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Do Elite Academic Centers Provide Better Hospital Care?

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. 🙂

Our Healthcare System Has Dementia: The Case Of The Misdiagnosed Rash

If you (or a loved one) have been admitted to a hospital recently, you were probably surprised by the number of times you were asked the same questions. At first you might assume that the staff are being diligent in double-checking your information, but after the fifth healthcare provider asks you to explain why you’re there, you start to feel as if interacting with “the system” is like talking to a person with no short term memory. It’s as if the hospital itself has some kind of dementia.

Recent adoption of electronic data collection, shift working, team management, and over-specialization have exponentially increased the complexity of patient care. Unfortunately, the complexity is fueling medical errors, repeat and unnecessary testing, as well as misdiagnoses. As primary care physicians have eloquently argued, being cared for by those who don’t know you can be a huge cost driver, and create all manner of unnecessary anxiety. Perhaps a true story will help to illustrate my point?

Not too long ago, I was caring for a patient in an acute rehab unit. Over a three week period of time I got to know her idiosyncrasies quite well. She had had a recent chest surgery and the surgical site was exquisitely tender, but without evidence of infection. In addition, she was allergic to certain kinds of tape and had had an unfortunate blistering reaction to the tape that had been near her surgical site. She had anxiety disorder that was well managed with medicine and talk therapy. She had a large family who visited her daily, some of whom had decided not to vaccinate their children. I had spent a good deal of time helping them to understand the risks associated with those choices.

I signed out my patient’s care to the weekend hospitalist team on Friday afternoon, and was alarmed to discover my patient in an isolation room on Monday morning, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, and surrounded by gowned family members who were furiously calling for emergency transport of distant children to various hospitals. I had not heard a peep from the hospitalists about events over the weekend, and immediately gowned up to find out what was going on.

My patient sobbed, “The doctor told me I have shingles. Now my grand children are going to get chicken pox and they’ll have brain damage!”

“Which doctor told you that you have shingles?” I asked.

“I don’t know his name. Some doctor who was here this weekend,” she wailed.

“How did he know you had shingles?” I said, sitting down next to her bed, trying to console her.

“He looked at my chest rash.” She replied, pointing to the patch of contact dermatitis at the site of the recent surgical tape removal. “He asked me if it was painful and I said ‘yes.'”

“But it’s the surgery site that’s painful as it has always been, right?” I said.

“Yes, it’s the same pain.”

It dawned on me that a linear patch of painful blisters did look a lot like shingles, especially to someone who had never seen the patient before. I could see why the hospitalist suspected it, but unfortunately he wasn’t aware of her long standing wound tenderness or tape reaction. The fallout from this well-meaning misdiagnosis was especially large, given the psycho-social context. A large, anxious family, with many unvaccinated kids who had traveled from far away to see grandma in the rehab unit over the weekend. It was the perfect storm.

Needless to say, it took me several days to unravel the damage, reassure the family, and recall the “emergency chicken pox” ER visits that were planned in distant parts of the state (where the kids made their home). The pregnant nurse who was treating the patient over the weekend had to create a full report to employee health about her “high risk encounter.” And in the end, the family and nursing staff didn’t feel completely certain that she didn’t have shingles, since it was officially documented in the EMR by at least one physician, no matter what my argument.

This is just one example of how cross-sectional relationships with patients (rather than the preferred, longitudinal kind), can wreak havoc. Because of the incredible degree of turnover inherent in today’s inpatient care systems, patients are examined “from scratch” by every new shift of nurse, physician, physical therapist, case manager, etc. There is very little context available to assist with interpreting how the patient is doing compared to their previous state. Searching for such pearls can be time consuming in a medical chart that is not designed for clear communication, but billing purposes.

What are we to do when faced with a new patient with a concerning complaint? Search the chart for historical clues, look for a staff member who has known them longer than one shift, or perhaps ask the patient:

“So can you tell me again why you came to the hospital?”

The Problem With Running Medical Information Through A Digital Intermediary

In my last post I wrote about the communication difficulties caused by electronic medical records systems. The response on Twitter ranged from sentiments including everything from “right on, sister” to “greedy doctors are only complaining about EMRs because of their price tag.” The disconnect between policy wonk’s (and EMR vendor’s) belief in the transformative power of EMRs and exasperated clinician users of these products is jaw-dropping. Physicians are often labeled as obstinate dinosaurs, blocking progress, while policy wonks are considered by physicians to be living in an alternate reality where a mobile phone app could fix all that is wrong with the healthcare system.

Being on the dinosaur side, I thought I’d try a quick experiment/analogy to demonstrate that EMR dissatisfaction is not a mere cost artifact. To show what happens when a digital intermediary runs medical information through a translator, I selected a random paragraph about the epidemiology of aphasias from an article in Medscape. I copied and pasted it into Google translator and then ran it backwards and forwards a few times in different languages. In the end, the original paragraph (exhibit A) became the second paragraph (exhibit B):

Exhibit A:

“Not enough data are available to evaluate differences in the incidence and clinical features of aphasia in men and women. Some studies suggest a lower incidence of aphasia in women because they may have more bilaterality of language function. Differences may also exist in aphasia type, with more women than men developing Wernicke aphasia.”

Exhibit B:

“Prevalence and characteristics of men and women are expected to afasia is not enough information available. If afasia some studies, women work more, not less, because they show that the spoken language. There may be differences in the type of OST, women and men to develop more of a vernikke afasia, more.”

Although the B paragraph bears some resemblance to A, it is nearly impossible to determine its original meaning. This is similar to what happens to medical notes in most current EMRs (except the paragraph would be broken up with lab values and vital signs from the past week or two). If your job were to read hundreds of pages of B-type paragraphs all day, what do you think would happen? Would you enthusiastically adopt this new technology? Or would you give up reading the notes completely? Would you need to spend hours of your day finding “work-arounds” to correct the paragraphs?

And what would you say if the government mandated that you use this new technology or face decreased reimbursement for treating patients? What if you needed to demonstrate “meaningful use” or dependency and integration of the translator into your daily workflow in order to keep your business afloat? What if the scope of the technology were continually expanded to include more and more written information so that everything from lab orders to medication lists to hospital discharges, nursing summaries, and physical therapy notes, etc. were legally required to go through the translator first? And if you pointed out that this was not improving communication but rather introducing new errors, harming patients, and stealing countless hours from direct clinical care, you would be called “change resistant” or “lazy.”

And what if 68,000 new medical codes were added to the translator, so that you couldn’t advance from paragraph to paragraph without selecting the correct code for a disease (such as gout) without reviewing 150 sub-type versions of the code. And then what if you were denied payment for treating a patient with gout because you did not select the correct code within the 150 subtypes? And then multiply that problem by every condition of every patient you ever see.

Clearly, the cost of the EMR is the main reason why physicians are not willing to adopt them without complaint. Good riddance to the 50% of doctors who say they’re going to quit, retire, or reduce their work hours within the next three years. Without physicians to slow down the process of EMR adoption, we could really solve this healthcare crisis. Just add on a few mobile health apps and presto:  we will finally have the quality, affordable, healthcare that Americans deserve.

The Medical Chart: Ground Zero For The Deterioration Of Patient Care

For the past couple of years I’ve been working as a traveling physician in 13 states across the U.S. I chose to adopt the “locum tenens lifestyle” because I enjoy the challenge of working with diverse teams of peers and patient populations. I believe that this kind of work makes me a better doctor, as I am exposed to the widest possible array of technology, specialist experience, and diagnostic (and logistical) conundrums. During my down times I like to think about what I’ve learned so that I can try to make things better for my next group of patients.

This week I’ve been considering how in-patient doctoring has changed since I was in medical school. Unfortunately, my experience is that most of the changes have been for the worse. While we may have a larger variety of treatment options and better diagnostic capabilities, it seems that we have pursued them at the expense of the fundamentals of good patient care. What use is a radio-isotope-tagged red blood cell nuclear scan if we forget to stop giving aspirin to someone with a gastrointestinal bleed?

At the risk of infecting my readers with a feeling of helplessness and depressed mood, I’d like to discuss my findings in a series of blog posts. Today’s post is about why electronic medical charts have become ground zero for deteriorating patient care.

EMR Alert - Featuring radiologist note in illegible font color

1. Medical notes are no longer used for effective communication, but for billing purposes. When I look back at the months of training I received at my alma mater regarding the proper structure of intelligent medical notes, I recall with nostalgia how beautiful they were. Each note was designed to present all the observed and collected data in a cohesive and logical format, justifying the physician’s assessment and treatment plan. Our impressions of the patient’s physical and mental condition, reasons for further testing, and our current thought processes regarding optimal treatments and follow up (including citation of scientific literature to justify the chosen course) were all crisply presented.

Nowadays, medical notes consist of randomly pre-populated check box data lifted from multiple author sources and vomited into a nonsensical monstrosity of a run-on sentence. It’s almost impossible to figure out what the physician makes of the patient or what she is planning to do. Occasional “free text” boxes can provide clues, when the provider has bothered to clarify. One needs to be a medical detective to piece together an assessment and plan these days. It’s both embarrassing and tragic… if you believe that the purpose of medical notes is effective communication. If their purpose is justifying third-party payer requirements, then maybe they are working just fine?

My own notes have been co-opted by the EMRs, so that when I get the chance to free-text some sensible content, it still forces gobbledygook in between. I can see why many of my peers have eventually “given up” on charting properly. No one (except coders and payers interested in denying billing claims) reads the notes anymore. The vicious cycle of unintelligible presentation drives people away from reading notes, and then those who write notes don’t bother to make them intelligent anymore. There is a “learned helplessness” that takes over medical charting. All of this could (I suppose) be forgiven if physicians reverted back to verbal handoffs and updates to other staff/peers caring for patients to solve this grave communication gap. Unfortunately, creating gobbledygook takes so much time that there is less old fashioned verbal communication than ever.

2. No one talks to each other anymore. I’m not sure if this is because of a general cultural shift away from oral communication to text-based, digital intermediaries (think zombie-like teens texting one another incessantly) or if it’s related to sheer time constraints. However, I am continually astonished by the lack of face-to-face or verbal communication going on in hospitals these days. When I first observed this phenomenon, I attributed it to the facility where I was working. However, experience has shown that this is an endemic problem in the entire healthcare system.

When you are overworked, it’s natural to take the path of least resistance – checking boxes and ordering consults in the EMR is easier than picking up a phone and constructing a coherent patient presentation to provide context for the specialist who is about to weigh in on disease management. Nursing orders are easier to enter into a computer system than actually walking over and explaining to him/her what you intend for the patient and why.

But these shortcuts do not save time in the long run. When a consultant is unfamiliar with the partial workup you’ve already completed, he will start from the beginning, with duplicate testing and all its associated expenses, risks, and rabbit trails. When a nurse doesn’t know that you’ve just changed the patient to “NPO” status (or for what reason) she may give him/her scheduled medications before noticing the change. When you haven’t explained to the physical therapists why it could be dangerous to get a patient out of bed due to a suspected DVT, the patient could die of a sudden pulmonary embolism. Depending upon computer screen updates for rapid changes in patient care plans is risky business. EMRs are poor substitutes for face-to-face communication.

In one case I remember a radiology tech expressing amazement that I had bothered to type the reason for the x-ray in the order field. How can a radiologist be expected to rule out something effectively if he isn’t given the faintest hint about what he’s looking for? On another occasion I called to speak with the radiologist on a complicated case where the patient’s medical history provided him with a clue to look for something he hadn’t thought of – and his re-read of the CT scan led to the discovery and treatment of a life-threatening disease. Imagine that? An actual conversation saved a life.

3. It’s easy to be mindless with electronic orders. There’s something about the brain that can easily slip into “idle” mode when presented with pages of check boxes rather than a blank field requiring original input. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve received patients (from outside hospitals) with orders to continue medications that should have been stopped (or forgotten medications that were not on the list to be continued). In one case, for example, a patient with a very recent gastrointestinal bleed had aspirin listed in his current medication list. In another, the discharging physician forgot to list the antibiotic orders, and the patient had a partially-treated, life-threatening infection.

As I was copying the orders on these patients, I almost made the same mistakes. I was clicking through boxes in the pharmacy’s medication reconciliation records and accidentally approved continuation of aspirin (which I fortunately caught in time to cancel). It’s extremely unlikely that I would have hand-written an order for aspirin if I were handling the admission in the “old fashioned” paper-based manner. My brain had slipped into idle… my vigilance was compromised by the process.

In my view, the only communication problem that EMRs have solved is illegible handwriting. But trading poor handwriting for nonsensical digital vomit isn’t much of an advance. As far as streamlining orders and documentation is concerned, yes – ordering medications, tests, and procedures is much faster. But this speed doesn’t improve patient care any more than increasing the driving speed limit from 60 mph to 90 mph would reduce car accidents.  Rapid ordering leads to more errors as physicians no longer need to think carefully about everything. EMRs have sped up processes that need to be slow, and slowed down processes that need to be fast. From a clinical utility perspective, they are doing more harm than good.

As far as coding and billing are concerned, I suppose they are revolutionary. If hospital care is about getting paid quickly and efficiently then perhaps we’re making great strides? But if we are expecting EMRs to facilitate care quality and communication, we’re in for a big disappointment. EMRs should have remained a back end billing tool, rather than the hub of all hospital activity. It’s like using Quicken as your life’s default browser. Over-reach of this particular technology is harming our patients, undermining communication, and eroding critical thinking skills. Call me Don Quixote – but I’m going to continue tilting at the hospital EMR* windmill (until they are right-sized) and engage in daily face-to-face meetings with my peers and hospital care team.

*Note: there is at least one excellent, private practice EMR (called MD-HQ). It is for use in the outpatient setting, and is designed for communication (not billing). It is being adopted by direct primary care practices and was created by physicians for supporting actual thinking and relevant information capture. I highly recommend it!

More Unintended Consequences Of Digital Data: How An EMR Gave My Patient Syphilis

I used to be a big believer in the transformative power of digital data in medicine. In fact, I devoted the past decade of my life to assisting the “movement” towards better record keeping and shared data. It seemed intuitive that breaking down the information silos in healthcare would be the first logical step in establishing price transparency, promoting evidence-based practices, and empowering patients to become more engaged in their care decisions. Unfortunately I was very wrong.

Having now worked with a multitude of electronic medical records systems at hospitals around the country, one thing is certain: they are doing more harm than good. I’m not sure that this will change “once we get the bugs out” because the fundamental flaw is that electronic medical records require data entry and intelligent curation of information, and that becomes an enormous time-suck for physicians. It forces us away from human interaction, thus reducing our patients’ chances of getting a correct diagnosis and sensible treatment plan.

How bad is it? The reality on the ground is that most hospitals are struggling enormously with EMR implementation. There are large gaps in the technology’s ability to handle information transfer, resulting in increased costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars per small hospital system, not to mention the tragically hilarious errors that are introduced into patient records at break neck pace.

At one hospital, the process for discharging a patient requires that the physician type all the discharge summary information into the EMR and then read it into a dictation system so that it can be transcribed by a team in India (cheaper than US transcription service) and returned to the hospital in another part of the EMR. The physician then needs to go into the new document and remove all the typos and errant formatting so that it resembles their original discharge summary note. In one of my recent notes the Indian transcriptionist misheard my word for “hydrocephalus” and simply entered “syphilis” as the patient’s chief diagnosis. If I hadn’t caught the error with a thorough reading of my reformatted note, who knows how long this inaccurate diagnosis would have followed the poor patient throughout her lifetime of hospital care?

Another hospital has an entire wing of its main building devoted to an IT team. I accidentally discovered their “Star Trek” facility on my way to radiology. Situated in a dark room surrounded by enough flat panel monitors to put a national cable network to shame, about 40 young tech support engineers were furiously working to keep the EMR from crashing on a daily basis – an event which halts all order processing from the ER to the ICU. Ominous reports of the EMR’s instability were piped over the entire hospital PA system, warning staff when they could expect screen freezes and data entry blockages. Doctors and nurses scurried to enter their orders and complete documentation during pauses in the network overhaul. It was like a scene from a futuristic movie where humans are harnessed for work by a centralized computer nexus.

At yet another hospital, EMR-required data entry fields regularly interrupt patient throughput. For example, a patient could not be given their discharge prescriptions without the physician indicating (in the EMR) whether each of them is a tablet or a capsule. As patients and their family members stand by the nursing desk, eager to be discharged home, their physician is furiously reviewing their OTC laxative prescriptions trying to click the correct box so that the computer will allow the transfer of the entire prescription list to the designated pharmacy. When I asked about the insanity of this practice, a helpful IT hospital specialist explained that the “capsule vs tablet” field was required by Allscripts in order to meet interoperability requirements with our hospital’s EMR. This one field requirement probably resulted in hundreds of extra hours of physician time per day throughout the hospital system, without any enhancement in patient care or safety.

For those of you EMR evangelists in Washington, I’d encourage you to take a long, cold look at what’s happening to healthcare on the ground because of these digital data initiatives. My initial enthusiasm has turned to exasperation and near despondency as I spend my days as a copy editor for an Indian transcription service, trying to prevent patients from being labeled as syphilitics while worrying about whether or not the medicine they’re taking is classified as a tablet or a capsule in a system where I may not be able to enter any orders at all if the central tech command is fixing software instability in the Star Trek room.

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