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Do VIPs get better medical care?

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People often believe that the medical treatment that VIPs get is far superior to the care received by “common folk.” While it’s true that a VIP might get a nicer hospital room, the care received might actually be inferior.

Why? Because all of the anxiety and pressure to perform all possible tests to rule out all possible problems results in higher risk to the patient. Most tests are associated with some degree of risk – catheter infections, phlebitis, dye alleries, anesthetic reactions, and so on. Though these risks may be small, they are additive.

Beyond the risk of unnecessary tests, is the risk of unnecessary medications. When a VIP complains of an issue, he may get additional medicine. Medicine has side effects, and side effects can have serious consequences. Consider the deadly side effects of pain medicine that a dear patient of mine once had.

Then there’s the pressure that physicians feel to do what the patient requests, rather than exercising their clinical judgment.

In one particular case, a young executive came to the ER complaining of abdominal pain. The physicians ran all kinds of tests and concluded that he had a common stomach virus. The man was convinced that he had appendicitis and called in a favor from his “connection” who knew the CEO of the hospital. The hospital CEO questioned the physicians taking care of the man – whether they could say with 100% certainty that this wasn’t appendicitis. They said that it was highly unlikely, but that the only way to be 100% certain would be to remove the appendix and examine it under a microscope. The CEO asked them to take the patient to the OR. Of course, the executive did not have appendicitis. He did, however, undergo an unnecessary surgery, which his insurance company paid for in full, contributing to potential increased premiums for the others in his company’s group. Did this VIP get better care? I think not.

In my next post I’ll discuss how one VIP bullied his way into the hospital without even being truly sick, causing all kinds of problems that dragged on for months!This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

The art of being different – a girl scout’s story


Girl scout cookie season is upon us, and recently our office was swarming with youngsters taking cookie orders. I wasn’t sure which girl I should order from (one can’t really order from each of them and expect to maintain any semblance of a normal BMI) and as I was considering how to choose, one energetic little girl simply walked right up to me and asked if I’d like some cookies.

She was slim and blonde, with bright eyes and an honest face. I knew the “sales pitch” didn’t come naturally to her, and I tried to make it easier by joking a bit. She was shy, but on a mission. I asked her which type of cookie she liked best, and if her daddy ate too many of them. She was innocently pleased with the interaction and disappeared down a hallway near some cubicles.

Many weeks later a large delivery of girl scout cookies arrived. There was a mass distribution strategy in place with moms and girls cutting open cardboard boxes of cookies and delivering them to buyers. I asked if my cookies were on the list. They told me that they didn’t sell me the cookies, so I’d need to wait for the specific little girl who sold them to me to stop by.

About a week later, when I had assumed that my little girl scout had forgotten about my order (and the rest of our staff had well and truly gorged themselves on thin mints), her dad came into my office with a pretty bag tied with a ribbon and a hand written card from his daughter. He told me she asked him to deliver it personally, because she wanted her service to be different than the other girls. Her dad joked that he was trying to train her about “differentiators” but I was quite touched by the effort she had made to make me feel like a special customer.

Later that afternoon I sat down to write a thank-you card to the girl. I wanted her to know that her efforts made a difference, and that I noticed her hard work in making my cookie purchase a personalized experience (not just part of a bulk delivery service). I put some stickers on the card, I used colorful paper, and a big red envelope.

A few days later I asked her dad if she liked the card. This is what he wrote to me:

“She loved it. She saw it at breakfast and came screaming upstairs to show it to everybody. Thanks!”

That really made my day. I hope in some way that I’ve encouraged this little girl to continue to reach for excellence, to stand out in the crowd, and to know that her work is appreciated. It is this sort of attitude toward life that will help her grow up to be… a revolutionary.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

The secret to long life and good health

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My dad is 76 years old. He takes one baby aspirin a day and has no medical conditions. He looks about 10 years younger than his age, and his mind is sharp and clear. How does he do it?

I think the secret is the time he spent working on a farm. At age 40 he retired from his consulting firm in Manhattan and bought some land in rural Canada. Without realizing what he was getting himself into, my dad bought some cattle to work the farm. When winter came he had to keep the animals in the barn, and he soon discovered that each steer and cow produced its own weight in manure every 2 weeks (that’s about a half ton for those of you city slickers out there). So all winter long my dad shoveled manure. He did this for 35 years.

My dad now keeps fit with regular sit ups and push ups in the morning and long walks every day. But to me, the secret to his success was the shoveling. Life is full of little ironies – sometimes “crappy work” can result in amazing health benefits.

Although the New York Times wrote a fairly scathing review of my mom’s book about their adventures in shoveling (which ultimately led to a yogurt business) – I think my dad got the last laugh.  Healthy and well, he can look forward to a long and enjoyable retirement.  I wonder if the folks in Manhattan (who choose to spend their lives shoveling a less physically challenging BS) can say the same?

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

My first lawsuit – part 2


** This follows from the previous blog post**

A week later a 10 pound package came for me in the mail – it was a copy of the patient’s entire medical record. It took me almost an hour to find the part that had to do with the paralysis event, but as I read through the chart I saw my note and then gasped.

My note was simple: it documented my physical exam findings, the time I first found him paralyzed, the time I called the surgical team, the time it took them to get to the patient’s room. It was all clearly written and nicely documented. But the entry just above mine was from a nurse who had apparently turned the patient earlier that morning to wash his posterior. She noted that the patient was having some neck pain afterwards and that she had given him some Tylenol.

Then came my note.

And then came another note from the nurse, dated 3 months after the incident, and labeled “addendum:”

“Paged Dr. Jones to evaluate patient with complaint of inability to move lower extremities. Dr. Jones responded that she would examine him after rounds. I told Dr. Jones that it was an emergency but she said the patient would need to wait.”

I was horrified. That’s not at all what happened – the nurse was clearly afraid that she would be held responsible since she was the one who had moved the patient earlier that morning, possibly displacing his (recently operated upon) spine and causing a bleed. She obviously wrote the note to make it look as if the irreversible paralysis was due to the slowness of my response.

And so I felt helpless and very afraid – is this what will end my medical career? I thought about all my years of training, how careful I always tried to be, how much I cared for my patients – and would it all end with this insanity?

As it turned out, I had to prepare for a deposition. I studied every angle of the case, read every piece of the chart, sweated it out for many weeks. And then I got another call from the lawyer one day: “They’re settling out of court. You don’t have to come in. Just forget about it.”

I was relieved, but angry. I also felt very sorry for the patient. But most of all I wondered about the legalities of practicing medicine – how vulnerable we docs are, how a complication can be seen as malpractice… and how another healthcare professional can be so damaging. Sometimes practicing medicine scares me – lives are at stake, and even the best intentions can lead to life-altering events.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

My first lawsuit – part 1

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An attorney from the hospital where I used to work called me out of the blue. He asked me if I remembered a Mr. So and So. “I’m not sure,” I said uneasily. “The name does sound familiar.”

Slowly the case came flooding back to me. I was on call on a weekend covering the neurosurgical step down unit. A nurse paged me to tell me that someone couldn’t move his legs. I asked if it was a new problem. “Yes, he could move them just this morning.”

I ran to the patient’s room and found an anxious appearing, young obese man lying flat in bed with a neck brace on. He had recently had a cervical laminectomy (a neck spine procedure). “I can’t move” he said, a bead of sweat trickling off his brow. “Can you feel anything?” I asked.

“Nothing below my neck.”

I took my metal tuning fork out of my coat pocket and pressed it firmly on his toe nail bed to see if he’d withdraw from pain. Not a flinch. My heart started racing. This is a surgical emergency.

I called the neurosurgery team and told them about the sudden paralysis. They arrived on the floor in under a minute, confirmed the diagnosis, grabbed the chart and took the patient to the O.R. immediately.

Hours later I heard that the man had had a rare complication of neck surgery – a small arterial hemorrhage that rapidly compressed the spinal cord. The surgeons evacuated the blood immediately – though it was anyone’s guess if the man would fully recover.

And apparently he didn’t. Four years later he was suing the hospital for malpractice, and I was named in the lawsuit.

“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” I told the attorney.

“Well, you’d better read the record,” he said ominously.

**See my next post for the end of the story!**

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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