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What Distinguishes The Emergency Medicine Physician From Other Specialists?

Woof, I used to do some emergency medicine, too!

‘Woof, I used to do some emergency medicine, too!’

Years and years in emergency medicine have given me a very enlightening look at the various specialties that make up the ‘house of medicine.’ I am constantly amazed by the other professionals I meet. It astounds me that pediatricians can manage the tiniest of humans, barely larger than my palm. I am fascinated by the way an orthopedic surgeon can look at a fracture and reconstruct it in her mind; a kind of spatial organization totally foreign to my cerebral hemispheres.

General surgeons can navigate the complex plumbing of the human body and leave it running smooth as silk after injury or cancer. And neurologists are at home with the awe-inspiring, labyrinthine pathways of the human brain.

Internists and family physicians have the patience of Job himself, and radiologists can detect subtleties in gray shades that would leave an owl shaking his feathery head in wonder. There are so many amazing specialists, from intrepid obstetricians to ophthalmologists who apply optic physics to aging eyes.

Sometimes, I look at the talent all around me and wonder if I even belong in their world! I could not do what these people do. They impress me, for I do not have their talents. I am not like them! And yet, year after year, people say to me, and to you my readers, ‘I understand what you’re going through, I’ve done some emergency medicine!’

What exactly does that mean? ‘I’ve done some emergency medicine?’ Maybe I’m a little sensitive, but it’s always said with a kind of swagger that says, ‘Yep, anybody can do that; wasn’t challenging enough, so I decided to become a neurosurgeon!’

‘I’ve done some emergency medicine,’ usually means that someone worked in a ‘moon-lighting’ capacity. Or that they rotated through an emergeny department. Or that, while between jobs, they found an emergency department or urgent-care clinic where they could make some money until they actually became ‘real doctors.’.

Imagine the laughter if we returned the favor. ‘Yeah, I’ve done some heart surgery; you know, back when I was an intern and needed the extra money!’ ‘Cool, radiation oncology! I did some of that when I was between emergency departments!’ ‘Angioplasty? Sure, I did some in school. It was kind of cool, but it wasn’t for me.’ We’d be laughed out of the room.

So what makes everyone feel that emergency medicine is the thing anyone can do? I can tell you, at almost 20 years in the field, I have no idea what would possess someone to think our work was a kind of ‘medical default,’ available to any physician who could fog a mirror with their breath.

What makes us unique? If it is merely the ability to take punishment, day after day, week after week and year after year, well that’s enough to separate us from the majority of the pack. We can do that. We are the ones who always take up the excess. When an office is full and a febrile child needs to be seen, that child is ours. When a surgeon is too busy to evaluate the complication, we get the pleasure. When the cardiologist’s patient codes during the stress test, like as not they’re sent to the emergency department. And when all of it happens simultaneously, just as four multiple trauma patients roll in, we still have to ‘medically clear’ the psychiatric commitment, and contend with the fact that other specialists are just too busy to come and help; despite their prior months of extensive ED experience.

But it’s more than that. Just as each variety of specialist has unique capabilities that are their trademarks, so do we. We think quickly, and make remarkably good decisions with a terrifying paucity of data. Our patients are mostly people we ‘don’t know from Adam’s house-cat,’ to use a lovely Southernism. Despite that, we are so good at snap evaluations that we can typically find at least the very bad things people have in time to intervene appropriately. We put the ‘M’ in multi-task; each room we enter may hold disease entities as varied as pulmonary embolism and hang-nail; but we can’t make light of any of it, since hang-nails may be MRSA infections, and what we thought was pulmonary embolism may also be cocaine addiction or drug-seeking.

We are masters and mistresses of negotiation, creativity and disposition. Our daily skill sets involve cajoling the anxious and insistent to be discharged, the drunk to sit still and the administrator to listen to our ideas. We must convince annoyed staff physician to admit the vague abdominal pain patient, and explain to the patient’s lawyer brother that we’re really doing a bang-up job. It isn’t that we are fiction-writers or deceivers, we are simply trying to weave the stories of the day into one great happy ending. And that requires some creative communication.

There’s more, and it’s only a partial list. We are expected to intubate through vomit, obtain IV access in the violent and delerious, wrestle and restrain the suicidal, splint the fracture, read most of our own X-rays (even as someone else is being paid to do it) and close the vast scalp-wound as the Meth junkie curses us. Our list of skills is long. But we have to do all of it while doing screening exams, sexual assault exams and ‘pre-incarceration’ exams. We have to do it all while everyone else looks over our shoulders with clip-boards, asking why we weren’t faster, why we weren’t more efficient, why we didn’t document more and why we didn’t spend more time at the bedside. We’re queried about why we gave so many pain pills, and why we didn’t give more pain pills; about why we paged when we should have called, and called when we should have paged. And all of it while all hades breaks loose around us.

Despite being considered the inbred mountain-folk of medicine, our talents are considerable. And most of them we learned by doing over, and over, for years at a time. We didn’t become experts by moon-lighting.

I have to say, most people who tell me ‘I used to do some emergency medicine,’ really didn’t. At least, not the way we do it. Not with the same dedication, long-suffering and skill. If they had, they would have hugged us and apologized for not bringing lunch. And more importantly, they would have been ashamed to make the comparison. Not because they’re bad. But because we’re so good.

*This blog post was originally published at*

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2 Responses to “What Distinguishes The Emergency Medicine Physician From Other Specialists?”

  1. Ed Stern, RN says:

    True very true… As “just an ER nurse” (and informatics moonlighter) I feel you pain. Just the other day at a Hospital wide safety meeting I sat and listened to a nurse from a floor talk about how unfair she thinks it is that she should get a patient the last hour of her shift. “I am tired and think it’s unsafe.”. She said. I quckly offered to adopt that process in the ER as well. “I am sorry miss but if you wold just hold your husbands airway open like this, a fresh nurse will be around in an hour, oh am here’s the call bell…

    Walk am mile in anothers shoes!

  2. Raymond Babcock, High School Student says:

    This is my inspiration. I want to do that, take the brunt of the fires that the hospital receives daily. I want that pain, I want that fatigue, I want that hell to come at me at full force and stare it straight in the eye and wrestle it down and stab an IV in it. More importantly, I want no credit, no mention. I’m just a high schooler now with big dreams, but I’m dreaming of that. I’m dreaming of being seen as just another doctor in a white jacket, quietly walking away as the specialist walks in the room and gets all the credit.
    Yea sure I’ll curse him out in my mind, but I get the satisfaction of keeping that person alive so that smug bastard with a neurology certification can see the poor patient.

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