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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 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.

Hospital Pharmacists: Protecting Patients From Electronic Medical Record Errors May Be Their Most Important New Role

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.

EMRs And The Dangers Of Digital Dependency And Drop-Down Medicine

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. 🙂

Five Things That Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) Can Learn From Social Media

As a physician who openly despises many aspects of current EMRs (see “How An EMR Gave My Patient Syphilis” or “The Medical Chart: Ground Zero For The Deterioration Of Patient Care” ) I recognize that they are here to stay. And so, since we’re all stuck with these digital middlemen, I have some suggestions (based on popular social media platform functionality) for making them better.

1. Likes. Healthcare providers should be able to “vote up” an excellent note in the medical record. Let’s face it, not all doctors are equally good at documentation. Untold hours of our time are spent trying to cull through pages of auto-populated, drop-down-box checks to figure out what’s actually going on with a patient on a particular day. Once in a while you stumble upon some comprehensive free text that a physician took the time to type after a previous encounter, and suddenly everything becomes clear. If there were a way to flag or “like” such documents, it would help other readers orient themselves more quickly to a patient’s history. A “liking” system is desperately needed in EMRs and would be a valuable time saver, as well as encouragement to physicians who document notes well. Hospitals could reward their best note makers with public recognition or small monetary bonuses.

2. #Hashtags. Tagging systems are sorely lacking in medical records systems, which makes them very difficult to search. Patients make multiple visits for various complaints, often with numerous providers involved. If physicians had the ability to review notes/records unique to the complaint that they are addressing, it would save a lot of time. Notes could be tagged with keywords selected by the author and permanently recorded in the EMR. This would substantially improve future search efforts. Even if the EMR generated 10 search terms (based on the note) and then asked the physician to choose the 3 most relevant to the current encounter, that would be a step in the right direction.

3. Selfies. Medical records would benefit from patient-identifier photographs. In a busy day where 20-30 patients are treated and EMR notes are updated after the patients have gone home, a small patient photograph that appears on each documentation page will serve the physician well in keeping details straight. Patients should be able to upload their favorite portrait to the EMR if the standard one (perhaps taken during the intake process) is not acceptable to them. In my experience, nothing brings back physical exam and history details better than a photograph of the patient.

4. Contextual links. All EMRs should provide links to the latest medical literature (on subjects specifically related to the patient’s current diseases and conditions) in a module on the progress note page. UpToDate.com and other reference guides could easily supply the right content (perhaps based on diagnosis codes). This will help physicians practice evidence-based medicine and keep current with changes in recommended treatment practices.

5. Microblogging. Sometimes there are important “notes to self” that a physician would like to make but don’t need to be part of the official medical record. EMRs should provide a free-text module (like a digital sticky note) for such purposes. These sticky notes should not be admissible in court as part of the medical record, and should not be uploaded to the cloud. Content included in these notes could include social information (patient’s daughter just had a healthy baby girl), hunches (patient looks slightly pale today – will check H&H next time if no change), and preliminary information (remember to review radiology result before calling patient next Tues).

It is my hope that EMRs will slowly adopt some best practices from top social media platforms. After all, if millions of users are effectively using voting, tagging, linking, searching and imaging in their daily online lives, it only makes sense to capitalize on these behaviors within the constraints of the medical environment. Maintaining strict confidentiality and appropriate professional boundaries (often missing in the social media world at large) is certainly possible with EMRs. Let’s build a better information capture and retrieval process for the sake of our patients, and our sanity.

***

At least one EMR is already providing #3 and #5 as part of its software: see MDHQ.com Are you aware of any others already implementing these ideas?

Federal Hospital Inspectors Miss True Dangers, Focus On Documentation Minutiae

In an effort to promote transparency in healthcare, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) has published a database of recent hospital deficiencies discovered by Medicare and Medicaid  inspectors. They then highlighted 168 reports containing the phrase “immediate jeopardy.” This, of course, piqued my interest as I presumed that hospitals who were putting putting patients in “immediate jeopardy” must be some pretty bad actors.

After sifting through the hospital names, I saw no record of ones who should probably be on the list based on my personal experiences. I did find some surprises, including well respected academic centers (including Stanford, UCSD, and Intermountain Health). I did a “deep dive” on a hospital for which I have a good deal of respect and some familiarity. What I discovered was both funny and sad.

In the case of the hospital that I knew, the very grave concerns expressed by the inspectors turned out to revolve around patient signatures on HIPAA documentation, and physicians refreshing their electronic restraint orders on patients with traumatic brain injuries. These documentation mishaps had landed the hospital on the ominous list of institutions who are “putting patients lives in immediate jeopardy.”

What a waste of inspector time and hospital resources! Apparently, a hospital who passes CMS muster simply means that they are providing documentation correctness to patients. Forget the real sources of life-threatening dangers – medication errors, poor physician handoffs, unnecessary testing and treatment, and unsanitary conditions. What the safety police are focused upon is whether or not the sick and delirious signed their health information privacy paperwork.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to let patients know their rights, etc. But I’ve yet to see more than 10% of patients even read the HIPAA-related documentation that they sign.  Surely an absent signature or two shouldn’t land a hospital on a humiliating federal watch list.

True patient safety cannot be regulated. It is far too complex and nuanced, requiring collaboration between all members of a hospital’s staff. From frequent nursing surveillance, to careful medication review, to laboratory critical value alerts, to conscientious sanitation practices – hospital culture dictates whether or not a patient receives excellent care. Watch lists would be far more accurate if they were simply based on hospital employee questionnaires. As Dr. Marty Makary has discovered, complicated care quality algorithms are no more accurate at predicting hospital excellence than simply asking staff if they’d recommend the place to family members.

So next time you see your hospital flagged by the feds, don’t assume that there is a serious problem going on – better to ask someone who works there if it’s a safe place for care.

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