Latest HIT news, on the fly...


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nurses and doctors in the trenches

I had to drop everything else I was doing and study both of these fine books. I'd actually bought Dr. McCarthy's book first and was eagerly delving into it (after finishing Bob Watcher's excellent new book release "The Digital Doctor" -- scroll down), when "The Nurses" hit my radar. I downloaded it and read it from cover to cover before returning to "The Real Doctor" (which I'd initially cited in my April 16th post).

Both books are utterly compelling.

Stay tuned. This is gonna be a long one. There will be much triangulation with other books on the clinicians' POV (BTW, we'll be focused on the acute care settings).

For now, my elevator speech:
Their hard-won, sophisticated, indispensable clinical skills aside, nurses and physicians are just people like the rest of us, people more or less beset by all of the frailties, foibles, insecurities, and neuroses that typically dog us all across the breadth of our lives. The fractious, high-stakes, irreducibly high cognitive burden organizational environments within which they must function are neither of their design nor under their control, and can (and unhappily do) exacerbate interpersonal difficulties that are counterproductive to optimal patient care. I call the syndrome "psychosocial toxicity," and have blogged about it at some length in prior posts.

It's hardly confined to healthcare, to be sure, but organizational cultural dysfunction in healthcare is ultimately a patient safety issue. To the extent that we continue to view clinical co-workers through "transactional/instrumental," "superior/subordinate" lenses, our improvement efforts will be significantly hampered.

Thinking about nursing school or med school? Read both of these books ASAP. Thinking about healthcare QI, healthcare policy more broadly? Read both of these books ASAP. Thinking that you may become an acute care patient? Read both of these books ASAP.
I read everything I can relating to clinical pedagogy and process imperatives in order to better inform my views on digital health IT (the nominal topic that started this blog nearly five years ago) and healthcare process improvement. apropos, as I asserted last June:
In the face of a dysfunctional healthcare work culture, the best talent will take their skills elsewhere at the first opportunity. A psychosocially healthy workplace, then, is a significant profitability and sustainability differentiator.
A lot to think about today. Beyond citing illustrative excerpts from these books, we'll have to be going back "Down in the Weeds'," and thinking more about "The Art of Medicine." And, ruminating a bit more on the clinical process implications of Marx's "Just Culture."


This book follows the lives of four nurses as they deal with their tumultuous jobs and their complicated lives. Additionally, topical chapters are interspliced throughout that deal with organizational and policy issues. A nice touch, that.

Four hospitals stand within a fifty-mile radius of a major American city. On the surface, they are as different from one another as fairy-tale sisters. Pines Memorial Hospital is a pleasant-looking cream-colored building with a sixteen-story tower and broad, welcoming windows overlooking a quiet tree-lined suburban avenue. After decades of independence , the neighborhood’s favorite hospital was bought out by Westnorth, a large healthcare corporation, which is slowly diluting the local flavor. With 190 beds, Pines Memorial serves a highly educated, wealthy population with a large percentage of academics, retirees, and nursing home residents. Because it is close to a major highway, Pines’ emergency room, which has approximately 60,000 visits per year, often treats victims of major-impact car accidents. Nurses joke that the hospital should be called Highway Memorial, because the risks of the highway are far more relevant to the medical staff than the quiet red pine forests outside of town.

Several miles away, South General Hospital occupies a mostly gray edifice curved away from the road, as if to shield its inhabitants from the gang violence that occurs frequently nearby. The Level-1 trauma center— designated as such because it has the resources to treat every stage of injury, from prevention through rehabilitation— has 300 beds to serve one of the most indigent areas outside the city. South General’s ER sees 95,000 ER patients annually. The reputation of “The South ” is like that of the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks, hoping to keep up with her peers, but unable to overcome the disadvantages of living on the poverty-stricken south side of town.

Forty-five minutes west, in a peaceful corner of the city, Academy Hospital, proud and prestigious, inhabits several white-pillared, brick structures that wind around courtyards and patios, reflecting the storied architecture of its surrounding university campus. With approximately 425 beds, Academy treats a ritzy demographic of young and middle-aged residents in the nearby million-dollar homes and the students at the elite university. The Academy ER treats fewer than 45,000 patients per year, partly because it simply does not have the building space to expand its emergency department walls.

And Citycenter Medical, a longtime teaching hospital, is split between two dusty beige high-rises, perhaps representative of its dual personalities: a stalwart institution with top-notch doctors and an ER so poorly managed it is considered dangerous by many of its own staff. A 390-bed Level-1 trauma center, Citycenter has an emergency department that is crumbling beneath the weight of the 85,000 annual patients it does not have enough nursing staff to treat properly. While Pines Memorial treats more blunt force, multisystem traumas because of the car accidents, Citycenter’s traumas are typically isolated injuries, such as gunshot wounds. Easily reached by public transportation and in the heart of a densely populated city, Citycenter is a destination of choice for homeless people, drug-seeking addicts, and the uninsured.

In each of these disparate institutions, pale blue curtains shroud pods of frightened people. In each, seasoned healers perform routine procedures and medical feats behind bleached sterile walls. And in each, tracking invisible undercurrents through hallway mazes, nurses connect doctors to patients, carrying out copious orders in synchronized steps, entwining themselves intimately in convalescents’ lives.

Robbins, Alexandra (2015-04-14). The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital. Workman Publishing Company. Kindle Edition, location 32.

Nursing is among the most important professions in the world.

In no other profession do people float ably among specialties, helping to ease babies into being, escorting men and women gently into death, and heroically resurrecting patients in between. There are few other careers in which people are so devoted to a noble purpose that they work twelve, fourteen, sixteen straight hours without eating, sleeping, or taking breaks and often without commensurate pay simply because they believe in the importance of their job. They are frequently the first responders on the front lines of malady and contagion, risking their own health to improve someone else’s. Nursing is more than a career; it is a calling. Nurses are remarkable. Yet contemporary literature largely neglects them...

To examine what it is like to be a member of this secret club, I interviewed hundreds of nurses in the United States and several other countries. Essays based on their perspectives of the behind-the-scenes realities of nursing support stories that follow a year in the life of four ER nurses in an unnamed region of this country. Most of the people and hospitals in this book have pseudonyms and/ or identifying details changed or omitted to protect their privacy. Some chronologies have been shifted. 

The nurses I chose as main characters illustrate a variety of triumphs and struggles common in the profession. Confident, funny, and charmingly bossy, Molly is well loved by both patients and staff. When Pines Memorial’s anti-nurse policy changes lead her to quit her job, she signs with an agency instead. Molly has given herself one year to find a hospital that treats nurses and patients well enough that she would want to join its staff. At the same time, she begins fertility treatments that place her on the other side of the curtain. 

Lara, an able, trustworthy, committed ER nurse at South General, continues to battle the temptations of prescription drugs that are preposterously easy to steal, and doesn’t know that the coming year will bring major events that could trigger her downfall. Juliette, an ER nurse at Pines, is a hard worker who doesn’t hesitate to advocate loudly for her patients even when it is not in her own best interest to do so. Her blunt outspokenness does not endear her to many of her colleagues. Subsequently, she feels unwelcome in a workplace where patients’ lives depend on collegiality and communication among staff. And at Citycenter Hospital, Sam is a new nurse, young and awkward, whose introversion can come across as unprofessional. Sam is discouraged by her doctors’ and administrators’ overall lack of respect for nurses, but she has to overcome other hurdles, including rumors about her promiscuity. [ibid, pp. 23-25]
 On healthcare's all-too-prevalent "bully culture"
Doctor Versus Nurse

Molly’s experiences with egotistical doctors are not atypical. In fact, they barely scratch the surface of an even more disturbing trend, a doctor-bully epidemic that one doctor described as lurking in the “shadowy, dark corners of our profession.”

In news reports and hospital break rooms, stories abound of doctors berating nurses, hurling profanities, or even physically threatening them: shoving matches in the operating room; a surgeon pushing a nurse so hard mid-operation that he left a bloody handprint on her scrubs; physicians throwing stethoscopes, scissors, pens, or surgical instruments. Physical abuse by physicians is on the rise. In Maryland, a surgeon yelled at a male nurse, “Are you stupid or something?” and threw a bloody surgical sponge at him from across the room. A Texas doctor heaved a metal clipboard at an advanced-practice nurse and told her he was going to strangle her. A surgeon threw a scalpel at a Virginia nurse, who said, “He was angry because I didn’t have a rare piece of equipment he needed, so he endangered me and several others by throwing a tantrum.” North Carolina nurses referred to one doctor as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” because he got into a fistfight with another doctor and physically assaulted a nurse.

Most nurses have been victims of or have witnessed doctor bullying. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP), a nationally respected nonprofit watchdog organization, has reported rampant bullying in healthcare, including verbal abuse, threatening body language, condescension, and, though less common, physical abuse. A 2013 ISMP survey on workplace intimidation found that in the preceding year, 87 percent of nurses encountered physicians/ prescribers who had a “reluctance or refusal to answer your questions, or return calls,” 74 percent experienced physicians’ “condescending or demeaning comments or insults,” and one in four nurses had objects thrown at them by doctors. Physicians shamed, humiliated , or spread malicious rumors about 42 percent of the surveyed nurses. As a New York critical care nurse said, “Every single nurse I know has been verbally berated by a doctor. Every single one.”

This is a global problem. Significant numbers of nurses in Australia, South Africa, Hong Kong, Canada, and many more countries are bullied by doctors, according to surveys. In 2010, a nurse in India committed suicide reportedly because administrators would not address her complaints about a doctor who was sexually harassing her. A nurse’s association president said, “This case has not been taken seriously because the victim is a nurse.” In South Korea, a 2013 survey found that more than half of nurses were sexually harassed; the majority of the assailants were doctors. Doctor bullying has many serious ramifications. A 2013 study found that the more that nurses experience it, the more likely they are to report poor working environments and to quit their workplace and/ or the nursing profession. This is not the first study to find a link between doctors’ intimidation and poor nurse satisfaction, yet researchers repeatedly have found that most nurses don’t speak out against the behavior.

Why is hospital bullying veiled in organizational silence? Nurses are afraid to report doctors because they believe administrators will prioritize and refuse to penalize physicians who generate revenue or garner media accolades. They worry they might lose their own jobs in retaliation, and they fear the stigma of being perceived by colleagues as a whistle-blower.
[ibid, pp. 50-52]

Nurse on Nurse

Nurse-to-nurse bullying has been called “a silent epidemic,” “professional terrorism,” “insidious cannibalism,” and “the dirty little secret of nursing.” And it is crucial that the public learns about it— and hospitals eradicate it— because it affects patient care.

Workplace bullying can happen in any profession. It may come as more of a surprise from nurses, who are expected to be nurturing, empathetic, and caring. But the numbers are staggering. In the United States, a Journal of Nursing Management study found that 75 percent of nurses had been verbally abused by another nurse. It is so pervasive that even the American Nurses Association observed, in literature for its members, “Most of us could probably recount at least one story in which we as nurses encountered or witnessed workplace bullying.”

Nurse bullying is a significant problem in many corners of the world, in countries as diverse as England, Japan, Portugal, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Taiwan, Poland, Canada, and, a country with particularly high rates, Turkey. Worldwide, experts have estimated that one in three nurses quits her job because of it, and that bullying— not wages —is the major cause of a global critical nursing shortage. “We are not ‘angels in white,’” a Japanese nurse told me.

One of the most sobering statistics comes from Boston Medical Center’s director of nursing education and research, Martha Griffin, who found that nurse bullying is responsible for 60 percent of new nurses leaving their first jobs within six months and 20 percent leaving the profession entirely within three years. “It is destroying new nurses,” a Kansas nursing instructor told me. “I have five students who graduated less than a year ago who quit the nursing profession because of this behavior. It makes me very sad.”

It is tempting to attribute nurses’ hostility to their high-stakes work environment. But studies show that more nurses experience bullying from peers than do doctors or other healthcare staff. And nurses are verbally abused more frequently by each other than by patients, patients’ families, and physicians.

As distressing as it is for a nurse to be bullied by a physician, disruptive-behavior expert Alan Rosenstein reported that nurses are more upset by nurse-on-nurse “backbiting and unnecessary scrutiny.” As one nurse wrote him, “I expect that behavior from the surgeons, not the nurses, because I rely on them as my peers.”

In 1986, nursing professor Judith Meissner coined the phrase “nurses eat their young” as a call to action for nurses to stop ripping apart inexperienced coworkers. Nearly thirty years later, the practice festers, and while younger nurses may more often be targeted, no nurse is immune. As a Washington State Post-Anesthesia Care Unit nurse said, “There is a culture of treating other nurses like dirt.” The mystery is why this behavior continues.
[ibid, pp. 129-130]
Again, none of this organizational psychosocial toxicity is unique to healthcare. But, the potential adverse stakes for patients are orders of magnitude higher than they are for customers of WalMart.


We start with Matt McCarthy's painfully candid recounting of his initiation into his first year internship:
Seeing a new patient wheeled into the cardiac care unit, I leapt up from my seat.

“Easy,” said the physician next to me. He placed a hand on my shoulder and guided me back into my chair like a trainer gentling an unsteady colt. “Give the nurses a few minutes to do their thing.” He spoke softly and bore a surprising resemblance to a Charles in Charge–era Scott Baio, all black hair and good-natured smiles. His nose was perhaps slightly too small for his face, in contrast to mine, of which the reverse was true. “The nurses are going to do a lot more for him tonight than you and I are.”

I nodded and eased back into my seat. “Okay,” I said to Baio as I straightened my scrub top. I was anxious. I was excited. I’d just chugged a large iced coffee and could hardly sit still.

After my surgery experience with Axel and McCabe, I had moved on to Harvard’s rotations in neurology, psychiatry, radiology, internal medicine, pediatrics, and finally, obstetrics, where a young Jamaican woman let me deliver her child on my first day. She insisted on giving birth on her hands and knees , her back arched like that of a cat as the baby slowly emerged. An amused midwife later said that I had looked like a nervous quarterback, receiving a snap in slow motion.

As medical school graduation approached, choosing a specialty had proved to be difficult. Ultimately I had settled on internal medicine because it was the broadest field, the one that might allow me to feel like a jack-of-all-trades. But tonight was my debut in the big show, a thirty-hour shift taking care of critically ill patients and responding effectively to anyone who might roll through the door.

“We’ve got a few minutes,” Baio continued, “and I know this is your first night in the hospital. So let’s go over a few things.”

“Great!” I replied. Our orientation leaders, a peppy group of second-and third-year residents, had instructed us to exude a demented degree of enthusiasm at all times, which wasn’t difficult now that my blood was more caffeine than hemoglobin.

“Just relax,” he said, “and take a look around.”

Together we scanned the fluorescent room, an enclosed space the size of a tennis court containing critically ill patients and upwardly mobile Filipino nurses bustling between them. The perimeter, painted a regrettable shade of yellow, housed the patients in glass cubicles, while the center, where we were sitting, was mission control, filled with chairs, tables, and computers.

“It’s just you and me tonight,” Baio said, whipping his stethoscope back and forth around his neck. “And eighteen of the sickest patients in the hospital.”

Every night an intern and a second-year resident presided over the CCU. Tonight was our turn, as it would be every fourth night for the next month. All of the patients in the unit were on ventilators except one, a large Hispanic man who was riding a stationary bicycle and watching Judge Judy in his room. “These patients are receiving some of the most complex and sophisticated therapies in the world.” Baio reached for an antebellum bagel that was sitting on a platter nearby. “Patients get referred to the cardiac care unit when hope is lost or after something devastating happens. Balloon pumps, ventricular assist devices, transplanted hearts, you name it.”

Until a few days ago, I had never set foot in a cardiac care unit. Nothing about the setup looked terribly familiar. I continued to study the room, trying to decode the symphony of incessant beeps and alarms and wondering what each of them meant. It felt like I was sitting in the middle of a giant equation with infinite variables.

“These patients should all be dead,” Baio went on. “Almost every one of them is kept alive by an artificial method. And every day they’re going to try to die on us. But we’re going to keep them alive.” He paused for effect. “And that’s fucking cool.”

It was fucking cool . Back before my stint in the minors, I had studied molecular biophysics and briefly flirted with the idea of going to graduate school in that subject, using my degree to solve the structure of molecules that were too small to be seen under a microscope. But the field lost me when a professor, a young crystallographer , introduced the importance of imaginary numbers in biophysics. Try as I might , I just couldn’t wrap my head around that quixotic concept. I wanted to translate science into something more concrete, more tactile, to seek a profession where I could touch and see and feel . So I changed course and pursued medicine. And thus far, it had seemed like a wise decision. Nothing about this moment with Baio seemed imaginary. Quite the contrary, it felt excessively real.

Baio wiped off the bagel crumbs on his scrubs and leaned in close to me, bringing scores of punctate pores on his nose into focus. “We have to work as a team. Everything is teamwork. So I need to know what you’re able to do. The more you can do, the more time I have to think about the patients. So rather than listing the shit you can’t do, tell me what you can do.”

My mind went blank. Or more accurately, I searched it and found it was blank. “Well…” I glanced at the sedated patient before us. He was on a ventilator and had a half dozen tubes in his neck, arms, and groin, almost all of which pulsed with medications I’d never heard of. As a medical student, I had been exposed to all sorts of patients. But all of those encounters had involved walking, talking, reasonably well-functioning individuals. Lying there, inert and blanched of all color, the patient before me seemed well beyond the reach of my limited powers. If he needed his appendix out or his face stitched together, I was his man. But intensive cardiac care? The learning curve in medicine was so unforgivably steep. What could I possibly do to assist him?

Finally Baio broke the silence. “All right,” he said, “I’ll start. Can you draw blood?”


“Can you put in an IV?”


“Can you put in a nasogastric tube?”

“I can try.”

“Ha. That’s a no.

Ever done a paracentesis?”

“I’d love to learn.”

He smiled. “Did you actually go to medical school?”

Even I had to wonder. If Baio had been asking me to recite pages from a journal article on kidney chemistry or coagulation cascades, I could’ve put on quite a show. But I hadn’t learned much of the practical business of keeping people alive, skills like drawing blood or putting in a urinary catheter. Harvard hadn’t prioritized them. In fact I had been allowed to skip the CCU month of my med school training at Mass General so I could learn tropical medicine in Indonesia. Who had talked me into that?

“I graduated from Harvard earlier this month.”

“Oh, I know you went to Haaahvaahd,” Baio said with exaggerated fake reverence.

“But do you know how to order medications?”

A bright spot.

“Some!” I practically beamed.

“Do you know how to write a note?”


The moment I said it I realized just how paltry a contribution it would seem to him. Baio must have seen my face drop.

“That will actually be a big help ,” he said. “Examine every patient and write a note on them for the chart. That will save me time. You need to be concise yet precise.”
McCarthy, Matt (2015-04-07). The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician's First Year (pp. 14-17). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
As his internship concludes,
I had spent the final weeks of intern year dissecting my initial struggles and had come to the conclusion that early on, I simply hadn’t had the capacity to fully immerse myself in my patients’ realities. I was so busy trying to master the medicine— to listen for a murmur or a wheeze rather than a note of despair— that I’d missed out on crucial opportunities to intervene in my patients’ lives.

In my primary care clinic, I spent much of the year trying to ensure that my patients had all of the right medications— at times in excess of twenty different pills— and neglected to ask if this was ever too much. I failed to notice the wrinkled brow or the look of distress as I handed someone two dozen prescriptions to fill. But as the year wore on, I developed the ability to think outside the diagnosis, beyond the science of medicine to the art of medicine. I discovered that there is so much more to being a doctor than ordering tests and dispensing medications. And there is no way to teach that. It simply takes time and repetition.
[ibid, pg 313]
You will find yourself at times wincing at his (admirable) candor, including significant rookie dx mistakes, and his recounting of the harrowing time he accidentally stuck himself with a needle after doing a blood draw from an HIV patient, a mishap that caused him protracted subsequent stress (he was eventually declared negative after a lengthy regimen of multiple anti-HIV drugs).

On the issue of medical training and pedagogy:
As I was skipping up to the second-floor cafeteria, my thoughts turned elsewhere, to a conversation I’d had with Petrak a few days earlier about the storm that was building in higher education. Powerful educators were now claiming that medical school could plausibly be reduced from four years to three. In broad strokes, the argument was that so much of medicine was learned on the job and that medical school debt was driving many of the top minds into other fields. It was a highly contentious topic, and I had mixed emotions about it. 

I learned very little physiology or pharmacology from Jim O’Connell, but the life lessons I absorbed from him would stick with me the rest of my career. How does one objectively measure the value of something like that? Would I have had time to wander the streets of Boston with Jim if medical school had been crammed into three years instead of four? [ibid, pp. 307-308]
This book provided a powerful tour of the frantic life of a medical intern. Yeah, the OJT was pretty unrelentingly intense in this narrative.

So, what of it? Is the medical training paradigm optimal? The intense med school years of reductive western sciences? Followed by the repeated 30-hour hospital shifts, the carnivorous trial-by-fire, suffer-no-fools-gladly See-One, Do-One, Teach-One methodology? The hard-won inner circle medical priesthood Semper Fi?


Essential to health care reform are two elements: standards of care for managing clinical information (analogous to accounting standards for managing financial information), and electronic tools designed to implement those standards. Both elements are external to the physician’s mind. Although in large part already developed, these elements are virtually absent from health care. Without these elements, the physician continues to be relied upon as a repository of knowledge and a vehicle for information processing. The resulting disorder blocks health information technology from realizing its enormous potential, and deprives health care reform of an essential foundation. In contrast, standards and tools designed to integrate detailed patient data with comprehensive medical knowledge make it possible to define the data and knowledge taken into account for decision making. Similarly, standards for organizing patient data over time in medical records make it possible to trace connections among the data collected, the patient’s problems, the practitioner’s assessments, the actions taken, the patient’s progress, the patient’s behaviors and ultimate outcomes.

Two basic standards of care, and corresponding tools, bring order and transparency to medical decision making:

  • First, from the outset of care, relevant patient data must be chosen, and its implications determined, based on the best available medical knowledge, independent of the limited personal knowledge of the practitioners involved. Patient data must be systematically linked to medical knowledge in a combinatorial manner, before the exercise of clinical judgment, using information tools to elicit all possibilities relevant to the problem situation, while defining and documenting the information taken into account. Practitioners’ clinical judgments may add to, but must not subtract from, high standards of accuracy, completeness and objectivity for that information.
  • Second, in complex cases, particularly in cases of chronic disease, the organization of data in medical records must be optimized for managing multiple problems over time. This means that each medical record must begin with a complete list of carefully defined patient problems, and that other clinical information in the record must be linked to the problem or problems to which it relates. Without that structure for the medical record, decisions are made out of context, follow-up and coordination of care are haphazard, and records are not usable for rigorous clinical research.
With these two basic standards of care, and the information tools needed to implement them, practitioners and patients can manage the flood of detailed information required for sound decision making over time. With this detailed information, made usable for research in structured electronic medical records, medical care can become increasingly refined and individualized. In contrast, so-called “evidence-based medicine” is derived from large population studies that fail to account for the medical uniqueness of each patient.

Enforcing the necessary standards and tools depends on changing medicine’s culture of professional autonomy for highly educated physicians. Indeed, the concept of a physician as we know it is not viable. All practitioners must submit to meticulous definition and control of their inputs to care (a principle recognized by the patient safety movement). The primary barrier to this cultural change is graduate medical education and credentialing. These social institutions (1) fail to define, disseminate and enforce high standards of quality for provider inputs to care, (2) inhibit effective design and use of information technology to manage clinical information, and (3) suppress competition among providers who might otherwise exploit information technology to generate remarkable advances in patient care and medical knowledge.

Lawrence Weed, MD and Lincoln Weed, JD, Medicine in Denial, pp. x-xi.
Medical Education and Credentialing as Barriers to Progress
A. Extending the health care reform agenda to medical education and credentialing
1. A century of stagnation

Productive use of advanced medical knowledge requires an integrated system of care with a rational division of labor in which all participants see clearly how their roles contribute to solving medical problems. All participants should be able to avail themselves of knowledge that individually they do not possess, practitioners should not be permitted to perform at a level beyond their demonstrated competence, and no group of practitioners should be able to pursue its own interests to the detriment of the larger system of care.   Progress towards a rational division of labor within an external network of knowledge tools is largely absent. Isolated advances are not evolving and coalescing into an integrated system of care. We all are trapped in a non-system, where an elite class of practitioners is permitted to rely on limited personal knowledge and intellect. Graduate medical education and credentialing protect this physician elite from competition that could otherwise reshape medical practice. The health care system has thus been remarkably slow to adapt to the new environment created by modern information technologies. And that environment is still developing. Our culture is still working out the right division of labor between human cognition and external information tools. The subculture of education, however, lags far behind the domains of science and commerce in that development... [ibid,  pg 195]
2. The medical school experience 
According to the Institute of Medicine, “many believe that, in general, the current curriculum is overcrowded and relies too much on memorizing facts” and that “the fundamental approach to clinical education has not changed since 1910.” Even though the issue is largely absent from the health care reform agenda, many involved in medical education recognize that this stagnation is unacceptable... [ibid, pg 197]

A basic assumption of medical education is that the necessary synthesis will somehow spontaneously occur with talented minds. But this synthesis by no means may be assumed. Synthesis depends on the mind’s limited capacity to match vast knowledge with detailed data. Moreover, teaching medical knowledge in isolation from patient care is intellectually harmful. Applying the rough generalizations of medical knowledge to the uniqueness of individual patients, and experiencing the imperfect fit between the two, is essential to medical education. This reflects a broader point made by John Dewey:  “The most direct blow at the traditional separation of doing and knowing and at the traditional prestige of purely “intellectual” studies, however, has been given by the progress of experimental science. If this progress has demonstrated anything, it is that there is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing.”
In this regard, the first two years of medical school resemble the sterile university education that Francis Bacon condemned 400 years ago. The behavior expected of medical students is like the behavior of university students in the late 16th century. They accepted the facts and premises stated by the authority figures who taught them. The approach was not empirical. Logic and formal disputation within this universe of facts and premises prevailed. Ancient authorities were not questioned. Aristotle’s authority at Oxford was so great that students were fined five shillings for every point of divergence from his doctrines. [ibid, pg 201]

… health care settings are among the most hierarchical in American society. In these settings, students, residents, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers are often intimidated by physicians and reluctant to question decisions or offer alternative views. These are the frameworks in which student values, attitudes and behaviors are shaped. The science content-packed curriculum reinforces these frameworks by its emphasis on the acquired knowledge and primacy of the individual physician and his/her judgment. [ibid, pg 202, citing Unmet Needs: Teaching Physicians to Provide Safe Patient Care. Report of the Lucian Leape Institute Roundtable on Reforming Medical Education]

A major task undertaken during medical training is learning to manage the uncertainty associated with medicine and medical education. For instance, medical students learn the disadvantages of “doubting too much” and displaying these doubts to peers, superiors, and patients. Instead, they often develop a misleading sense of certitude or come to don a “cloak of competence” to help them manage the impressions of others and, ultimately, the image they have of themselves. Confidence and belief in what one is doing is a central component of the “clinical mentality” as Friedson describes it. Doubts about the ambiguities of “unusual” cases, even when acknowledged by the practitioner, are often “silenced” or otherwise not shared with the patient. [ibid, pg 202, citing Katz J.  The silent world of doctor and patient]

Medical students emerge from this process with insufficient sensitivity to patient uniqueness and the fallibility of medical knowledge.Medical education must be reformed to produce practitioners who are resistant to the generalizations and misconceptions of their teachers, who are equipped with scientific habits of rigor and independent inquiry. For this to happen, the only workable mode of education is careful engagement of students in patient care itself. Students must use knowledge rather than learn it in the abstract. They must rely on information tools to access all relevant knowledge rather than erudition to access limited personal knowledge. If the worlds of action and knowledge do not connect easily and securely in this way, then good students become cynical and distrustful rather than fully engaged.

The premises of medical education, the legal authority it confers to act upon unaided judgment, and the financial and social rewards for doing so, tend to reinforce basic traits of human nature—faith in one’s own cognitions and insensitivity to one’s own ignorance—traits that undermine scientific rigor in medical practice. Francis Bacon long ago observed the tension between science and the mind’s normal mode of operation: “The human understanding, when any proposition has been once laid down, . . . forces everything else to add fresh support and confirmation . . . rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions.” Although medical school faculties, students and practitioners try to overcome this basic human trait, their attempts inevitably fall short of what properly designed software tools and medical records can achieve. With the rigorous combinatorial analysis that those devices facilitate in a disciplined environment, the realities of individual patients continually generate rapid, organized, cumulative feedback on the hypotheses of practitioners and the generalizations of medical knowledge. Such feedback represents a superior medical education for all practitioners. “By contrast, our present educational premises and overuse of statistical thinking tend to confirm and buttress past notions, right or wrong. Above all they stifle progress toward expecting and dealing honestly with the ultimate uniqueness of each patient.”

3.  Changing medical education from a knowledge-based to a skills-based approach
At a time when medical knowledge far exceeds the capacity of the human mind to learn it, when knowledge is more accessible than ever before, when medical knowledge can be coupled with patient data using external tools, it no longer makes sense to conceive medical education in terms of learning knowledge. Nor does it make sense to license practitioners based on their undergoing didactic education and passing board examinations on the limited knowledge they temporarily learn. Both students and practitioners need to access and apply knowledge, not learn it. What needs to be learned is a core of behavior, not a core of knowledge. The required behaviors are defined by the system’s standards of care. In general terms, the required behaviors have four dimensions:  thoroughness (does the practitioner consistently perform all required tasks); reliability (does the practitioner perform each task with the required level of skill); analytic sense (can the practitioner provide a rational basis for each action taken); and efficiency (does the practitioner complete required tasks with sufficient speed). [ibid, pg 203-204]

Medical training thus immerses new physicians in environments of undefined, uncontrolled inputs. This form of training perpetuates a “system that predictably produces the current annual epidemic of medical injuries.”

The ordeal endured by new physicians culminates in board certification exams—a reversion to the didactic model of education. With its premise that the human mind can be relied upon to learn and apply medical knowledge, with its acceptance of board certification as the gold standard of credentialing, the didactic model of education embodies medicine’s culture of denial.

The opportunity to overcome the failings of knowledge-based education and credentialing is greater now than it has ever been. Information technology can now radically reduce the burden on practitioners of learning medical knowledge. Simulation technologies now permit students to develop some manual skills to a relatively high level before applying their skills to real patients. Teamwork simulation techniques are now known to improve performance of teams in complex, high-stress situations. Indeed, health care lags behind other sectors (for example, the military, the nuclear power industry, commercial aviation and aerospace) in using simulation to teach individual skills and improve team performance.
A skills-based approach to education and credentialing has enormous potential to reduce the time and expense of becoming qualified to deliver care. [ibid, pg 208]

Little accountability exists for poor performance of medical procedures. Creating accountability requires changing the hierarchy of practitioners. Medicine tolerates defective behaviors and the defective services those behaviors produce at the top of the hierarchy. Dr. Peter Pronovost has confronted this reality in his famous studies of a routine hospital procedure—central line insertions. The procedure risks fatal infection of the bloodstream every time it is performed. “This infection is common, costly, and is associated with the death of 31,000 patients annually in the United States, yet it can be accurately measured and largely prevented [with] a checklist of prevention practices, strict measurement of infection rates, and tools to improve culture and team work among physicians, nurses, and administrators,” Dr. Pronovost writes. As part of his studies, Dr. Pronovost asked nurses in participating hospitals, “‘if a new nurse in your hospital saw a senior physician placing a catheter but not complying with the checklist, would the nurse speak up and would the physician comply?’“ Here is what he found:

The answer is almost always, ‘there is no way the nurse would speak up.’  Doubly disturbing, physicians and nurses uniformly agree patients should receive the checklist items. What other industry would accept a routine safety violation that is associated with the deaths of tens of thousands of patients and not be held accountable? The US health care culture still does not support the questioning of physician behavior.

Dr. Pronovost goes on describe the chasm that still exists between the culture of medical practice and the culture of science:

… many physicians have not accepted that fallibilities are part of the human condition. Thus, when a nurse questions them, it causes embarrassment or shame. Clinicians are sometimes arrogant, believing they have all the answers, dismissing team input, responding aggressively when questioned. … autonomy becomes arrogance when actions are mindless and not mindful, when something is done simply because a physician demands it, when a clinician does not learn from mistakes, and when experimentation occurs without a clear rationale or testable hypothesis. Too often autonomy is mindless and driven by arrogance [ibid, pg 216-217]
The medical academic pedagogy and OJT residency training policy discussion is way above my pay grade. I simply present Messrs Weeds' take for your convenience. Their book remains one of my all-time favorites. I would wholeheartedly commend all three of the foregoing books to anyone involved in or considering a career in health care.


"Remember back when we actually had to know stuff?"

apropos of medical education?

From The Neurologica Blog
The Google University Effect
Published by Steven Novella under Skepticism

I remain endlessly fascinated with the incredible social experiment we have all been living through over the last decade (and I can say, if you are reading this, you are part of the experiment). The internet and social media have changed the way we access information and communicate. The traditional top-down systems of information and opinion dispersion are eroding, being replaced by a largely bottom-up free-for-all.

I think we’re still figuring out all the consequences of these changes, both intended and unintended. One effect that has been casually observed is that many people believe they have expertise they do not have because they have been able to do “research” online. The democratization of information has led to a false sense of democratization of expertise.

While free access to information is great, there is no systematic way in which the public is taught how to use this information to maximal benefit, and avoid the most common pitfalls. Schools are generally behind the curve in terms of teaching students how to manage their online information access. Most adults were done with their formal education before the wave of social media.

The result is the “Jenny McCarthy Effect.” She is a celebrity who feels that she can substitute her own non-expert opinion for the strong consensus of expert opinion on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines because she “did her own research.” She is an obvious example of how searching for information online can give someone a false confidence in an unscientific opinion, illustrating the fact that relying on “Google University” can be extremely misleading. There are some specific pitfalls at work here...
See also
Lessons from Dunning-Kruger
Published by Steven Novella under Logic/Philosophy, Skepticism

In 1999 psychologist David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in which they describe what has come to be known (appropriately) as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  In a recent article discussing his now famous paper, Dunning summarizes the effect as:
“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”
He further explains:
“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”...
"Studying a subject alone by searching online can be a crank factory – giving factual knowledge without really engaging with the ideas. Then the echo chamber effect can give the illusion of engaging, but only with a biased community rather than the broader community. The result are people who falsely believe they have sufficient knowledge in areas they do not truly understand. The Dunning Kruger effect kicks in as well, and they likely do not appreciate the gulf between their Google University understanding of a topic and the depth of understanding of true experts...

The internet may be creating an army of overconfident pseudoexperts."
I am reminded of Nicholas Carr's book "The Glass Cage," which I cited last October (scroll down).


Columbia and the Problem of Dr. Oz

Mehmet Oz, the heart surgeon whose syndicated television program, “The Dr. Oz Show,” is seen each day by millions of devoted viewers, is arguably the most influential physician in America. For those who have spent time with him, or who watch the show, his popularity isn’t hard to understand: Oz is an eloquent, compassionate, and telegenic representative of a profession whose members often lack those attributes.

Oz also has political skills—you don’t earn the nickname “America’s doctor” without them—as he will undoubtedly demonstrate on his show Thursday afternoon, when he addresses a harsh letter seeking his dismissal from his post as vice-chairman of the department of surgery at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Last week, a group of ten prominent physicians wrote to the school’s Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine, saying that Oz “has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine.” The letter went on to say that by touting unproven remedies for serious ailments, he had “misled and endangered” the public.

Those assertions are frequently confirmed in Oz’s television appearances. Last December, the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) published a study demonstrating that half of Oz’s recommendations either lacked scientific support or were completely contradicted by publicly available data. When Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, during a Senate hearing on weight-loss pills, asked him about these issues, Oz responded by saying, “I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.” But he continues to act as if he doesn’t care...

Many people argue that Oz should be treated more like a Kardashian than like a cardiothoracic surgeon. After all, he’s a television star and his conduct is, unfortunately, common. There have always been hucksters selling false hope to desperate people. It’s an American tradition. But Oz is different precisely because he is so smart, well trained, and influential...
Need I comment?

But, wait! There's more!
Dr. Oz and the Pathology of 'Open-Mindedness'
In the pursuit of scientific discovery, where is the line between alternative therapies and "quackademic" medicine?

The Dr. Oz Show provides critics with ample material: séances, energy healing, miracle diet products. Once a media darling, Oz has been subjected to a steady stream of public humiliations, from his shaming in front of a Senate subcommittee to an April 15 letter that a group of doctors wrote to Columbia University, urging his dismissal from the faculty, accusing him of promoting “quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain”—to which Dr. Oz responded with an ad hominem attack on the letter-writers and a defense of free speech. But despite numerous subsequent think pieces about the man behind the curtain, a crucial question stands out: Why call for Dr. Oz’s dismissal, when many medical schools and hospitals endorse the most outlandish of his claims?...
And now, bit of humor from The New Yorker:

Dr. Me

Am I sitting down? I have some bad news to break to me. A lot of doctors would have texted, but I wanted to tell me this in person. This case wasn’t easy to diagnose, even for someone like me, who graduated from med school (WebMD Online University, ’11). But first I’m going to have to ask me some questions. Do I take any medications—other than Splenda, of course? Has anything changed since I saw me during my last visit, this morning? On a scale of one to ten—ten being chapped lips—how much does it hurt when I push here? Three and a third? I see. The medical community is divided on this, but the latest studies posted on and indicate that I could be suffering from circuitous spleen, an allergy to elevator air, or feline tonsillitis. Or it could be a problem with my pushing finger. I’m afraid it could also be a gateway ailment to ______ ...

[A]s the year wore on, I developed the ability to think outside the diagnosis, beyond the science of medicine to the art of medicine.
- Matt McCarthy, op cit, pg 313

More to come...

Friday, April 17, 2015

Post-HIMSS15 Interoperababble Update: Margalit Gur-Arie hits one out of the park.

I coined the irascible, skeptical term "Interoperababble." I see nothing to date seriously challenging or refuting my views. I even offered one of my HL7® critics a Final Cut cross-post here after he took vague issue in an irritable email regarding my takes on FHIR® and HL7® itself.

Silencio, thus far.

Margalit Gur-Arie writes one of the finest healthcare technology blogs out there. Her latest post is a tour de force.
"How did health care become a fully owned subsidiary of the computer industry?"
Cross-posted below under Creative Commons attribution. She really nails it.
Value-based Interoperability: Less is more
Interoperability in health care is all the rage now. After publishing a ten year interoperability plan, which according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is well position to protect us from wanton market competition and heretic innovations, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) published the obligatory J'accuse report on information blocking, chockfull of vague anecdotal innuendos and not much else. Nowadays, every health care conversation with every expert, every representative, every lobbyist and every stakeholder, is bound to turn to the lamentable lack of interoperability, which is single handedly responsible for killing people, escalating costs of care, physician burnout, poverty, inequality, disparities, and whatever else seems inadequate in our Babylonian health care system. 
When you ask the people genuinely upset at this utter lack of interoperability, what exactly they feel is lacking, the answer is invariably that EHRs should be able to talk to each other, and there is no excuse in this 21st iCentury for such massive failure in communications. The whole thing needs to be rebooted, it seems. After pouring tens of billions of dollars into building the infrastructure for interoperability, we are discovering to our dismay that those pesky EHRs are basically antisocial and are totally incapable or unwilling to engage in interoperability. The suggested solutions range from beating the EHRs into submission to just throwing the whole lackluster lot out and starting fresh to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars more. When it comes to sacred interoperability, money is not an object. It’s about saving lives.
As the HIMSS15 extravaganza is getting under way, and every EHR vendor flush with cash from the Meaningful Use bonanza is preparing to take its unusable product to the next level, machine interoperability is shaping up to be the belle of the ball. A simple minded person may be tempted to wonder why people who, for decades, manufactured and sold EHRs that don’t talk to each other, are all of a sudden possessed by interoperability fever. The answer is deceptively simple. After exhausting the artificially created market for EHRs, these powerful captains of industry figured out that extracting rents for machine interoperability is the next big thing.
The initial pocket change comes from selling machine interoperability to their current bewildered (or stupefied) clients, and to less fortunate EHR vendors. But the eventual windfall will not come from the health care delivery system or the hapless patients caught in its web. How much do you think access to a national and hopefully global network of just-in-time medical and personal data is worth to, say, a pharmaceutical company giant? How about life insurance, auto insurance, mortgage, agribusiness, cosmetics, homeland security, retail, transportation? Google built an empire by piecing together disjointed bits of personal data flowing through its electronic spider webs. What do you think can be built by combining everything Google knows with everything your doctor knows and everything you know about yourself?
Machine interoperability is not about patient care in the here and now. Interoperability is not about ensuring that all clinicians have the information they need to treat their patients, or that patients have all the information they need to properly care for themselves. Interoperability is about enriching a set of interoperability infrastructure and service providers and about electronic surveillance of both doctors and their patients. Machine interoperability is about control, power and boatloads of hard cash.
For example, if you are hospitalized, it makes sense that your primary care doctor should know that you are (not in the past tense), and when you are discharged, he or she should be appraised of what transpired during your hospital stay. In the old days, before the advent of hospitalists, this could be assumed. Today, thanks to more efficient division of labor, not so much. If the government was genuinely concerned about smooth transitions of care, it would mandate that upon discharge, hospitals must provide all pertinent information to the primary care doctor, and the patient, by any means necessary. If this meant that a piece of paper is stapled to the patient’s robe, and that the hospital employs an army of delivery drones for the purpose, so be it. Eventually, hospitals, which are big businesses, would come up with the most cost effective and efficient way to be compliant with the law.
That’s not how things currently work or how they are envisioned to work. Discharge summaries have a mandated format of structured data elements, complete with metadata, based on government approved standards that change with frightening regularity. Furthermore, to satisfy regulations, the summaries must be generated and transmitted electronically from one “certified” EHR to another, allowing for a host of intermediaries to access and collect said data or at the very least its metadata. Consulting with the PCP by phone for an hour doesn’t count. Sending the information from a non-certified software package doesn’t count. Printing and sending over information by special courier doesn’t even begin to count. Attempting to build a device that streams the information as it happens directly into the PCP medical record will get you excommunicated or burned at the stake.
If you refer a patient to cardiology service, and in a misguided senior moment decide to pick up the phone and talk to the cardiologist at length about this patient, it doesn’t count. If the cardiologist pens a concise and beautiful letter to you after she sees your patient, thanking you for the referral and summarizing her impressions and plan of care in proper English, it doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is a lengthy clinical summary containing all the sanctioned data elements sent from you to the cardiologist, copied in its entirety and returned from the cardiologist to you, hopefully with some indication about what happened during the consult. Having your EHRs talk to each other this way is considered interoperability. Whether you actually read the interoperated information is irrelevant. As long as the contents are captured by the network for other uses, it’s all good.
But wait, there is more. If you practice, say, in St. Louis, Missouri and work for a huge health system or somehow managed to string together a machine interoperable network with the twenty or so specialists you use on a regular basis and the four hospitals where you have admitting privileges, that’s not good enough. Nothing is good enough unless any research lab in Hopewell, New Jersey or Bangalore, India can discover you on the (inter)national interoperability network and request data about a patient you may have treated five years ago, and nothing will be good enough unless any app store developer in Cupertino, California can discover your patient and subsequently obtain her medical data once she downloads a free diet app from iTunes.
Are you “just” a patient eager to be “engaged” in your own care? Picking a doctor who will spend two hours with you listening carefully and explaining things you don’t understand, and who will give you his cellphone number in case you have more questions, doesn’t count. Getting a team of physicians together on a conference call to brainstorm about your mom’s options, doesn’t count. Building a long term relationship with your pediatrician and having her come see your sick kid at home because your car is in the shop and your toddler can’t keep any food down, and now the baby won’t stop crying, doesn’t even register on the interoperability radar. Nothing counts unless you log into a website or an app, accept the cookies, the tracking beacons, the small print, and then click on some buttons to verify that you are a “Never smoker”, or to peruse machine generated visit notes that even your doctors don’t read anymore.
Perhaps machine interoperability on a national scale is a wonderful thing, but so is having arugula in every fridge. There is absolutely no evidence that either one will improve health and/or reduce the price of care. Every dollar spent on national machine interoperability is a dollar that was previously used, or could be used, to provide medical care. Where did we find the moral fortitude to demand that people experience adverse outcomes at least three times before letting them have a slightly more expensive pill, while spending billions of dollars to incentivize the purchase of unproven and often failing technologies? If we are supposed to be parsimonious in our use of health care resources, if we are supposed to choose wisely in all other areas, where is the comparative effectiveness research showing that expensive machine interoperability on a grandiose global scale provides more value than cheaper and simpler localized or human mediated communications?
  • Add one doctor visit for every Medicare beneficiary for the next 8 years
  • Give primary care a 20% raise for the next 4 years
  • Double the number of residencies for the next 3 years
  • Educate 60,000 new primary care doctors from scratch
  • Buy an iPhone glucose monitor for every diabetic patient and an iPhone BP monitor for every hypertensive patient (no, I'm not a "technophobe")
  • Put a brand new playground, a gym teacher and a home economics teacher in every elementary school in the U.S.
  • End homelessness in America
These are some of the things we could do with the billions of dollars spent on machine interoperability. Which has more value for our collective health? How did health care become a fully owned subsidiary of the computer industry? Who authorized this unholy acquisition and how much were those brokers paid? Have we forfeited our right to choose, or even know, how endless fortunes are steadily interoperating out of our treasury and into the hands of global technology firms? Publishing fuzzy ten year plans on obscure websites, so the Technorati can tweak them, doesn’t count. Publishing thousands of pages of regulations in the federal register, so interest groups can preview the fruits of their labor, doesn’t count either. Raiding public coffers to please friends and family and to curry political favors is hardly a disruptive innovation, so let’s just call it what it is.

Killer post, Margalit.


Another important issue. From The Atlantic.
The Problem With Satisfied Patients
A misguided attempt to improve healthcare has led some hospitals to focus on making people happy, rather than making them well.


When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.

When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.

Beginning in October 2012, the Affordable Care Act implemented a policy withholding 1 percent of total Medicare reimbursements—approximately $850 million—from hospitals (that percentage will double in 2017). Each year, only hospitals with high patient-satisfaction scores and a measure of certain basic care standards will earn that money back, and the top performers will receive bonus money from the pool.

Patient-satisfaction surveys have their place. But the potential cost of the subjective scores are leading hospitals to steer focus away from patient health, messing with the highest stakes possible: people’s lives...

[A] national study revealed that patients who reported being most satisfied with their doctors actually had higher healthcare and prescription costs and were more likely to be hospitalized than patients who were not as satisfied. Worse, the most satisfied patients were significantly more likely to die in the next four years.

Joshua Fenton, a University of California, Davis, professor who conducted the study, said these results could reflect that doctors who are reimbursed according to patient satisfaction scores may be less inclined to talk patients out of treatments they request or to raise concerns about smoking, substance abuse, or mental-health issues. By attempting to satisfy patients, healthcare providers unintentionally might not be looking out for their best interests. New York Times columnist Theresa Brown observed, “Focusing on what patients want—a certain test, a specific drug—may mean they get less of what they actually need. In other words, evaluating hospital care in terms of its ability to offer positive experiences could easily put pressure on the system to do things it can’t, at the expense of what it should.”

As a Missouri clinical instructor told me, “Patients can be very satisfied and dead an hour later. Sometimes hearing bad news is not going to result in a satisfied patient, yet the patient could be a well-informed, prepared patient.”...

And because almost every question on the survey involves nurses, some hospitals are forcing them to undergo unnecessary nonmedical training and spend extra time on superfluous steps. Perhaps hospitals’ most egregious way of skewing care to the survey is the widespread practice of scripting nurses’ patient interactions. Some administrators are ordering nurses to use particular phrases and to gush effusively to patients about both their hospital and their fellow nurses, and then evaluating them on how well they comply. An entire industry has sprouted, encouraging hospitals to waste precious dollars on expensive consultants claiming to provide scripts or other resources that boost satisfaction scores. Some institutions have even hired actors to rehearse the scripts with nurses.

In Massachusetts, a medical/surgical nurse told The Boston Globe that the scripting made her feel like a “Stepford nurse,” and wondered whether patients would notice that their nurses used identical phrasing. She’s right to be concerned. Great nurses are warm, funny, personal, or genuine—and requiring memorized scripts places a needless obstacle in their path. 

The concept of “patient experience” has mischaracterized patients as customers and nurses as automatons. Some hospital job postings advertise that they are looking for nurses with “good customer-service skills” as their first qualification. University of Toledo Medical Center evaluates staff members on “customer satisfaction.”...

More disturbing, several health systems are now using patient satisfaction scores (likely from hospitals’ individual surveys) as a factor in calculating nurses’ and doctors’ pay or annual bonuses. These health systems are ignoring the possibility that health providers, like hospitals, could have fantastic patient satisfaction scores yet higher numbers of dead patients, or the opposite...

Many hospitals seem to be highly focused on pixie-dusted sleight of hand because they believe they can trick patients into thinking they got better care. The emphasis on these trappings can ultimately cost hospitals money and patients their health, because the smoke and mirrors serve to distract from the real problem, which CMS does not address: Patient surveys won’t drastically and directly improve healthcare.

But research has shown that hiring more nurses, and treating them well, can accomplish just that. It turns out that nurses are the key to patient satisfaction after all—but not in the way that hospitals have interpreted.

A Health Affairs study comparing patient-satisfaction scores with HCAHPS surveys of almost 100,000 nurses showed that a better nurse work environment was associated with higher scores on every patient-satisfaction survey question. And University of Pennsylvania professor Linda Aiken found that higher staffing of registered nurses has been linked to fewer patient deaths and improved quality of health. Failure-to-rescue rates drop. Patients are less likely to die or to get readmitted to the hospital. Their hospital stay is shorter and their likelihood of being the victim of a fatigue-related error is lower. When hospitals improve nurse working conditions, rather than tricking patients into believing they’re getting better care, the quality of care really does get better.

Instead, hospitals are responding to the current surveys and weighting system by focusing on smiles over substance, hiring actors instead of nurses, and catering to patients’ wishes rather than their needs. Then again, perhaps it’s no wonder that companies are airbrushing healthcare with a “Disney-like experience,” a glossy veneer. One of the leading consulting companies now advising hospitals on “building a culture of healthcare excellence” is, oddly enough, the Walt Disney Company.

"When hospitals improve nurse working conditions, rather than tricking patients into believing they’re getting better care, the quality of care really does get better."
Just Culture? Talking Stick, anyone?

The foregoing Atlantic article goes to this fascinating new book, which I am now about 60% of the way through reading.

Highly recommended. I will have a lot to cite and say once I finish both it and Matt McCarthy's new book "The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly," which I cited in my prior post "Hippocratic Oaf."


Pretty good summary of HIMSS15 from a THCB attendee.

And, from the ONC Department of Blinding Glimpses of The Obvious, ONC informatics official says EHR usability promotes safety.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Hippocratic Oaf"

I can come up with pretty good, snarky ("clickbait"?) blog post headlines, but this one can't be improved upon.
Hippocratic Oaf: My First Day as a Doctor
I was technically a real physician the moment I walked through the hospital doors, but I quickly realized that medical school had left me woefully unprepared.


...In medical school, I had moved through  rotations in surgery, neurology, psychiatry, radiology, internal medicine, pediatrics, and finally, obstetrics, where a young Jamaican woman let me deliver her child on my first day. She insisted on giving birth on her hands and knees, her back arched like that of a cat as the baby slowly emerged. An amused midwife later said that I had looked like a nervous quarterback, receiving a snap in slow motion.

As graduation approached, choosing a specialty had proved to be difficult. Ultimately I had settled on internal medicine because it was the broadest field, the one that might allow me to feel like a jack-of-all-trades. But tonight was my debut in the big show, a 30-hour shift taking care of critically ill patients and responding effectively to anyone who might roll through the door...

Until a few days ago, I had never set foot in a cardiac-care unit. Nothing about the setup looked terribly familiar. I continued to study the room, trying to decode the symphony of incessant beeps and alarms and wondering what each of them meant. It felt like I was sitting in the middle of a giant equation with infinite variables...

Baio wiped off the bagel crumbs on his scrubs and leaned in close to me. “We have to work as a team. Everything is teamwork. So I need to know what you’re able to do. The more you can do, the more time I have to think about the patients. So rather than listing the shit you can’t do, tell me what you can do.”

My mind went blank. Or more accurately, I searched it and found it was blank. “Well …” I glanced at the sedated patient before us. He was on a ventilator and had a half-dozen tubes in his neck, arms, and groin, almost all of which pulsed with medications I’d never heard of. As a medical student, I had been exposed to all sorts of patients. But all of those encounters had involved walking, talking, reasonably well-functioning individuals. Lying there, inert and blanched of all color, the patient before me seemed well beyond the reach of my limited powers. If he needed his appendix out or his face stitched together, I was his man. But intensive cardiac care? The learning curve in medicine was so unforgivably steep.

Finally Baio broke the silence. “All right,” he said, “I’ll start. Can you draw blood?”


“Can you put in an IV?”


“Can you put in a nasogastric tube?”

“I can try.”

“Ha. That’s a no. Ever done a paracentesis?”

“I’d love to learn.”

He smiled. “Did you actually go to medical school?” Even I had to wonder. If Baio had been asking me to recite pages from a journal article on kidney chemistry or coagulation cascades, I could’ve put on quite a show. But I hadn’t learned much of the practical business of keeping people alive. In fact, I had been allowed to skip the CCU month of my med-school training at Massachusetts General Hospital so I could learn tropical medicine in Indonesia. Who had talked me into that?

“I graduated from Harvard earlier this month.”

“Oh, I know you went to Haaahvaahd,” Baio said with exaggerated fake reverence. “But do you know how to order medications?”

A bright spot. “Some!” I practically beamed.

“Do you know how to write a note?”

“Yes.” The moment I said it I realized just how paltry a contribution it would seem to him. Baio must have seen my face drop.

“That will actually be a big help,” he said. “Examine every patient and write a note on them for the chart. That will save me time. You need to be concise yet precise.”

I grabbed my small notebook and scribbled examine everyone/write notes...
Matt McCarthy, MD, is the author of this new self-effacing book, which has been on my get-and-read list since I first learned it was coming out. Just downloaded the Kindle edition.

Sometimes I read linearly, cover-to-cover. Sometimes I read a ways in, and then cut to the concluding chapter(s) prior to going back and finishing all of them. Sometimes I scan the table of contents, looking for specific topics.

In this case, I first used the keyword search function: "health IT"? "health information technology"? "EHR?" "EMR"? "digital"? "interoperability"?

Nothing. Nada. Nyet. Zip. Zilch. "0 matches found"

OK... "chart"?

"23 matches found"


I logged in to the computer and found my patient panel. I was scheduled to see patients in thirty-minute increments from 1: 00 P.M. until 4: 30 P.M. Opening the medical record of my first patient, I felt a small thrill as I prepared to jot down notes about him, a fifty-three-year-old man who had been coming to the clinic for several years. I opened the last note from the previous primary care provider. But as I read, my eyes almost instantly went crossed.

The note began: Problem List
1. HTN
2. CKD
3. CAD
4. TIA
7. PVD
8. Migraines
9. ED 1
0. DM2
11. BPH
12. Active tobacco use
13. Depression
14. HLD
15. OSA on BiPAP
16. Afib on Coumadin
17. Glaucoma?
18. HCM: needs c-scope
What kind of patient had eighteen different problems to deal with? It seemed like I’d need a team of specialists in the room with me just to provide primary care. Sifting through the befuddling acronyms, I felt my stomach turn. I recognized some of the letter combinations, but every unknown acronym felt like a small knife in my side. Were they using a different set of abbreviations at Columbia? I suddenly missed the immediacy of surgery, of just fixing something right then and there, showing Axel, and moving on. I reread the note from the beginning and began Googling the various combinations of letters that weren’t immediately recognizable.

My palms broke into a light sweat as I typed. What if this patient had other problems— problems that weren’t on this list? Patients were more likely to focus on things they could feel, like a sore knee, than on things they couldn’t, like diabetes or high blood pressure. How could I possibly address old issues and new ones in one short clinic visit? While the computer performed the search, my thoughts drifted back to Carl Gladstone, as they had every time I found myself with a moment of free time. Was he going to be okay?

I had to say something.

After twenty distracted minutes I was only a third of the way through the patient’s medical record, but sitting behind the large desk I did feel somewhat like a real doctor, at least more than I did in the cardiac care unit. Feeling a moment of modest inspiration, I hopped up from my swivel chair and decided to test out the blood pressure cuff. In medical school I’d always found the contraption cumbersome and knew from experience that fumbling with it would be a dead giveaway that I was new in town. Once satisfied that I could hold the stethoscope in place with one hand while pumping up the cuff with the other, I returned to the medical record. After fifteen more minutes of referencing and cross-referencing, I had to shut my eyes.

Was it really possible to memorize and retain all of this knowledge? And more important— was it necessary? Or did real physicians retain a core of crucial information and simply look the rest up on the fly? Baio seemed like he’d seen it all before, drawing on experience to guide his decision making. As I dug deeper into the chart and all hope of diagnostic parsimony appeared lost, there was a knock at the door.

I sprang up from my chair and opened the door.

“Dr. McCarthy,” the receptionist said, “your one P.M. is here.”

“Okay,” I said. “Great.”

“Do you want to see him?” she asked.

As I glanced at my notebook, I momentarily wondered whether any answer besides yes would be acceptable. In truth, I thought I’d need another hour before feeling prepared to see the patient.

“Well,” I said, folding my arms, “I suppose I should—”

“It’s one forty-seven P.M.,” she said. “He was almost an hour late and your one-thirty P.M. just arrived.”

“He seems kinda sick,” I said.

 “Maybe we could do a shorter visit or—”

“I’ll send him in,” she said and closed the door.

A moment later, a stocky bearded man in a faded barn jacket entered the room and extended a callused hand.

“Sam,” he said firmly.

“Matt. Mr. McC—— Dr. McCarthy. Please have a seat.”

I waved my hand across my desk like I’d just performed a magic trick. “You actually gave me some time to familiarize myself with your chart.”

The fact that Sam was even upright and walking into my office under his own power came as a small surprise . After reading the long list of conditions in his chart, I was expecting a borderline invalid, but Sam looked rather well. He was husky, with shaggy gray hair that drooped into his eyes, and if Heather saw him on the street she might whisper to me that he looked like a sheepdog. “Terribly sorry I’m late,” he said. “Didn’t know you guys still used charts.”

His smile revealed crowded, champagne-colored teeth. “It’s mostly computerized,” I conceded, “but yes, some records are still on paper.”

McCarthy, Matt (2015-04-07). The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician's First Year (pp. 56-59). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition. 
After slogging through all of the passages containing the word "chart," I found nothing else discussing the use of health IT.

How about searching the word "computer"? "18 matches found." But, not all that revealing.
Ashley had greeted me that morning by saying, “Don’t do anything without running it by me first. Are we clear?” Before I could respond, she’d launched into the array of tasks that needed to be completed before rounds— rattling off assignments like wheeling a patient to dialysis and transporting a vial of blood to the chemistry laboratory— faster than I could write, and then withdrew the work delegated to me just as quickly, explaining that it was quicker if she just did everything herself. This was becoming a regular routine, and it made me feel expendable and potentially dangerous. It was clear she considered me a liability, someone who still couldn’t enter computer orders related to HIV care or write notes as proficiently as she could. Our brief exchanges were reminiscent of a naughty child and a frustrated babysitter. Her friends called her Ash, but she’d instructed me to call her Ashley. The intentional distance she put between us made me anxious. Even though we were hardly a personality match, I wanted to click with her. I wanted to click with everyone...

I no longer trusted myself to remember anything unless it was written down. There were literally hundreds of small tasks and new factoids that popped into my brain over the course of the day, and I found it impossible to keep track of them all without committing them to paper. And prioritizing it all required yet another set of skills. “Yes, ma’am,” I said awkwardly. My daily scut list looked like a madman’s diary, every inch covered in scrawl. I often thought of Axel, imploring me not to write on my hands. “

And if I can give you one piece of advice, it’s this: be efficient.” 

“I’ll do my best.” 

“But efficiency necessitates competency,” she said. “There’s too much to know. Information is generated so quickly. And at your stage you’re still trying to learn the basics.” Again, Ashley was right. Scores of scientific journals were constantly churning out new and at times contradictory medical information. We would never have time to read it all and were in need of a competent curator. In many ways, Baio had filled that role for me in the CCU . But I needed to do it myself now... [ibid, pp. 112-114].
Notwithstanding the paucity of health IT references, this looks like a worthy read. It's amiably well-written and painfully candid through the six chapters I've thus far read.

All part of my endless contextual learning quest, always trying to better grasp the clinicians' point of view as it pertains to clinical pedagogy, physician workflow, and the ever-increasing, inexorable use of digital health IT as part of workflow.

Just some of the clinician-focused books I've cited in this blog:

apropos of "pedagogy,"
Forget SXSW - Austin's Most Radical New Idea May Be In Medical Education
David Shaywitz

Austin, the birthplace of Whole Foods, Dell Computer, Heritage Boot (just bought my first pair), and SXSW (never been) is in the process of launching something even more radical: a fundamentally new way to think about medical education and the role of an academic medical center.

At the core of this effort is a new medical school to be built in Austin, funded in part by revenue from an increase in local property tax (Proposition 1, approved in 2012) and in part by a gift announced in 2013 from the Michael Dell and Susan DellFoundation, after whom the school will be named.  The first class is slated to begin in 2016.

The big idea – at least from the perspective of the founding team – is this: traditional academic medical centers are (as they see it) essentially clinical care factories that throw off a lot of revenue, a small fraction of which is used to support (on average) 50% of the research and 90% of the educational activities associated with medical schools.

Like many health policy experts, they look at the healthcare system, and see a huge amount of “waste” (“waste” was perhaps the most common word I heard in my conversations) – unnecessary or inefficient care, and the costs associated with this waste.  Or rather, in the case of most hospitals, the enhanced revenue associated with this waste.

How can you expect a medical school to train physicians to think innovatively about reducing waste, or pursue serious research on waste reduction, the new Dell Medical team asks, when the results of this waste are responsible for such a large share of medical school revenue?  One leader at Dell Medical described this as “the ultimate conflict of interest.”

As if this wasn’t enough, I also detected an undercurrent of concern from Dell Medical leaders that much of the research agenda at traditional academic medical centers tends to be driven by reductionist basic scientists, keen to defend and if possible, augment their territory.  Their approach, Dell Medical executives seemed to suggest, are often not informed by the sorts of broader questions you would ask if you were truly focused on improving the health of the population in front of you.  The implication is that the direction and emphasis of traditional academic medical research is driven more by the political power wielded by scientists rather than by any concerted effort to discern and respond to the actual health needs of a community, which may require less focus on molecular description, and on more on prevention and care delivery...
Interesting. Go onto this by way of my daily stop at The Incidental Economist.


I could not attend HIMSS15 in Chicago. Health issues. Nice recap by Katie Bo Williams here.
What you missed at HIMSS15: The biggest announcements, afterparties and IT buzz

More to come...