Medical Anamnestics

“Listen to the patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.”

William Osler

Sir William was right, but listening for the diagnosis when patients speak isn’t quite as straightforward as it may seem. This is particularly the case in the fifteen minute universe of American health care today.

In America we call it “history taking”. Our use of the word “history” somehow implies that there is something very objective about it. This has led people in the medical field to even delegate the listening to and documenting of patient histories to non-professional office staff.

In Sweden we used the word “Anamnes”, derived from the Greek words “ana” (back again) and “mimnesco” (remember). “Anamnesis” is found in Plato’s teachings about memory. There is a subjective quality to the use of the word “anamnesis” for patient or case histories, as the word in English can also mean, simply and non-medically, “recollection”.

Taking a patient history or anamnesis can require a fair amount of finesse.

Sometimes a patient comes in with a diagnosis already in mind. He or she will outline their differential diagnostic thought process and resist getting into what the actual symptoms are, as if they’ve moved beyond that stage. They act as if they wish I would please catch up with where they are. My usual reaction and tactic in such situations is to let go of any seeds of frustration I might feel and declare my inability to skip over any steps in the diagnostic process. I usually say something like “I’m a little slow…” in order to not seem to be challenging my patient’s preliminary efforts.

Other times, I run into patients who offer neither symptoms nor interpretation, but tell convoluted narratives about what others have said about them and what happened years ago that might have set the stage for whatever may be happening now, although I haven’t yet become the least bit aware of any of their present symptoms. Before I became aware of the condition now called alexithymia, I would easily become frustrated with this kind of narrative. Now I am more able to consider this kind of “anamnesis” a warning sign that my patient truly might be unable to recognize and describe both emotions and physical symptoms.

I worry about the idea of delegating listening to someone else; even a highly trained colleague could obtain a slightly different history, and every clinical decision is to some degree based on nuances that go beyond the mere “facts” of the case. It often seems that the way a patient’s history and his demeanor appear congruent or dissonant can move the diagnostic process forward quite dramatically.

I also worry about the therapeutic consequences of eliminating or abbreviating the listening process. I couldn’t count the times a patient has seen a well respected specialist who delivered technically excellent care and come back telling me “he didn’t even listen to me”. Patients have again and again told me that they value simple listening in me and other health care providers they see.

This ties in with something I read recently about the difference Between Care and Cure.

My wife ordered a book a few weeks ago by Henri Nouwen, called “Bread for the Journey”. It was published posthumously and contains daily reflections. Nouwen is perhaps best known for his writings about the “wounded healer”. This morning over coffee, Emma asked me to look at today’s reflection, titled “Care, the Source of All Cure”:

“Care is something other than cure. Cure means “change”. A doctor, a lawyer, a minister, a social worker – they all want to use their professional skills to bring about changes in people’s lives. They get paid for whatever kind of cure they can bring about. But cure, desirable as it may be, can easily become violent, manipulative, and even destructive if it does not grow out of care. Care is being with, crying out with, suffering with, feeling with. Care is compassion. It is claiming the truth that the other person is my brother or sister, human, mortal, vulnerable, like I am.

When care is our first concern, cure can be received as a gift. Often we are not able to cure, but we are always able to care. To care is to be human.”

Nouwen was absolutely right. I think the way we take each patient’s history, the way we elicit their stories and recollections – their “anamnesis” – is at the very foundation of “care” in health care.

Border Doc

IMG_0018Driving to work, I sometimes tune in the Canadian morning news on my car radio. It feels so comfortable to this old Swede to hear the weather forecast with temperatures measured in degrees Celsius – Anders Celsius was a professor of astronomy almost 300 years ago at Sweden’s Uppsala University, my Alma Mater.

Everyone’s memories are smattered with numbers that carry great significance; I once had a 40.2 degree fever (104 F), my bedroom temperature was 13 degrees (55 F) one January morning, and so on. Numbers you grow up with carry more emotional weight than ones you learned as an adult.

The Swedes and the French-Canadians have many similarities, not just the metric system. I feel very much at home with the way my older patients here on the border view health care. Just like the Swedes, they often question medical interventions, and they believe in their bodies’ ability to heal without the help of medicines and procedures. This is the classic view, dating back to Hippocrates’ writings, far from today’s notion that most processes in the human body are diseases that should be treated or regulated with blockbuster drugs. Many French-Canadian patients are relieved to hear that their infections can be managed without antibiotics, while more mainstream Americans often question why they can’t have a prescription “just in case”.

When I first moved to this country, I needed to polish my English. Finding the right balance between medical terminology and common words, sometimes learning the colloquialisms, took some work. In Maine, we use words like “spleeny” for being squeamish or less than heroic in medical situations, and “bunch” for any unknown tumors, lumps and bumps on the human body.

Here, on the Canadian border, my one year of High School French was nowhere near enough to understand conversations in the grocery store or the local diner. Even a more proficient French speaker would have had trouble understanding the local dialect. Some of the purely local “Valley French” words are also used in English here. People often come in, saying things in English like “every time I eat broccoli I get the flu”, which means broccoli gives them diarrhea. Many English words have made their way into Valley French, like “une appointment avec le docteur”; neither “appointment” nor “docteur” are proper Parisian word choices for saying that you have a doctor’s appointment.

On a typical day at my border clinic, which actually overlooks the river that separates our two countries, more than half my patients have French surnames. Many slip French words into our conversation. And often, when family members speak together in French, they throw English words in here and there. Some of my older patients feel more comfortable receiving all their instructions in French rather than in English.

I also feel the French-Canadian presence when I move around within the clinic or sometimes just lean too far back in my office chair, and my cell phone vibrates with a text message that announces that I am now connected to a Canadian cell phone tower, and roaming fees may apply.

This connectivity issue gets in the way of using my EMR on my little tablet computer during housecalls. We have to maintain parallel paper and computer records for our home bound patients, who live where there is no cellular internet connection.

In our little store, Canadian money is always welcome, but there are strict limits on how many eggs, how much meat and how many bottles of wine our neighbors can bring back across the river.

The Credit Union gladly exchanges Canadian money also, and the stores in much of Maine accept Canadian dollars.

Some of my patients cross over to Canada to shop for their medications. Prices are government regulated there and sometimes much lower than here. I and many other doctors in our state have a “border license”, which makes our prescriptions valid across the border. Prescribing for Canadian pharmacies requires some knowledge of the differences between what is available here and across the river. Some brand names are different, and some drugs are available only here while some only exist there.

Driving through town, I stop at a bilingual Stop/Arrêt sign before pulling out into the modest traffic. Minutes later, as I drive down the stretch of Route One we call “Moose Alley”, I slow down for a hesitant four legged jaywalker and then set the cruise control to 56 miles per hour. With the push of a button on my steering wheel, the dashboard display reads 90 km/h. That feels very familiar and comfortable.

My commute takes me through the dense pine forest and over the hills with their long vistas across to the mountain ranges of Canada and towards the south. There, almost two hundred miles away, are the specialists I have referred my patients to for thirty years, colleagues I know by first name and often speak with over the phone, but rarely see in person. That’s how far my patients have to travel to see a gastroenterologist or a vascular surgeon, or to have a PET scan, stress echo or a balloon angioplasty.

After the last stretch, on a snow covered back road, my little red 1936 farmhouse gradually appears in view. Seeing it, with its Swedish flag by the front door, you could think you were three thousand miles away in Sweden, in the village where my father was born, and his father and grandfather before him.

I sometimes ponder that this area looks a lot more like the Sweden I grew up in than the modern day Sweden I have visited in recent years. It also doesn’t look like the increasingly congested suburban America I first visited forty years ago, near where the Pilgrims landed south of Boston. Time somehow passed faster elsewhere than it did in these remote northern towns and villages where I live and work, on the very outskirts of America. My office is in the only town in this country where McDonald’s opened and later closed a restaurant due to a lack of customers. It is an environment with fewer distractions than most places, closer to nature and to the timeless essentials of life. It is a place where doctors shoulder big responsibilities but also get to feel a unique closeness to and appreciation of the patients who depend on them.


Does Lightning Strike Twice?

My uncle in Sweden got hit by lightning twice. He is a stubborn farmer, who twice was a little too late getting his tractor and plow off the field in a flash thunderstorm.

Today I saw Gordon Grass, the man who had surgery for his subclavian steal that I had diagnosed recently. One of his symptoms had been dizziness and multiple falls. Gordon’s blood pressure is now equal in both arms and his brain doesn’t have to share its blood supply with his left arm anymore. But he is still dizzy and lately he has had this strange, irregular clicking in his right ear. It is definitely not his pulse. I had seen him for this a week ago and as his right eardrum looked dull and his Weber and Rinne tuning fork tests were equivocal, I prescribed a nasal steroid spray and told him that would probably clear up his symptoms.

Today he was back.

“I’ve been reading online about acoustic neuromas, and I have all the symptoms”, he said.

“Don’t you know you can only have one rare condition and you’ve already had yours”, I sad with feigned seriousness. He smiled faintly. I repeated his tuning fork tests and did a whispered voice discrimination test. His eardrum still didn’t look quite normal.

At that moment, there was a ruckus in the hallway. I excused myself and left Gordon’s room. Autumn and the receptionist were wheeling a man I’d never seen before, about my own age, down the hall in a wheelchair. He was moaning and writhing in obvious pain.

I instantly remembered Winfield Smith, a patient I had almost twenty years ago. He arrived the same way, writhing in the waiting room wheelchair, and he had an arterial embolism in his leg. We shipped him to Cityside via ambulance and he was soon on the operating table under the care of the same vascular surgeon, then new to our area, who had just taken care of Gordon Grass across the hall.

“It’s my leg, it’s a clot, just like seven years ago”, the stranger in the hall groaned.

“What happened?” I asked as we wheeled him into an empty exam room. His right shoe and sock were already off.

“I was walking to the store and this pain just grabbed me in the thigh”, he said.

“The sheriff dropped him off”, Autumn said. “He flagged the cruiser down.“

I knelt down in front of him, just like I had done when Mr. Smith rolled in the same way twenty years ago, and checked the skin temperature of his right foot. He winced at my light touch. His foot was a little dusky in color and his skin was slightly cool. I couldn’t feel any pulses.

“Let me just get my Doppler”, I said and got my little hand held device from my office.

Same result with the Doppler – no distal pulses.

“Let’s call the ambulance. I’ll alert the hospital” I began. A few minutes later the crew wheeled him down the hall to their rig and I returned to Gordon and his ticking ear.

I told Gordon that it wasn’t likely that he had an acoustic neuroma, partly because of his exam findings and also (I guessed) because the MRA’s he had before his vascular surgery probably would have picked up a tumor. I said I wanted to make a referral to Dr. Ritz, the wise old ENT specialist who bailed me out with my bacterial parotitis case a while back.

“This ticking is driving me crazy”, Gordon said.

“We sometimes prescribe low dose Valium for ear noises, because of how intolerable they can be”, I explained.

“I’ll have some then”, he quipped.

A Near Miss, Technology Notwithstanding

The other day I ordered a CT scan with contrast on a patient with an apparent mass on his neck. I explained about the need to get a blood test to make sure his kidneys could handle the iodine contrast. Because our lab was closed, I had to print a requisition for him to bring to the hospital lab.

Printing a requisition from our EMR is a multi step process that involves leaving the “superbill” (I don’t know what’s so superior about it, but that’s a different topic), going to “chart”, clicking on “requisitions”, highlighting the “creatinine” I just ordered, selecting “in-house lab” even though the requisition is meant to bring to the hospital, selecting “ok”, then getting transported to another screen where I must again highlight “creatinine“, clicking “print”, getting to a pop up window that says “could not find a printer…”, clicking on the name of the only printer on the network I ever use (immediately to the left of my desk back in my office), clicking “ok” and walking down the hall to get the piece of paper, signing it by hand even though it says “electronically signed” and (finally) giving it to the patient.

The next day we got a fax from the x-Ray department with their premedication protocol for iodine allergic patients. I had missed the fact that my patient had an allergy to iodine.

I simply missed the fact that my patient had this allergy, and he didn’t catch my comment about “iodine contrast”. I should have asked more specifically about iodine allergy, and I should have made the detour from “superbill” to “medications” to “allergies” before going to “chart” to go through the steps of ordering the creatinine, but this time I didn’t.

My million dollar system, which doesn’t even have a spell checker, doesn’t know that a CT with contrast requires a creatinine and is contraindicated if the patient is allergic to iodine. It makes me follow a “workflow” that reminds me of my High School introduction, in the early seventies, to the early programming languages of the day (COBOL and Fortran, if I remember correctly) and my first Atari home computer. It is far removed from the $500 iPhone I carry on my belt.

In the days before our EMR, filling out a paper requisition took only a few seconds and gave me more time and mental space to chat with the patient about the test itself while I was completing the task. With the archaic workflows of my EMR, my attention is drawn away from the clinical scenario to the not-so-smart computer in the room.

What was supposed to make the practice of medicine safer and more efficient is, to date, only a gleam in the eye of software designers, politicians and clinic administrators. For those of us in the trenches, it is at least some of the time just a bunch of extra work with very uncertain benefits.

The Sick Game of Medicare D Formularies

The letters are usually four pages long and begin by saying that my patient has received a temporary supply of the medication I prescribed.

Next, there are general paragraphs about how the drug either isn’t on their formulary or the quantity exceeds the plan limits. None of these letters contains a reference to an online formulary physicians can access to compare covered alternatives.

Then there are several cumbersome explanations about the appeal process needed to request a formulary exemption. There are always toll free numbers to call.

Missing from 90% of these letters are mentions of which similar or alternative drugs actually are covered on the company’s formulary. This information is also missing from the smartphone app and website most doctors use to try to avoid these rejection letters – epocrates, the industry standard for looking up drugs, doses and formularies, doesn’t have access to this information from more than a handful of Medicare D plans.

This presents a choice between a few courses of action for the average doctor:

1) Desperately Google “medicare D formulary megapharm insurance corporation” (a fictitious insurance company name, to protect this writer from unnecessary litigation), only to end up following links to help consumers choose a plan in their geographic area, and not finding the more or less secret formulary.

2) Switch the patient to the oldest, least effective and least expensive medication in the class, or even in an older generation of generics, and hope it will go through at the pharmacy cash register. This is still not guaranteed to work, since the costs of some very old medications have skyrocketed in the past year or two.

3) Have your nurse call the patient to let him or her know they’ll have to pay for the medicine themselves or go without, since there is no reasonable alternative.

4) Have your nurse dial up the Medicare D provider, wait on hold for ten or twenty minutes, answer several questions about the patient’s policy number, diagnosis and so on and beg them to reveal which alternative drugs are covered or at least fax over a Prior Authorization form you can chip away at if there is ever a “free” moment in your day.

5) Make the calls yourself, contain your frustration as you listen to the Muzak, see your productivity level and patient volume go down, increase the wait times for patients calling for an appointment, and prepare to see your salary go down after your next performance review.

It is hard to imagine that the Megapharm Insurance Corporations of America are unknowingly wasting paper and postage on these letters that say what’s not covered without advising prescribers which drugs are covered. I am making a very educated guess that the purpose and net effect of these letters is that many patients don’t get the intended prescription, or even an alternate one, thus increasing the company’s profits. For the cost of a single presorted bulk mailing, they can easily save a hundred dollars every single month from this moment forward on one single, hapless victim – excuse me, “member”.

When a Housecall is Worth a Thousand Tests

Flossie Marks used to complain now and then about shortness of breath on exertion. She never had chest pain and, after all, she carried firewood from the basement to feed the wood stoves and fireplaces in her large Victorian house. At 81, who wouldn’t be a little short of breath doing that?

Last summer, she finally sold the house where she and Eli had raised four children and hosted nine grandchildren for holidays and summer vacations. After Eli died three years ago the large house had become a millstone around her neck and she had lowered her asking price by more than half before it finally sold. She had confided in me last spring that she didn’t think she could handle another winter there.

She had been so excited when she told me about the cute little apartment she would be moving into in September.

Then in November, I saw Flossie with a concern about nighttime coughing. She had gained some weight, but of course, she wasn’t running up and down three stories and down in the basement anymore.

She confided in me that she wasn’t thrilled with the apartment complex she had moved into. There was loud music and neighbors’ late night arguments sometimes kept her awake.

Her EKG and chest X-ray were normal, and she wasn’t anemic, but her BNP was mildly elevated. I ordered an echocardiogram. That was normal. As I contemplated my next move, Flossie ironically broke her ankle slipping on the wet bathroom floor. She never injured herself feeding the fires in her Victorian, but a wet tile floor put her in a cast boot and crutches.

I needed to proceed with my assessment of her cough and shortness of breath so I offered to do a housecall.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at dusk for my visit was that several light fixtures outside and inside the building weren’t working. I also heard the music Flossie had told me about as I walked down the dimly lit carpeted hallway.

Entering her ground floor apartment at the back of the building, my nose instantly registered a strong smell of mold and my mucous membranes started to burn.

Flossie was sitting in a recliner with her injured foot elevated and as we spoke, her conversation was interrupted now and then by a dry cough.

“Did you see all the broken lights and did you hear the thumping rock music coming in?” Flossie asked. “I should have moved into the Leblanc Apartments instead – they have more people like me there. My best friend Norma Beck lives there, you know her. The Superintendent there has said I can have an apartment close to Norma’s that becomes available the first of next month.”

“Sounds like that could be a good change for you”, I said, and I thought to myself as my eyes watered from the mold in the air, “it might stop our breathing work-up right there”.

Outdated Equipment

Friday noon, in typical fashion, I seemed to have an emergency on my hands. This time, it was an ocular one.

Philip Brown had driven 35 miles in a steady snowfall to see me. Four days earlier he had been to the Cityside Emergency Room for modest pain and a couple of small blisters on the right side of his forehead. They diagnosed him with shingles and put him on an antiviral. Now he had 48 hours of severe, burning pain in his forehead, where at first there had been only mild discomfort, as well as a new, piercing pain and profuse tearing in that eye.

“Well, we’ve got two things to take care of”, I began. “The pain can be managed with the same medication you took when you had that pinched nerve in your back last year, but we have to figure out exactly what’s going on with your eye.”

He grimaced and struggled to open his eye. With his left eye he could see 20/30 but with his right only 20/200. His squinting eye had a mixed injection – redness that extended all the way to the limbus, or corneal margin.

“Let me get some more equipment to examine your eye with”, I said and headed to the procedure room for the Wood’s light and some fluorescein strips to look for signs of zoster ophthalmicus, the dreaded dendritic fluorescence you can see when the virus attacks the cornea.

I reached for the eye tray on the top shelf in the cabinet over the large stainless steel sink. My heart sank as I fumbled around among its contents. The fluorescein strips were gone.

I knew exactly what had happened. The half full box had December of last year printed as the expiration date. I remember thinking the last time I used them that we needed to order new ones. The ordering of supplies is done by one of the younger nurses at the other end of the clinic.

“Autumn, have you seen the box of fluorescein strips?” I asked, but she hadn’t.

I returned to Philip with the bad news: “I’m going to have to refer you to an eye doctor today, because we ran out of the stuff to look for shingles in the eye. Who do you usually see?”

“Dr. Pomeroy.”

I looked at my watch.

“An hour from here, in good weather.”

“With good eyesight”, Philip added.

Just then, there was a knock and the door opened. A triumphant Autumn handed me the box of fluorescein strips.

“They were on Sally’s desk, ready to be thrown out”, Autumn said. “I left a note for her not to get rid of the old box until the new one comes in.”

Moments later, I knew that Philip didn’t have shingles of his cornea. What he had was a peripheral superficial corneal abrasion at twelve o’clock, caused by a curled eyelash. With the eyelash out of the way, his eye stopped tearing and his pain was instantly reduced by half. On his second trip to the eye chart, he scored 20/25 with his right eye.

With prescriptions and instructions taken care of, I went back to my office, opened my thermos and ate my sandwich.

Just then, Sally, back from her lunch, came in.

“What’s this about the fluorescein?”

I swiveled around and looked up at her.

“Let me tell you a story about how, with outdated equipment, I saved a man from pain and agony and a dangerous two hour round trip in a snow storm…”

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