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

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.

The Magic Question That Every Patient Should Ask Their Doctor

I realize that my blog has been littered with depressing musings on healthcare lately, and so I thought I’d offer up one very positive and “actionable” suggestion for all you patients out there. In the midst of a broken system where your doctor is being pressured to spend more time with a computer than listening and examining you, where health insurance rates and co-pays are sky-rocketing, and where 1 in 5 patients have the wrong diagnosis… There is one “magic” question that you should be asking your physician(s):

“What else could this be?”

This very simple question about your condition/complaint can be extremely enlightening. Physicians are trained to develop extensive “differential diagnoses” (a list of all possible explanations for a set of signs and symptoms) but rarely have time to think past possibilities 1 through 3. That’s one of the reasons why so many patients have the wrong diagnosis – which is both costly in terms of medical bills, time, and pain and suffering.

There is a risk in asking this question – you don’t want to be over-tested for conditions that you are unlikely to have, of course. But I maintain that the cost/risk of living with the wrong diagnosis far exceeds the risk of additional testing to confirm the correct diagnosis. So my advice to patients is to keep this very important question in mind when you see your doctor for a new concern.

In addition to asking this question of your doctor, you can also ask it during a second opinion meeting with another physician. The good news is that these days you don’t even need to get a second opinion in person. I myself have been working with an online second-opinion service called eDocAmerica for several years. Those who sign up for the service can pick the brains of board-certified U.S. physicians on any subject, 24-7 via email (and in some states via phone). The cost is extraordinarily reasonable when provided by employers, and winds up being about one or two dollars per member per month.

If you have a complicated disease or condition (such as cancer) where experts may not all agree on the best treatment plan, a company called Best Doctors offers detailed chart reviews and second opinions from top specialists at academic centers. Again, this service is quite affordable and reasonable if the cost is spread among a group. Employers are able to pay a small fee per employee per month to enroll the entire company in the service.

So why don’t all employers offer these benefits? I suspect that part of the reason is lack of awareness that second opinion services exist, and the other part is tepid demand on the part of employees. So if you’d like to make sure that you’re not one of the five people who have the wrong diagnosis, why not raise the question with your HR department? Enrolling as an individual is also an option, and still as inexpensive as about thirty dollars a month.

My bottom line: make sure you ask your doctor the magic question at least once for every new concern that you have. And if you’re too shy to do it, or your doctor’s answer seems too short, then get a second opinion online or in person.

This one little question could save your life.

Medical Judgment Trumps Medical Innovation

The New York Times says “In Medicine, New Isn’t Always Improved.”

Who can argue with this?

“In Dining, New Restaurants Aren’t Always Better.”

Yes, that’s true, too.  But does it mean anything?

The article is about a type of hip that is apparently going to be the focus of a lawsuit.  The story goes that a lot of people wanted the new hip when it came out, because it was thought to be better than the older ones.  Unfortunately, the hip seems to have hurt some people, some of whom may have been better off getting the older one in the first place.

A doctor quoted in the article suggests it’s part of a uniquely American tic.  We want all of the latest and greatest things for ourselves, it seems.  This story is supposed to be a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when we do.

On the other hand, the latest and greatest things don’t appear out of nowhere.  In America, when people demand something, there will be someone who supplies it. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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