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.
Like most physicians, I feel extremely rushed during the course of my work day. And every day I am tempted to cut corners to get my documentation done. The “if you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen” mantra has been beaten into us, and we have become enslaved to the quantitative. It’s tempting to rush through physical exams, assuming that if there’s anything “really bad” going on with the patient, some lab test or imaging study will eventually uncover it. Just swoop in, listen to the anterior chest wall, ask if there’s any new pain, and dash off to the next hospital bed. Then we construct a 5-page progress note in the EMR, describing the encounter, our assessment, and plan of care.
Focused physical exams have their place in follow up care, but I strongly urge us all to reconsider skimping on our exams. A fine-toothed comb should be used in any first-time meeting – because so much can be missed as we scurry about. Some examples of things I discovered during careful examination:
1. A pulsatile abdominal mass in a woman being worked up for dizziness.
2. New slurred speech in an edentulous gentleman with poorly controlled hypertension.
3. A stump abscess in a 2-year-old leg amputation.
4. A bullet lodged in the scrotum.
5. Countless stage 1 sacral decubitus and heel ulcers.
7. Rashes that were bothering the patient for years but had not previously been addressed and cured.
8. Early cellulitis from IV site.
9. Deep venous thrombosis of the calf.
10. New onset atrial fibrillation.
13. Peripheral neuropathies of various kinds.
14. Lateral medullary syndrome.
15. Surgical scars of all stripes – indicating previous pathology and missing organs of varying importance.
16. Normal pressure hydrocephalus in a patient who had been operated on for spinal stenosis/scoliosis.
17. Parkinson’s Disease in a patient with a fractured hip.
18. Shingles in a person with eye pain.
19. Aortic stenosis in a woman with dizziness.
20. Pleural effusions in a man complaining of anxiety.
Oftentimes I don’t find anything new and exciting that is not already a part of the patient’s medical record. But a curious thing happened to me the other day that made me reflect on the importance of the physical exam. After a careful review of a complex patient’s history, I discussed every scar and “abnormality” I discovered as I did a thorough head-to-toe review of his physical presentation. His aging body revealed more than he had remembered to say… and as our exam drew to a close, he reached out and offered me a fist-bump.
It was charming and unexpected – but made me realize the true importance of the thorough exam. I had gotten to know him in the process, I had earned his trust, and we had built the kind of therapeutic relationship upon which good healthcare is based. No EMR documentation effort was worth missing out on this interaction.
You may not uncover a new diagnosis on each physical exam, but you can gain something just as important. The confidence and respect of the patient.
Who doesn’t think preventive health care is important? Probably nobody if you ask this question abstractly. But when it comes to getting it–well that’s a different matter. Medicare stats show that too few people are getting preventive services even when they are free. It’s darn difficult, it seems, to get people to take good care of themselves.
By mid-November, of the four million or so new beneficiaries who signed up for Medicare this year, only 3.6 percent had had their “Welcome to Medicare” exam. Only 1.7 million of the more than 40 million seniors, most of whom were already on Medicare, had had their “Annual Wellness Visit.” A poor showing indeed given all the hoopla and hype surrounding the preventive benefits that health reform was supposed to bring to seniors.
To review: All new Medicare beneficiaries are entitled to a free physical exam within the first twelve months that their medical, or Part B, coverage becomes effective. It’s a one-time benefit, and Medicare says that seniors are told about the benefit when they sign up. A Medicare spokesperson added that Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*
I suffer with herniated lumbar disks. L4-L5 bulges and ruptures on occasion. If you catch me on the wrong day I have a little curvature to my back representing the spasm that makes me miserable.
I saw an extremely well-referenced orthopedic surgeon in consultation recently. But through the course of my visit he never touched me. We spent an extraordinary amount of time examining my MRI. Together in front of a large monitor we looked at every angle of my spine with me asking questions. I could see first hand what had been keeping me up at night. I could understand why certain positions make me comfortable. What we drew from those images could never be determined with human hands. In my experience as a patient, I consider it Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*
Four out of five doctors agree that they don’t need scans to make the right diagnosis.
It’s an old-fashioned concept frequently discussed among ACP members, but the history and physical combined with basic tests is way more important to diagnosis than ordering scans and advanced tests. A recent research letter in the Archives of Internal Medicine makes the case.
In the letter, Israeli researchers described a prospective study of 442 consecutive patients admitted from the emergency department in 53 days.
A senior resident examined all patients within 24 hours of admission (mean=14), including a history, physical, and review of ancillary test findings done at the emergency department, such as blood and urine tests, electrocardiography, and chest radiography. The resident also reviewed additional tests such as Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at ACP Hospitalist*