Offer Hospice Patients a Smile.

Hospitals are busy places to work. The work is fast paced, and never seems to stop. For most physicians, the work ends when the work is done, or until you fall over, whichever comes first. So as a consultant, when I am seeing a patient wherein there is no longer anything that I am contributing to a patient’s care it’s routine that a physician would “sign off” the case, meaning I would not continue to see the patient on a daily basis but would be available if I were needed. Sure, I might have a good repoire with a patient, and some even tell me that I have a nice smile, but it hardly seems like a reason to continue to bill their insurance company without actually contributing any expertise. Despite how nice I think my smile is, I have yet to find an insurance company  willing to pay to see it.

It’s no surprise then, that in such a busy workplace the physicians-in-training that I regularly work with would want to sign off a case as soon as possible. Unlike most of their bosses, they get paid the same no matter how many patients they see. There’s no incentive for them to see more, and if they see too many, it becomes difficult to learn anything.

So for many specialists who round on patients in a hospital, and for physicians in training in particular, the typical approach to a patient who has enrolled in hospice or decided to otherwise stop all treatments other than comfort measures, is to sign off the case.

For those patients, the thought is, most of them are waiting to be discharged home or to another facility, and have accepted that the end of life is coming. In such situations families are typically grieving, making end of life arrangements or simply trying to spend as much time with their loved one as possible before the end comes. Why would it be necessary then for a specialist or a team of physicians to enter the room of such a person, ask a plethora of unnecessary questions, perform an exam and offer meaningless platitudes like “hang in there! you’re doing great!”?.  All this to a person whose one certainty is that they’re not doing great, and they’re most definitely not going to be able to “hang in there”!

Thus my approach has been to sign off such patients, and based on what I’ve seen, it’s the approach of most other physicians as well. I had always thought that ridding people of my pestering presence at the end of their lives was the most reasonable and humane thing I could do.

But things changed for me recently, when my own father entered hospice. He was in the hospital for a few weeks, and being a physician himself, he knew the end was coming. My mother, of course found it difficult to let go. After 50 years together, who could blame her? She agreed grudgingly to hospice, but needed constant reassurance that it was the right thing to do. I remember the constant look of consternation and worry etched on her face in the days after he was enrolled in hospice (but was still in the hospital). One by one, the physicians who had convinced her that there was nothing more to be done, disappeared. The physicians who reassured her that he would be well taken care of no longer visited, at just the time that she needed their reassurance more than ever. Her face wore a look that said, “Are we doing the right thing? Are they just trying to get rid of us?” Despite having a pulmonary, critical care physician for a son, there are some things you just need to hear from your doctors, the people who have been taking care of you, the professionals who know you.

Ultimately she came to accept the inevitable, she’s a strong person, and she knew she had no choice. He passed away peacefully.

But that experience taught me to change something in my own practice. I still round with my physicians-in-training, as I always have, we still sign off those patients who are going into hospice as we always have, so  the team does not needlessly pester a person at the end of their life. Instead, I walk into the room by myself, I perform no exam, I ask no medical questions. I offer them nothing but my smile. And it’s for free.

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Top 10 Advances in Medicine (1-5)

As promised, here’s the conclusion of my list of the Top 10 advances in medicine.  As stated before, here are the ground rules: I’m not ranking surgical advances,  I’m sticking to American medical problems, and we’re not including public health initiatives like clean drinking water. No, what we have here is a rare tribute to our  much maligned pharmaceutical industry in all its capitalistic chemical glory.
So once again, without further delay or  pre-authorization, here’s the cream of the crop of the top 10 medical advances.

5. Antihypertensives. Hypertension, like diabetes is a common contributor to vascular disease which lead to, among other things, stroke and coronary artery disease. The greater control of blood pressure by these medications has undoubtedly contributed to a reduction in morbidity. In addition, medications like angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors and beta-blockers have other beneficial effects that go beyond their blood pressure lowering effects.

4. Birth control. In olden times in this country, and in many parts of the world today, it has been financially advantageous to have children. In an agrarian world, children contribute to labor, and tend to their parents as they age. Marriage of children could also mean merging of families and greater wealth. Nowadays, it costs close to $300,000 to raise a child. In addition, fewer children has meant more women in the job force and reduced strain on people, and marriages, which make for healthier people. Fewer children also means more resources for each child, which make for healthier children.

3. Insulin and other hypoglycemic agents: Diabetes is a major contributor to disease in the world. While it only ranks as the number 7 cause of death in the U.S. it is being increasingly understood that even minor amounts of hyperglycemia can contribute to vascular disease, particularly heart disease and stroke (which rank as the first and fourth most common causes of death). Undoubtedly without these treatments the incidence of vascular disease and infection would be astronomically higher.

2. Anesthetics and Pain medication. Imagine a world in which only the most basic surgical  procedures could be performed. A world where even lancing a boil would be considered barbaric and avoided at all costs. That’s what the world was like in the dark age before anesthesia and pain medicines. So many things that we take for granted in today’s medical world, like medicines for a minor procedure or obstetrical deliveries would not be possible without anesthetic agents. And that’s before we even consider things like hip repairs, open heart surgeries, and appendectomies. No, I think I would rather not try to imagine that world.

1. Antibiotics. Ok, this was an easy one, even most kids know about the invention of the first antibiotic. I shudder to think of where we would be today without the father of modern medicine, Dr. Penicillin, whose incredible legacy is today carried on by his grandson, Dr. Vancomycin. I kid. Check out this fascinating  first-hand account of the first use of penicillin in the U.S.; a 33 year old woman at Yale, New Haven hospital. A single vial of the “black magic” was shipped from England, the physicians actually collected the patients urine to reclaim the drug and re-administer it. She lived to the age of 90. Awesome stuff.

Check out the CDC’s list of the top 10 public health achievements of the previous decade. I found the statistics on the benefits of vaccines of particular interest; “A recent economic analysis indicated that vaccination of each U.S. birth cohort with the current childhood immunization schedule prevents approximately 42,000 deaths and 20 million cases of disease, with net savings of nearly $14 billion in direct costs and $69 billion in total societal costs.”

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Healthcare Armageddon 5: The Crux of the Problem

There’s a central theme running through many of these “Truth About Health Care” posts that I write. Whether it comes to medical centers putting out press releases that are nothing more than thinly veiled advertising, or drug companies trying to get physicians to write more prescriptions, it comes down to the fact that there’s a whole lot of competing interests out there trying to get a bigger slice of a shrinking money-pie. And the pie is about to shrink a whole lot faster. . . Continue reading “Healthcare Armageddon 5: The Crux of the Problem”