done the poorest job of public relations of any single medical specialty (Does anyone know what we do?), and also because rehab units have been in the cross hairs of federal funding cuts for decades. The restrictive CMS criteria for inpatient rehabilitation have resulted in contortionist attempts to practice our craft in an environment where clinical judgment has been sidelined by meticulous ICD-9 coding.
But I will not bore you with the reasons behind our seemingly capricious admissions criteria. Instead I will simply tell you what they are in the simplest way possible. After much consideration, I thought it would be easiest to start with the contraindications to acute rehab – I call these “red lights.” If your patients have any of these, then they will not qualify for transfer to the acute inpatient rehab unit. I followed the absolute contraindications with relative contraindications (you guessed it, “yellow lights”) – these patients require some clinical and administrative judgment. And finally, I’ve listed the official green lights – the diagnosis codes and medical necessity rules for the ideal inpatient rehab candidate.
I hope that these rules demystify the process – and can help discharge planners, rehab admissions coordinators, and acute care attending physicians alike help to get the right patients to acute inpatient rehab.
RED LIGHT (Patient does not meet criteria, admission is not currently indicated):
- Inability to Participate: Patient cannot tolerate 3 hours of therapy per day.
- Unwillingness to participate: The patient does not wish to participate in PT/OT/speech therapies and/or shows no evidence of motivation in previous attempts to perform therapy
- Poor rehabilitation potential: The patient’s functional status is currently no different than their usual baseline. (Confirmed by previous history, medical records, or reliable source.)
- Dementia: The patient has a chronic brain deficiency that is not expected to improve and makes carryover of training unlikely or impossible.
- Doesn’t need help from at least 2 different rehab disciplines: The patient must demonstrate likely benefit from working with at least 2 of these: PT, OT, Speech.
- Acute illness or condition: The patient has an acute illness/condition requiring medical intervention prior to transfer to an acute rehab facility – these include:
- septicemia (infection with fever and elevated white count)
- delirium (medication effect, dehydration, infectious, toxic-metabolic)
- unstable vital signs (severe hyper or hypotension, severe tachy or brady arrhythmia, hypoxia despite oxygen supplementation)
- acute psychotic episode (including active hallucinations or delusions)
- uncontrolled pain (the patient’s pain is not sufficiently controlled to allow participation in therapy)
- severe anemia
- extreme fatigue or lethargy due to medical condition
- Procedure or workup pending: The patient is in the middle of a work up for DVT, cardiac disorder, stroke, infection, anemia, chest pain, bleeding, etc. or is about to undergo a procedure (surgery, imaging study, interventional or lab test) that could alter the immediate course of his/her medical/surgical management.
YELLOW LIGHT (The patient may not be a good rehab candidate, clinical/administrative judgment required regarding admission):
- Possible poor rehabilitation potential: The patient’s prior level of function (PLOF) is likely low or similar to current level, however there is no clear documentation of the patient’s PLOF. It is unclear if aggressive rehabilitation will substantially improve the patient’s functional independence.
- Unclear benefit of ARU versus SNF: The patient is unlikely to avoid future placement at a skilled nursing facility. Would it be in the patient’s best interest to transfer there directly?
- Mild dementia or chronic cognitive impairment: The patient has carryover challenges but is able to participate and follow directions. There may be family members who could benefit from PT/OT/Speech training so they can take the patient home and be his/her caregiver(s).
- Unclear safe discharge plan: The patient lives alone or has no family support or has no financial means to improve their living conditions or their home is unfit for living/safe discharge or patient refusing SNF but qualifies otherwise.
- Insurance denial: The patient’s insurer declines their inpatient rehab stay. Physiatrist may attempt to overturn decision or facility may wish to take patient on a pro bono status. Uninsured patients may be candidates for emergency Medicaid. Facility must decide if they will lobby for it.
- Severe behavioral disorders (unrelated to acute TBI): Verbally abusive, violent, inappropriate or disruptive to other patients.
- The patient meets medical necessity criteria for acute inpatient rehab but their impairment is not represented by one of the 13 impairment categories approved by CMS. (E.g. medical debility, cardiac impairment, pulmonary disease, cancers, or orthopedic injury without required comorbidities). Admission may depend upon individual facility’s case mix and its current annual compliance rate with 60% rule.
GREEN LIGHT (The patient is a good candidate for acute inpatient rehab if they have no red or yellow lights, meet criteria for medical necessity AND meet the impairment categories listed below):
MEDICAL NECESSITY DEFINITION:
Acute inpatient rehabilitation services are medically necessary when all of the following are present:
- Individual has a new (acute) medical condition or an acute exacerbation of a chronic condition that has resulted in a significant decrease in functional ability such that they cannot adequately recover in a less intensive setting; AND
- Individual’s overall medical condition and medical needs either identify a risk for medical instability or a requirement for physician and other personnel involvement generally not available outside the hospital inpatient setting; AND
- Individual requires an intensive inter-disciplinary, coordinated rehabilitation program (as defined in the description of service) with a minimum of three (3) hours active participation daily; AND
- Individual is medically stable enough to no longer require the services of a medical/surgical inpatient setting; AND
- The individual is capable of actively participating in a rehabilitation program, as evidenced by a mental status demonstrating responsiveness to verbal, visual, and/or tactile stimuli and ability to follow simple commands. For additional information regarding cognitive status, please refer to the Rancho Los Amigos Cognitive Scale (Appendix B); AND
- Individual’s mental and physical condition prior to the illness or injury indicates there is significant potential for improvement; (See Note below) AND
- Individual is expected to show measurable functional improvement within a maximum of seven (7) to fourteen (14) days (depending on the underlying diagnosis/medical condition) of admission to the inpatient rehabilitation program; AND
- The necessary rehabilitation services will be prescribed by a physician, and require close medical supervision and skilled nursing care with the 24-hour availability of a nurse and physician who are skilled in the area of rehabilitation medicine; AND
- Therapy includes discharge plan.
13 Diagnosis Codes Approved by CMS for Acute Inpatient Rehab
2. Spinal cord injury
3. Congenital deformity
5. Major multiple trauma
6. Fracture of femur (hip fracture)
7. Brain injury
8. Neurological disorders, including:
• Multiple sclerosis
• Motor neuron diseases (Guillain Barre, ALS)
• Muscular dystrophy
• Parkinson’s disease
10. Arthritis: Active polyarticular rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and seronegative arthropathies
resulting in significant functional impairment of ambulation and other activities of daily living;
11. Vasculitis: Systemic vasculidities with joint inflammation resulting in significant functional impairment of ambulation and other activities of daily living
12. Severe or advanced osteoarthritis (osteoarthrosis or degenerative joint disease) involving two or more weight bearing joints (elbow, shoulders, hips, or knees but not counting a joint with a prosthesis) with joint deformity and substantial loss of range of motion, atrophy of muscles surrounding the joint, and significant functional impairment of ambulation and other activities of daily living
13. Knee or hip joint replacement, or both, during an acute care hospitalization immediately preceding the inpatient rehabilitation stay and also meets one or more of the following specific criteria:
- The patient underwent bilateral knee or bilateral hip joint replacement surgery during the acute care hospital admission immediately preceding the IRF admission
- The patient is extremely obese with a Body Mass Index of at least 50 at the time of admission to the IRF or
- The patient is age 85 or older at the time of admission to the IRF.
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A well-to-do patient recently boasted to me about an expensive insurance plan that he had purchased to “guarantee” that he had access to the best healthcare in the United States. Coverage included access to elite academic centers (all the usual suspects) and a private jet service for emergencies. He was utterly confident that his investment was worth the price, but I withheld my own misgivings.
Hospital quality data suggest that “fancy, brand name hospitals” provide better patient care. But unfortunately there is no guarantee of good outcomes for anyone who sets foot in a hospital. My experience doesn’t exactly square with quality data, and although I realize that there are teams of public and private sector analysts out there furiously rating and ranking hospitals with all manner of outcomes data, I don’t think it means a whole lot for the individual “worried well” patient. Here’s why:
1. Higher overall patient complexity may mean less attention for you. Academic medical centers specialize in caring for those who are often too sick or too complicated to be cared for elsewhere. This means that each patient requires more staff time to address their long list of diseases and conditions. Everything from medication reconciliation to medical testing, to bedside care, requires more time from each provider taking care of them. If you happen to be on a medical floor with complicated neighbors, expect to see less of your doctors and nurses. It’s not fair, but this happens regularly at elite centers, and it’s not in your best interest.
2. Less-experienced physicians may be providing the bulk of your care. Academic teaching hospitals are actively involved in training young doctors, and the least experienced among them will likely be providing the majority of your care (and reporting up to the overseeing physicians). Because of the exhausting complexity of very sick patients, if you are not among the very sickest (or provide a steady stream of diagnostic conundrums requiring the input and expertise from the top experts), your care will be left in the hands of the residents. This doesn’t mean you won’t get good care, but it introduces some degree of risk.
3. You may be exposed to really bad germs. Drug-resistant bacteria are born in places that use big-gun antibiotics. Again, with more challenging cases and infectious diseases in the patient mix, more antibiotics are used and more drug-resistant bacteria develop. Although academic centers make great efforts not to spread infections, it can happen. And if you do get a hospital-acquired infection, it’s probably going to be a bad one.
4. More providers means more opportunity to make EMR-based medical errors. As I’ve argued in recent blog posts, electronic medical records are error prone for a number of reasons. The more people entering data into your record, the more opportunity for mix ups and confusions. Academic medical centers may boast more specialists and a higher staff to patient ratio, but this is not always a good thing. The fewer the number of providers caring for you (especially nurses), the better you are known to them, and therefore the lower the risk of certain mistakes.
5. More tests and procedures aren’t always a good thing. Academic centers have access to a larger breadth of technology, which means that they are more likely to order more tests and procedures. Imaging studies, biopsies, lab tests, and advanced surgical procedures can provide additional information that can change the course of therapy. But they also have the ability to initiate wild goose chases, further testing, unnecessary anxiety, and additional risk (and expense) to the patient. Judicious use of technology is important, but with less experienced physicians on the team, they are more likely to reflexively order a test than to rely on their clinical experience regarding diagnosis and treatment.
6. Many “moving parts” increase your risk for errors, mix ups, and longer wait times. The larger the hospital, the more chances there are for accidental substitutions, name confusion, and test scheduling conflicts. It may seem improbable that these events still occur (Don’t we have bar codes on wrist bands that have solved this problem? You ask.), but if you’re a physician clicking between electronic medical records of patients with the same last name, no bar code will save you. I myself was a patient in the ER of a large elite academic center once, when the security guards confused me with a volatile psychotic patient previously located in the bay that my stretcher was moved into. They almost got the four-point restraints on before I convinced them to re-check my identity with the nurses. Awkward. Also, if you need an MRI or CT scan at a level 1 trauma center, you could be waiting a long time for it as sicker patients bump you from the schedule.
7. Traveling to a center of excellence means post-acute care services will be harder to arrange. If you are recovering from a serious illness or surgery far away from home, case managers will probably have a harder time connecting with services to help you upon discharge. If you need visiting nurses, home-based therapists, durable medical equipment, or follow up care (either with specialists or primary care physicians) all of that will be more challenging to arrange because the case managers don’t have them in their virtual Rolodex. Because of the complexity of the healthcare system, it takes years of effort for good case managers and discharge planners to streamline the process of getting through to the “right person” at each service provider and providing them with the “correct” insurance information and completed forms and paperwork. If they’re lobbying for you out of state or in a far away county, they will probably end up spending a lot of time on hold, or talking to the wrong person. And when you finally arrive home and the visiting nurse doesn’t show up, or you don’t have your walker after all… you will not be happy.
8. You may be stuck with an enormous, post-hospital price tag. Most people nowadays have insurance that covers care at certain “preferred” facilities at a much lower cost to the patient. If you go “outside of network” you may be responsible for a much higher percentage of your care cost than you bargained for. Before you decide to opt for the big brand name academic medical center for your care or procedure, double check with your insurance provider regarding what your part of the cost will be.
If you (or your loved one) are in the unfortunate position of having a rare, life-threatening, or extremely complicated host of diseases and conditions, then you may have no choice but to go to an academic medical center for care. If you’re like my wealthy patient, though, and can afford what you think are insurance upgrades to provide you with access to the “best care available,” you may discover that better care is actually found closer to home.
In an upcoming post, I’ll describe my experience with hospital characteristics that tend to predict a higher quality of care. You may be surprised to find that there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between my personal measures and what we are led to believe are the important ones.