As the new medical director of admissions for St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, Washington, it is my job to review all patient referrals to our hospital. Imagine my astonishment when, while traveling to New Orleans, I received an email about a patient at Tulane Medical Center who was requesting admission to St. Luke’s. This dear lady was from Spokane, but had fallen ill while visiting her family on the other side of the country, in Louisiana.
I quickly discovered via Google Maps that she was in a hospital bed only three blocks from my hotel room. I called the case manager and nurse at Tulane and asked if it was OK for me to stop by the patient’s room for an interview. They were surprised to hear that a consult physician from Washington was going to meet their patient in person, but thought it would be fine.
When I arrived, the patient’s son greeted me. He was pacing the halls, worrying about how he was going to get his mom home. There was only one direct flight per week, and it was scheduled for the next day. He had booked the ticket on Southwest Airlines on a lark.
I explained that I was from St. Luke’s, the facility that he hoped would admit his mom for further care.
He was dumbfounded. “What are you doing in New Orleans?” he asked.
“I’m here on a business trip,” I said, “and I heard your mom needed rehab. I wanted to look in on her and make sure she’s ready to transfer home. I reviewed her chart and she seems to be a perfect candidate.”
He smiled and sputtered that he thought the case managers had just sent out the referral request a few hours prior. “How on earth did you get here so quickly?” he marveled.
I explained that email and digital chart access make a big difference these days and reassured him that his mom would likely be able to catch her flight the next morning.
As I entered the patient’s room, I introduced myself as a doctor from St. Luke’s in Spokane, who had come to see if she was ready for admission. She looked at me with bright, quizzical eyes.
“I thought this was going to take weeks,” she said. “I was in such a state. I prayed that God would find a way to get me home just a few hours ago, and now you’re here. This must be divine intervention.”
I smiled and briefly examined her, noting a PICC line and Foley catheter. She wrote me a list of “must eats” in New Orleans and explained where I could find the best fried oysters and po’boy sandwiches. Her attending physician then came in, accompanied by a medical resident. The resident explained that I was here from the accepting facility in Washington state.
“This never happens,” the attending stated, matter-of-factly.
“It’s a crazy coincidence. I am the admissions director, and I happened to be three blocks from here when I received an email about this patient,” I said. “I reviewed a copy of your medical records and believe she is an excellent rehab candidate. Because I was right around the corner, I figured I’d facilitate her transfer in person. It’d be great if we could leave her lines and tubes in for the trip. … I’d like to give you my card, in case you have other patients who need rehab in Spokane.”
The attending chuckled as she looked at my business card. “I’m not sure how many others we’ll be sending your way.”
“You never know.”
Dr. Val Jones and patient Patricia Crocker-Fox in Spokane, WA.
The patient transferred to St. Luke’s the very next morning, arriving before I did. She made an excellent recovery, and after three weeks of hard work, she was able to stand and walk again.
She gave me permission to write about this amazing journey, and I had a hospital friend take a photo of us together on her final day at St. Luke’s, next to a full-scale replica of the same Southwest Airlines airplane in which she traveled to us from New Orleans. We use it in our gym to help patients with injuries and disabilities practice getting in and out of airplanes. Southwest Airlines donated it to us some time ago — yet another coincidence!
Stories like these make me glad to be a physician. I love knowing that I may be called upon at any time — wherever I am — to help people in extraordinary ways.
And yes, I did gain about five pounds on my trip. What can I say? I simply had to take my patient’s advice on Cajun delicacies before I flew home!
**This post was originally published on the Barton Associates Blog.**
It’s no secret that medicine has become a highly specialized business. While generalists used to be in charge of most patient care 50 years ago, we have now splintered into extraordinarily granular specialties. Each organ system has its own specialty (e.g. gastroenterology, cardiology), and now parts of systems have their own experts (hepatologists, cardiac electrophysiologists) Even ophthalmologists have subspecialized into groups based on the part of the eye that they treat (retina specialists, neuro-ophthalmologists)!
This all comes as a response to the exponential increase in information and technology, making it impossible to truly master the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases and conditions. A narrowed scope allows for deeper expertise. But unfortunately, some of us forget to pull back from the minutiae to respect and appreciate what our peers are doing.
This became crystal clear to me when I read an interview with a cardiologist on the NPR blog. Dr. Eric Topol was making some enthusiastically sweeping statements about how technology would allow most medical care to take place in patient’s homes. He says,
“The hospital is an edifice we don’t need except for intensive care units and the operating room. [Everything else] can be done more safely, more conveniently, more economically in the patient’s bedroom.”
So with a casual wave of the hand, this physician thought leader has described a world without my specialty (Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation) – and all the good that we do to help patients who are devastated by sudden illness and trauma. I can’t imagine a patient with a high level spinal cord injury being sent from the ER to his bedroom to enjoy all the wonderful smartphone apps “…you can get for $35 now from China.” No, he needs ventilator care and weaning, careful monitoring for life-threatening autonomic dysreflexia, skin breakdown, bowel and bladder management, psychological treatment, and training in the use of all manner of assistive devices, including electronic wheelchairs adapted for movement with a sip and puff drive.
I’m sure that Dr. Topol would blush if he were questioned more closely about his statement regarding the lack of need for hospital-based care outside of the OR, ER and ICU. Surely he didn’t mean to say that inpatient rehab could be accomplished in a patient’s bedroom. That people could simply learn how to walk and talk again after a devastating stroke with the aid of a $35 smartphone?
But the problem is that policy wonks listen to statements like his and adopt the same attitude. It informs their approach to budget cuts and makes it ten times harder for rehab physicians to protect their facilities from financial ruin when the prevailing perception is that they’re a waste of resources because they’re not an ICU. Time and again research has shown that aggressive inpatient rehab programs can reduce hospital readmission rates, decrease the burden of care, improve functional independence and long term quality of life. But that evidence isn’t heeded because perception is nine tenths of reality, and CMS continues to add onerous admissions restrictions and layers of justification documentation for the purpose of decreasing its spend on inpatient rehab, regardless of patient benefit or long term cost savings.
Physician specialists operate in silos. Many are as far removed from the day-to-day work of their peers as are the policy wonks who decide the fate of specialty practices. Physicians who have an influential voice in healthcare must take that honor seriously, and stop causing friendly fire casualties. Because in this day and age of social media where hard news has given way to a cult of personality, an offhanded statement can color the opinion of those who hold the legislative pen. I certainly hope that cuts in hospital budgets will not land me in my bedroom one day, struggling to move and breathe without the hands-on care of hospitalists, nurses, therapists, and physiatrists – but with a very nice, insurance-provided Chinese smartphone.
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?”
Over the years that I’ve worked in acute inpatient rehab centers, I have been truly vexed by a particular type of patient. Namely, the stubborn patient (usually an elderly gentleman with a military or armed forces background). I know that it’s not completely fair to generalize about personality types, but it seems that the very nature of their work has either developed in them a steely resolve, or they were attracted to their profession because they possessed the right temperament for it. Either way, when they arrive in the rehab unit after some type of acute illness or traumatic event, it is very challenging to cajole them into health. I suspect that I am failing quite miserably at it, frankly.
Nothing is more depressing for a rehab physician than to see a patient decline because they refuse to participate in activities that are bound to improve their condition. Prolonged immobility is a recipe for disaster, especially in the frail elderly. Refusal to eat and get out of bed regularly can make the difference between life and death within a matter of days as leg clots begin to form, and infectious diseases take hold of a body in a weakened state. The downward spiral of illness and debility is familiar to all physicians, but is particularly disappointing when the underlying cause appears to be patient stubbornness.
Of course, the patient may not be well enough to grasp the “big picture” consequences of their decisions. And I certainly do not pretend to understand what it feels like to be elderly and at the end of my rope in regards to prolonged hospital stays. Maybe I’d want to give up and be left alone too. But it’s my job to get them through the tough recovery period so they can go home and enjoy the highest quality of life possible. When faced with a patient in the “wet cat” phase of recovery (I say “wet cat” because they appear to be as pleased to be on the rehab unit as a cat is to being doused against their will), these are the usual stages that I go through:
1. I explain the factual reasons for their admission to rehab and what our goals are. I further describe the risks of not participating in therapies, eating/drinking, or learning the skills they need to care for themselves with their new impairments.
2. I let them know that I’m on their side. I understand that they don’t want to be here, and that I will work with them to get them home as soon as possible, but that I can’t in good conscience send them home until it’s safe to do so.
3. I give them a projected discharge date to strive towards, with specific tasks that need to be mastered. I try my best to give the patient as much control in his care as possible.
4. I ally with the family (especially their wives) to determine what motivates them, and request their presence at therapy sessions if that seems fruitful rather than distracting. (Helpful spouse input: “Mike only wants to walk with me by his side, not the therapist.”)
5. I ask loved ones how they think the patient is doing/feeling and if there is anything else I can do to make his stay more pleasant. (Helpful input: “John loves ice cream. He hates eggs” or “John usually goes to bed at 9pm and gets up at 4am every day.”)
6. I meet with nursing and therapy staff to discuss behavioral challenges and discuss approaches that are more effective in obtaining desired results. (For example, some patients will always opt out of a task if you give them a choice. However, they perform the task if you state with certainty that you are going to do it – such as getting out of bed. “Would you like to get out of bed now, Mr. Smith?” will almost certainly result in a resounding “No.” Followed perhaps by a dismissive hand wave. However, approaching with a “It’s time to get out of bed now, I’m helping you scoot to the edge of the bed and we’re going to stand up on 3. One, two, three!” Is much more effective.)
7. If all else fails and the patient is not responding to staff, loved ones, or doctors, I may ask for a psychiatric consult to determine whether or not the patient is clinically depressed or could benefit from a medication adjustment. Typically, these patients are vehemently opposed to psychiatric evaluation so this is almost the “nuclear” option. Psychiatrists can be very insightful regarding a patient’s mindset or barriers to participation, and can also help to tease out whether delirium versus dementia may be involved, and whether the patient lacks capacity to make decisions for himself.
8. If the patient still does not respond to further tweaks to our approach to therapy or medication regimen, then I begin looking for alternate discharge plans. Would he be happier in a skilled nursing home environment where he can recover at a slower rate? Would he be amenable to an assisted living or long term care facility? (The answer is almost always a resounding “no!”) Is the patient well enough to go home with home care services and round-the-clock supervision? Does the family have enough support and can they afford this option?
9. At this point, after exhausting all other avenues, if the patient is still declining to move or eat or be transferred elsewhere, some sort of infection might set in. A urinary tract infection, a pneumonia, or bowel infection perhaps. Then the patient becomes febrile, is started on antibiotics, becomes weaker and less responsive, and is transferred to the medicine floor or higher level of care. Alternatively at this phase (if he is lucky enough not to become infected) the patient might have a cardiac event, stroke, blood clot with pulmonary embolus (especially if he is a large man), kidney failure, or develop infected pressure ulcers. Any of which can be cause for transfer to medicine. In short, if you stay in the hospital long enough, you can find a way to die there.
10. After much hand-wringing, angst, and generalized feelings of helplessness the wives and I review the course of events and ask ourselves if we could have done anything differently. “If I had acted like a drill sergeant, do you think he would have responded better?” I might ask. “No dear, that would only have made things worse.” She’ll reply. I’ll see how disappointed she is in his deterioration, staring off towards pending widowhood, engaging in self-blame and what-ifs (E.g. “If we had only had more money perhaps we could have taken him home with 24 hour nursing care until he was better…” “If I had cooked all his meals, maybe he would have gained enough strength to avoid the infection…” etc.) I try to be reassuring that none of this would have made a difference, myself reeling from the failure to get the patient home.
This 10 step process happens far more often than I’d like, and I certainly wish there were a way to head off the downward spiral with some kind of effective intervention. Would it help to have a volunteer unit of ex-military peer counselors in the hospital who could visit with my patients and help to motivate them to get better? (Operation “wet cat” perhaps?) Should I change my approach and put on my drill sergeant hat at the earliest stages of recovery to force these guys out of bed? Can educating younger law enforcement and military workers about illness help to prepare them to be more compliant patients one day?
I don’t know the cure for stubbornness, but it sure leaves a lot of widows in its wake.
Two computer science students from the University of Pennsylvania, Eric Berdinis and Jeff Kiske, have hacked together a very impressive tactile feedback system for the visually impaired using a Microsoft Kinect device and a number of vibration actuators. The Kinecthesia is a belt worn camera system that detects the location and depth of objects in front of the wearer using depth information detected by the Kinect sensor. This information is processed on a BeagleBoard open computer platform and then used to drive six vibration motors located to the left, center and right of the user. The video below shows a demo of the system in use and gives a quick explanation of its operation.
The students came up with the idea for the Kinecthesia when Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Medgadget*