Friday, March 28, 2014

Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None

(Patient accounts have been altered so as to protect their privacy and identity)

When I walked into my internal medicine practice office yesterday morning at 6:30 a.m., I was surprised to see only three patients on my schedule. Then I remembered there was a major winter storm forecast, and no one was sure how bad we were going to get hit. By the time the early administrative staff was arriving at 7:30 a.m., patients had realized the storm was basically just alot of wind, and they started calling. And booking. The 8 a.m. slot filled, then the 8:20, soon all the rest... I had an almost-full schedule in no time. And it was almost all "urgent care".

I love urgent care. It's so nice to take a break from the "comprehensive annual exam". Or at least, the way I approach those... I tend to obsess over missing something, and so I take the annual exam as an opportunity to comb through the patient's chart, and attempt to make appropriate note of every past, present, and possible future health issue. Plus, this is my big chance to catch up with folks on their Real Lives. So, What do you do when you're not sitting on my exam table in a johnny? Of course, folks come in with their own agendas, the lists of questions jotted down on the backs of envelopes or in the iPhone. Some docs shut all that down, citing "This is your preventive health time only!" which is ridiculous. So, the issues are addressed. Then there's the vaccines review, and lab ordering... These may or may not be straightforward, and more often than not involve additional discussion. My physical exams always run overtime.

So, a day of mostly urgent visits, those single-issue problem visits that can be serious, but at least, straightforward, are a welcome change.

On the other hand, these days highlight what is beautiful, difficult, and terrifying about primary care specialties like internal medicine:

1. You're supposed to know everything about everything.

2. Because we're trained to be always thinking about the Whole Patient- Nothing is ever straightforward.


First patient. The check in sheet states "Cough". Ha, easy. Well, not so much. The cough was undertreated asthma in the setting of a mild cold. But his blood pressure was very elevated. And a quick perusal of the chart showed, this was someone who hadn't been in for a couple of years. Turns out this was someone who had extreme doctor anxiety and alot of issues that needed more fine-tuning. So the visit turned into counseling and negotiations. I set up a followup appointment with the actual primary care and sent my note... Hoping the guy comes back.

Now, running fifteen minutes behind, next patient. "Rash". This is only easy if it's Shingles... and it was. But, the patient is a healthcare provider. And they wanted to know- needed to know- know all the occupational health issues around Shingles. Did they need to notify all the patients they had seen in the past day? How long did they need to be out of work? Did my recommendation around that differ from our hospital's occupational health policy? I wanted to be able to provide a modicum of accurate counseling in all of these areas. I spent some time with her researching the guidelines and then asked her to contact both her supervisor and occupational health for the rest. Then she needed a note. We wrestled over how to phrase it. I hit "print". The printer wouldn't print. Had to run to another computer. Time ticking away.

Then done with that, I had to check my clinical messages (our in-office messaging, where the secretaries and nurses send me anything from patient phone or email queries, VNA concerns, controlled substance medication requests, or abnormal lab or radiology results). I need to quickly scan the list and make sure there is nothing requiring urgent attention. Then deal with those. Someone emailed about their ankle sprain. Nurse: They just want X-rays ordered. Can we do that? Me: Not really, please have them make an appointment. Et cetera.

Then, my email. There's several more emails for me in a now-massive email chain regarding one patient of mine. She has a large team of specialists; her case is complicated; she may need to be admitted, and I would need to arrange that. I read quickly and make sure no one has asked me to do anything yet. I know the specialists probably roll their eyes at my questions. I haven't treated many cases of what she has. I have to read up every time she has labs. But she comes to me, and I'm doing the best I can.

Now hopelessly behind. Next patient: STD screening. Ha, easy! Not. Upon questioning, she tells me one of her partners is a recovering IV drug user. I deliver alot of counseling around this, do a pelvic exam with cultures, send for bloodwork and arrange more followup with bloodwork in two months.

Next: Elderly patient with shortness of breath. She was pretty sick. She told me she had almost passed out in the waiting room. Long and short of it, this person was too sick for my office. But, she resisted my emergency room suggestion. We went into negotiations. I called the emergency room to expedite. We waited for a wheelchair. I typed up my assessment and impression so the emergency docs would have it. Why take the time to chart, when the next patient is waiting? I felt like I needed to present at least a reasonable hypothesis for her condition, as well as defend my decision to send her to the emergency room. I delved more into her chart. Why do her lungs sound like a freight train screeching to a halt? Asthma in someone who's never had asthma? COPD is someone who's never smoked? Pneumonia more likely. Pulmonary edema, maybe.... Type it up. Hit "finalize."

Next: Wrist pain in a guy who does martial arts. I had to do a quick review of the possibilities. Refresh myself on the exam findings in occult scaphoid fracture. Then look up what type of immobilizing brace to prescribe while that is being ruled out. Then the printer didn't work again.

Next: Lovely lady with- finally! A very straightforward issue. Simple. I took care of it and was ready to wrap it up, when, she wanted my opinion on the new blood thinners. She's on Coumadin for atrial fibrillation, for stroke prevention. These new blood thinners are advertised on T.V. The cardiologists are prescribing them right and left. I have never prescribed these. I look it up, with her right there, and review some of the major pros and cons. There's no testing to see if someone is on too low or too high of a dose. That's nice. But, they aren't as readily reversible, so if someone has a car accident or a bleeding ulcer, they may bleed to death more easily than otherwise. Basically, that's what I told her, adding that we can also ask her cardiologist about it. No, she said, I like to know my numbers.

Next, next and next. There was a physical exam in there, and a few more not-so-straightforward urgent care visits. That was it. Nine Patients, and a barrage of clinical messages and emails. I was starving, and I had to pee. I peed, ate something at my desk, and delved into charting, billing, and all the messages/ emails, as well as the arrangements to be made for that very sick patient. I checked in with the emergency room on the lady I had sent in- she was to be admitted. Ha. I knew she was sick.

Mixed in there, I check in with home. I'm thinking about my kids. On my personal email, there are messages back and forth about our autistic son who's had some issues at his special education preschool. School aversion, we don't know why. It's getting better, with a good and patient teacher. But, I worry I'm not doing enough reading and research on autism, that we're not doing enough behavioral work at home. So I got on Amazon and researched, ordered some books.

At the end of the day, I wonder why I'm so fried.

Is it a good, or a bad thing, to be in a job where your mind has to hop, skip and jump and WORK from case to case and even within a case? We see everything and anything, and we're expected to counsel on even more. That, plus the balance with home life, taking care of a family...

Is it a good thing to be a Jack of all trades, Master of none?

-posted by Genmedmom (generallymedicine.com)

4 comments:

  1. I think having so much variety is what makes being a PCP more interesting. Based on your descriptions, you have gone above and beyond in your care of your patients, which is really commendable. In this day and age of increased pressure to see patients and increase productivity, there is usually insufficient time to do proper counseling, and for that matter, to look up everything we don't know. Kudos to you!

    I would also argue that we are Master of some. I feel like an expert on health maintenance - cancer screenings, immunizations, etc. I'm sure that's something that you do with just about every patient you see too and have a great handle on it. I don't think too many specialists can say they are familiar with age appropriate screenings and immunization recommendations.

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  2. What Kelly said. PCPs are experts in many things, including looking at the whole patient and keeping an eye on all those specialists. And preventive medicine, and communication skills. "Negotiations". Very important. So much of what we do.

    I've been out of primary care for nearly five years, and reading this actually made me kind of nostalgic. I miss the variety. I miss the connection with people I've known for decades. I don't mess the messages or labs or turf wars...and I never found a primary care setting where I felt really at home. Hospice is a good place for me, and yet I still think of myself as a primary care doc.

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  3. I think it's a good thing to always keep the mind active. Although I find it difficult when I have down time to just relax because I'm used to being so active. I have 15 minute appointments, saw 22 patients yesterday, and fit in three breast pumping breaks somehow. It is tiring... I am burning out after 11 years of it...luckily my loans are almost paid off. I plan to take a few years hiatus to enjoy my last baby while she is still little.

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  4. I'm with Jay, this did make me a bit nostalgic for primary care, though I am certain I wouldn't be able to sustain that kind of pace for very long, which is why I decided to specialize and focus on research.
    And…you sound like an absolutely amazing doctor. Your patients are so lucky to have you. (You also sound like an amazing mom, I read your blog regularly, don't beat yourself up…you are managing a very tricky home life with so much grace, I am continuously impressed)

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