Pandora’s Pill Bottle. (A poem about the narcotic epidemic)

Pandora’s Pill Bottle

‘Patients who suffer from painful conditions
Should always be treated by caring physicians,
Who never forget to give good medications
For problems from fractures to awful menstruation.’

‘The fifth vital sign is your bright guiding light
The pain scale will lead you to do what is right,
So doctor remember to show some compassion
Since giving narcotics is now quite the fashion!’

Thus we were told for a decade or two
As patients stopped breathing and turned rather blue.
But hospitals loved their new high survey scores
And doctors were turned into pill-writing whores.

Yet things are now changing across the whole nation.
There’s blame all around and new drug regulations.
‘What were you thinking? What were you doing?’
‘How could this happen? Someone will start suing!’

In ER’s and clinics and every location
We docs shake our heads with increasing frustration.
We did what they told us despite all our fears
And Pandora’s Pill Bottle spilled out for years.

The pain scale betrayed us and caused too much trouble
The fifth vital sign is a big popping bubble.
The statistics we’re reading have left us quite nauseous.
So we’re trying new things to save lives and be cautious.

Dear doctors it’s you that must make these decisions!
Push back against administrative derision!
And when those ‘above us’ make policy errors
Stand in for the truth to prevent further terrors.

Back Pain, a Prisoner and a Lenten Reminder of Mercy

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She was large, and heavily tattooed.  She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain.  Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality.  Her family, husband and children, a victim of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.

They can’t have narcotics in jail, and in fact, narcotics don’t have much role in back pain, we’re finding.  But in jail, she lay on a thin mattress on a concrete pad.  Getting up and lying down were, she said, agonizing.

Was she lying?  Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible.  The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years.  This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain?  It’s tough doc.’

It’s tough for sure.  Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only  in her 30s.  Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.

Ultimately, after two visits, she seemed worse.  She seemed to have difficulty standing.  Her sobs continued.  Her officer and I sympathetic but worried about being tricked.  She was given pain meds and transferred for an MRI.  Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a hematoma, maybe an abscess.  Who knew?

Here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were.  The compassionate will be cheated, fooled, and lied to.  This is life in the ER. This is life on earth.  The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.

But we have the last laugh.  Because the right thing is just that.  The right thing.  And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season.  To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.

I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me, even if she gamed me, it’s OK.   I’m not offended.  She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken.  She was a prisoner. And here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners.  And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned.  Isaiah 61: 1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,a
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of his ministry.  Luke 4: 16-21.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this passage is healing and liberty.  And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’  Jesus wants to offer this to all.

This Lenten season, can I do any less?  I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption?  God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.

And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.

Edwin

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.

Malpractice Isn’t a Sin

Dear physicians, PAs, NPs, nurses, medics, assorted therapists, techs and all the rest:

The great thing about our work is that we intervene and help people in their difficult, dire situations.  We ease pain, we save lives. Our work is full of meaning and joy.  However, we sometimes make mistakes.  But remember, in the course of a career you’ll do far more good than any harm you may have caused.

I know this issue lingers in many hearts.  I know it because it lies in mine.  And I’ve seen it in other lives.  I said this once to a group of young residents and one young woman burst into tears. I never knew the whole story, but I imagine there was some burden of pain she was carrying for an error she had made.

But just in case you too have lingering anxiety or guilt about some error you made in patient care, I feel it necessary to say this: neither honest errors nor even malpractice are sins.  They are mistakes, born of confusing situations, fatigue, inadequate experience or knowledge, overwhelming situations, the complexity of disease and the human body, social situations, systems problems, general chaos.  Born of your own humanity and frailty.  Your ‘shocking’ inability to be perfect at all times, and in all situations.  They do not make you evil, bad, stupid or even unqualified.  (PS If you’re not actually a physician but pretending to be one, you’re actually unqualified so stop it.)

As a Christian physician I have contemplated this over and over and have come to the conclusion that God knows my inadequacies and loves, and accepts me, regardless.  He has forgiven my sins.  I embrace that reality every day.  He forgives my pride, anger, sloth, greed, lust, all of them.  But he doesn’t have to forgive my honest errors.  Because they are not sins. Go back and read that again.  Your honest errors are not sins.

Mind you, all of the brokenness of this world is, in my theology, the result of ‘Sin’ with a capital S.  (Not in the sense of minute, exacting moral rules, but in the sense of the cosmic separation of the creation from the Creator.)

So, my mistakes, my failures are born of Sin, but are not ‘sins.’  If my mistakes, if the harm I may cause, come from rage, vindictiveness, cruelty, gross negligence, murder, drunkenness or other impairment on the job, then they could reasonably be due to ‘sin.’  But even so, those sins can be forgiven, and washed away with confession and true repentance.  (Not platitudes or superficial admissions of guilt, mind you, but genuine heart felt ‘metanoia,’ the Greek for repentance, which means ‘to change direction, or change one’s mind.’)

If you are not a believer, join us!  But if you aren’t interested, I love you too and want you to move forward, not burdened by unnecessary guilt.  If you are a believer, and a practitioner, remember that Jesus (The Great Physician) set the bar pretty high and doesn’t expect your perfection, only your honest, loving best.

Mistakes, even mistakes that rise to malpractice, are not sins.  But even if they rise to sin for reasons listed above, they are no worse than any other.  Which means Jesus atoned for them as well.

Move forward in joy.  You were forgiven before you even started worrying about it.

Now go see a patient. The waiting room is full of people who need you!

Merry Christmas!

Edwin

 

 

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.

EPIC Go-Live Day! And a prayer for wisdom…

Some dear friends of mine, at Busy Community Hospital, are having a momentous day.  Today is the ‘Go-Live’ for their brand new, shiny EPIC EMR.

For those of you outside the hallowed, creaky halls of medicine, EPIC is one of the most widely used electronic medical records systems in America.  It’s big, it’s expensive, it captures lots of data, integrates ER’s, hospitals, clinics, labs and everything else.  (Probably your cat’s shot records too.)

EPIC is also a company highly connected to the current administration; big donors to the President.  FYI.

The problem isn’t what you get out of it, it’s the cumbersome way you have to put it in.  In my opinion, for what that’s worth, EPIC is not intuitive. It takes a long time to learn to use it well.  I have never used it in a situation where it could be fully customized, but I’m told that makes it easier.  And admittedly, some docs and nurses truly love EPIC and are at peace with it.  I suspect they have implanted brain chips or have undergone some brain-washing.

https://giphy.com/gifs/zoolander-ac38RqTgQXYAM

Typically EPIC instruction occurs over weeks, as it has for my friends.  The first time I used it was in a busy urgent care, which was part of a large medical system.  And I learned it over one hour. On the Go-Live day.  So I’m sympathetic.

Thus, I have a prayer for those in the belly of the beast right now:

A Go-Live Prayer for those with new EMR systems.

Lord, maker of electrons and human brains, help us as we use this computer system, which You, Sovereign over the Universe, clearly saw coming and didn’t stop.

Thank you that suffering draws us to you.

Thank you for jobs, even on bad days.

Forgive us for the unnecessarily profane things we have said, or will say, about this process.

As we go forward, we implore you:

Let our tech support fly to us on wings of eagles and know what to do.

May our passwords and logons be up to date.

Protect us from the dreaded ‘Ticket’ submitted to help us.

May our data be saved, not lost.

Let the things we order be the things we have.

Shield us from power loss, power surge, virus and idiots tinkering with the system.

Give our patients patience to understand why everything takes three hours longer.

And may our prescriptions actually go to the pharmacy.

Keep us from rage and tirades.

Protect the screens from our angry fists.

May everyone go home no more than two or three hours late.

And keep our patients, and sanity, intact.

Great physician, great programmer, heal our computers.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

 

Some new, important screening questions for the EMR

Scrolling through FEEMRS (you know, Fancy Expensive Electronic Medical Records System), I was stricken by just how much data is on the chart.  I mean, it’s pretty dang amazing.  But I was, simultaneously, reminded that most of it doesn’t help me.

It helps someone, mind you.  For instance coders and insurance companies.  The complexity of EMR also helps those who track our car to door, door to chair, chair to chair, chair to bed, bed to bathroom, bed to X-ray, request to blanket, request to sandwich, request to TV remote, request to ice chips, complaint to Dilaudid and discharge to angry times.  (The really important stuff!)

But so often, FEEMRS just gets in my way.  I mean, I struggle to find little things like triage information, medications or last menstrual period. And as for visual acuity?  Faggettaboutit!

However, I do think there are some things that might be useful screening questions.  So, here are a few things I think we should have the nursing staff ask on the way into the ED.  I mean, we always ask about drug abuse, interpersonal violence, immunizations, sexual activity, whether or not the withered 98 year old has lately traveled to any Ebola infested exotic locales.  But is it really enough to know if the newborn has stopped smoking? Or are there other more interesting things with which we could further clutter the hallowed screens of our FEEMRS?

I hereby suggest:

What is your preferred pronunciation of the only pain medicine that ever worked for you?  With what letter does it begin?  (Incidentally a patient recently pronounced their favored drug ‘Laudy-dah.’  Awesome.)

What unfortunate thing has lately happened to your medication?  Eaten by dog, stolen by neighbor, smashed by meteorite?   Hey, it could happen…

Is there some species with which you identify and would prefer to be treated as?  Because if so, we may need to call a vet. Or tree surgeon.  (It’s no joke.  Tree-kin is a real thing…I mean, ‘real’ thing.)

First thing that pops into your mind when I say ‘outstanding warrants.’  Go!

What is your favorite kind of sandwich to eat while waiting on your psychiatric commitment.  Just kidding. We have Turkey.  (It’s empowering to offer a choice even if we really don’t have one.)

This is to be asked immediately on arrival into triage.  Right now, how long do you believe you have waited to be seen? One hour, two hours, three hours.

Do you know the patient advocate’s name and phone number?

For abdominal pain:  Please tell me what kind of cheeseburger, chicken sandwich or friend food you have consumed on the way to the ED, and when you finished….oh, you’re still eating it.

This is very useful and instructive: Why are you on disability? With a few mental health exceptions, if it isn’t evident in triage, it will be a good story.

How many times have you been committed to a state or private psychiatric hospital? If the number of suicidal commitments is greater than ten, patient can probably go to the waiting room.  Especially if eating cheeseburger and suffering from simultaneous abdominal pain.

Is there a particular physician you would like very much to see or not to see? Or want to hurt?

Full disclosure.  What are you here to get, and if you had it, you wouldn’t be here at all?  For instance, work excuse, pain medication, etc.

Who told you you should come to the ER, if anyone:  your physician’s office, your attorney, a police officer, your sister’s best friend who is a CNA at a nursing home, or a 24-hours health line?

Do you find it difficult to stop playing video poker on your phone while talking to a clinician?  

Will you please eat these chips and fill out my satisfaction survey while waiting to come back?

Just scratching the surface.  Send me some of yours!

edwinleap@gmail.com

 

Fighting drug abuse in the ER

Fighting Drug Abuse

My latest column in the Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/04/09/commentary-fighting-drug-abuse-er/82713082/

I have a lot of ER stories that involve drug addiction and drug seeking behavior. I knew a patient who intentionally dislocated his shoulder three times in one day to receive pain medication. Another had a friend who stole an entire dirty needle box in order to rummage through it for injectable drugs.
I have been told by patients that pain pills were eaten by dogs, stolen by neighbors, lost in car crashes, accidentally flushed down toilets and all the rest. People have pled with me because their normal doctor was out of the country. One individual (call him Bob) came to me and was denied narcotics, then returned two hours later with a woman’s ID and saying he was she (call her Carol). ‘You aren’t Carol, I just saw you.’ ‘Yes I am, I’m Carol and I’m in pain.’ ‘Get out,’ says I. The list goes on and on and every physician has a few of his or her favorites.
In the annals of American medicine, it turns out this was all rather new territory, at least in scope. My career began in the early 90s when there were (for various reasons, corporate and otherwise) powerful initiatives encouraging us to treat pain with more narcotics pain medications like Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet and others. We were regularly scolded for being cruel and insensitive about people’s pain when we, young and innocent as we were, expressed discomfort with this practice. I remember being explicitly told, more than once, ‘you can’t create an addict in the ER.’
We were told that pain was the ‘fifth vital sign’ and were taught to use a ‘pain scale,’ which you’ll hear to this day whenever you interact with the healthcare system. ‘What’s your pain on a scale of zero to ten with zero being no pain and ten the worst pain of your life.’ Most nurses can say this in their sleep. We developed smiley face scales for small children to use.
We learned to give narcotics regularly for various types of pain, when they had been previously reserved for cancer, long bone fractures or significant surgeries. Medical boards were encouraged to discipline doctors who were reported to under-treat pain. And hospital administrators, ever in love with the ‘customer satisfaction’ model, pressured physicians whose patients complained about receiving inadequate pain treatment. (High patient satisfaction scores have been studied and associated with poor outcomes, by the way.)
Although it’s difficult to quantify because physicians feared for their jobs, I’ve spoken to many physicians over the course of my medical and writing career who were told by their employers to give narcotics when requested or risk loss of income or of employment.
This happened even in the face of staff who knew the abusers. We used to keep files so that even new physicians could tell who the problem patients were. Eventually, we were told to stop. It was a kind of profiling and it was unacceptable. Always assume they’re telling the truth, we were told.
Sew the wind, reap the whirlwind. Since 1999 prescription narcotic overdoses soared, quadrupling over the period to 2014 according to the CDC. Over that period there were 165,000 deaths from prescription opioids, most commonly Hydrocodone, Oxycodone and Methadone. In 2014, over 14,000 people died from those drugs.
Now, the move is from condemning our insensitivity to questioning our judgement. Prescription drug abuse is a high priority for state and federal law enforcement, state medical boards, the Drug Enforcement Agency and The Centers for Disease Control (which recently released new, more conservative guidelines for chronic pain treatment).
States are using online prescription monitoring programs and many hospitals are putting policies in place to give as few narcotics as possible in emergency departments. It’s a Catch-22 of course, as some patients with legitimate pain are told to find pain specialists or family doctors, when they either have no money to do so, or have no physicians in the area taking patients. Thus, they circle back to the ER where we try our best to remain both diligent and sympathetic.
Physicians and hospitals are now engaged in a constant battle to combat drug abuse, to save lives and help empower the families of those struggling with addiction, who are desperate to help their sons, daughters, husbands and wives.
I hope we maintain our compassion. But I also hope that it keeps getting harder to walk into an office or ER and get addictive, lethal prescriptions.
Because it’s time for this nightmare to stop.

 

 

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.