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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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I have spent many blog hours bemoaning the inadequate communication going on in hospitals today. Thanks to authors of a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, I have more objective data for my ranting. A prospective intervention study conducted at 9 academic children’s hospitals (and involving 10,740 patients over 18 months) revealed that requiring resident physicians to adopt a formal “hand off” process at shift change resulted in a 30% reduction of medical errors.
What was the intervention exactly? Details are available via mail order from the folks at Boston Children’s Hospital. It may take me a few weeks to get my hands on the curriculum (which was supported by a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services). I’m not sure how complex the new handoff initiative is in practice (or if it’s something that could be replicated without government-approved formality) but one thing is certain: disciplined physician communication saves lives.
I myself (without a grant from HHS or a NEJM study to back my assertions – ahem) proposed a set of comprehensive communication practices that can help to reduce medical errors in the hospital. My list involves more than peer hand-offs, but also nursing communication, EMR documentation strategies, and reliance on pharmacists for medication reconciliation and review. It is more than just an information exchange protocol for shift-changes, it is a lifestyle choice.
I applaud the I-PASS Handoff Study for its rigorous, evidence-based approach to implementing communication interventions among pediatric residents in children’s hospitals. I am stunned by how effective this one intervention has been – but a part of me is saddened that we practically had to mandate the obvious before it got done. What will it take for physicians to adopt safer communications strategies for inpatient care? I’m guessing that for many of us, it will involve enrollment in a workshop with hospital administration-driven requirements for participation.
For others of us – regular communication with staff, patients, and peers already defines our medical practice. But because (apparently?) we are not in the majority, we’ll just carry on our instinctual carefulness and wait for the rest to catch up. At least now we know that there is a path forward regarding improving communication skills and transfer of patient information. If we have to force doctors to look up from their iPhones and sit around a table and speak to one another – then so be it. The process may improve our lives while it saves those of our patients.
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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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Electronic medical records (EMRs) now play a part in the daily documentation routine for most physicians. While improvements in access to patient data, legibility of notes, and ease of order entry are welcome enhancements, there is a significant downside to EMRs as well. Although I’ve blogged about my frustrations with nonsensical, auto-populated notes and error carry-forward, there is a more insidious problem with reliance on EMRs: digital dependency.
The idea of digital dependency first occurred to me during a conversation with a young medical resident at a hospital where we share patients. I was bemoaning the fact that I was being forced to use hospital-designed templates for admission notes, rather than a dictation system or carefully crafted note of my own choosing. She looked at me, wide-eyed and said:
“You’ve worked without templates? How do you even know where to begin? Can you really dictate an entire note off the top of your head? I couldn’t live without templates.”
As I stared back at her with an equal amount of bewilderment, I slowly realized that her thinking had been honed for drop-down menus and check boxes. Over time, she had lost the ability to construct narratives, create a cohesive case for her diagnostic impressions, and justify her patient plan of action. To this bright, highly trained mind, clinical reasoning was an exercise in multiple choice selection. Her brain had been optimized for the demands of an EMR template, and mine was a relic of the pre-EMR era. I was witnessing a fundamental cognitive shift in the way that medicine was practiced.
The problem with “drop-down medicine” is that the advantages of the human mind are muted in favor of data entry. Physicians in this model essentially provide little benefit over a computer algorithm. Intuition, clinical experience, sensory input (the smell of pseudomonas, the sound of pulmonary edema, the pulsatile mass of an aneurysm) are largely untapped. We lose our need for team communication because “refer to my EMR note” is the way of the future. Verbal sign-outs are a thing of the past it seems, as those caring for the same patient rely on their digital documentation to serve in place of human interaction.
My advice to the next generation of physicians is to limit your dependency on digital data. Like alcohol, a little is harmless or possibly healthy, but a lot can ruin you. Leverage the convenience of the EMR but do not let it take over your brain or your patient relationships. Pay attention to what your senses tell you during your physical exam, take a careful history, listen to family members, discuss diagnostic conundrums with your peers, and always take the time for verbal sign outs. Otherwise, what advantage do you provide to patients over a computer algorithm?
Am I a curmudgeon who is bristling against forward progress, or do I have a reasonable point? Judging from the fact that my young peers copy and paste my assessment and plans into their progress notes with impressive regularity, I’d say that templatized medicine still can’t hold a candle to thoughtful prose. Even the digitally dependent know this.
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Judging from recent articles, surveys, and blog posts, the medical profession is remarkably demoralized. Typical complaints range from “feeling like a beaten dog” to “living in humiliating servitude,” to being forced to practice “treadmill medicine.” Interestingly, the public response to these complaints is largely indifferent. The prevailing attitude (if the “comments sections” of online articles and blog posts are representative) seems to be unsympathetic: “Poor doctors, making a little less income and not being treated like gods anymore? You have to do extra paperwork? You have to work long hours? Welcome to the real world, you whiners!”
But thank goodness that practicing medicine is more nuanced than the Facebook stream of hostility that we are subjected to on a daily basis. If patients spoke to me the way online comments read, I’d surely have quit medicine years ago. But my reality is that patients are generally grateful, attentive, and respectful. This could be because I work in inpatient rehabilitation medicine, a place where patients are screened for motivation to participate in their care, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I have experience working in other settings across the country (including Emergency Departments), and I have found a significant number of good-natured, engaged patients there too.
I think that to some degree our attitudes shape our work environments. Patient and peer dispositions are in part a reflection of our own. Try approaching a frightened, sick patient with an arrogant, dismissive tone and see how your professional relationship with them (and their families) develops. There is a negative cascade that physicians can trigger (perhaps unwittingly) when they are rushed, curt, or inattentive. Beginning every new patient relationship with a caring, respectful, detailed history and physical exam lays a foundation of trust for future interactions. Once you have established that positive rapport, the daily grind (along with what my friend, Dr. Steve Simmons, has nicknamed ‘C.R.A.P.P.’ – Continuous Restrictive And Punitive Paperwork) is much more bearable.
As physicians we have the power to make our careers as meaningful or soul-sucking as we choose. Reducing the C.R.A.P.P. in our work lives can help (I’ve tried outpatient, “concierge style” practices and inpatient locum tenens assignments with good success), but that’s not the most important factor in enhancing work satisfaction. The relationships built by allying ourselves with patients, and shepherding them through this broken system, are where the rewards lie. They hold the keys to our professional fulfillment because nothing can beat the joy of helping those in need.
How do I know that patient appreciation is enough to make medicine worthwhile?
Because I still don’t hate being a doctor.