Driving Country Roads to the ER

These days, I work most of my shifts about 45 minutes from my ‘house on the hill.’ At one of those jobs, the day shift starts at 06:30. Which means I’m rising from my bed at 04:30 in order to get on the road in time. I’ve started waking up at four, spontaneously, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I lay out my clothes the night before, so as not to awake my darling wife in her sleep. Sometimes I am able slip out without her knowledge. Others she wakes to kiss me goodbye. Then I go downstairs and put together some lunch, get the backpack and make my way out the door. I know that my wife and children are safe upstairs, as I lock the door behind me.

The door creeks a little, or did until my son Elijah oiled it. (One always wonders why a teenage boy oils a front door…) Occasionally I lock it as I realize I left my keys inside, and poor, tired Jan opens the door for me patiently. On the front porch, by the soft yellow of porch-light or the shock of flashlight, I step over dogs freshly awakened from sleep, who look at me with gentle annoyance. The sharp-eyed cats sleep in more secret places, so are seldom seen in the morning. Other dogs (we have five), sleep on the gravel drive in the summer and seem confused as to how to react when my Tundra rolls towards them, slowly, and I roll down the window. ‘Get up, you silly dog!’ Heads and tails down they amble away.

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Up the long drive and down the road, I am suddenly all but alone on the two lane roads that lead me to Tiny Memorial Hospital. Despite the early hour, I am ‘awake, alert and oriented.’ The sky is dark, and in winter stars shine down when clouds don’t lay low against the earth. I scan the roadside for deer, their eyes reflecting the truck’s headlamps. Opossums sometimes shuffle across, along with squirrels and rabbits. (One day I saw a big, black bear on a hill by the road. He ran away as I stopped for a photo.)
I drive through forests, past sleeping houses and across a dark, still lake where sometimes, the light from a bass-boat shines across the emptiness where someone has fished all night…or started very early. Or a campfire on the shore still burns as their line rests untroubled in the water.

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It is so early that I drive past gas-stations and convenience stores still dark and locked, the ‘closed’ sign reminding me to keep on moving. The air, even in summer, is cooler and in winter, positively cold. Winter is my favorite, I think, with the heat of the truck turned out, and the chill wind blowing past.

I think as I drive. And I pray. And I listen to the news, a recorded sermon, a pod-cast. Many mornings I turn on an oldies station from the North Carolina mountains; in the loneliness of the drive the music of Sinatra, Johnny Cash and others, make me feel I’ve gone back in time.

I cannot talk on the phone (hands free or otherwise). I pass through places where cell-signals are only a dream, and often even radio reception is poor. Remote areas, mountainous places, lonely and beautiful places defy cell signals and seem to say ‘look around! What else do you need!’ Even at 5 am, I agree.
Eventually I am near, and I find a fast-food joint for the obligatory chicken biscuit and tea, because, well, the South and all. And then I roll into the ER parking lot, lock things up and head to work.
Because this is no urban trauma center, the early morning is sometimes very slow and relaxed. A few patients may be waiting for turnover, but often none. I can sit and think, I can ask about the previous night. I can ease into work. My drive has already prepared me, but it’s nice to have a few minutes peace in the department before the chaos of the day begins. I text Jan. ‘Here safe, love you,’ and she answers. ‘Love you back, have a great day.’
There are those who don’t have to drive long distances. For most of my career it was about 15 minutes to work. And there are those who have long commutes through traffic, and through the waking body of a large city, people and cars just starting to fill its veins and arteries. Sometimes I am jealous. It can be lonely where I am.
But I think I’ll keep it for now. There is a solemnity, a serenity to my mountain and lake commute, with animals heading to bed and people not yet rising, with my own thoughts and prayers to myself.

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And I suppose that if there were a better way to prepare for the madness, badness and sadness of the ER, I don’t know what it is.

A dark union: EMR meets EMTALA

Ah, EMTALA! The revered ‘Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act!’ It’s one of those things which is like a nursery rhyme to emergency medicine folks like me. We’ve heard about it from the infancy of our training.  ‘And then the bad doctor sent the poor lady to another hospital because she couldn’t pay!  And the King came and crucified him for doing it!’  The end.

EMTALA, for the uninitiated, is a federal law which ensures that we don’t turn people away from the ER because of finances, and also keeps us from transferring people to other hospitals without that hospital’s agreement.  It also exists to guarantee that we stabilize them as much as possible before they go.

I’ve said before, and always will, it was a good idea.  But like many laws, it was subject to the law of unintended consequences.  For instance, being forced to see lots and lots of people (who may not really be that sick), and do it for free, has huffed, and puffed and blown the hospital and trauma center down on too many occasions.  But that’s not my point here.

My point is that when EMTALA forms meet electronic medical records, chaos can ensue.

Allow me to illustrate:  This is a standard EMTALA form.  Check, check, check, sign.  It takes a busy physician less than a minute, and the nurses a few more since they have to call the other hospital and record times, etc.  This has worked well for a very, very long time.

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Enter EMR.  This is the procedure for doing an EMTALA form at Tiny Memorial Hospital, which has been enchanted by the dark Lord Cerner.  Mind you, I’m sure the ‘powers that be’ feel that this is a perfectly wonderful way to do the form.  Indeed, it captures lots of information and stores it in the system.  But two facts remain:  first, the people who designed the system generally work at Large Urban Hospital, which owns Tiny Memorial.  They don’t transfer things out very often.  They receive things.  Second, most of the patients being transferred are going within the system.  All the data is on the EMR, and it isn’t as if they’re going to some strange facility far, far away.

This, children, is the EMR based procedure (on a cheat sheet developed by a frustrated and confused provider):

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Not long ago my team worked a cardiac arrest at Tiny Memorial, with a successful return of cardiac activity.  Given our size and staffing, it took pretty much all of the staff available and nothing moved for a while.  A helicopter whisked our patient away.

Of all the things we did; drag her out of the car, do CPR, start IV’s, intubate, talk with family, chart, arrange transfer, nothing was as complicated or frustrating as this process to complete the EMTALA form.  In the end, I still got it wrong somehow.

Mind you, I never violated the spirit of the law in any way. She was treated, stabilized (to the extent of our ability) and sent away to a receiving hospital with the capacity to care for her.

I don’t want to impugn the motives of those who developed this.  I’m sure they were trying their best.  But if you don’t use it, you can’t see how hard it is. And you also can’t see how much time it takes in a place with limited resources and staff.

So please, folks, let’s use technology to simplify, not make things more complicated!  And let’s remember that charting isn’t the same as doing the right thing. And sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t perfectly reflected in the chart.

But paper or electrons, it’s still the right thing.  And that’s what EMTALA is about.

 

Thanks,

Ed Leap

Dear Colleagues: you are not alone! (My column in the SCCEP newsletter, Summer, 2016)

http://www.sccep.org/

You Are Not Alone Guest Column: Dr. Edwin Leap

In this column, SCCEP Member and renowned columnist, Dr. Ed Leap, shares with us some heartfelt compassion and insight about being an emergency physician. Next month, SCCEP will award Dr. Ed Leap the Jack H. Warren Award in appreciation for his many years of leadership supporting the goals and missions of SCCEP and ACEP. Thank you Dr. Leap for your lifelong support of emergency clinicians (docs, nurses, techs) everywhere.

Dear emergency medicine physicians, You aren’t alone. This is very important for you to realize. I mean, I know you aren’t ‘alone.’ You have spouses and children, parents, siblings, neighbors, dogs and cats. That’s all good. You need them.  Also, every shift is chock-full of people and their maladies, which you heroically manage day in, day out. Patients are everywhere. Some are sick and some are injured, and many are addicted and a few are just lonely. They’re inescapable. And nurses. They’re all around also. The ones who carry out your orders, tend to your patients, sometimes ignore what you say and constantly interrupt your train of thought by putting EKGs in your face and shouting ‘Chest pain in room three will you see it!’ Or who constantly ask you ‘is the order in yet?’ You can’t escape them. Even a trip to the restroom will result in a phone call in short order.

Furthermore, there are students and residents to educate, and shape into excellent doctors. (Without killing anyone.) And there are consultants too. The ones who tell you ‘call me when the workup is finished,’ or ‘why didn’t you get the phosphorus level? How can I know what to do without the phosphorus level! Jeez!’ And there are those who refer patients to you. ‘Hey buddy, my patient has pneumonia and needs to be admitted to the hospitalist and has a bed but I need you to check him out first.’ The ones who send you their post-op complication one hour after the surgery.

There are other people all around too. There are administrators and managers, credentialing ladies, people tracking your times and your efficiency and evaluating your patient satisfaction scores. There are medical records people and coders tracking you day in, day out, to keep you on point with the endlessly important charting and billing that are the main purposes of your decades long education. Dear doctor, you aren’t alone. But not because of all of that.

Not because you’re under more scrutiny than at any time in the history of medicine. What I mean is, having traveled this great land of ours doing locums, I assure you that the struggles you face are present everywhere.  Oh, they vary in degrees. Those little oases untouched by the icy hand of EMR can be positively pleasant in their lack of complex charting requirements. And on night shift, in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, there’s a paucity of people in general. But there will still be complex social situations, still be drug addicts, still be someone who wants to know about your door to needle time. Everywhere you go, there’s ‘that doctor’ who is simply surly and impossible to please when he’s on call.

When I say you aren’t alone, what I mean is that we are a fraternity (or a sorority if you wish). Perhaps better, we are a tribe, a clan, an extended family. Emergency medicine is a small specialty but what we do is so consistent across the country, and around the world, that we can all sit down at conferences or meetings, in airports or over dinner, and share the same stories, the same sorrows, the same laughs over the same archetypes. So when you come home and think that you’re the only one who thinks about quitting, you’re wrong.

We all do it now and then. When you think that maybe you’ve lost your patience with drug seekers, you’re wrong. We all lose it now and then. (I’m not proud…so I won’t go into it.)  If you think that you’re not fit for night shift because you feel terrible after being up, trust me you aren’t alone. Nights make everyone nuts. (As does day shift…and evening shift.) It’s a wonder we don’t all need psychiatric evaluation after long strings of sleeplessness coupled with complex care of the arguably the most demanding people on earth.

Are there days when you just want to go home and cry? Normal. Are there shifts you think you didn’t really know what was going on with anyone? Ditto. (PS, it usually means nothing was going on except drug seeking and the pursuit of work excuses.) Have you wanted to invite your on call specialist to the parking lot for a ‘come to Jesus meeting,’ and you think you have a problem? Nope, I’ve been there. And do you think that you might be the only physician with an EMR ‘inbox’ that’s full to the brim with requests you can barely understand? You aren’t. In fact, I suspect that delinquent charts have exploded in the last few years as charting becomes more and more complex.

Ladies and gentlemen, are there times you think you should have studied harder and tried for that ophthalmology residency? Haven’t we all. You aren’t alone. You aren’t alone in your troubles. But more important, you certainly are not alone in being part of the baddest, toughest, most compassionate and courageous group of physicians in the world.

You’re tough, you’re kind and you’re smart. You endure, no matter how hard or complex the shift, no matter how badly you feel.  You’re weary and irritable and pale. You’re hungry and thirsty and sometimes confused.

But kids, trust me. You’re awesome.

And you aren’t ever alone.

Doctors and Nurses ‘Getting in Trouble’ too easily…

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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

 

Can you be a Christian in the ER? Grace abounds…

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Many young physicians in training have asked me, quietly or by e-mail, ‘is it possible to be a Christian and practice emergency medicine?’  I think that they ask a good question, and likely for good reasons.

In their rotations they have witnessed, first hand, life in the ER.  They are uncertain, perhaps, because they see the frustration that boils over in the words and actions of otherwise compassionate and caring doctors and nurses. They hear the bitterness and sarcasm, the profanity, the unkind words spoken behind the glass window that separates professional from patient.

They also see, hear, touch…and often smell…the humanity that pours through the doors of trauma centers, academic emergency departments, community ER’s and all the rest.  There is suffering and loss, and the long, piercing wail of the bereaved down the hall, receiving the worst news of all.  They experience the addicted, the drug seeker who will tell any lie, contrive any store to get the pill or injection he or she so needs and desires.  They witness the poverty and need, the hungry, empty eyes of neglected children.   The may witness, or experience, the explosive violence and cruelty of the drunk, the criminal, the wounded.  In such a place, between suffering patients and suffering staff, what young, wide-eyed Christian wouldn’t ask, ‘Dr. Leap, is it possible to keep your faith and work in the emergency department?’

So here is my short epistle on the topic:

‘To the believers in the hospitals and emergency rooms, the church medical, across the land, around the world.  From your brother Edwin, who these years has fallen and gotten up over and over and who loves you and wishes to encourage you.

It is my prayer that you have strength to face the sickness and pain into which you plunge yourself every day.  All around you come victims; victims of disease and accident, victims of violence and neglect, cruelty and hatred.  The drunk and addicted, the angry and the sad, the suicidal and lost, the rejected and abused, the healthy and also the dying; and all are among the dying in the end.  Remember that all of them, and all of us, are also victims of sin, for it was in our separation from God in ancient times that all of this pain began, and in which death took hold of those originally destined for life.

Remember that the guilty and the innocent alike suffer from this, and that our Lord came to be an intercessor, high priest and atoning sacrifice for all.   Your struggle is against the infirmities of the flesh, but also against the wounds of the spirit that underly all suffering in this veil, until we reach the kingdom where death has no power…and you will be out of work for all eternity.  Amen.

Look around you each day, and consider that the emergency room, the hospital ward, the clinic, the operating room, these are places where the gospel is shown forth to you in power, a great gift from the Father so that you may understand by the example of others’ troubles what spiritual truths lie beneath it all and undergird it all.

Although we are all poor reflections, destined to one day (as the word says) ‘be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,’ we are still his dim but ever growing likeness.   And we are His hands, feet, mouth, eyes, mind.  Like Him, we who go day in and day out among the lost, the suffering and those who (despite their willfulness) are hostages to evil.

And although we may have sin in our hearts, although we judge and are angry and frustrated, we do His work.  That is, brothers and sisters, we bring love and touch and healing and comfort to those who frequently have done nothing to deserve it, who exhibit no gratitude or intent to change, but who need our love, need the love and redemption of Jesus.  And like Him, we will show it seventy times seven, through temper tantrums thrown our way, complaints, cruel words, irresponsibility, patient satisfaction, EMR (the devil’s work) and every other difficulty.

Dear ones, in the ER, grace is at work, and a model of grace is there for you to enact and understand.  You give undeserved love and care for everyone all day, every day.  The Spirit gives you strength in hardship so that you may be bold, whether rested or tired, prepared or unprepared.  Also, remember that the spirit works in your sinful heart, to your salvation and holiness.  Those your treat are no worse than you and you no greater than them.  There is a great gift of holy humility in that truth.

One day, on that Great Day, you will see that each act, every stitch, every comforting hand, every EKG, every airway, every psychiatric commitment, each and every weary step into the same room with the same patient and same complaint, every unkind word for another physician restrained, every patient act, these were all acts of grace that molded you.   And the Father, Son and Spirit will welcome you, veteran of ten thousand daily trials.

And it is in this way that one can be a Christian in the ER, in the trauma center, clinic, operating room, delivery suite and all the rest despite the trials, temptations and bitterness that the enemy of our souls inflicts up on us in our work.

May the God of all peace guide you and strengthen you in your difficult work, and fill you with radiant, overwhelming love.

And may you have a quiet shift.

 

FEEMRS: Fancy Expensive Electronic Medical Records System

I was at a locums assignment yesterday using FEEMRS. (You know, ‘Fancy Expensive Electronic Medical Records System?) It was all kinds of busy, with wait times of many hours. And as I slogged along, relearning FEEMRS after a few weeks away, I realized that it takes about one hour of looking at that screen for me to become exhausted.

It’s just too ‘busy.’ Every bit of the screen seems filled with some data, some field, some time-stamp. Oddly, I struggle to find the triage note, the home medications, the history. I struggle to find whatever orders I have entered and to see if they have been completed. I throw my hands up trying to discontinue orders and I nearly weep when it’s time to discharge a patient, a process which takes far too long with various orders, time stamps, discharge instructions, medicine reconciliations, printer selections and all the rest. Honestly, it’s far easier to admit someone to the ICU than to discharge them. At least in terms of computer time.

That’s the thing about FEEMRS. The ‘flow’ is all off. Oh, it’s data rich. But it’s mentally exhausting. Too many clicks, too little useful data, not nearly enough ‘white space.’

Furthermore, there are the orders to sign and the charts to sign. And after you’ve signed them, there’s another place to sign. And if the nurse so much as helps them to the door, and enters that fact with appropriate time-stamp, ‘0300, touched patient on elbow at door,’ well it’s going to need another physician signature to validate the elbow touching event and document that it was necessary, approved and billable.

Docs using FEEMRS across the country are daily beset by hundreds of orders that require signatures the next day; things we didn’t even know were orders. ‘Placed bandaid.’ ‘Paged nursing supervisor for admission.’

A friend of mine was asked to sign nursing orders for psychiatric meds (Psychiatric Meds!!!), placed by nurses for hold patients three days after he went off shift. He wisely refused but was told ‘its OK, everybody does it’

By contrast, this year and last, I worked at TMH (Tiny Memorial Hospital and its several campuses) where I (gasp!) used paper charts or dictated to a human transcriptionist. My patient’s meds were either in front of me or one flip of paper away. My discharge instructions were a check mark away, or three clicks on a different program. And often, for orders, I check a box and handed it to a secretary to enter into the system. In some instances, my prescriptions were written by hand (not perfect) and could be ‘deleted’ or ‘reconciled’ with a simple tear of the paper.

I notice, now, that when I go back to my hotel room after working with FEEMRS, I sleep poorly. No wonder. I’m clicking and looking, scanning screens and logging on and off until 2 am. I tell my kids to stop looking at screens before bed or they won’t sleep well. I keep it up till the wee hours.

FEEMRS is quietly, slowly, electronically killing all of us and making us less concerned with patients than we are with fields, files, clicks and saves.

Something has got to be done…

I just do n’t know what.

If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911…

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Currently, in American healthcare, experts are wringing their hands in confusion.  I mean, people have insurance, right?  And yet, healthcare is still expensive and dang it, people just keep going to the ER.  Visits are climbing everywhere and I can speak from personal experience when I say that we’re tasked with more and more complex and multi-varied duties in the emergency departments of the 21st century.

I’m not a medical economist.  I do have some thoughts on the well-intentioned but deeply flawed Affordable Care Act. However, I won’t go there right now.  What I do want to address is the ‘go directly to the ER’ mentality of modern American medicine.

Call your physician.  If it’s after hours, the recording for any physician or practice of any sort in America will have a message:  ‘If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911.’  It’s a nice idea.  But of course, it presumes that everyone really understands the idea of emergency.  In fact, they don’t.  We understand that, or we try to, but we see lots of things that come in ambulances, or just come to the ER, that really aren’t.

‘I feel fine, but my blood pressure is up.’

‘I was bitten by a spider and I watch nature shows and I know how dangerous they are.’

‘I have a bad cold and I have taken two rounds of antibiotics.  I have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow but I thought I’d just come on in to get checked out.’

The list goes on.  In part, it’s because we do a poor job of educating people about their bodies and their illnesses.  Online searches usually result in someone self-diagnosing Ebola or cancer, so that doesn’t help much.

But in part, it’s because the ER, the ED, has become the default.  Surgical patients are told to have wound rechecks in the emergency department.  Kids with fevers are directed there by pediatricians or family doctors or secretaries.  People who need to be admitted are sent in ‘just to get checked before they go upstairs.’  Or sometimes, so the physician on duty can do the negotiation with the hospitalist, rather than having the primary care physician do so.

Why is the ED the default? In 1986 Reagan championed and Congress passed EMTALA, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which says you can’t turn anyone away for reasons of non-payment.  Another well intentioned bit of government meddling, it never provided any funds for it’s expansive act of compassion so many emergency departments and trauma centers simply shut their doors.  You can’t see patients for free all day and still meet your budget.  I think something needed to be done, but it probably went too far.

Fast forward.  Insurance is expensive even when the government mandates it. Whether for fear of litigation or due to over-booked schedules everyone else can always send patients to the ED day or night for any reason.  We still function under EMTALA and that will never, ever change.  Patients have little to no expectation of payment when covered by Medicaid and know it (and thus use the ED for everything, and I mean everything.  We are seeing expanding life-spans for the elderly, but with more complex illnesses being treated and ‘survived.’   We have fewer and fewer primary care providers.

Who actually thought emergency department visits would decrease, and why?  Did they ask anyone who saw patients on a daily basis? Or only lobbyists, administrators and progressive academics with starry-eyed fantasies?

I want to take care of everyone. But the Titanic that is emergency medicine in America is sinking.  We really, honestly can’t bear the burden for all of the chaos of our national healthcare.  And don’t tell me that if we have a single payer system it will change everything, because it won’t.  EMTALA will go on and doctors paid by the feds will not be more productive than they are now, so everything will still flow to the emergency departments and trauma centers of the land.

This isn’t about rejecting the poor, or even criticizing Obamacare.  It isn’t about single payer or Medicare for all. It’s about entrenched behaviors and facing the reality of the system we’ve created which allows one part of the system to attempt to carry the limitations of the rest.

Herb Stein, father of Ben Stein, famously said:  ‘If a thing can’t go on forever, it won’t go on forever.’

And if its’ true anywhere, it’s true in the emergency departments of this great land of ours.

Where the answer to every crisis is: ‘hang up and dial 911.’

The doctor will show compassion after he’s finished charting

I was working in a hospital recently and saw a note from a CEO on the computer. Notes and memos are ubiquitous these days. Bathroom walls, break-rooms, computer screens. Everywhere there is another reminder to check this, do that, mark those, record metrics, hurry up, don’t make mistakes, sign orders, complete charts, be nice and all the rest.

But this note stood out. In it, the administrator was reminding the medical staff that their job was tolerance, compassion and understanding. I’m not surprised by this. I’m aware that some administrators make ’rounds’ in patient areas and assess how things are going. (Concerns about HIPAA seem irrelevant, as I mentioned in a recent post.)

It seems, in a kind of ironic inversion, that the business side of medicine has tasked itself with telling the medical side how to be nicer doctors, better doctors, caring doctors. I’m not surprised; but I suspect it isn’t due to any collective epiphany about medical professionalism. Ultimately it’s really less about patient satisfaction, that Golden Egg that drives almost everything in medicine now.

But the irony runs deeper. While the CEO can hold forth on lofty, but important themes like understanding and tolerance, while various administrators can stroll through the ICU or various units shaking hands and making nice, physicians are doing something else. Lots of something else.

In the emergency departments where I work, physicians scurry out to see patients then run back to chart. And chart. And chart. And in many instances to sift through the endless possibilities of ICD-10 codes (I recently saw ‘2nd degree burn due to water skis catching on fire.’). Sometimes we are expected to code in more detail. Discharging a patient is, itself, often a complex process filled with orders, searches, clicks, signatures and locating the right printer.

I recently worked at a site with a shiny new nationally known EMR. ‘Please call the hospitalist,’ says I to the secretary. ‘Alright. Will you enter the consult order in the computer so I can document it?’ I’ve been handed faxes to fill out myself and of course, nothing gets done until it’s ‘put in’ the computer. Another rant for another day, as I digress.

The physicians rarely look up from their keyboards to chat, except when running off to see the patients who inconveniently stand between them and their real job of data entry, billing and coding. All done real time. If you don’t do it, by the way, you’ll get e-mails or texts the next day about your unsigned orders. ‘The coding department needs these right away.’

There was a time of collegiality. There was a time when we discussed cases and our feelings and our sorrow and our passion. That was when medicine was about people. Remember them? The upright primates on whom we practice medicine? Now? Now it’s about numbers and billing, metrics and tracking, satisfaction scores and rewards…and punishment.

Little wonder the CEO can round, or hold forth on the intangibles that lured many of us to love medicine in the first place. Physicians aren’t physicians anymore, not since we handed the reigns over to administrators so that we could ‘focus on the practice of medicine.’ And not since billing became so complex in order to justify every pen stroke, every bandaid, every pillow fluff. And not since the growth of administration, which has itself dramatically increased costs just as it has in universities across the country.

I want us to be tolerant and caring, compassionate and kind. But it’s hard to do when your entire job is less about humans and more about business. It’s hard to do when the volume of patients explodes thanks to unforeseen consequences of the ACA, the endless beatdown of EMTALA and the unending medicalization of everyday life. It’s nearly impossible when you’re tracked like a Caribou for every action and every key-stroke. It’s hard to do when there are no rests, no pauses, no coda in the great dance of emergency, or any other, type of care.

I often work in small, slower places. I do it in part because I can sit and talk. I can breath. I can think. Heck, I do it because I can act like a CEO.

Medicine is great. I love my work. But that’s the thing. I love my work. My real work. Meeting the sick and injured, figuring out what’s wrong, sifting through truths and untruths, danger and anxiety, solving problems.

I don’t love the slavery of modern medicine, which will be the same whether it is run by corporations or government. (So don’t kid yourself that nationalized care will solve this problem.) Governments and corporations are virtually interchangeable anyway.

Perhaps worst of all, I don’t like seeing my colleagues, young or old, as the joy escapes from them shift by shift, only to be replaced with exhaustion and bitterness. Or fear of some unknown repercussion from some faceless manager who leaves takes an hour lunch every day and leaves at five.

Maybe CEOs need to be lectured on how to have compassion and understanding towards their physicians and nurses. I think I’ll start rounding in their offices.

And writing my own memos…

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.