The Women and Men who Love Emergency Physicians

This is my February 2017 column in Emergency Medicine News. Now, doctor, go hug your  husband or wife.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2017/02000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Women_and_Men_Who_Love_EPs.20.aspx

When I go to work I take a lot of things with me. Everyone has their ritual, right? I take my backpack with my computer inside. I take my phone. I take charging cords, the true modern life-line. I take lunch. I carry a pen, flashlight and pocket-knife.
On a more abstract level, I take the wonderful education I received as a medical student and resident, coupled with my years of experience as a physician. I take my drug-store +2 diopter glasses, not only to read and suture but equally important, to look venerable and wise.
But I take something else. It’s certainly as important as all of the other stuff, if not more so in the long run. I take the love and support, encouragement and care of my wife Jan. Now mind you, this is not some hyper-sentimental claptrap. A spouse, for better or worse, is part and parcel, warp and woof of our lives. And in the best of circumstances (which I enjoy), my dear bride gives me encouragement, laughter, stability, passion and the not-so-rare kick in behind when I’m lazy, whiny or grumpy. (As I am so often wont to be.)
She reminds me of my priorities, reassuring me that I matter to her and the children however I may feel. She reminds me that feelings are often terrible lies. (A lesson we would all do well to remember.) In times past she has guided me through career changes because she could sense my unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is because she loves me and knows what I need; often better than I do. In short, she is my most dedicated advocate.
While I work in the ED, she works hard to manage the children (rather, the teens who require more diligence than mere children.) She looks after the family finances, a thing which is useful in keeping me out of prison for delinquent taxes and in keeping the banker away from the door so that we keep our home.
And in order to keep me moving forward through busy, difficult runs of shifts, she ensures that I have things to look forward to with family when she does our ‘master schedule.’ Even though two of our children are in college, she tries to arrange family events around my days off so that I don’t feel left out. In addition, so that I can enjoy our life together for a long time to come, she takes me to the gym. She sometimes makes me plank. I hate to plank but I do it.
This might sound, to the modern ear, as if my wife is living out some sort of domestic indentured servitude. It is not. It is teamwork. It is unity. It is covenant. We are one. We have common cause in our marriage and offspring.
The result of her remarkable effort is that when I go to work, I can focus on my job. I can carry the love and care I feel at home into the exam room, into the resuscitation room. I am secure and happy. This makes me a far more effective, calm, satisfied physician than I would otherwise be.
Thus, I make the money that we share equally as partners. Not only in our personal corporation but in our lives. I don’t get paid for me; I get paid for us and for ‘clan Leap’ as a whole.
When I come home from work, I come home to smiles, hugs and a welcome-home kiss. I come home to laughter and dinner, or date-night. To stories of her day, and the many other lives she touches, in our family and beyond it.
Sometimes I come home to strategic family planning sessions. Occasionally I come home to a tired or angry or sad wife and it’s my turn to be the one in the supporting role. My turn to fuss at teenagers or call about car insurance claims. My turn to shoo her to bed early and manage things. My turn, on days off, to send her for sanity breaks.
Those of us who are married, or in long-term committed relationships (which we in the South call a common-law marriage) must admit that without our wives or husbands, this whole gig would be much harder, and much more lonely than it is with our dear ones. Furthermore, that the patients we care for are touched and loved on, vicariously, by those who love us. Their role is not subordinate but intrinsic.
Through me, through our marriage bond, every sick child in my care has my wife’s eyes looking down on it gently. Every struggling nursing home patient has some of her kindness. Every difficult, irritable complainer has her patience and every smart-aleck teenager (or grouchy consultant) has her raised eyebrows and crossed arms gazing firmly on their behavior.
All of us owe so much of our professional lives to the women and men brave and loving enough to stay with us through all of our stupid, arrogant, surly behaviors. And to those men and women, let me just say: you are as much a part of our practices as we are. Thank you for being the other half, the silent partner, standing invisibly by us as we do the hard work of medicine.
We couldn’t do it half so well without you.

The Nativity in the Emergency Department; my December EM News column

Merry Christmas!  This is my December column in EM News.  The Nativity in the Emergency Department.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2012/12000/Second_Opinion__The_Nativity_in_the_Emergency.9.aspx

I once wrote a story for Christmas in which the nativity happened in an old, beat-up hunting trailer behind a man’s store, somewhere in the South on a cold winter night. From everywhere and all around, rough people and businessmen and politicians found their way to it, situated as it was in a cluttered backyard of a poor but compassionate store owner. Mary and Joseph had a car that broke down, you see, and they were stuck. I doubt if it’s that original. I suspect Hallmark or someone has done this story over and over.

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Yet it still resonates; it still bounces around inside my mind. I envision that cold night, and the star, and the people in my neighborhood, camo-wearing hunters and bearded bikers, the guy with the meth lab that blew up (no kidding), the men in the garage across the highway. I suppose it’s because the story fits everywhere.

As you might expect, I have this image of the manger scene set in an ED. I think back over my patients, and it makes perfectly good sense to me. I can’t decide if it’s a busy night or a slow one. But there are Mary and Joseph, maybe homeless. We do see the homeless, don’t we? And certainly the poor. “Doctor, we don’t have any money or anywhere to go. Can we stay here tonight?” We might try social work, but face it, they probably went home already. The poor are always among us.

If it’s a slow night, the nurses are stricken with a kind of magic. They fluff Mary’s pillow, and one of them (who used to do OB) notices the way Mary is breathing and holding her belly. “She’s going to deliver!” (For the purpose of the story, Labor and Delivery is full to capacity.) All of the nurses are hovering, getting ice for Mary and coffee for Joseph, who has not so much as the change to buy one.

If it’s a busy night, everyone is frantic, and when Mary says, “I think the baby is coming!” the staff roll their eyes, as if they needed one more thing between the overdoses and the chest pains, the weaknesses and the demanding daughter in the hallway insisting on endless attention for her aging mother.

But they do the right thing, don’t they? They almost always do. We almost always do. Before you can sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the baby is there. He’s crying because they do that. And Mary nurses him immediately after the nurses clean him off. But the nurses, and the doctor who caught him (fumbling, frightened … he hates delivering babies), all of them are somehow breathless. The hair on their necks and arms rises up, chills run along their spines. It’s not fear; it’s wonder. Inexplicable. Another poor baby. So what? Everyone is crying. Nobody knows why. Mary just takes it all in as Joseph wraps his arms around both of them, still in the same dirty sweater, still disheveled.

Of course, there are no animals. And yet. If it’s slow, the sleeping drunk in the next room wakes and stumbles in to see. Looking down, he cries, too. He understands something so deep he can’t express it. Something he forgot about hope and love and parents and forgiveness. He reaches into his pocket, pushes $100 into Joseph’s hand, and goes to lie down again. He sleeps in lovely dreams.

If it’s busy, things suddenly move slowly. Things happen. The mumbling, confused lady with dementia (whose daughter is so demanding) speaks for a few minutes with utter clarity, and finds her way to the door of the baby’s room. She holds her daughter’s hand and laughs, and recalls the details of her own maternity. The meth addict, tweaking and rocking back and forth, sits on the floor and just watches. He is calm. He does not scratch or scream. He is transfixed by the inexorable wonder he always hoped to find in drugs, and by the possibility that he might be whole again, that he might have his own wife, child, and delight. The man dying of lymphoma, passing the room as he is wheeled up for admission, asks the nurse to stop so he can look, and the child fixes its tiny eyes on him. He still dies, but he does it in peace.

The cardiac patient’s chest pain resolves, and the febrile infant in the hall-bed (the one who looked so sick) begins to laugh, cackling, breathless laughter. His fever is gone. Only the babies can see the angels swooping round, touching, healing, encouraging.

I can imagine all sorts of things. An angry mayor, searching for the child. Or professors and priests and ambassadors looking for him later, giving him gifts.

But all I see now is the dawn. Mary is strong. She has no time to be admitted. Joseph says they have to go. They are loaded with formula and money, with snacks and blankets (and diapers). They are hugged and kissed by strangers, and everyone waves goodbye.

The next shift asks, “What was that all about?”

“Don’t know,” is the answer, “but I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

And the chaos descends again, tempered by inexpressible hope, washed in love.

The Questions we Cannot Answer

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My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Questions_We_Can_t_Answer.13.aspx

I remember the early trials of thrombolytics; not for stroke but for MI. During my residency we were still comparing tPA with Streptokinase. It was pretty incredible stuff. Now we’ve moved beyond that positively ‘medieval’ method of treating heart attacks and have advanced to incredible interventions in coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Furthermore, we are able to rescue more and more people from the brink of death with advanced medications and with techniques, like ECMO, that our medical forebears couldn’t even imagine. These days, people can say things like: ‘I had severe sepsis last year, but I recovered,’ or ‘A few years ago I nearly died of Stage 4 cancer, but here I am!’ Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, their families would have told their stories with sadness.

What we do is amazing. The science behind our saves, coupled with our training and passion, make medicine all but miraculous. I am proud of what I know, proud of what I do. I am so impressed with my colleagues. And I am often awestruck by the scientists and engineers, without whom we would be apes poking bodies with sticks (good-looking apes in scrubs, mind you).
If we could, at the end of our lives, look back at the gifts we gave to the sick and injured, we would see that they far outweigh our errors and mistakes, our losses and failures. And yet, for all our modern innovations, we have limits. We can ask and answer a constellation of questions, and we can fix untold numbers of problems. But there are questions that defy us, and problems that leave us shaking our heads.
In spite of our pride in science, and our common dismissal of all that is ‘unscientific,’ suffering remains, and we can’t answer why. Who knows this better than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to emergency care?
For all of our miraculous saves, men and women, boys and girls, still suffer horrible injuries and have cardiac arrests, fatal pulmonary emboli. They still die at the scene of car crashes. They still develop mental illness and kill themselves. Addiction still separates families and leaves parents weeping for children, lost from life or lost in the jungle of drugs and desperate lives.
Despite the extension of life we offer so many, even the healthiest men and women will, at some point, leave one another and pass away from this life. And, knowing this fact does nothing to ease the pain of the loss. The most ancient husband or wife still shudders and weeps with the loss of a spouse the way a newlywed would; perhaps more bitterly, knowing love more deeply at 85 than ever they did at 25. And yet, for all our scientific wonders, we can’t say what lies beyond this life.
What I’m saying is that for all our medical wonders, there are just questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t fix. And it is likely that our science, however wondrous, never will have that capacity.
We know it. It’s why we cry after failed resuscitations, and why we call our children when they travel, frantic to know they have arrived. It’s why every EMS tone terrifies the parents of teens and every scan of a loved one is terrifying to those of us in medicine. We can’t control the troubles of this life nearly as much as we think.
Mankind has always known this. Ancient physicians, as limited as they were, did their best and wanted more. They saw the dangers of this life, and their own incapacity, with what was likely more immediacy than we. And sick, injured humans have always known the fear of loss, the questions of suffering, the pain of death.
Into this ‘vail of tears’ we proceed every shift. This is why I often tell young physicians that they should read and understand more than medicine. I favor religious faith, natural to mankind as it is. But if they decline religion, they must have a philosophy. Or they should read great novels, stories, poetry; or reach into the depth of music for some kind of solace in this mess of the unknown.
But let me say this, now that December is here: Christmas comes to offer hope to the hopeless and answers to the hardest of questions. There are those of us who believe its message with all our broken hearts. But even those who find it a charming myth can surely see beauty in the story of God (however you perceive God to be) become man. God suffering with men and women and rescuing them. God come to give a hope of forever to humans trapped in mortality. This is especially poignant to those whose lives have been a succession of one devastating loss after another. It is comfort beyond medicine for them to believe in a God, come to forgive their wandering ways, answering them in the midst of their cutting, suicidal, self medicating cries for rescue. No pill is as good as God come to make every loss whole, and heal every pain in eternity. No resuscitation comparable to God come to die and defeat death.
The pain of this life is enormous. We try so hard, but we can do only so much. The manger in Bethlehem is, if nothing else, a beautiful story to remind us that just maybe, there is healing for the wounds that lie beyond our science. Perhaps the very dream that there is meaning, that there is hope, is a suggestion that there is more there, more here, than meets the eye.
And maybe, the manger is even more than a distant dream, more than a quaint bedtime story, glowing as it does in the chaotic night of human suffering that darkens our ER’s and trauma centers.
Merry Christmas!

Rare Gems in the Rolling Seasons of Life

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/10000/Life_in_Emergistan__Rare_Gems_in_the_Rolling.15.aspx

My column from the October edition of Emergency Medicine News

It’s August. I’m looking out the windows of our log house and across the immense variety of green leaves, on oak and birch, mountain laurel and sycamore, magnolia and honeysuckle. It’s a rain forest here. Indeed, after a long dry spell, we’ve had days and days of soaking rain, with breaks in the clouds so that the sun can raise steam from the earth like water coming up in the garden of Eden.

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But the greens have hints of yellow. And the clouds are not just summer thunderheads but low, fast, and broken. The dogs are lazier than normal, as their crusted red-clay coats begin to flake off to reveal the fur underneath. Even the cats seem less mobile, if that were possible. The evenings, despite the blast furnace of August, cool more than in July.

All in all, the signs are there for those who watch. I grew up watching the weather, watching leaves flipped before storms, listening to the sound of winter winds, smelling storms on the air. I know Autumn is hiding across the Blue Ridge Mountains, a child peeking over and shaping the weather, teasing us, reminding us that summer will soon go on its own vacation and the wind will chill us and drive down the leaves, their red, orange, and yellow as varied as summer green.

But for all my love of Autumn, for all my desire for cool air and the smell of wood smoke, Autumn hurts me. It is the end of summer and the beginning of fall that takes my children from me and forces them back to school and schedules. It’s difficult enough to leave them for work, more so to know that my schedule and theirs conspire to separate something so vital, so elemental, as the time families spend in communion with one another.

Even as I write, my daughter Elysa, a high school sophomore, is finalizing her summer reading. Her brother Elijah, a high school senior, is spending his last days with his girlfriend Tori, who leaves for the University of South Carolina all too soon. My oldest boys, Sam and Seth, will return to Clemson in a few days, closer and closer to independence. The leaves change, the sky is darker, the children are growing up and moving on, with the imperatives and requirements of their own lives, their own passions, their own needs and desires, their own loves.

As difficult as this can be, I recognize that I did the same, as did my wife Jan. And our parents and theirs. This is the cycle, the natural history of the world. We raise and guard our precious children and launch them forth to do the same. And we hope that the chords that tie us remain intact; that the circle remains unbroken.

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Time is Fleeting

What has any of this to do with our work? Our physician lives? The lesson is this: Time is fleeting; life and love are precious. Wives and husbands and children are rare gems in the rolling seasons of life. So waste not, want not, as it were.

The seasons will turn. The clouds race, the school buses arrive, and the graduations loom. In the midst of this, we must never delude ourselves that our money, our directorships, even our retirement accounts will ever be sufficient solace if we look back and feel that we did not use our time wisely with the ones who mattered most of all.

Our work, our patients, our skills all matter to the extent that they help others to live long and well, that they help those parents and children to enjoy the passing years together. Beyond that, they are important but less so than our own people, the ones we are committed to, bound to by vows and rings, by birth and blood, by adoption and choice.

So as the year turns and new opportunities and shifts arise, be honored. But be circumspect. Keep before you the fact that everything changes, but with attention and love, all of our connections can remain intact despite years and geography. If only we value them more than we do our certificates, degrees, incomes and positions.

The clouds will roll and the leaves will fall, my friends, and we might as well watch them pass with joy, not regret.

Copyright © 2016 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Overwhelmed EP in the Single Coverage ER

This was my column in Emergency Medicine News in September, 2016

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/09000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Overwhelmed_EP_in_a.12.aspx

I was working a 6 PM to 2 AM locums shift a few months ago and was preparing to leave. There were about 15 patients in rooms and 15 waiting to come back. I asked the lone night physician: ‘hey, do you want me to stay a while?’
Her answer, defeated, was this: ‘no, don’t worry. It’s always like this.’ I packed my bag and headed to the hotel, still feeling guilty but also exhausted. And wondering why my colleagues are treated so poorly in emergency departments all over the land.
I see it time and time again. Overwhelming numbers of patients with increasingly complex medical and social problems, versus inadequate physician coverage at all hours of the day, and especially the night. We’ve all done it. Already fatigued, we have five chest pains yet to see, as well as a trauma on the way into the department. Two more patients have fever but don’t speak English and we’re waiting to make the translation line work. And there’s a large facial laceration yet to be repaired. And that’s just the first nine patients. It’s not even three hours into the shift. (And the EMR backup is in process.)
Do we call the cardiologist and internist to take over on the chest pain, ask the surgeon to come and check the trauma and get plastics to close the face? Hardly. Furthermore, that’s just more time arguing on the phone. It’s easier to forge ahead as wait times creep from two to four to eight hours. Furthermore, on days it’s the same; with the added gift of acting as backup for all of the primary care offices.
There was a time when we actually might have asked other staff members to help. Those times are mostly gone. As a specialty, we’ve spent decades saying ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of it!’ And our fellow physicians have obliged.
But at least, when we’re alone and overwhelmed, we don’t have to worry about lawsuits, patient satisfaction, quality measures, charting, coding, door to needle times, door to CT times, door to doctor times, door to…oh, yeah, we do have to worry about those things. As well as the sound criticism that will follow in the light of day, when all the administrators and other specialties are rested and shocked (shocked I say!) at how things went when we were alone.
The thing is, hospitals get a real bargain out of the understaffed emergency department. The physician does a heroic job of seeing every conceivable complaint and doing it with knowledge, skill, professionalism, urgency and political savvy. If you think of what they bill for that 35 patient, single coverage shift versus what they pay the exhausted physician, it’s a ‘win, win for old admin!’
In fact, emergency department physicians do the work of several people throughout their shifts, from secretary (filling out forms and entering orders), to social worker; from surgeon to psychologist, pediatrician to hospice worker. And we do it while trying our best to keep up with ever more complex charting rules, treatment pathways and admission battles.
We also do it when expectations are ridiculous. For instance, why should we, in a busy urban department, be doing the full stroke assessment when a neurologist could be at the bedside? Why are we arguing about the NSTEMI patient, or managing complex rhythms, when cardiologists (the alleged experts) are available? Why am I doing the neonatal sepsis workup in all the chaos when a pediatrician could come to see the child?
I’ll tell you why. Partly because we’re perpetually trying to prove our worth and fortitude. ‘I can handle it!’ And partly because we simply agreed. Consequently, ’call me when the workup is complete’ is a common mantra in the ED where we are indeed interns for life.
I wonder, are we training our bright eyed residents for this in the trauma center, in the simulation lab? Because when they leave the medical center for the community, this is how it looks. All the exciting, cool stuff. But ‘all by your lonesome.’
I know that lots of jobs are hard. I get that. But from what I’ve seen, all too many emergency departments over the past few years that are miserable, and dangerous, working environments. Does OSHA ever even look at our workplaces? Because when JCAHO does, they just increase the work-load in the alleged interest of patient safety (and their own job security).
We should all be proud of what we do. But we shouldn’t be abused children, or Stockholm Syndrome hostages to inadequate conditions. We should be treated as valued professionals. And if there aren’t enough other doctors to go around, every effort should be made to help and encourage those willing to work in such daunting settings.
And until you’ve come to work a shift alone, with a full waiting room and ten potentially critical patients right up front, you don’t understand what it’s like on the ground. And you have no grounds to criticize anyone facing the same tsunami of expectations and exhaustion in the noble effort to save life and limb, and ease suffering.
In the end, the weary look in the eyes of my colleagues breaks my heart. And something has to be done.
I call foul.

Living the Locums Life: A Short Guide in Four Columns

Dear reader and locums travelers, past, present or future.  These are the four columns I have recently written for Emergency Medicine News as a series about locums emergency medicine.  For now, rather than post the entire text of each, or put them in four separate posts, I am lumping them together for your ease.

I hope you find this helpful!

Sincerely,

Edwin Leap

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/05000/Life_in_Emergistan__An_Emergency_Physician_s_Guide.2.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/06000/LIFE_IN_EMERGISTAN__Locums_Puts_the_World_in_Your.20.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/07000/Life_in_Emergistan__High_Rates_and_Other_Perks_of.12.aspx

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/08000/Life_in_Emergistan__Rules_for_Locums___Be.17.aspx

 

Doctors and Nurses ‘Getting in Trouble’ too easily…

Trouble

 

My column in the April edition of Emergency Medicine News

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/04000/Life_in_Emergistan__Doctors_and_Nurses_Getting_in.6.aspx

Are you afraid you’ll ‘get in trouble?’ It’s a common theme in America today, isn’t it? We’re awash in politically charged rhetoric and politically correct speech codes. Our children go to colleges where there are ‘safe spaces,’ to protect their little ears from hurtful words and their lectures or articles contain ‘trigger warnings’ so that they won’t have to read about things that might upset their delicate constitutions. All around that madness are people who are afraid they’ll ‘get in trouble’ if they cross one of those lines. I mean, one accusation of intolerance, sexism, genderism, agism or racism, in industry, government or education, and it’s off to the review panel for an investigation and re-education!
Worse, I see it in hospitals now. I hear so many nurses say ‘I can’t do that, I’ll get in trouble.’ I remember the time I asked a secretary to help me send a photo of a fracture to an orthopedic surgeon (with the patient’s consent, mind you). ‘That’s a HIPAA violation and I’m not losing my job to do it!’ OK…
There have been times I’ve said, ‘please print the patient’s labs so they can take it to their doctor tomorrow.’ ‘No way! That’s against the rules! I’ll get in trouble!’ Seems rational. The patient asks for his own labs and takes them to his doctor. It can only be for nefarious purposes…like health!
Sometimes it’s even sillier. Me: ‘Patient in bed two needs an EKG!’ Nurse: ‘You have to put in the order first, or I’ll get in trouble.’ In fact, this theme emerges again and again when I ask for things like dressings, splints, labs or anything else on a busy shift. I’ve expressed my frustration about physician order entry before, and I know it’s a losing battle. But when there is one of me and three or four of them, and ten patients or more, it’s hard to enter every order contemporaneously. But I know, ‘you’ll get in trouble.’
I remember being told, by a well-meaning (and obviously threatened) nurse, ‘if I put on a dressing without an order it’s like practicing medicine without a license and I can lose my nursing license.’ Well that makes sense!
I overheard a nursing meeting not long ago, and it seemed that the nurse manager (obviously echoing her ‘higher-ups’) was more concerned with making sure the nurses didn’t do wrong things than with anything touching on the actual care of human beings.
I suppose it’s no surprise. ‘When all you have is a hammer,’ the saying goes, ‘all the world’s a nail.’ Now that we have given all of medicine to the control of persons trained in management, finance and corporatism, that’s the thing they have to offer. Rules, regulations and ultimately threats.
Of course, ‘getting in trouble’ applies to physicians as well. It just takes a different form. Didn’t get that door to needle, door to door, door to cath-lab, door to CT time? We’ll take your money. Didn’t get the patient admitted in the committee approved time-window? We’ll take your money.
Never mind that seeing patients in a timely manner is rendered nigh impossible by the overwhelming and growing volumes of patients, coupled with the non-stop documentation of said patients for billing purposes. Keep shooting for those times! Times are easier metrics to measure. Times are easily reported to insurers and the government. Times, charts, rules-followed, rules violated. The vital signs of corporate medicine in America today. (And don’t give me that ‘it would all be better with the government in charge.’ Two letters give that the lie: VA.)
No, we’re an industry constantly ‘in trouble.’ But not really for any good reason. We give good care as much as we are logistically able. We still save lives, comfort the wounded and dying, arrange the follow-up, care for the addicted and the depressed. We still do more with less with every passing year.
But odds are, we won’t stop ‘getting in trouble.’ Because for some people, waving the stick is the only management technique they know. Still, it saddens me. I’m sad for all of the powerless. The nurses and techs and clerks and all the rest who are treated as replaceable commodities by administrators who are themselves (in fact) also replaceable. I hate to see nurses, compassionate, brilliant, competent, walk on egg shells in endless fear, less of medical error than administrative sin. Their jobs are hard enough already without that tyranny, leveled by people who should appreciate rather than harass them.
And it saddens me for young physicians, who don’t remember when being a physician was a thing of power and influence in a hospital. They, endlessly threatened and unable to escape thanks to student loans, are indentured for life, short of a faked death certificate.
Finally, it saddens me for the sick and dying. Because we cannot do our best when our motives are driven by fear more than skill and compassion.
The truth is, however, threats only go so far. And once people have been threatened enough, there’s no telling how they’ll respond.
Just saying…

 

My Most Important Patient

Medical stethoscope on keyboard as symbol for administration and office

Listening for heartbeat of most important patient

 

This was my column in the March edition of Emergency Medicine News, as linked below.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/03000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Most_Important_Patient.13.aspx

My most important patient requires my constant diligence. For this reason, I am seldom far away from him. Only a few minutes inattention and there will be problems. I cannot forget my patient; I am trained to attend to him constantly. I am a professional, and my patient is, ultimately, my customer and the customer’s service is paramount, I am told. I am reminded by policies and procedures as well, and there are those who will contact me, day or night, regarding failure to do what my most important patient requires.
In these 29 years since I started medical school, I have seen many wounded and sick patients of varying degrees of complexity and interest. Legions of fevers and columns of colds, tribes of chest pains and nations of bruises, entire cities of coughs, herds (as it were) of nausea and vomiting and battalions of sprains. Flocks of fractures and entire civilizations of chest pain. But none of them, not one, occupied me like my most important patient.
I was guided by teachers in urgency and priority, I was taught to hurry here, take time there, but always be attentive. I was shepherded by wise physicians before me, but never did any of them put a patient on a pedestal the way my most important patient has been. Neither snakebite nor sepsis, aneurysm nor arterial blockage, pneumonia nor parasite has ever been thrust before me as the most important patient…until now.
What could he have, you ask? What affliction? Who could he be? Of what importance? Celebrity? King? Judge or politician? Child of my own? Parent or priest? Hardly. Not one, not even captains of industry who endow hospitals, have the power of this patient.
This patient, this most important patient of all, stares back at me all day long. I examine and treat him with my hands and sometimes my voice as I stare intently back into his face. I wander off to other ‘patients,’ but all pale in comparison to this one. He violates all privacy and priority and knows absolutely everything. I see a chest pain next-door, or a pelvic pain across the hall; a weeping suicidal woman a few rooms down. I come back and tell my most important patient each secret. The sordid or tragic details of every life I whisper to him, or write upon his screen.
Once my hands loved examining other ‘patients;’ the shape of normal and injured bone, the sound of clear and diseased lungs, the nuance of stroke, the tenderness of the abdomen that took so long to understand. Now I have no time. I must touch my patient, enter the password and let my well- trained fingers run across plastic, not skin or bone. Or speak into his ear with a microphone, far more expedient than time wasted with others. Far more important and billable.
Every time I wander away, my most important patient calls me back; ‘hurry, hurry, tell me about the others! Don’t take too long!’ And others humans, more important than I am, remind me. ‘Don’t neglect your most important patient! Finish everything he needs as soon as you can! He is the key to all of our money! And if you don’t, we will fine you, or punish you in some other way for failing to care for the most important one of all! But make sure the flesh ‘patients’ are happy; give them a little time or they might be upset and not come back, and then what will you tell your most important patient?’
My most important patient is now everyone’s most important patient. He (or perhaps sometime she) is in charge. Sometimes he is shy and recalcitrant and will not wake up, will not look at me with his glowing eye. When that happens, nothing can happen. No orders for labs, xrays or medicine. He is an angry god, and when he is angry no one else can be happy. Sometimes he is confused and plays pranks on me, so that what I thought I said to him is turned on its head or made unintelligible. He is capricious that way; but ultimately far better than ‘people,’ who say and do things that my most important patient isn’t programmed to understand or record. He doesn’t like that, and forces me to do things in a confusing manner because he is angry.
And he is a time miser; he wants all of my time and those who brought him to me (or rather brought me to him, a kind of sacrifice) know that he is greedy and yet expect everything to run as before, when other patients were important.
But I know, and you know, those days are gone like electrons on a wire. Because now, the most important patient of all takes the most time and the most effort and the most diligence because data and billing and tracking and policies are what he does and his handlers love those things the way we used to love humans. And spoiled as my most important patient is, I believe it is unlikely that anything will ever be the same again.
Pity. Humans are interesting. But sick or well, they simply cannot stand in the way of data entry.

The Leap Physician Satisfaction System

This is my column from the November issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Observations on keeping physicians professionally satisfied, healthy and happy.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2015/11000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Leap_Physician.7.aspx

The Leap Physician Satisfaction System

I have never been the director of any professional group. I have, however, been directed. As such, I have a few tips for those who are directors and administrators. I give you my ‘physician satisfaction system.’ It is arranged in no particular order.

In every physician break-room or lounge, there should be a wall for photos of girlfriends, boyfriends, children, spouses, parents, dogs, cats, horses, boats, new shotguns or whatever makes those doctors happy. Emphasis on children and spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, moms and dads. See below.

Post this where physicians work. ‘If you have a husband or wife, please avoid having a girlfriend or boyfriend. It is unfair to your spouse and children. And it is very, very expensive, as hobbies go. You’re better off with a boat.’

In every physician break room there should be: 1) a recliner 2) a refrigerator with snacks and drinks 3) a television with cable 4) a computer with Internet and without the silly hospital fire-wall. Pay for it yourself if you must.

Know your doctors. The best way to do this is to talk to them. It’s tough to really talk on a shift. The best way to do this is away from work. A quarterly group dinner is a nice touch. Or simply, ‘hey, let’s go to lunch one day and catch up.’ You have to mean it though.

Remember that a married doctor is a unit. When there are important decisions to be made (into which you and your partners are allowed input) invite your doctors’ husbands and wives to give their opinions. You’ll be grateful for the wisdom a loving spouse brings to the table. And remember, nobody is more motivated to make the group money than a spouse with a mortgage to pay and babies to raise.

If you really want to score points, send a card or note to the group spouses now and then. Thank them for their service, their encouragement, their patience. Ask them how their family is doing. Remember that being married to a physician ain’t exactly a pony ride. Everybody needs a kind word.

Attend weddings, celebrate births, have anniversary parties. Visit the sick in your group. Send condolences. Mourn at funerals. Laugh and cry. If you take the time to know them, it won’t be hard. They’ll be family.

Lead…from…the…front. If your docs tell you nights are really hard, work a string of nights. If they tell you that someone on staff is really hard to consult, talk to that person yourself a few times. (Tell those difficult doctors to back off and play nice.) If everyone hates the EMR, do everything you can to make it work for them. Never ask your ‘troops’ to do something you won’t. Never, ever.

Be fiercely partisan towards your guys and gals.

Help your doctors develop long-term plans, including an exit strategy. Don’t talk about it, do it. We can’t all go into urgent care or academics, but we can plan for a slow, steady withdrawal as the years go by. Encourage wise decision making, especially in the young Jedi.

Develop a sabbatical. Encourage your doctors on sabbatical to travel, take a class, enjoy sleeping in their own beds. It may be the longest time they’ve slept all night with their husbands or wives consistently in years. It may be the first full reset of their circadian rhythm since medical school.

Watch your doctors closely. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, depressed, anxious. Help them through mistakes. Let them decompress. Let them be sad. Don’t chastise, teach. Find a local counselor in case they need to talk about that death, that tragedy, their personal demons. Doctors kill themselves sometimes. Try to keep it from happening.

Identify the strengths in your doctors. Some are born leaders; let them move in that direction. Some are brilliant clinicians, use that. Some are great with people. Let them mentor. Some have hobbies or interests that make them better physicians. Celebrate the unique individual gifts that every partner brings to the table. Now and then, use these to remind the hospital what a unique and valuable team you have.

Take pride in your group. A logo and t-shirt would be a nice point of pride. Brag about your doctors. Tell the local newspaper about them. Help them be invested in the community, treasured by the community.

Praise your partners, both to their faces and to others. Write down the good things they do for future letters of reference.

Give your team permission. Permission to succeed, permission to fail. Permission to try new things and sometimes, permission to leave it all behind.

On really busy nights, call in pizza from home. On terrible nights, come in and use your authority to make things happen more smoothly.

There are a lot of schedules, in a lot of ED’s, with holes in the schedule. If you don’t want your entire group to realize this, and leave, and then come back making more as locums than they did before, then be their advocate.

We have a hard job. But with the right leader, it can be wonderful even when it is hard. It’s up to you, directors, to set the tone. Good luck and Godspeed.

Emergency Departments of The Rich and Famous

This was my October column in Emergency Medicine News.  All of those cool places to work have a dark side; or at least, a weird side!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2015/10000/Life_in_Emergistan__EDs_of_the_Rich_and_the_Famous.15.aspx

The following excerpts will give you an idea of what life can be like while practicing emergency medicine in very beautiful, very coveted areas of the United States. I will not name towns or hospitals, as the situations are highly reproducible from place to place and season to season. We’ll just call it St. Resort hospital. If you doubt me, call up your friends who work in such locales, with the rich, the powerful and the well rested. Or with the sun burnt, drunk and tasteless. Vacation sites cross all demographics, but in different ways.

‘Dr. Leap, I’m having chest pain. I have pretty bad heart disease, and I saw my cardiologist at the University last week. He said I probably need another stent because I’m having chest pain a lot more than normal. But my wife and I decided to drive here for the week. What should I do? My son is a heart surgeon at Mayo Clinic. (Two hours to nearest interventional cardiologist. And of course your son is a heart surgeon!)

‘Dr. Leap, my daughter has a laceration on her face. By the way, I’m a plastic surgeon myself! (Full disclosure, I trained at Harvard and I’m faculty at Duke!) Can you tell me how you’re going to close the wound?’ (Stands close by during closure, asking questions, sniffing and making subtle noises to guide technique.)

From administrator: ‘Dr. Leap, Mr. Whatzit is a very, very important donor to the hospital. It’s critical that he get good care. Do you understand?’ (You mean, unlike the bad care I give everyone else?)

‘Dr. Leap, I live in Big City, USA. This morning, I went for a hike and now I have red bumps on my legs. I’ve been on the Internet and contacted my physician at home. He said I should be very concerned about Brown Recluse Bites and Lyme’s Disease, and that you should give me a prescription for Doxycycline. Oh, and I’m a pharmacist.’ (In the South we call them ‘bug bites’ and go on about our business, remarkably free of antimicrobials. Patient unimpressed with my colloquial knowledge of unspecified ‘bug bites.’)

‘Dr. Leap, I passed out! My wife and I have been married for 50 years and we decided to come to South-Town and ride bikes to lunch. After about six miles, I felt so dizzy I just fell over! Oh, and I’m on Coumadin. And I have a defibrillator. I’m a cardiologist myself, and my electrophysiologist is at Cleveland Clinic and wants you to call.’ (Heat index around 115 degrees, humidity 100%. What were you thinking?)

‘Hey doc, I don’t know how the %#S@% that happened, but I had a few &^%# beers and went out into the surf at night and stepped on that $@^^ stingray. Yeah, I’m drunk. What about it!’ (BP 215/110, which is also his peak and trough alcohol level. Patient hasn’t taken meds, or seen a doctor, since Reagan administration.)

‘Dr. Leap, it’s the funniest thing. I mean, I’m in good shape. I row ten miles a day and run every other. But I came up here for a wedding and I can’t breathe! I have a headache and I’m coughing. My living? Oh I’m a malpractice lawyer. But my sister is head of pulmonary medicine at Washington University. Can you call her? She has a few suggestions for you.’ (Sea level to 10,000 feet in one day; and I’m happy to be told what to do by someone who isn’t here and thinks I’m a hick.)

‘Dr. Leap, I know you say I should be admitted, and you’re right, I can barely walk with that broken ankle. But I have a camp to clean up and an Elk tag to fill. And nobody to drive me back home in my camper. So I hope you aren’t offended when I sign out and go back. Nothing personal. I’ll come back if I have to.’

(This one I get. It’s an Elk tag! Who can blame him?)

‘Dr. Leap, dude, I passed out on the beach and my skin is like, on fire! You have to do something! Oh, and I left all my Oxycontin at home before we brought the RV down. Can you help me out? My doctor is on a mission trip in Asia or some ^$#^.’ (Footnote: (60% BSA covered in sunburns, with scattered blisters. Prednisone, yes. Oxycontin? Nope. )

From Medical Staff office: ‘Dr. Leap: here is the Summer call schedule. Nobody is on call because everybody is on vacation. Good luck.’ (Footnote: technically I’m on call. For everything. At least in some locations.)

Honestly, most all vacation town folks are nice people trying to stay healthy and have fun. The same goes for physicians and administration. But poor planning, unrealistic expectation of local facilities and carelessness take their toll.

So next time you’re tempted by the scenery in that glorious add, just keep this all in mind. Remember to wear your sun screen, acclimate gradually, and remember that 80% of the ‘manageable’ annual volume will probably be compressed into the three months that constitute the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer at St. Resort Hospital in Vacationville, USA.