The Turnovers are the Difference- Medical “Handoffs” Are Continually Fumbled

This is a humbling football season for those of us who root for Florida teams at the collegiate or professional level. It seems that each week after another loss we are listening to the head coach standing at the podium during a post-loss press conference talking about how if the handoffs had not been fumbled, and the ball dropped and lost, his team could have prevailed. It is hard enough to deal with the turnovers and fumbles when rooting for your team. It is far more difficult to deal with it when we are talking about human beings hospitalized and cared for by hospital employed physicians and then turned back to the community without communicating adequately, or at all, with the care team responsible for their continued care at the community level.

Take the case of GH, an 82 year old obese diabetic with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart irregularities requiring the use of Coumadin to prevent a stroke. He awoke one morning two weeks after a major auto fender bender and found his underwear stained in bright red and dark brown blood. His wife was unsure if it was coming from his rectum or penis so she called 911 and allowed the patient to be taken to the nearest emergency department.  He was seen by the emergency room staff and admitted to their contracted hospitalist service for presumed intestinal bleeding due to Coumadin toxicity.

Eight days later he was discharged home with an indwelling Foley catheter needed because of the “clots” in his bladder. His Coumadin had been stopped on admission and never restarted. GH could not get out of the bed and walk while in the hospital and he stubbornly refused to go to a nursing rehabilitation center as an interim step until he was strong enough to walk independently.  His frail 80 year old wife, battling a lymphoma herself, was given the task of caring for this obstinate man at home and emptying and caring for his indwelling urinary catheter.

On his first day back home, I received a phone call from his wife informing me of this. She didn’t know what she could possibly do to care for him because he weighed 230 lbs and he couldn’t get out of bed and walk. A nursing service and physical therapist had been requested but had not yet called to schedule a visit.  She was particularly disturbed because 12 hours had gone by since he got home with no urine appearing in the bladder drainage catheter. At the same time his lower abdomen was growing in size and he was feeling pain and discomfort at that spot.  Once again, 911 was called and he was taken back to the same emergency department. Paramedics transport sick patients to the geographically closest facility not necessarily the one his physician sees patients at.

GH was readmitted because his catheter was blocked with clots and needed irrigation and there were concerns about a urine infection. I spoke with the wife and children and asked for the name of his doctor but they could not remember it. They did remember the name of his consulting urologist. I called the urologist who was a bit put out to discuss the case with me. He told me that “our“ patient was bleeding from the urinary tract due to a transitional cell cancer of the bladder that he discovered and treated during a cystoscopy. He felt the prognosis was excellent.

The urologist declined to discuss whether the patient was additionally bleeding from his intestinal tract or if the appropriate evaluation had been done. He suggested I find the hospitalist responsible for the patient’s care. When I asked for the name of the hospitalist he told me he had no idea who it was. “They all look the same to me,” was his actual response.

I asked the patient’s wife to have her husband sign an authorization to release medical records and obtain the medical records of his admissions for my review. She did that and presented it to the medical records department who sent me a brief summary of his second admission. It took three phone calls to obtain the records of the first admission and another to get the emergency department records.  I needed this material because it was quite easy to convince the patient to come to a local rehab facility after this hospitalization with me as his attending physician.  The patient and family had no idea why he was bleeding other than “I had clots” in the bladder. They didn’t know the name of his hospitalist either.  When I received the records it identified the physician. I called the hospital to page her but was told she was “off “for the next few days. Her colleagues on duty did not know or remember the patient.

The patient records finally arrived. His admission diagnosis was bleeding due to Coumadin toxicity, but the INR (a measure of how effective the Coumadin is in thinning the blood) was very low indicating that his blood was not anticoagulated much at all.  An INR of 1.4 doesn’t cause bleeding and is not toxic. The medical record said he had hematochezia (blood in his stool) but there was no documentation that anyone had performed a rectal exam or examined a stool specimen for the presence of gross or microscopic blood.

There was a lab order to type and cross-match the patient for a blood transfusion but certainly no mention that a transfusion had actually occurred. There was a thorough procedure note from a gastroenterologist who looked in his stomach and colon several days after admission and found no source of bleeding. I called the gastroenterologist on the day I received the records but he was gone for the Thanksgiving weekend.  The records indicated the patient’s blood count showed hemoglobin of 9.3 on the day prior to discharge and 8.3 on the day of discharge but there was no mention of an investigation of why the blood count dropped and why he was released with a dropping blood count.  A chest x-ray report on his first admission showed a right lower lung infiltrate but there was no follow-up performed or reported.

The patient arrived at the local rehab facility on Thanksgiving morning. I saw him and performed a thorough history, review of his records and an exam.  He was no longer bleeding, with no black stools noted on my rectal exam and no microscopic blood on the stool occult blood slide test I performed at the bedside. His Foley catheter was draining clear non bloody urine and the patient looked pale but well.

It was really very easy to convince this patient to come to rehab to learn to walk again once I became aware of his hospitalization and condition.  After my initial exam I sat down with the charge nurse and we constructed a care plan for the next few weeks at the rehab facility and explained it to the patient. Then I told the patient he had bladder cancer with a good prognosis. He was completely unaware of that diagnosis until we had the conversation.  I called his wife and children separately and reviewed the diagnoses and care plans for follow-up.

GH entered the hospital on an emergency basis as an unknown. He was appropriately taken to the nearest receiving facility by the paramedics when he was found to be on a blood thinner and bleeding actively.  His inpatient hospital employed physicians prevented a catastrophe and did what was necessary to make sure one was not ongoing. They did little or nothing to insure the loose ends of his medical problems resulting in hospital admission were addressed or understood by the patient and family.  Little or no effort was made to insure continuity of care and appropriate follow-up.

Judging by the editorials in our peer reviewed medical journals, this has become the norm not the exception in our insurance company / employer driven health care system. The devil is in the details. Unless the loose ends are planned for , understood and addressed, patients like this will continue to be bounced back to the hospital as an “emergency”, unnecessarily spending money we do not have and do not need to waste.

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