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Our Broken System - #3: Dropping the Baton

My patient was angry, confused, and frustrated.

He had transferred his care to me because I take care of his kids and he badly needed help with a terrible pain in his leg that wasn't getting any better.  He went to another doctor - an orthopedist - who predictably focused on the joint as being the cause.  After x-rays and MRI scans of the joint, my patient was told that there was "nothing wrong."  The pain continued to get worse, and he had just now broken out in a rash.  His calls to the specialist were met with suspicion, and flat out rejection.  Now he didn't know where else to turn.

When he finally came to me his pain was excruciating.  He sat across the room, writhing as he tried to find some position that would not be as painful..  His skin was now very sensitive to touch and the rash was very strange in appearance.  His joint exam was entirely normal.  This was clearly not a joint problem; it was a neurological problem.  I knew him from visits with his kids, and never felt he was one to exaggerate or invent symptoms, so I trusted what he was telling me.  Besides, there was that strange rash.  Nothing was working for the pain, and he wasn't taking any narcotic pain medications "because they didn't work."  I asked my partner to come look at the rash, and he agreed with me that this was very likely to be reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), a pain condition caused by trauma to a sympathetic nerve.  It's weird, it doesn't respond to pain medications at all, and it hurts like hell.

He needed pain management to get a nerve block, as no drug I could prescribe would do more than blunt his terrible pain.  But there was a catch: he was a Medicaid patient.  Medicaid patients have two big disadvantages: first, they are very limited in the physicians they can see, as reimbursement is bad; and second,  the reputation of Medicaid patients (partly deserved, partly not) is that they abuse the system and seek drugs.  In our city, the only pain management doctors who treat Medicaid patients are at our local academic facility, Smarty Pants University of Health Science.   This is not good news.  Not only are they difficult to reach, but they tend to view all patients suspiciously. My experience was pretty bad with how my patients get treated there, but I had no choice.

I felt this patient needed to be seen very soon.  To try to reduce the automatic suspicion, I called the pain clinic and spoke directly to the physician.  I explained the history of symptoms, their severity, the ineffectiveness of narcotics, and about the appearance of the rash.  I also reassured him that my patient seemed to have real pain, I don't think he's seeking drugs, and that I suspected RSD.  I was met with an unenthusiastic response and a reluctant assurance that he would try to get my patient in "as soon as possible."  Clearly he didn't believe what I was saying.

A few days ago, my patient came back.  "They don't believe me," he told me, almost in tears.  "They suggested that maybe this was, you know, in my head," he added as he pointed to his head.

"What about the rash?" I asked, incredulous.

"They didn't think much of it.  They told me that they could treat me when you figure out what's going on," he said, getting angry.  I had ordered an MRI scan to assess his lumbar nerve roots to see if maybe this was causing the pain and referred him to a dermatologist to get that angle on things.  His pain was getting no better with the Neurontin I prescribed, and the rash had spread in a pattern that made me question the diagnosis (although not the reality of his pain).

We both sat quietly for a long time, unsure what to say at this.  I sighed.  "I guess I'm going to have to figure it out then," I said, shaking my head.

"And I guess I have to hurt for a while longer," he said.


This story,  in which I've changed significant facts but kept the core, illustrates another broken part of our system: consults. Consulting physician, both academic and private, often result in anger and disappointment on the part of my patients, and very little help in addressing my questions and concerns.

From the patient's perspective, the passing of the medical baton carries the following assumptions:

  1. Care from the specialist will be based on what I've already done
  2. I communicate with the specialist
  3. I trust the specialist to whom I am referring them.
  4. The specialist trusts and respects me.
  5. The specialist communicates with me.

Sadly, none of these assumptions are true in many cases, and all of the assumptions are rarely true.  Why?

  1. Specialists rarely know and often don't care what I've already done on the patient.  Some of this is because they don't have access to the labs I've ordered, the tests I've run, or my thought process up to this time.  We try to send information ahead of time, but somehow that rarely gets in the hands of the person actually seeing the patient, and so many of them don't bother looking.  We've tried to send information through secure messaging (email), but were met with almost universal refusal.  Ironically, the one physician who does engage me electronically works at Smarty Pants U.
  2. Some of the problem is on my part as well.  I don't send a note to the specialist saying why they are being sent.  Yes, they do get an ICD-9 diagnosis, and usually some supporting documents, but they almost never know what specific question I want answered.  Some of this is because I am busy and don't have the time to do extra, and some is because the specialists  are busy and don't like to be bothered with extra.  Regardless, the baton is nearly always poorly passed.
  3. I often can't send patients to the specialists I prefer.  There are some specialists I know and respect, and I try to use them as often as possible.  But often I am sending patients to someone I have never met and know only by the notes they (sometimes) send back.  The story in this post underlines the fact that Medicaid patients are much more likely to get my "less-preferred" specialists.
  4. I am not always trusted.  This is especially bad in the academic setting; they assume that a community doctor is too dull-witted to work at Smarty Pants U, so take everything I do and tell them with skepticism. But this is also true with some community specialists, who think a PCP is to dull-witted to be a specialist.
  5. Specialists are increasingly bad at communicating with me about the patient (and business, I might add) I sent to them.  A significant proportion of my consultants don't send their notes in a timely manner, if at all.  When I do get their note, they are usually filled with useless information, telling me the patient's entire history (which I, of course, already know), exam, habits, shoe size, and whether they have an inny or outy belly-button, all before they get to the part I want: the assessment and plan.  I often have to go through 4-5 pages before I get to useful information.  Additionally, I rarely have access to results from labs and tests done by that specialists.

The failure of the successful transfer often results in what my patient got: frustration and problems not addressed.  This bad transfer happens for many reasons, including: the arrogance and/or laziness of doctors, the disorganization of medical offices, the inaccesability of tests and labs, the ridiculous documentation requirements which hide useful information, and the volume-driven foundation of the system, which discourages taking extra time to communicate or find the appropriate information.

So my patient has to live with his pain while I try to figure out how to treat a condition I am not supposed to be treating.  In this case it is only pain; in some cases it is worse.  I every case, it costs the system a lot of money and makes the likelihood of a good outcome much lower.




One of the main things driving  me back to blogging is madness.  While I can’t be sure that I am not overcome by madness, it is not my own of madness I am referring to.  Well, no, I am mad, but not mad in the way that I hear Elvis whispering in my ear or think that the squirrels are evil robots put there by aliens to spy on us.  The squirrel theory may be true (evidence does strongly support it), but it’s not that kind of madness I am talking about.

I am angry at the madness of our system.

I am angry when patients come to me after a two week hospitalization and I have no records or even an idea that they were hospitalized.  I am angry when I have to rely on my patients to find out what happened at the specialist, the emergency room, or in the hospital.  I am angry at all of the money that is being wasted on useless and sometimes harmful care and is done because nobody knows what is going on with patients.  I am angry when my life is spent chasing around ever-changing drug formularies and drug “shortages.” I am angry when my patients have to wait for a three-hour visit with a specialist who I recommended, only to have their complaints ignored and their questions unanswered.

I am angry about the political game of chicken that is regularly played by congress with Medicare reimbursement.  I am angry that it is far more lucrative to document than it is to care for patients.  I am angry at all the time I spend more time every day dealing with rules and regulations I don't understand than I do deciding what's best for people's health.  I am angry that electronic record systems pay more attention to "meaningful use" certification than they do to making their systems be useful in a meaningful way.

I am angry at doctors who prescribe narcotics like candy and then send me their patients when the DEA investigates.  I am angry at patients who try to fool me into prescribing drugs they are not taking, but selling.  I am angry that there are no psychiatrists available and so I am forced to perform amateur psychiatry on them in a 15-minute visit.  I am angry that my patients assume their doctors know their medical history when they don't, and that doctors assume the patient knows their medical history when they don't.

If any other business operated like health care, it would go out of business and the people who ran the business would go to jail.  I am serious.  People are gouged by our system and are given terrible care in return.  More and more I am seeing why people no longer trust the medical community and are turning to alternatives.  If our system is treating them poorly, they find someone who will do otherwise. I can't blame them.

And guess what, folks; it's an election year!  Prepare for more madness.  Prepare for politicians who prey on the fear of the elderly by telling them the other party wants to kill them.  Prepare for simplistic, head in the sand solutions to the problem that avoid the real problem because doing so would lose votes.  Prepare for promises of bigger, better programs that will fix our bloated system.  Prepare for complete madness transformed by political spin to look like rational policy.

Yes, there is a lot of madness to be had.  Everyone can have their fill.  The fire hose of madness is waiting to knock over whoever stands in its spray.

All of this makes me sad.  I am sad because I sit in the room every day with people who are pummeled by this madness.  I am sad because the madness hurts people I am trying to help. I am sad because I know of things I could do to decrease the madness for my patients, but would be rewarded with a decreased salary.  I am sad because I have to choose between making a living for my family and giving the best care possible.  I can't have both.

People need to know how dysfunctional our system is, not on a political or sociological level, but in the reality of the exam room.  This madness is making the most committed doctors have second thoughts about their profession.  I didn't go into medicine to learn to "play the game."  We all deserve better than this.

Don't worry; I don't intend for this blog to be a whining rant.  I wouldn't have come back to blogging just to complain about problems without giving hope.  There is hope, but few people see it.  Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that many if not most of our problems do have real solutions.  I want to beat the drum of sanity.  I want to bypass the spin and rhetoric, the editors and publishers with agendas, and tell you what I see here.  At some point the little boy needs to speak up about the emperor's nakedness.  There are others saying it, but the voice needs to be loud enough to be heard over the societal cacophony.

Maybe once we do that, we can get that squirrel problem under control.