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Why We Need Both Primary Care Physicians And Sub-Specialists

An article in the March 24 NEJM called Specialization, Subspecialization, and Subsubspecialization in Internal Medicine might have some heads shaking: Isn’t there a shortage of primary care physicians? The sounding-board piece considers the recent decision of the American Board of Internal Medicine to issue certificates in two new fields: (1) hospice and palliative care and (2) advanced heart failure and plans in-the-works for official credentialing in other, relatively narrow fields like addiction and obesity.

The essay caught my attention because I do think it’s true that we need more well-trained specialists, as much as we need capable general physicians. Ultimately both are essential for delivery of high-quality care, and both are essential for reducing health care errors and costs.

Primary care physicians are invaluable. It’s these doctors who most-often establish rapport with patients over long periods of time, who earn their trust and, in case they should become very ill, hold their confidence on important decisions — like when and where to see a specialist and whether or not to seek more, or less, aggressive care. A well-educated, thoughtful family doctor or internist typically handles most common conditions: prophylactic care including vaccinations, weight management, high blood pressure, diabetes, straightforward infections – like bacterial pneumonia or UTIs, gout and other routine sorts of problems.

On the other hand, specialists can be lifesaving when highly-detailed expertise matters. There are limits to how much a general internist knows about chemotherapy, for example. Even within the field of medical oncology, a subspecialty of internal medicine, there are doctors who only see patients with particular kinds of cancers. When I had breast cancer, for example, I chose an oncologist whose practice consists almost entirely of patients with breast cancer and related diseases. If someone in my family has a lymphoma, I’d advise them to consult with someone who, for the most part, patients with lymphoma and similar disorders. Why? Because each of these cancers represent a complex group of malignancies, and successful therapy depends in part on the doctor’s familiarity with each of the specific subtypes and the relevant, current data for those. Treatment of lung cancer involves choosing among a different set of drugs than would be considered for brain or kidney cancer.

I mention oncology, here, because I’m most familiar with this field. But the same holds, for example, in the subspecialty of Infectious Diseases: knowing about all the new HIV drugs, in pregnant women, children and adults, involves a different set of knowledge than knowing about parasites in the tropics, and that differs from knowing about viral and other, unusual infections in patients are immunocompromised after kidney, heart or lung transplants.

In each of these settings, expertise can reduce errors – because specialists are more likely, in the first place, to establish a correct diagnosis and, next, to prescribe the right therapy based on the best evidence available.

The same holds for other medical specialties, apart from Internal Medicine. As I’ve described before, the radiologist who interpreted my routine mammogram and follow-up sono was a breast imaging specialist. The orthopedist who reconstructed my spine is a scoliosis spine surgeon. I am confident that I wouldn’t be here and feeling as well as I do if it weren’t for their expertise.

You could argue that it’s impossible to provide these kinds of sub-sub-specialists to people in rural areas, or that it’s too expensive, but I don’t think either of these factors should be limiting. To a large extent, experts might work with primary care providers and communicate with patients via Telemedicine and Skype-like technologies. As for surgical subspecialties, it may be that patients would find it worthwhile to travel to a regional center where a specialized procedure is done routinely, as opposed to having an operation in a local hospital where the doctors perform a certain kind of surgery – say a laparoscopic splenectomy, for example — only a few times each year.

There’s a tradeoff, as discussed in the NEJM piece, between increasing use of specialists and fragmentation of care. I think this concern is legitimate, based on my experiences practicing medicine and as a patient. But I do think we need specialists, and sub-specialists if we want doctors who can answer their patients’ questions, i.e. who really know what they’re doing.

I was a bit surprised that the article mentions a survey of physicians in which the majority of respondents reported that “professional image” was the primary reason for seeking subspecialty credentials. While this may be true, I don’t think doctors’ motivation matters in this. From the public’s perspective, what’s important is that hand surgeons know how to do hand surgery, and that a heart specialist knows how to interpret an echocardiogram, and that the hospitals where they work not let them practice if they’re not appropriately credentialed.

In cutting health care costs, or in trying to so, I don’t think it makes sense to reduce the number of physicians or to short-cut their educations by way of 3-year medical schools. Rather we need well-trained primary care doctors we can rely on, who know the limits of their knowledge as much as they understand medicine, and top-notch specialists, both.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

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