Telemedicine and Acute Stroke Treatment

My community hospital is holding its quarterly physician staff meeting and one of the items on the agenda will be a bylaw change which will permit outside physicians, not credentialed or vetted by our hospital credentials committee, to perform video consults on patients within our hospital. Hospital administration is pushing this bylaw change, and since there has been a quiet coup which has transferred medical staff power from the community’s practicing physicians to the hospital employed and paid physicians, it is a foregone conclusion that it will easily pass.

The bylaw change is being requested because the hospital would like to continue to reap the benefits of being an ischemic stroke comprehensive treatment center and offering the health benefits to the community despite not being able to meet the criteria. If a patient presents to the emergency department within four hours of developing ischemic stroke symptoms they must be offered the administration of a “clot busting “drug Alteplase (t-pa). The patient must not have any bleeding tendencies and no evidence of active bleeding or a mass or tumor on head CT scan and must be examined by a neurologist within 45 minutes of arrival.

The problem is that most community based neurologists with outpatient office practices and hospital staff privileges cannot and will not drop everything they are doing and run to the emergency department to evaluate a new patient each time a stroke protocol patient arrives. When given an ultimatum by the hospital administration, that they must take call and be available within 45 minutes, our community neurologists en masse relinquished their hospital privileges.

The hospital countered by bringing in several research oriented academic neurologists and neurosurgeons to man the beautiful new Neuroscience Institute and provide coverage of the ED for the stroke protocol. Few if any of these physicians were able to develop and maintain a practice within the community and they have since left. The Emergency Department is staffed by employed board certified emergency physicians who are well qualified to diagnose an ischemic stroke and administer t-pa. They refuse to do so citing the liability of a poor outcome as the reason. Despite data indicating the benefits of t-pa administration in these situations, the 6 out of 100 chances of a bleed in the brain plus the 1 in 6 chance of death is enough to deter their participation.

You would think that since the hospital hires these physicians the logical choice would be to fire them and hire a group that will provide the state of the art care in a timely fashion. This has not occurred. You would think that the state legislature would grant the ED physicians sovereign immunity from medical malpractice suits if the patient meets the criteria for the ischemic stroke protocol and the patient is given appropriate informed consent for the procedure but this common sense legislation has not been developed or passed.

The hospital has chosen a different pathway. They are opting to hire neurologists from a university medical center who will provide video consults on ischemic stroke patients from an offsite location. Robots will actually examine the patient and televise the data back to the telemedicine center after an emergency department physician performs a brief initial evaluation. The neurologist off site will then provide the needed neurology consult to proceed with the injection of the clot buster.

I suspect the mechanism will work like this. A patient or family member will call EMS via 911 and be taken to the Emergency Department. A triage nurse will ask all the questions to qualify the patient for the t-pa protocol; a robot will examine the patient and transmit via TV the data to an offsite neurologist while an ER physician does an exam. A CT scan of the head and brain will be performed. If no bleed is discovered or tumor or mass that could bleed, t-pa will be administered by the pharmacy and nursing staff. Further intervention by an interventional radiologist and or neurosurgeon may then occur.

At no point in this protocol does it call for the patient’s primary care doctor or cardiologist or usual neurologist to be called. We will be called once the procedure is complete because neither the ER physician or the neurosurgeon or the interventional radiologist will want to admit the patient to neurology ICU. While our surgical ICU and Medical ICU/CCU are covered 24 hours per day by an outsourced hired intensivist group, the neuro ICU does not have that type of coverage.

I can hear it now, my phone ringing and upon picking it up I hear the voice of a clerk in the Emergency Department, “Hello Dr Reznick, Dr. Whateverhisorhername wishes to speak to you about patient Just Had A Stroke.” I get put on hold for five minutes and then in a flat nasal voice, “Hello Steve your patient came in earlier by EMS with symptoms of an acute ischemic stroke. They met the t-pa ischemic stroke criteria and were treated. Unfortunately, they had a major hemispheric bleed with mass effect and edema and are now unresponsive and intubated on a ventilator. We need you to come in and admit him and care for him.”

I will vote in protest against this bylaw. I will lobby for recruiting neurologists who are hospital based who will actually see the patient and care for them. I will lobby for a new state law to provide sovereign immunity for ED physicians treating ischemic strokes according to the internationally recognized protocol. I will lobby for our medical and surgical residents on site and in the hospital to be permitted to administer t-pa after meeting the appropriate criteria. I will not support out of the area physicians making the final call and leaving our local physicians to deal with their results.

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Patient Hand-Offs and Communication

document businesspeople 1I was finishing tying my shoes as I got dressed to take my lovely wife out to dinner for our 41st wedding anniversary. It was 7:30 p.m. after a hectic day at work and we had a wonderful dinner planned at a local restaurant.

The telephone rang with the caller ID identifying a call on my office work line. “Hello this is the Emergency Department, please hold on for Dr S.” Before I could get in a word edgewise I was put on hold. Five minutes later Dr S. got on the line. “Steve this is Pete. “Dr. Rheumatology” saw your mutual patient Mrs. T this afternoon and she was complaining of shortness of breath beginning three weeks ago. She complains of overwhelming fatigue. He sent her here for evaluation. Her exam is negative. At rest she doesn’t look short of breath. Her EKG doesn’t show any acute changes but I do not have an old one to compare it to. Her chest x ray is negative and her oxygen saturation on room air is 97 % (normal is greater than 90%). She has lupus and multiple autoimmune problems and is on many immune modulators. Maybe she has a constrictive cardiomyopathy or restrictive lung disease. I called Dr. Rheumatology and he said this isn’t his department to call the PCP (primary care physician) to admit the patient and you are the PCP. “I told the ER physician I had not seen the patient in over six months or heard from her but I would be right in to see her”.

I explained to my wife that duty calls and there was a sick patient in the ER. She was extremely understanding. On the drive to the ER I called the Rheumatologist to ask him his clinical impression because he had been seeing her every two weeks and had examined her just that afternoon. He returned my call and we discussed the clinical aspects of the situation and his thoughts. Then I told him that I thought he should have called me when he sent the patient to the ER if he expected me to assume care. If he did not call then he most certainly should have called me when the ED doctor called him to report on the findings and he said call the PCP. Hand-offs should be direct especially in an acute situation and especially if you sent the patient to the ER and do not intend to take ownership of the situation you sent the patient to the ER for.

He told me that in 30 years of practice no one had ever criticized him for this and he does it all the time. He told me he had been working long hours and did not have time to call referring physicians. I told him that was no excuse and if he was working that late maybe he needed to restrict his patient volume so he could communicate in a professional manner.

I arrived at the ER 20 minutes later and learned that the patient had been there for three and half hours already. She had been in the ER while I had been at the hospital earlier that afternoon checking on another patient. Had I known she was there I could have easily seen her, cared for her and still made my anniversary dinner.

A review of her old EKG and comparing it to the new one, plus taking a thorough history and exam, revealed the problem. She was having a heart attack. Her bouts of shortness of breath with activity with overwhelming fatigue were her equivalent of crushing chest pain.

Getting called to the hospital during “off” hours is part of a physician’s way of life. Having a colleague take your role and time for granted at the expense of the patient is disturbing and unprofessional.

All too often today physicians, both specialists and primary care, don’t take the time to communicate directly and clearly with their colleagues about patient care.  When this happens, clearly the patient is negatively impacted.

ACO’s and the Patient Centered Medical Home will not cure this. Only courtesy, respect and putting the patient first will change things.

The Business of Medicine Should Not and Can Not Replace Care and Compassion

Compassionate CareWell over a year ago I advised my 80 something year old patient and her children that due to progression of her Parkinson’s disease, and her frail nature, she needed a higher level of assistance and care if she wished to remain in her home.  She was extremely unsteady walking and several courses of physical therapy had not improved the situation. The patient was feisty and would only allow help to come for 4 hours per day despite having a long term care policy that paid for significantly more.  She lost her balance recently, fell and landed on her back. She could not get up or get to a phone or her alert bracelet and was found seven hours later on the floor by her aide arriving for work.  In the Emergency Room x-rays revealed several acute fractures of her vertebrae that accounted for her severe pain with movement and inability to stand, bear weight or walk.

I hustled over to the ER and examined her and called the interventional radiologist to see if he could perform a procedure called a kyphoplasty that would cement the fractures and remove the pain. It was early Friday afternoon and the traditional back specialists were unavailable until the next day.  The radiologist came promptly, was professional and very pleasant explaining that he could do the procedure but because she took a baby aspirin for prevention of stroke, he would not perform it until the aspirin wore off in 5 – 7 days because of fear of excessive bleeding around the spinal cord.  He suggested we send her home with pain medications and round the clock assistance or keep her in the hospital until the aspirin wore off and he felt comfortable performing the procedure.  He was courteous and a credit to any profession. 

Since the patient was in great pain with any movement, I chose to admit her to the hospital while we sorted things out.  I admitted her as an inpatient because she is extremely elderly and frail with medical conditions that led to this injury which an expert had just told me required surgery to fix. She could not walk or transfer to a chair or wheelchair to get food, water or get to the bathroom. She had no arrangements for additional help at home to assist her. She could not, in my professional opinion, go home safely at this point.  

The next day I was making rounds late in the day for me at noon, reviewing the situation with the patient and her son when the physician’s assistant (PA) for the back surgeons, Andy, walked in and introduced himself. They had not seen her Friday evening or Saturday morning and this was their first contact with the patient.  My consult request and phone call had been quite clear. I wanted to know how they viewed the injury and what options did they feel were best to fix the problem. I additionally asked them how their approach would differ, if at all, from the approach of interventional radiology.  I had seen Andy around the facility and said “hello” but never formally met him so it was an introduction for me as well. 

“Hi, my name is Andy, and I work for Doctors Y and Z.  We have a little problem with your insurance.  You have a Medicare Advantage plan and we are not part of that plan. Most of the time, about 95% of the time, we eventually get paid for our services but we need to know how we will get paid for performing a procedure on you to fix your back before we proceed further. In these situations we usually ask the patient to pay the bill up front ($1000 – $1200) and then we submit the charges to your insurance company. If we get reimbursed from the insurance we return the money to you.”  

I took a deep breath and wondered if maybe I was overreacting to the brusque inappropriate presentation to a groggy senior who had been given a narcotic 30 minutes before for pain and was really in no condition to listen to any presentation or sign away informed consent.  I cut Andy off in the middle of a sentence and reminded him that I had requested an opinion. The son, an attorney by trade took up the fight and reminded the PA just how inappropriate his initial remarks were and that in this case money was not a problem but the manner of dealing with an elderly confused patient was.  I played mediator at this point and got the PA to explain that his employers had done several thousand of these procedures and handled many more complications than most interventional radiologists and that their success record spoke for itself.  He outlined a slightly different approach and once we got him talking about the reasons for his invitation onto the case, justified calling his group.

I am all in favor of physicians being paid for their professional services. This could have been handled differently by calling me first and informing me that they had concerns about payment and insurance and letting me address the issues. It could have been handled far gentler by answering the questions asked first and suggesting options and then reviewing the problems with the insurance. Had the gentleman performed a history and or exam rather than rely on the ER PA’s evaluation the day before, he would have seen that the patient was not in a position to comprehend what he was saying or sign for a procedure.  

This is not a criticism of PA’s or Nurse Practitioners. It is a criticism of any practitioner who does not answer the questions asked by the referring physician or question the referring physician about payment before arriving for the consult if they have questions about getting paid for their time and expertise.

The post script is that the son wisely chose to use this group based on their talents and experience and put aside the rude and insensitive communication by the PA. The surgery went well and the patient will go home after spending three nights in the hospital. 

There is still one obstacle to overcome. The hospital ignored my written order to make her status inpatient and made her status observation which will prevent her from receiving any post-surgery therapy or care which is paid for by her insurance. I will fix that. Keeping the phone number on my phone contact list of the Office of the Inspector General who investigates Medicare irregularities opens doors in situations like this. It does not change the fact however that as practitioners we need to be much more thoughtful when we discuss financial issues before medical issues if we wish to continue to be considered a profession rather than another business.

Women and Cardiovascular Disease – There is A Difference Between Men and Women

Front view of woman holding seedlingThe American Society of Preventive Cardiology presented an educational seminar recently in Boca Raton, Florida to educate physicians, nurses and health care providers that cardiovascular disease in women can be very different than in men.  Failure to recognize these differences has resulted in women being under diagnosed, under treated and suffering worse outcomes.

The difference is first noticeable in pregnancy when the development of elevated blood pressure, super elevation of lipids and the development of gestational diabetes predispose young mothers to earlier, more serious, cardiovascular risk later in life. The faculty noted that women of child bearing age tend to use their obstetrician as their primary care doctor.  They suggested that women with pregnancy related diabetes, hypertension and lipid abnormalities should be referred to a medical doctor knowledgeable in preventive cardiology, post-delivery, for ongoing care.

For reasons that are unclear, women are less likely to be treated to recommended guidelines for lipids, diabetes and hypertension.  Diabetic women have a far worse prognosis with regard to cardiovascular disease as compared to men. They are less likely to be treated with aspirin, which while not as effective in preventing MI in women, is apparently protective against stroke.

Women about to have a heart attack have different symptoms the weeks, to months, before the event. They are more likely to have sleep disturbances, unexplained fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath than the standard exertional angina seen in men.   When they do have a heart attack they are as likely to have shortness of breath and upper abdominal fullness and heartburn as they are to have chest pain. They are more likely to have neck and back pain with nausea than men are.  

Since women have different symptoms than men they are more likely to be sent home from the emergency room without treatment.  They are less likely to have bypass surgery than men, less likely to be treated with the anticoagulants and antiplatelet medications that men are treated with and, they are less likely to be taken to the catheterization lab for diagnosis and intervention as compared to men.

The faculty was comprised of world-class researchers, clinicians and educators who happened to be outstanding speakers as well, bringing a vital message to our community.  They pointed out the different questions and diagnostic tests we should be considering in evaluating a woman as opposed to a man.

This was my first educational seminar through the American College of Preventive Cardiology and I thank them for the message they delivered to the medical and nursing community at probably one of the finest seminars I have had the privilege to attend.

Inflammation and Vascular Disease

Heart, stethescopeI was privileged to hear Bradley Bale, MD and Amy Doneen, MSN, ARNP talk about the development of coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease in patients with low or few cardiac risk factors.  They cited American Heart Association studies looking at groups of men and women between ages 45 and 65 who have their first heart attack or stroke despite being in compliance with suggested lipid and blood pressure guidelines. They pointed out that the first Myocardial Infarct or Stroke occurred in 88% of women who met lipid guidelines and 66 % of men.  These are people who do not smoke, do not have untreated or uncontrolled lipid levels, are not diabetics and who lead an active life style.  They asked “why”?

Dr. Bale and Ms. Doneen work with the well respected cardiovascular Center of Excellence at the Cleveland Clinic program in Ohio, and believe that inflammation is the root of the problem.  They believe that soft plaque composed of lipids and other cells lurks beneath the endothelial cells lining blood vessels. In the presence of inflammatory stimulants, this soft plaque ruptures suddenly through the endothelial level into the blood stream. When it comes in contact with the blood flowing through the vessels the body believes we are bleeding and cut and chemical mediators are released that initiate the formation of a clot. When this clot occurs in a small coronary artery we have a heart attack or myocardial infarction or precipitate a lethal irregular heartbeat. When this clot occurs in the blood vessels of the brain, we have an acute stroke or cerebrovascular accident.

The key to prevention in the so called low risk patient is to detect the inflammation in advance, and treat it. They are firm believers in performing B Mode Duplex ultrasounds of the carotid arteries in the neck to look for the presence of soft plaque beneath the endothelial cell lining. This soft plaque is distinctly different from the safe but calcified plaque we can see on CT scans used for cardiac scoring studies.  They couple this imaging study with a series of complex blood tests which identify inflammation. These include a myeloperoxidase level, the Lp-PLA2 level, the urine microalbumen to creatinine ratio, a F2-IsoPs level and the cardiac specific CRP level.

These tests and studies in combination with a traditional history and exam, sugar and lipid levels and EKG can help us identify those “low risk” patients who actually are high risk for a heart attack or stroke. The cause of the inflammation is often difficult to spot and may be in your mouth with dental or periodontal disease or in your joints with inflammatory arthritis.  Patients with excellent dental hygiene and normal appearing gums may harbor specific inflammatory bacteria that put them at risk. While this seems a bit forward thinking, remember we once questioned the research that showed that bacteria (H Pylori) caused gastric ulcers and intestinal bleeding.

I have begun instituting the inflammatory blood marker panels in my practice. Labs are sent to the Cleveland HeartLab for this purpose. I will be initiating periodic carotid ultrasound studies for the appropriate patients in the coming year.

It is often difficult for clinicians to distinguish snake oil sold for profit from cutting edge science. I have tried to spare my patients from worthless but profit driven products. I am convinced the Cleveland Clinic is just ahead of the rest of us in offering these services and I will make them available to the appropriate patients and will do it in a financially structured manner that does not add out of pocket cost to the patient. It’s not about adding another profitable income stream to the practice. It’s about identifying individuals who shouldn’t have a heart attack or stroke before they do.

Metal Joint Replacement – Should Allergy Testing Be Done First?

As our physically active baby boomers age, more and more of them are facing the need for joint replacement. We run, golf, bike and attend exercise class all in the name of fitness and cardiovascular health.  As a result, many of us have bodies that are becoming beat up and worn.

There have been numerous articles discussing the large increase in knee and hip replacements in active 50 year olds who wish to continue to be as active as they were prior to joint replacement surgery.  An article appeared in this week’s MedPage online journal about a small Italian study conducted regarding chronic pain in “successful “metal joint replacements in the lower extremity. Most of us know someone who had a perfectly unremarkable uncomplicated knee or hip replacement who is now suffering from unexplained pain at the surgically repaired joint site.  X Rays show perfect alignment. CT Scans and MRI scans show perfect surgical alignment. The patient remains in pain.

The study released by Italian researchers’ discusses allergic contact allergy being the cause of the continued pain. The individuals evaluated are allergic to the metals in the artificial joint. In the study subjects were patch tested in advance of joint replacement. Those showing allergic sensitivity to metals contained in the prosthesis received a hypoallergenic product instead. They did not develop the unexplained pain and discomfort and had a great outcome. While the study was small and the results preliminary, it raises the question of whether allergy patch testing prior to elective joint replacement should, and will, become the norm in the future.

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.