My column in the Winter 2017 Gray Matters, Newsletter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman University.

 

THE NEWSLETTER OF THE OSHER LIFELONG LEARNING INSTITUTE @ FURMAN

http://www.furman.edu/sites/OLLI/member-resources/Documents/GMJan2017-PDF_reduced.pdf

PAIN MANAGEMENT AND THE TIE TO ADDICTION – PART 2

Sometimes medicine offers us wonderful, almost unimaginable gifts. Heart attacks that were devastating, life-altering events a few short decades ago are now treated with an expediency and skill that our grandparents couldn’t imagine. A couple days pass, and the victim is home with stents in occluded arteries and directions to modify activity and diet. Pneumonia, once the ‘old person’s
friend’ (so called because it took the aged to eternity), is far less terrifying, thanks to both antibiotics and the pneumonia vaccine.

However, some of the things we do give benefits that are less clear. Although it could be an entire column in itself, the ‘stroke center’ movement, with the promise of miracles from ‘clot-busting drugs’, is a thing full of as many questions as answers. And what about depression and anti-depressants? When I looked up the side-effect profile of an anti-depressant a friend was taking, I was reminded that all of them have the potential side effect of increasing suicidal behavior.

But what about pain management? Thanks to improved understanding of the physiology of pain, the persistence of medical providers, and the investment and research of pharmaceutical companies, we have a wide array of pharmaceuticals available for the treatment of pain. Some are over-the-counter, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. And others, those we refer to as narcotics or opioids (because in previous times they were derived from opium), are useful, potent, and (as is increasingly evident) fraught with danger unless used very cautiously.

Of course, for a very long time, physicians were taught to be judicious in prescribing narcotics. Our venerable teachers warned young doctors in training to be frightened of the side effects. We were especially aware of the very immediate danger that patients would stop breathing and die due to excess sedation. We were also aware that over time, patients on narcotics might develop problems with addiction.

About 20 to 25 years ago, that whole paradigm shifted and physicians were suddenly accused of callous disregard of suffering for prescribing too few narcotics. I remember this because I was in my emergency medicine residency at that time. We were constantly reminded to give more narcotics and be sensitive to pain. We were taught to use the ‘pain scale,’ in which a patient-reported score of zero meant no pain and a score of ten meant ‘the worst pain of your life.’ Never mind that it was entirely subjective and that there was no objective standard, no ‘painometer’ against which to measure it. We were instructed to see pain as the ‘fifth vital sign’ after blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and temperature. Of concern to many, these initiatives coincided with the development and aggressive marketing of ever more powerful, addictive medications like Oxycontin tablets and Fentanyl patches and lozenges.

Patient satisfaction surveys included the question ‘was your pain adequately treated?’ Physicians were castigated when those satisfaction survey scores fell. Physicians were instructed, by non-clinician

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administrators, to give more pain medication to make patients more satisfied. (A satisfied customer/ patient is one that may come back!) Physicians who resisted, in the name of science or safety, were too often met with threats of reduced income or job loss if patient satisfaction scores fell. In some instances, physicians were (and still are) reported to state medical boards for alleged inadequate treatment of pain.

I sincerely believe that most of those encouraging us to write more narcotics prescriptions did so out of genuine concern and compassion. People are in pain, so why not treat the pain? In medicine, where science meets suffering humanity, it’s so easy for us to say, ‘Well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it?’ We assume that our compassion will be supported by our science. It happens with infections; sure it’s probably a head cold, but what’s the harm in an antibiotic to keep the patient happy? The child bumped her head pretty hard, so what’s the problem with a CT scan, even though she looks good? The parents are customers, after all, and want a scan!

With tragic consequences, our compassion sometimes causes harm as the Law of Unintended Consequences rears its ugly head. For instance, those antibiotics for colds? They can cause dangerous allergic reactions and life-changing intestinal infections requiring hospitalization or surgery, and resulting in death. Those CT scans everyone wants? Physicians are trying to reduce the number of scans, as many of us are concerned that they may induce malignant tumors later. And those pain medications? The evidence looks pretty damning.

Addiction to prescription narcotics is growing at a terrifying rate in the U.S. Likewise, death rates from narcotic overdoses have soared. The U.S. has seen 165,000 deaths from opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html. In fact, opioid-related deaths have now surpassed deaths from firearms in the United States. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/drug- overdose-deaths-heroin-opioid-prescription-painkillers-more-than-guns/ Admittedly, some of those deaths are not due to prescription opioids but rather to injected heroin. However, many heroin addicts began their addiction issues when taking legitimately prescribed pain medication.

Sadly, seniors are not immune. Physicians don’t want to see seniors suffer, so they often give narcotics even for pain that in decades past would not have been treated with those drugs. We give them for back pain, headache, arthritis, or other less serious conditions. And we use them extensively in treatment of chronic, intractable pain. In fact, in 2015, one-third of Medicare recipients received a prescription for an opioid analgesic; some 40 million prescriptions. https://www.statnews.com/ 2016/06/22/many-opioid-prescriptions-seniors/

Furthermore, seniors not only develop addiction, not only die from accidental overdoses, their narcotic analgesics have a host of side-effects, including (but not limited to) the following: excessive sleep, impaired thinking, increased pain sensitivity, nausea, constipation, and cardiac arrhythmia. In addition, opioid drugs contribute to weakness and loss of balance and thus to falls, resulting in head and spine injury, various fractures, and other trauma. Their already impaired reflexes are dampened by their medication so that for those who still drive, it becomes an even more dangerous activity than before.

No one is immune from this devastating epidemic, not rich nor poor, not young nor old. The medical profession, the mental health community, law-enforcement, social services, churches, families, and friends all have to come together and find ways to roll back the rising tide of death and addiction, which came as an unforeseen outcome of attempting to ease suffering with compassion and science.

This problem will be highlighted this spring at an OLLI bonus event, March 31, 2017: Seniors and Opioids: Unexpected Origins of a Greenville Epidemic. I will be speaking in conjunction with James Campell of the Phoenix Center addiction and rehabilitation facility. We really hope you join us to learn more about this pressing public health crisis.

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

 

 

What do you mean it’s a cold? A poem…

What do you mean it’s a cold?
A poem for viral illness season.

Fever, cough and runny nose,
Muscle aches from head to toes,
Scratchy throat and stuffy ears,
Doctor, please allay my fears!

Can’t I get some Zithromax?
Lortab for my aching back?
Maybe just Amoxicillin,
For my stuffy, whiny children?

You say virus I, but I’m dying;
Surely there ain’t no denying,
What I have is devastating,
And I spent an hour waiting!

Hook me up and make me better,
Else I’ll write your boss a letter;
Don’t you tell me ‘it’s a cold,’
That tired line is getting old.

I know it must be bronchitis,
Strep throat, Zika, meningitis!
I require a strong prescription
For my horrible condition!

Cipro, Doxy, Levaquin
That’s what someone gave my friend,
After two weeks they felt well
So why should I endure this hell?

Please throw in a week off work,
Percocet’s an added perk,
My tolerance for pain is high,
But I am just about to cry!

What, I don’t get any meds?
Drink some fluid, go to bed?
Are you crazy, are you cruel?
I think you’re a quack, a fool!

I’ll go home but I may sue
Everyone, especially you.
I don’t need this here abuse…
Fine, now what about that work excuse?

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

img_3064

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):

img_3058

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

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…

 

Show some patience in the bathroom debate

d87e8246a18b0a04b40041956e38707fhttp://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/05/08/ed-leap-show-patience-bathroom-debate/83918244/

 

I have to admit, I never thought that we’d be arguing about who to allow into which restroom. And yet, men and women who identify as other genders feel oppressed that everyone isn’t flinging open the stall doors to welcome them as bathroom-mates. And those (like me) who view it all with a little suspicion are considered worse than troglodytes for failing to keep up with modern progress and diversity.
Let me say from the outset that I am believe, absolutely, there are people who have issues with gender. There are those who are born with indeterminate genitalia, some with chromosomal issues or abnormalities of the endocrine system, and still others with psychological factors which make gender assignment or identity confusing.
However, that reality doesn’t obviate other concerns. Humans have been cautious about sexual predation for a very long time. In particular, but not exclusively, we’ve been suspicious about the motives of men towards vulnerable women and children. Maybe we have some deep ancestral fear of rape and abduction by invaders or raiders. (A thing well known to our forbears within about 200 years.) Isn’t it possible, therefore, that our heightened concern about this issue is not about hatred or intolerance, but represents a well honed biological instinct? That perhaps it is part of some evolutionary, survival-based instinct to protect those who are more susceptible to predation?
This may be why so many of us don’t like the idea of letting just anyone use just any restroom, changing room or locker room. These are often isolated places that typically have no back door for escape. It seems peculiar to me that while we are endlessly cautioned that college women have a one in five chance of being sexually assaulted while in university, we are mocked for having concern about opposite sex strangers in public restrooms. While it turns out the data on college rape isn’t nearly as bleak, the general concern about sexual assault is very real and reasonable.
Even if most transgender persons out there aren’t a particular threat, couldn’t it be that our concern over men lying about their gender identity, to gain access to vulnerable women or children, might be well-placed? And by the way, women are fully capable of sexual assault as well; a quick search for ‘teacher sexual assault’ will reveal a significant number of instances in which a female teacher sexually abused a student in her charge. Equality of opportunity also means equality of suspicion, you see.
Further, we keep hearing that transgender people aren’t pedophiles. Indeed, most probably aren’t. (I like to assume the best.) But neither are most men or women. And yet, most of us recognize the wisdom that a man alone shouldn’t chaperone a camping trip of adolescent girl-scouts, or be ‘house father’ to a sorority. And ask your female friends and family if they want male chaperones for their pap-smears, or if they prefer a female. And a lone young woman might not make the best choice to guide high school boys on a long field trip involving a hotel stay. These things make sense, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
In addition, it is the height of politically correct folly to assume that because one has ‘transcended’ traditional sexual roles or genetic gender that they are, by default, above reproach and incapable of evil. In fact, it is demeaning to assert this. To be accepted as part of the greater collective of society is to be seen as human, not ‘super human.’ This means one is respected, seen as valuable, but also subject to the same laws and cautions as everyone else. Ultimately, since the fairly recent mainstreaming of transgenderism, I doubt if we have enough experience or data to make definitive statements about whether or not the transgendered have any increased or decreased risk of predatory behavior. I do think we can safely assume that those who would pose as transgendered are clearly dangerous, and for most of us I believe that’s the greater fear.
So why don’t we all show some respect for one another and some patience in the face of both titanic cultural shifts and time-honored mores. Then we might come to a reasonable common ground that respects differences and protects all the vulnerable.
Or to use more a more contemporary idea, maybe both sides of the issue deserve some tolerance.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Do you?

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.