Friday, April 3, 2015

Bedside Rounds

I think about you often, sometimes early mornings before I am fully awake. Although, I met you just once, you have been one of the strongest influence on my medical practice. It has been over two decades since I met you that one time in a surgical ward in Kolkata but I have thought of you as much and as often, as I have done of close friends and relatives. This is my attempt at exorcism, though I think you have been a guiding light for me. I have been having dreams of you recently; so I think writing of you may help me get a better night's sleep.

You were young and admitted with breast mass for surgical resection. Thin, body draped in a sari, you looked scared as more than twenty of us- newly minted third year medical students, descended on your bedside, along with our fearless, ill-tempered surgical attending. He had a posh British accent, though it was too loud to be pucca sahib, in my opinion.

The surgeon, talked clearly and loudly about the fungating mass in the right breast and exposed her breasts for us to see. You shrank before our eyes and tears rolled down. I felt ashamed for all of us- for my desire to be a doctor, for my fellow students who rushed to examine you-your breast mass and axillary lymph nodes and for the loud surgeon droning on about breast cancer. I wish I had stood up for you, helped wipe your tears, did something, anything to stop the parade of your cancer, stopped the students and our preceptor from this bedside examination.

I did none of these things. I was a witness to your examination and your tears. I did nothing. I did not examine you. I did not stop anyone else from examining you. I did not wipe your tears. I wish I had done something to help. I will not be a silent witness to your sorrow anymore.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Coping Skills for the Clinician

A question asked of me on twitter by a medical student and the recent Germanwings plane crush lead me to write this. All clinicians, at the front line of medical care, at some time in their career, some more often than others, feel overwhelmed. This is accompanied by a thoughts of incompetence, helplessness  which if left unattended, can lead to misery, burnout and self harm. I have seen this in myself after residency and had to take a career detour to sit and ponder and attend to the rest of my life. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to be able to afford to take a break, and not see patients for nearly two years. Afterwords, as I eased into practice, first a volunteer position looking after the uninsured and then locum tenens hospital positions- I felt able to cope with all the troubles and the chaos that clinical practice, especially that of a primary care, brings along with it.

These are the methods I used to foster resilience in my life and I hope these will be generalizable to others, as well.

1. This too shall pass
Events happen and sometimes, we just need to bear witness and not respond too quickly in a knee jerk manner. The nature of life is transience, and events can be beyond your control. If a patient is upset on rounds or in clinic, often it is nothing personal- it could be something as trivial as a bad cup of coffee (or, lack thereof). I have trouble with practising this consistently - most of us see ourselves as problem solvers and if something does not go right than we can surely, make it better. I am practising this - it is not always about me, I can bear witness without actively responding to something and possibly escalating arguments needlessly.

2. There is a larger world
There are bigger things than you- the patient comes first. There is a story behind every illness and life experience- finding it often unearths empathy which helps both you and your patient to cope better with the illness. This is not a panacea but looking for a bigger picture helps me in gaining perspective and looking forward.

3. Focus on the moment
Now, I sound just like my yoga instructor this morning. And I am aware that some may think I am contradicting my earlier advice. It is important that we consciously try to focus on what is happening in the moment. Anxiety about the future mars our interactions now. Mindfulness raises awareness and helps us respond better to situations as we are less distracted. This, I find helps anxiety and makes our patients respond better to us- because if we are mindful, they realize that they have our full attention so their anxiety about not being listened to, also decreases.

How does all this relate to the recent plane crash? This morning when I heard on the news that it maybe that the co-pilot of the German plane had crashed the airplane knowingly, it made me very sad to realize that this was a preventable accident and so many young students' family and friends would not be mourning now. The comparisons of health care, patient safety and airline safety are commonplace and sometimes, I find them odious. I find it challenging to think of health care episodes, the way I think of a flight, although there are some similarities for example, checklists have been shown to help with safety in both airline and health care systems. It is possible that overwhelming depression, suicidality was responsible for the airline tragedy and I see some parallels of this sort of despair in health care, too. Recent studies have shown that half of US doctors show signs of burnout and in my humble opinion ( some data to back this up ) my fairly commonplace advice to re-focus, be mindful and sometimes, take the long view has helped me keep burnout at bay.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Should Physicians Write about their Patients?

To survive, you must tell stories.- Umberto Eco

There was a discussion happening on Twitter recently after an article in The Atlantic Monthly by Dr Anna Reisman. As is usual on Twitter, there were many varied opinions. In a Medical Humanities book club that I participate in, the general view amongst the Philosophers was that Physicians ought not to co-opt the patient experience of illness, they felt that in their reading of pieces written by doctors that the tone was sometimes condescending and detracted from an balanced view of the illness experience.

As a doctor, who wants to write, I thought that it is important that one is able to express one's viewpoint as a clinician. Writing is a way of thinking and often, putting things on paper, clarifies situations and cements understanding. Writing is a way of reflecting about our relationship to the larger world around us.

As a means to aiding in a more reflective, self aware practice, I participate in a local medical humanities research group. It is a book club of sorts, where a diverse group of doctors, educators, pscyhologists, philosophers, students meet monthly, during the academic year to read and discuss books, essays, short stories, scholarly articles after dinner. When we have discussed works by physicians, some of the non-medical folks have remarked that the physician- writers can be facetious in talking about their patients and have objected to their viewpoint as being paternalistic, at times. They have felt as if the doctor in his narrative writing has co-opted the patient's illness experience.

I have to admit that I have never felt that my writing has impinged upon the patient's experience of their illness. I have frequently asked my patients if I may write about them and they have always generously agreed. Occasionally, they will look at me quizically, as if to ask, what is so interesting about me? I tell them what I find interesting about them and they seem to accept my explanation. I am conscious of HIPAA and make sure that no one I talk about is identifiable publically. Also, my writing is private, except for erratic blog posts. There is little chance that my patients will read about themselves.

Even so, my writing has therapeutic value for myself and indirectly for my patients, too. When I write about my patients, I am able to deal with my reactions to my work as a hospitalist. My patients are sick, scared and often in the process of dying. By writing about them, I hope to honor their experience and process the thoughts that arise when I am interacting with them. This is my best bulwark against burnout.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Physical Examination Saves Lives And Money

I just attended an M&M done by one of our chief residents at our hospital and it raised a few issues that I wanted to write about.

A 50 year old man, originally from Ethiopia, sought medical care for progressive weakness for the past three months or so, so severe that he was unable to do his job of working as a cab driver. He had emigrated to the US about 15 years ago and his chief complaint was taken to mean "dyspnea on exertion" which lead to admission under a cardiomyopathy service- his then documented physical exam was positive for abdominal distension without any other cardiac, lung or peripheral extremity findings. Lab tests of note BNP was 35, hemoglobin was 10, renal and liver function tests were within normal limits.

He had a cardiac echo, right heart catheterization- which were all normal and was sent home for follow up with Neurology for "weakness". When he came back for his Neurology Clinic appointment, it was noted that he had abdominal distension and striae and they referred him to Endocrinology for "further work-up" of Cushing's syndrome.

We failed this man in many ways- his words were mauled into a "good fit" for a cardiac story which was milked with all sorts of testing without any Bayesian thoughts. The clinicians that cared for him seemed not to have really seen him- it took an inpatient stay and an astute neurologist to consider the diagnosis that brought him to the hospital. This is a disease that is ripe for questions during USMLE steps, shelf examinations, pimping sessions during rounds and yet this man got a gazillion tests- cardiac catheterization, inpatient lung functions tests, CT chest, Ultrasound of the abdomen and many, many blood tests before someone really looked at him.

As I walked out of the conference room, I chatted with my colleague saying that a good internist would have caught that, don't you think? He replied, "I'm not sure- a good internist would have completed all the clinical reminders,for sure."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Thoughts on Ebola outbreak

There has been such a lot of over the top coverage of Ebola..everyone from the @realDonaldTrump to @CNN has weighed in; so I thought why not me. A blog post to summarize what I learned and what I thought about the whole thing would be useful for my approach to medicine, and maybe useful to anybody that might care to read it.

One of the first things that struck me was the heroism of the clinicians- people who left comfortable lives to help others. It reminded me of my medical residency during the era of SARS and the death of Dr. Carlo Urbani who first identified the disease as a dangerous, life threatening syndrome and died from SARS. I remember the sadness and pride that I felt in his life story, that I was a part of a profession that had a few heroes.

In learning of Dr. Khan's death I felt the same sense of pride and desolation. I think that this short piece in the BMJ, by Margaret McCartney, a GP from Glasgow, expresses well what I would like to share- a homage to "real courage"

Ebola is not a new disease- it has simmered, off and on - for a long time. This is an older article about the ecology of the virus which was useful for me to read as the disease is not something I think of, very often. This is a simpler life cycle cartoon from the CDC site.

There seems to be a seasonal, cyclical nature to these illnesses, maybe related to food insecurity leading to eating alternative protein like bats, bush meat. It is also likely related to loss of forests, habitat destruction.

The mistrust of clinicians by the people is something that I see often in my work but it is usually related to certain topics like vaccination; but I think I can understand the West African public thinking that Ebola is a conspiracy. It is hard to trust people especially when they are suited up, as if going on a space flight, rather than taking care of people. This is the hardest barrier to fight- an outbreak will only go long for as long as there is fear, mistrust and lack of true knowledge about the disease.

It is important to get accurate information to the affected people rather than the hype that is all over. I was glad to see this intervention from Liberian natives in Boston who are volunteering to spread good information so that rumor does not take hold. 

There have been diseases like these, modern day plagues, which all of us need to get good information about, especially if we work in healthcare. Diseases can be just a plane ride away but humanity is poorly served by paranoia; to this end-  I thought that this piece by an Emory RN on why we need to take care of people with Ebola, here in the US, was an informative read.

Earlier today I read in the NYT about how Ebola affects immigrants who have not even been to West Africa recently. An outbreak has a domino effect and brings forth our deepest fears of illness and stranger anxiety. After all this frantic reading on the subject, I for one, feel better prepared that if I came face-to-face with Ebola, I'd know what to do.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lets Talk About Death.....

Death is inevitable. In my work as an internist in Southern California, taking care of patients in the hospital, I see it often. Sometimes, in my darker moods, I joke just a tad sarcastically, with my team of trainees, reminding them that in So Cal, no one ever dies. This is in the context of memorably rare instances of conversations in the flavor of  "Do everything" and  "I'm waiting for a miracle to happen for my loved one ". Now, I may sound flippant but it is not my intention. It is frustrating to see patients and family members suffer from over treatment, sometimes due to over ambitious physicians care and sometimes due to misunderstanding and overestimating the role of Medicine.

Recently, I heard Dr. Paul Farmer talk about " stupid death"  which he explained as a death that ought not to have happened. When a person dies, usually in a resource poor setting, due to a health condition which would be treatable if they had got the right health care at the right time....that is a stupid death. He talked about how a woman working for his organisation in Haiti, died during pregnancy and that is an example of stupid death- one that is preventable and should never have happened, when it happened.

As a physician, it is my duty to prevent this sort of a death. All my training, my medical reading, my professional obligation is to prevent " stupid death". But what about the other extreme. I read the NYT piece "A 'Code Death' for Dying Patients" by Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD who is a rare breed of physician- one who is board certified in critical care medicine and in palliative care which is often, mistakenly seen as a do-everything versus do-nothing specialty. In this piece she talks about how it is important to be aware of impending death during a patient's illness and then participate in a 'code death' which is palliation at the time of death. This is an important article which should inform our care of patients.

We, as a society and both patients and doctors, need to get comfortable with talking about death, planning for death, just as we do for life. We need to talk to our patients about advance directives, POLSTs and MOLSTs, what they and their family members can expect at the end of life. Whenever we can, we need to prevent stupid death but in case of the good death, the inevitable  death, we should not prolong suffering but simply allay it.   

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cost of Care

We had Chris Moriates come and talk at our grand rounds about cost of care and the need for physicians not to do financial harm in course of caring for our patients. Briefly, he called on the need to be mindful about what we do to patients and think about all our actions.

As I work in our inpatient unit, I have been thinking about what we do in health care and how factor in cost in daily work. Traditionally, costs have been in the domain of health economics and abstruse disciplines that we rarely think of while working with patients. Most patients, however are aware of co-pays, medication prices, ambulance charges and assorted deductibles. Even the ACP ( American College of Physicians) has said in its ethics  manual that equity and cost effectiveness is an important consideration in health care.

These are all meta considerations which can be best done when we consider the whole population even as we treat the individual patient. During bedside rounds, I've been trying to question every investigation we do on our patients by asking why are we doing this test? Is this the best way to get the information we need to care for our patient? Will this test change management? This mindful approach helps us cut down unnecessary testing and is my way of doing "slow medicine" in the hospital. Talk before testing, works for me.