Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Doctors Need To Be Less Like Chuck Yeager and More Like Captain Sullenberger

A recent medical error of a wrong site surgery that occurred in one of the country's best hospitals, Massachusetts General, reminded me why doctors need to be less like Chuck Yeager and more like Captain Sullenberger.  Growing up I always wanted to be a fighter pilot, years before the movie Top Gun became a part of the American lexicon.  My hero was World War II pilot Chuck Yeager, who later became one of the country's premier test pilots flying experimental jet and rocket propelled planes in a time when they were dangerous, unpredictable, and unreliable.  Much like the astronauts in the movie, the Right Stuff, Yeager and his colleagues literally flew by the seat of their pants, made it up as they went along, and never really knew if their maiden flight in a new aircraft might be their last.  They were cowboys in the sky wrangling and taming the heavens.

Fast forward to January 2009, when shortly after takeoff a one in a million chance, a double bird strike completely disabled a US Airways jetliner.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger with the help of his co-pilot Jeff Skiles ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River in under four minutes even as the nation surely expected a tragedy.  But not on that day.  Not with that pilot.  Though Sullenberger, an already accomplished pilot from being the top cadet at the US Air Force Academy, an aviation safety expert with his experience as a crash site investigator for both the military and civilian sector as well as an instructor for US Airways pilots, he credited much of the success to his training and his experience.  Sullenberger had studied why pilots and crews often failed in critical emergency situations.  He also mastered and understood the physics and performance aspects of the aircraft he flies (his wife calls him a pilot's pilot).  He also believes strongly and instinctively the need to follow checklists and protocols to ensure the right thing is done every time.  This was drilled in him in the military where the difference between life and death in a fighter plane could be simply a matter of feet and seconds.

Though the media dubbed the landing as the "Miracle of the Hudson" and named him America's hero, Sullenberger modestly noted he was simply doing his job, which only endeared him even more to a country looking for positive stories in a time of a new president, an unprecedented financial crisis, two wars, and an uncertain future.  Ask Captain Sullenberger, review the cockpit recordings, and you'll discover that he wasn't really flying by the seat of his pants but was very methodical, rational, and logical as he quickly evaluated his three options: return the plane back to LaGuardia, go to Teterboro, New Jersey, or ditch in the Hudson River.  While planning for a landing after the unthinkable, his co-pilot automatically did his job attempting an engine restart by cycling through the checklist seven times.  They landed the plane successfully with a little luck, a lot of skill, and a full understanding of how humans make mistakes in particularly stressful times and what mechanisms when put into place, checklists, protocols, and training, can decrease these to a minimum.  Frankly, no one else could have landed that plane except Sullenberger.

Which brings me back to the medical error noted in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Dr. David Ring, after a day of many carpal tunnel surgery releases erroneously performed the surgery on a woman who was supposed to get a trigger finger release.  Though he has been praised by many to be courageous to publicly acknowledge the error, what was quite disturbing was his one comment:

"I no longer see these protocols as a burden. That is the lesson."

His insightful comment should not be seen as an anomaly.  Dr. Ring should also not be ostracized.  He speaks the truth.  Doctors today still see themselves as cowboys, the heroic individual who despite whatever obstacle or hardship can just get the job done.  Somehow, we are too smart to rely on surgical timeouts, checklists and protocols.  Instead, we refer to the entire process "cookbook" medicine and go through the motions just to appease regulators and administrators.

It is this arrogance and hubris that pervades our profession that is quite disturbing and equally disappointing.  A March 2010 report found that medical schools are not doing enough to prepare future doctors on how to develop the mindset for patient safety.  Yet for much of medicine, we understand the precisely the science of how to do things better.  No central line infections occur when all doctors abide by a simple 5 point checklist developed by John Hopkins intensivist Peter Pronovost.  Merely having every surgical team member introduce himself before surgery as noted by New Yorker writer and general surgeon Atul Gawande improves communications so that the team is more likely to function better in times of crisis.  Even a singular phone call by Dr. Gawande to the blood bank to hold blood on standby for a "routine" surgical procedure, which he had done many times before and never needed the blood, ended up being critically important.  On that day with that routine surgery, his patient had a tear which required 30 units of blood.  If Dr. Gawande hasn't called for blood on standby before the operation started, his patient would have died.

We know much more about medicine since the development of antibiotics, antiseptics, and best practices, yet we act no differently than 150 years ago.

"In 1852, the Massachusetts General Hospital was featured in a New York Times article detailing a series of events that led to the death of a young patient. Under the care of the surgeon, Dr. John Collins Warren, the patient had received chloroform instead of the usual chloric ether anesthesia. The event that we describe here, more than 150 years later, is a sad reminder that despite expert and well-intentioned providers, our patients continue to face risks caused by human fallibility and systems that do not fully support our efforts to provide safe care."

It's time doctors stopped acting like the cowboy test pilots of Chuck Yeager's era and adopted the mindset of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and doctors Pronovost and Gawande.  Protocols and checklist exist for the safety of our patients and to ensure highly reliable outcomes everytime.  Until doctors all adopt this mindset, medical errors will continue to happen despite policies and regulations because somehow our profession still believes we are infallable.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why Doctors Talking to Patients is Better than Technology and Blood Work

The Associated Press ran a provocatively titled piece recently, "Family health history: 'best kept secret' in care", which noted how a geneticist at the Cleveland Clinic discovered that asking about family members and their history of breast, colon, or prostate cancer was better than simply doing genetic blood testing.

Surprising?  Hardly.  This is what all medical students are taught.  Talk to the patient.  Get a detailed history and physical.  Lab work and imaging studies are merely tools that can help support or refute a diagnosis.  They provide a piece of the puzzle, but always must be considered in the full context of a patient.  They alone do not provide the truth. 

A tool to help organize the family history can be found at the US Surgeon General's website.

The challenge is being able to have a candid conversation with a doctor as office visits seem to be shorter.  Filling out this simple one page "patient resume" may help.  Give it to your doctor, particularly if she is new to you, especially when having a general check-up.  That is a good time to have a robust discussion about what you must do to stay healthy and well.

Why is this important?  First year medical students often ask me how do they know what parts of taking a patient's history, a person's past medical history, surgical history, family history, and social history (smoking, alcohol, drug habits) can be safely skipped or ignored.  In other words, already early in their careers they want to hone down, eliminate unnecessary time and unneeded questioning to clinch the diagnosis.  They want to be good doctors.

They quickly discover that good doctors can't know a patient's problems or symptoms without understanding the whole story.  Good doctors get the complete story to get the best answer.  Trying to piece a problem together by ordering tests, blood work, or xrays won't get to the truth, even though we still fool ourselves into thinking they can.  As this news article demonstrates despite all of the advances in technology, there is still value and power in simply talking and listening to patients thoughtfully.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book Review - the Empowered Patient by CNN Elizabeth Cohen. Too Adversarial.

I understand the frustration and anger in CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen’s new book, the Empowered Patient.  I agree that all of the horrible patient stories should have never occurred.  As a practicing primary care doctor who has witnessed near misses and bad medical outcomes affect family members, I too wrote a book encouraging patients to be informed and engaged about their care.

The problem is that the Empowered Patient is too adversarial.  If anything, it is biased, which is completely understandable given the failings of the healthcare system, and is not balanced.  If she had wanted a book that helped patients be informed, engaged, and a true partner in health, she falls far short.  Those of us working to make the healthcare system safer and more patient focused will find ourselves on the defensive as soon as we walk through the door if patients follow everything she says.

Chapter titles include How to Be a “Bad Patient” and How to Find Dr. Right (and Fire Dr. Wrong).  She reminds readers that “your relationship with your doctor is a business relationship… You pay her, and she takes care of your medical problems.  End of story.”  Readers should consider firing their doctor if they “repeatedly have to spend inordinate amounts of time in the waiting room (more than fifteen minutes or so)”.  Yet, she hopes readers can find Dr. Right, someone who is an excellent communicator and someone you can trust and feel good about.

Through her stories in How to Get Good Drugs Cheap and Don’t Fall for Medical Marketing, Cohen implies that all doctors are influenced by drug reps, on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies, and only write expensive brand name medications.  She completely ignores how direct to consumer advertising cause patients to demand these “me too” drugs.  She doesn’t highlight the studies that show doctors when faced with this situation, though ambivalent, often acquiesce.  Cohen suggests that readers ask their doctors if they have “any financial ties to a drug or device company”.

In the section How to Avoid a Misdiagnosis, she illustrates two patients who could have died because doctors were about to begin chemotherapy and radiation treatments based on erroneous diagnoses.  Using the internet, it was clearly apparent to the patients that the rare condition they supposedly had didn’t apply to them.  They didn’t fit the typical patient description for the illness.  The doctors’ failings were that they relied too heavily on the pathology reports. They should have looked at the complete picture and the pathology report in the context of the patient.  Instead, they anchored their decision solely on the pathology report.

Again, Cohen is completely silent about the patient aspect.  The same anchoring phenomenon can and has been occurring with patients.  Increasingly far more patients are focused on what the test showed, whether blood work or CT scans and MRIs, instead of what makes sense based on a patient’s history and examination.  Patients are also avoiding office visits relying instead on technology to provide answers when these are simply tools and not necessarily the truth.  Imagine the erroneous conclusions that might occur.

Armed with her information it is impossible to see if it is possible for anyone to find a Dr. Right or a time when patients can focus on getting better instead of being very vigilant at every point of care to the level of paranoia.  Perhaps that wasn’t her intent, but as a doctor on the frontline it is hard to see any other interpretation.

Though Cohen rightly notes that 99,000 Americans die annually from hospitalized infections and that 98,000 die from medical errors in the hospitals, she also ignored that 100,000 deaths could be averted if simple important interventions occurred.  Patients with hypertension had their blood pressure controlled.  Patients with heart disease had their cholesterol controlled.  Women at age 40 begin screening for breast cancer.  Both men and women at age 50 get screened for colon cancer.  Surely these are equally as important issues for empowered patients?

There were a few of sections that were worthwhile – How to Become an Internet MD, gives excellent and thoughtful advice on how patients can use the internet, Don’t Let a Hospital Kill You, and You vs. the Insurance Industry.

If there was any silver lining in her book, then it is as doctors working in an incredibly complex system comparable to environments associated with airline pilots, military aviators, and astronauts, we must do much better.  Saying medicine is different is not acceptable.  We need to adopt highly reliable systems, systematically improve training to minimize inherent unconscious bias, and a serious dose of humility in understanding that patients concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. 

Though her CNN colleague, Dr. Sanjay Gupta says this is “a book no household should be without”, I can safely say there are other books that can provide you the skills and knowledge to engage and partner with your doctor better than this one.


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