KevinMD on; oh, and a bad example of defensive medicine

Defensive medicine is indeed a problem. This isn’t the example that tells that story. Oh, and Kevin looks pretty good on TV.
Defensive Medicine: Cautious Or Costly RICHMOND, Va., Oct. 22, 2007(CBS)

It started as a simple stomach ache, but Alexandra Varipapa, a sophomore at the University of Richmond, decided to go to the emergency room.

There, doctors ordered a full CT scan, a radiation imaging test, which found a harmless ovarian cyst. She never questioned the CT scan, CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports.

Wow, she walked in and just got a CT scan! Oh, wait, she also got a history and a physical exam, but you wouldn’t know that from the slant of the article.

But her father did – when he got the $8,500 bill, $6,500 of which was that CT scan.

“I was pretty flabbergasted,” said Robert Varipapa, himself a physician.

Varipapa says his daughter’s pain could have been diagnosed far more easily and cheaply with a $1,400 ultrasound.

“A history, a pelvic examination and probably an ultrasound,” he said. And he would have started with the ultrasound.

Aah, a doctor relative with a retrospectoscope. Stepwise testing works just fine in the clinic, but in the ED we need to do a lotta things in a hurry:

  • rule out the horrible thing
  • get a diagnosis, or exclude the killer diagnosis
  • get the patient out of the ED to make room for the next patient

But the hospital defends the CT scan, saying an ultrasound might have missed something more serious.

“It would not have ruled out appendicitis obviously, it would not have ruled, necessarily, out a kidney stone,” said Dr. Bob Powell, ER medical director of Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital.

Varipapa agrees, but asks why not start simple – and do the CT scan only if necessary?

“Well it’s my opinion this is defensive medicine,” Varipapa said.

Well, you may be right that it’s defensive medicine, but that doesn’t make it incorrect, or bad medicine. A better question would be the 6K charge for a CT scan, but bashing the ED is a lot easier. Frankly, this is not a terrific example of defensive medicine, but is a good example of a) the different thought processes between clinic and EM doctors, and b) a cautionary tale of current ED costs.

Kevin looked very reasonable and professional (and wasn’t wearing his pajamas)! Here’s his CBS video. I recommend it, mostly to see Kevin before he moves to Hollywood.

Update: TBTAM weighs in, on the side fo the ED!

Expectations, or Letting People Down

One of the big joys of Emergency Medicine is helping patients. It’s truly enjoyable to suture a laceration, to reduce the dislocation, to give solace to the suffering (usually pain medicine, but not always, sometimes it’s a hand to hold). These are almost always patients who present with a sudden-onset problem, be it trauma or bowel-obstruction, and that’s why I’m there (and why my colleagues are there, as well). Patient faces begin with apprehension, and are often back to normal when they leave (and some leave with a satisfied look I take as the reflection of a job well done).

Then there are those patients I cannot help but let down. They come to me with vague complaints that have gone on for years, a pain they cannot describe or can describe too well, a discomfort that nags, a rash that won’t wane, a twitch that won’t stop or a balance that won’t start. They have seen specialists too numerous to mention, have tried medicines/potions and remedies that run the gamut of medical experience, they’ve done their exercises and, still, they want for a remedy.

I have finally learned that there are some patients I probably won’t be able to help medically and that it’s actually cruel to let them think otherwise. For instance, the patient with the low back pain that’s been to seven neurosurgeons (had three operations), been to the Mayo Clinic and to innumerable chiropractors, who looks at me and says “I need to get better”, what’s causing the back pain? Realistically, what can I offer that a myriad of specialists couldn’t? Oh, I’ll do the entire LBP exam, do a history looking for zebras and other horrible causes of back pain, and occasionally I’ll want to do some tests to rule out an emergency.

I used to leave the room with the generic “We’ll get you some pain medication and do some tests”, and then return to the room after some time, when the tests are back, and go through a prolonged ‘isn’t there anything you can do’ session with the patient and their family. They know there’s not, really, but I left that door open, and it’s at least partly my fault.

So now I let them down early. Yes it’s disappointing but I think it’s healthier for them (and me), in the long run. “You’ve had this for x years, you’ve seen about a dozen specialists; as a general rule, if a bunch of specialists cannot figure it out in their offices with all the studies, tests, etc. we’re unlikely to in the ER” is now my general start-of-the-letdown, and even the least reasonable from an expectations standpoint seem to get it: I’ll try, but it’s unlikely. Now the patient doesn’t spend the next hour-plus building up hopes to be dashed-yet-again. As memory serves I’ve never made the terrific diagnosis for the unfixable complaint, and it’s not for lack of trying. Some things I cannot change.

It’s disappointing for me, too. I’d much rather say ‘here’s the diagnosis, and the cure’, but it doesn’t work that way in real life. Maybe some of the letdown is for me. Okay, no maybe about it.

We’re pretty good in the ED with acute problems, less so with the chronic ones, and dismal with the ones nobody can solve. Sometimes expectation management is the best we can do, for everyone.

(General disclaimer: I do a real history, a real physical exam, and listen to my patients. I don’t prejudge anyone, and the above applies only at the very very end of the patient interaction, and not before.)

TPA and Stroke 2

Geez, the NY Times (obscure liberal paper in the Northeast) has interviewed several neurologists (and exactly one Emergency Medicine Physician) and has written a four-page article on stroke. They got little right.

It’s a tour-de-force in obfuscation of fact, presentation of tragedy as preventable, and the presentation of TPA as an ignored wonder-drug, MRI should be the standard of care for new strokes, and frankly there’s no redeeming value within. Nevertheless, I shall persevere, and even if it makes nobody other than me happy, I shall fisk to my hearts’ content. (Many thanks to Notes from Dr. RW for bringing this to my attention, and for taking the hit for the rest of us and reading the NY Times, you poor wretch).

I was going to address this in the article as I got to it, but it’s too good / on point to bury below the fold. Here’s all you need to know about tPA for CVA (from AAEM), in a nice graphical form:

Lost Chances for Survival, Before and After Stroke


Dr. Diana Fite, a 53-year-old emergency medicine specialist in Houston, knew her blood pressure readings had been dangerously high for five years. But she convinced herself that those measurements, about 200 over 120, did not reflect her actual blood pressure. Anyway, she was too young to take medication. She would worry about her blood pressure when she got older.

Then, at 9:30 the morning of June 7, Dr. Fite was driving, steering with her right hand, holding her cellphone in her left, when, for a split second, the right side of her body felt weak. “I said: ‘This is silly, it’s my imagination. I’ve been working too hard.’ ”
Suddenly, her car began to swerve.

“I realized I had no strength whatsoever in my right hand that was holding the wheel,” Dr. Fite said. “And my right foot was dead. I could not get it off the gas pedal.” …

Dr. Fite is one of an estimated 700,000 Americans who had a stroke last year, but one of the very few who ended up at a hospital with the equipment and expertise to accurately diagnose and treat it.

Dr. Fite has been active in the practice and politics of Emergency Medicine for a good while, and I was unaware of her stroke. I hope she’s recovering well.

Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in this country, behind heart disease and cancer, killing 150,000 Americans a year, leaving many more permanently disabled, and costing the nation $62.7 billion in direct and indirect costs, according to the American Stroke Association.

But from diagnosis to treatment to rehabilitation to preventing it altogether, a stroke is a litany of missed opportunities.

Many patients with stroke symptoms are examined by emergency room doctors who are uncomfortable deciding whether the patient is really having a stroke — a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel in the brain that injures or kills brain cells — or is suffering from another condition. Doctors are therefore reluctant to give the only drug shown to make a real difference, tPA, or tissue plasminogen activator.

This is a truckload of hooey. Any Emergency Physician worth the title does this for a living, and while it’s challenging to sort wheat from chaff, it’s why Emergency Medicine exists as a specialty. Yes, there is a tremendous differential diagnosis, but that goes with the territory. And reluctance to administer tPA for stroke is more than reluctance, there are solid reasons to be very very careful with the decision.

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