Archive for the 'Progress Notes' Category

Medicine is a Love that Finds Us

Medicine is a love that finds us wherever we happen to be.

It snatched me, a quiet four year old boy, almost sixty years ago. I don’t know how it happened. I remember being in the hospital and having stomach X-rays and I have also been told we had a family doctor who made house calls. I couldn’t have seen doctors on TV, because television was only introduced in Sweden when I was three and I saw my first program at age 5, a show about an infantile doll named “Andy Pandy”.

At age four I simply announced that I was going to become a doctor and I never hesitated after that. It seems everything I did from that moment on prepared me for what I do now: Being a Boy scout who made do with what I had on hand; learning discipline as a military recruit in basic training; working as a substitute teacher for fifth to ninth grade students; spending a summer as the pastor’s assistant with confirmation students and in his parish, and traveling the world to interview people from other cultures.

In my day to day work I always look for the story behind each patient’s symptom and even behind their laboratory values. I often find myself circling around the concept of Narrative Medicine.

The other day I happened to read the Swedish journal for general medicine (Allmän Medicin). A doctor, who seemed to be about my age, had written about his experiences with Narrative Medicine and the tension he used to feel between it and today’s Evidence Based Medicine.

The writer’s name was Christer Petersson, and he looked and wrote as if he was someone I had known from High School. I Googled his name and found another article he had written, in 2009, in the Swedish Medical Journal, Läkartidningen.

That article was titled “I worked as a Doctor for 20 Years. Then I Became a Doctor”.

I did a quick double take and continued to read, finding exactly what the title suggested: He had studied medicine because the science interested him and it seemed like a good thing to do. He was a young man with big thoughts and big ideas. But he felt uninspired by learning about the digestive system and was uncomfortable with the notion of treating mundane things like bleeding, boils and open wounds.

He writes:

“It took about 10 years and quite a bit of agonizing before I discovered that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and it took another 10 years to understand that I actually was a doctor and didn’t just work as one. During that time I learned that man is more than his digestive system and the most important events in life often happen in the seemingly uninteresting space where blood flows, boils burst and wounds heal.”

And then, he paraphrases Hippocrates’ first aphorism:

“And I saw that it is equal parts suffering and joy to deal with all this as a doctor: to cure sometimes, treat more often and comfort the best you can.

It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?”

Different journeys to the same destination.

“Did You Read My Chart?”

The patient, I surmised, was the one in the wheelchair, with nasal oxygen and an unhealthy red color of her cheeks. The younger woman in the room with her looked like she might be a daughter.

I introduced myself. I had been right about the other woman being her daughter.

It was Saturday clinic, urgent care at our country doctor practice, and the plastic holders with “express check-in” history forms and a scribble sheet for the doctor and the medical assistant were piling up in the pocket of my office door.

“So, what can I do for you today?” I asked.

The woman in the wheelchair gave me a sturdy look and said:

“Did you read my chart?”

My mind raced, thirty years into the past and back again.

As an intern and resident admitting patients to the hospital, I would routinely read up on the patient’s paper chart before entering the room. Each admission took as long as it needed, and the only time pressure I felt was usually my own. The emergency room doctors had already ordered the initial treatments each patient needed.

In practice before computers, I would glance at the problem list and flip through the last few notes, labs and imaging tests while pausing in my office or at the nurses desk, sometimes actually while walking toward the exam room.

Now, with computers that go black after just a few idle minutes, I’d have to log on in order to see any information, and the moments that takes feel like forever. Besides, I can’t very well sit in the last exam room I used and do this, since my nurse needs to room the next patient.

Also, now, with all the checklists we must complete in even the simplest visit, there really is no time during or in between visits to actually sit down and “read the chart”; our time is so pressured and the medical records have become so bloated that we end up just asking the patient, because the pertinent information drowns among the mandated minutia.

“No, there is seldom time to read the chart anymore”, I said.

My patient sighed and gestured to her daughter, who recited her medical history in a monotone voice as if she had done it too many times to count.

The woman had leg cramps, and it was probably because of low magnesium. Her exam was fairly similar to the last note by her own doctor. I did compare my findings and his.

So I prescribed magnesium and two days later we got a call that that had done the trick.

But I don’t think she will ever accept that when she sees a different physician, they will talk to her first, before deciding if it would be worthwhile to steal the time from someone else’s appointment to sit down and read her chart.

A Day in the Life of Sir William Osler

Snowed in by a fierce Nor’easter, with our clinic as well as every other outpatient facility within 100 miles closed for the day, I stoked the fire in our wood stove, pulled up my high back chair and read for a couple of hours.

I returned to my treasured, signed copy of Harvey Cushing’s biography of Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine. On page 431, under the subheading ’He Knew Not Idleness’, Cushing quotes a senior assistant’s account of Osler’s daily routine.

This description may be surprising to those who only know Osler by his famous quote, “Look wise, say nothing and grunt”:

“At 7 he rose; breakfast before 8. At a few minutes before nine he entered the hospital door. After a morning greeting to the superintendent, humming gaily, with arm passed through that of his assistant, he started with brisk, springing step down the corridor towards the wards. The other arm, if not waving gay or humorous greetings to the nurses or students as they passed, was thrown around the neck or passed through the arms of another colleague or assistant. One by one they gathered about him, and by the time the ward was reached, the little group had generally grown like a small avalanche.

The visit over, to the private ward. For the many convalescents, or the nervous invalid whose mind needed diversion from self, some lively, droll greeting or absurd remark or preposterous and puzzling invention, and away to the next in an explosion of merriment, often amid the laughing but vain appeals of the patient for an opportunity to retaliate. For those who were gravely ill, few words, but a charming and reassuring manner. Then, running the gauntlet of a group of friends or colleagues or students or assistants, all with problems to discuss, he escaped. How? Heaven only knows!

A cold luncheon, always ready, shortly after one. 20 minutes’ rest in his room; then his afternoon hours. At 4:30, in the parlor opposite his consulting room, the clans began to gather, graciously received by dear ’Mrs. Chief’, as lady Osler was affectionately known. Soon the chief entered with a familiar greeting for all. It was an anxious moment for those who had been waiting on for the word that they had been seeking with him. After five or 10 minutes he would rise, and perhaps beckon to the lucky man to follow him to his study. More often he slipped quietly from the room and in a minute reappeared at the door in his overcoat, hat in hand. A gay wave of the hand, ’Good-bye’, and he was off to his consultations.

Dinner at seven to which impartially and often, his assistants were invited. In the evening he did no set work, and retired early to his study where, his wife by the fire, he signed letters and cleared up the affairs of the day. Between 10 and 11 o’clock, to bed. Such were his days. Three mornings in the week he took at home for work. He utilized every minute of this time. Much of his summer vacation went to his studies. On railway, in cab, on his way to and from consultations, in tramway, and in the old ’bobtailed’ car that used to carry us to the hospital, book and pencil were ever in his hand, and wherever he was, the happy thought was caught on the wing and noted down. His ability at a glance to grasp and to remember the gist of the article that he read was extraordinary.

His power to hold the mastery of his time was remarkable. He escaped as by magic, so graciously, so engagingly that, despair though one might, one could hardly be irritated. No one could speak consecutively to Osler against his will. How did he do it? I know not.”

(W.S. Thayer, ‘Osler’. The Nation, N.Y., Jan. 24, 1920.)

It makes me reflect:

Time, my old arch enemy, is always on my mind. Over the years, I have managed to adopt a somewhat Oslerian persona, which tries to make every minute, and every brief encounter, count in the mind of my patients and in my own pursuit of forward movement in each clinical case I encounter.

But most days I don’t know that I am anywhere nearly as skillful as the old master in navigating through it.

He probably capitalized on his larger-than-life reputation and position in the world of medicine. I have only a local reputation and the position that career longevity and mature appearance bestows me, like my silver haired temples and my wrinkled hands and face.

But the one thing I know and sense every day in the clinic is: If for a single moment my love of my profession or the connection I feel with my patients and my coworkers is clouded or briefly forgotten, the pace of my workday becomes almost unbearable.

It is only when I am carried by the momentum of my greater purpose that I can make every one of my brief encounters with my fellow human beings count and be healing in any sort of way.

Friday’s Lessons

My colleague, Dr. L.T. Kim, was off this week and I covered for him.

Friday afternoon I dealt with two of his patients and learned, or relearned, two important lessons.

I saw a man with thoracolumbar back pain. He had fallen off a ladder a few years earlier and suffered from recurring bouts of back pain, sometimes with tingling in both legs. He had been to the emergency room after a particularly bad episode. Dr. Kim saw him in followup and ordered an MRI of his thoracic spine.

I saw him to review the results. The MRI showed more or less garden variety degenerative changes, but nothing that would explain all his symptoms.

“I’m feeling much better, but this very sore spot is still here”, he said and asked if he could point to the corresponding place on my back.

I asked him to remove his shirt and palpated my way down his spine.

“Right there. You got it”, he said.

I marked the spot with an X, using my green ink rollerball pen, sat down at the computer and ordered PA and lateral lumbar spine films. My tech taped a metallic marker over my X and a few minutes later I saw on the screen that his pain centered on his second lumbar vertebra, just below where his expensive MRI had ended.

A call to Cityside hospital’s MRI department verified that they couldn’t just go back and look a little lower on their images, which only included a small fraction of L2. Our patient needed a whole new, lumbar, MRI.

In case I had any temptation to feel a little smug that I had realized something Dr. Kim hadn’t, I learned another lesson at 4:55 pm.

“I’ve got a sodium of 123 on one of Dr. Kim’s patients”, our lab manager said as she entered my office with a lab printout in her hand. “If he saw this he’d probably have the patient go to the ER by ambulance”, she continued.

“Well I don’t usually worry quite that much about sodium levels”, I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

I saw that this older woman had been discharged from the hospital a week earlier and she did run low sodiums there, about 130.

Dr. Kim is an internist by training, and he spent most of his residency years in a tertiary acute care hospital, where only the sickest patients went. In that setting, even small changes in lab values could be harbingers of deterioration, disaster and death. I spent most of my training in small town hospitals and outpatient clinics, where most people got better more or less on their own, and where small laboratory abnormalities often didn’t matter much at all.

I dialed the number.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Weld? This is Dr. D. calling from the clinic with your lab results. Dr. Kim is away this week.

“No, this is her daughter.”

“Her sodium is low so I’m calling to see how she is doing.”

There were several voices in the background.

“Guys, I’ve got the doctor on the phone”, she said and the voices went silent. She continued: “The ambulance is here, I’ll put you on speakerphone so you can talk with them.”

“Hey, Doc, what’s up”, the familiar voice of one of our local EMTs greeted me.

“Mrs. Weld has a sodium of 123, it was 130 a week ago when she left the hospital”, I said.

“What are the symptoms of that?”

“Weakness, lethargy, confusion…” I started.

“That would be it, Doc.”

“So she needs to go back to the hospital. I’ll call the ER”, I said.

“Thanks a lot for calling, Doc. Good timing!”

Indeed. And I thought this would turn out to be just an insignificant laboratory abnormality.

Not On Call

“I am not on call”, Dr. Brian Stoltz said over a lot of background noise through what must have been the speakerphone in his car.

“I know”, I said. “Cityside ER said there is nobody on call for ophthalmology this weekend. I have a 54 year old woman with intense tearing, discomfort and only 20/70 vision in her right eye.”

“And she’s not a patient of our office?”

“No, she has only had to see an optometrist for glasses. I’ve called every hospital within 50 miles and there is no ophthalmologist on call over the long weekend. You helped me once before with a case of dendritic keratitis when you were on call.”

I also remembered Memorial Day weekend last year, I was in the same situation during my Saturday clinic. A young boy, whose mother had just joined the board of our health center, came in with eye irritation. He had a small rust ring very close to the center of his cornea. I had dug out plenty of them, with a special spatula or even with the tip of an 18 gauge needle, but this was a child, who might not have beeven fully cooperative, and the location was critical for his future near vision.

Cityside Hospital had no ophthalmologist on call for that long weekend either, and all my calls to ophthalmologists in the surrounding area were fruitless. He got in to see an eye doctor the Wednesday after the Monday holiday and it turned out that he actually also had a small metallic corneal foreign body. Everything turned out okay, but the wait was uncomfortable and at least a little risky.

A corneal rust ring, even a foreign body, can usually wait a few days, but if this woman had what I thought, acute angle closure glaucoma, I wouldn’t want her to wait that long to see an eye doctor.

“I think she’s got acute glaucoma”, I said.

He was silent. I continued:

“She’s got mixed injection, no foreign body, no fluorescein uptake and I can see her left fundus clearly but I can’t get a focus on her right fundus no matter what lens I dial in on the ophthalmoscope.”

He was silent again for what seemed a very long time. Then he said:

“I live an hour away, but I happen to be in town. If you have her walk out your door right now, I’ll meet her at my office in, what, 25 minutes?”

“She’ll be there. Thank you so much.”

I haven’t heard yet what he found, and I haven’t wanted to bug him, but I am anxious to hear what the final diagnosis was. I do know that an urgent slit lamp exam was necessary.

One postscript:

When I sent my emergency eye patient off with her office note and insurance information to see Dr. Stoltz, her husband said:

“You’ve done well by us. I came in and saw you once with a cauda equina syndrome.”

I didn’t remember him, but he must have had a critical enough pressure on his lower spinal nerves to also have warranted an urgent referral to a specialist.

Disease strikes at inopportune times.

Diagnoses Right Under My Nose

When I read a case report in a journal or whenever a patient comes in to see me about a new symptom, all my senses are tuned in and I know there is a diagnosis to be made.

But on regular clinic days with “routine” follow ups, I find myself not being as tuned in as I would like to be. I know my patients well; we are all growing older together. They change gradually over the years, just as I do. A couple of times last year I have found myself surprised and ashamed that someone else made a new diagnosis in a patient I was seeing on a regular basis.

Stella Sanders world had shrunk since her boisterous husband died a couple of years ago. She had never learned to drive, so without Roy to take her places, she had become virtually housebound. Her spinal stenosis had gone from moderate to severe, and she couldn’t take care of her home in the way she had always prided herself in. She admitted she was depressed, but didn’t want to take an antidepressant and wouldn’t hear of seeing a counselor. Her whole demeanor had changed. She never smiled, and she was less animated in all her facial expressions and body movements.

It was her neurosurgeon who saw it. He had nothing to offer for her spinal stenosis, but he suggested she talk to me about the possibility of her having Parkinson’s Disease.

I saw her again the other day, and on Sinemet she looks almost like her old self again.

Fred Nystrom’s health had been declining for years, and after going through both an operation for a fractured hip and emergency bowel surgery for perforated diverticulitis last year, he never recovered his old level of functioning. He came back from rehab the second time using a walker. Two months later he was still using it. His affect was flat and he couldn’t keep track of his medications the way he had a year earlier. His enlarged prostate seemed to bother him more and more, and he moved too slowly to always make it to the bathroom.

It was my partner, Dr. Wilford Brown, who made the observation that Fred had dementia, gait disturbance and urinary incontinence – the classic triad of normal pressure hydrocephalus. Fred is going in to have a shunt placed to drain his ventricles at the end of this month.

Our challenge is, in the hustle and bustle of everyday practice, to look beyond the issue at hand often enough to “see the big picture” in each patient, and at the same time keep a constant vigil for small changes that could mean a new disease is evolving.

Everything Goes Through Me

On an ordinary day last month, I saw patients for eight and a half hours. I addressed a dozen computer messages, took four or five calls from outside providers and held innumerable curbside conversations with medical assistants, case managers and colleagues.

I didn’t get to any of the 100+ lab results or 50+ documents in my electronic inboxes. Consequently, the care for several dozen of my patients didn’t move forward.

Many of them didn’t get the news that their blood tests, mammograms or CT scans were normal; some never got scheduled for follow up visits to discuss options based on their mildly abnormal studies; a few didn’t get their highly abnormal tests acted on. Others didn’t get their annual eye exams logged in their diabetic flow sheet.

This happened because I am the official bottleneck by virtue of the “work flow” dictated by our electronic medical record.

My last office note might say “Follow up to review results”, but if I am late getting through my inbox, the clerical task of scheduling that appointment doesn’t happen.

It’s a little bit like having me answer our clinic’s telephone, or, a presumptuous analogy, the President opening the Government’s mail and then forwarding each item to the proper cabinet secretary.

Because every piece of data in a medical office has an ordering provider or a provider of record, it seemed like an EMR no-brainer to send everything to that person. But I think someone forgot that the current primary care business model is based on each medical provider cranking out as many visits per day as is humanly possible. That makes desk work a money losing activity.

With all the talk about having everyone in the medical office work to the top of their license, I think it is high time we turn the virtual mail sorting work flow on its head:

Have non-providers check incoming reports and lab test against existing treatment plans with cut-offs for when to interrupt providers, and give the provides more time to provide care and make medical judgements. A lot of information comes in to the primary care office just so we can maintain a record of patients’ care. It isn’t necessarily imperative to have the physician read a seven page specialist report to find one relevant medication change that needs to be updated in a patient’s record. That is what we used to call secretarial work in the old days, but that word and concept, dear Health Care Industry Comrades, seems to be taboo these days.

So, back to my reality: Last night, after cleaning the horse stalls, I spent almost two hours going through my backlog of reports. At least I was able to do my work from home, in the company of my horses, but I keep feeling that on a daily basis I am making up for a system that isn’t all that well designed.

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