Coordination of Care Requires Patient Input

As a general internist with a small concierge practice I have tried to coordinate my patients’ care and dealings within a complex, bureaucratic and dysfunctional health system. Patients have access to me 24 hours a day, seven days per week by telephone, cell phone, email and text messaging.  I do not have an answering service so all after-hours calls are forwarded directly to me.   During the initial patient orientation visit we discuss the need to keep me abreast of their health concerns and problems so I can bring the big picture to their immediate and localized health concern or problem.  Similar information goes out in my quarterly newsletter and is on my web site. I am trying to reach the technologically sophisticated patients as well as the technologically challenged.

I was somewhat surprised to receive a late Friday night call from the local ER to tell me one of my 86 year old cognitively impaired individuals was being evaluated. When I spoke to the charge nurse I found that the patient was brought by the paramedics for intractable nausea and vomiting.   This particularly charming, mild to moderately cognitively impaired, woman had moved with her 90 year old husband from her private residence to a senior facility on my suggestion so that care was available for her as she deteriorated and required more hands-on attention. They were thrilled with the new apartment as well as the care and concern provided by the staff.  I had seen the patient six weeks ago and she was doing fine. There was no mention of problems.

Since her last visit she had developed a dental problem. Unknown to me, her dentist extracted all her left lower jaw teeth and made arrangements for a periodontist to perform three dental implants.  The periodontist pre-medicated her, one hour before surgery, with 1 gram of the antibiotic amoxicillin because seven years ago she had a surgical knee replacement.  She then had the surgery and was sent home on Tylenol and codeine for pain.

She took her second Tylenol with codeine at home, went down to the community dining room, ate some chicken soup, felt ill and vomited several times.  The dining room staff just called 911 and transported her to the local ER.  I was called by the ER doctor after his evaluation to say he believes that between the large dose of oral antibiotic and the codeine, the patient became nauseated and vomited. He was prepared to give her some intravenous fluids and send her home.  After completing the IV fluids she got up to go home, became lightheaded and had another bout of emesis.   I was called back at about midnight and went in to evaluate her.  She looked fine but a bit dehydrated so I decided to observe her overnight while administering fluids and anti-emetics if she needed them.

I had no previous knowledge that this cognitively impaired woman with a limited future lifespan was having such extensive dental surgery.  There is much controversy about whether an individual with a prosthetic knee replacement even needs antibiotic prophylaxis with an antibiotic notorious for causing GI distress.  There were additionally concerns on my part about the choice of a codeine based narcotic for pain control based on her existing medication list.

Had the husband, patient or dentist called in advance to discuss this we could have come up with alternatives that may have prevented this hospitalization.  If the primary care physician is not included in the care plan and kept current, how can one be expected to coordinate care?

After evaluating the patient and making the arrangements for her to stay overnight, I expressed my disappointment to the patient’s spouse about not being informed of the impending dental procedures of this magnitude in advance.  He apologized profusely for not thinking to call me or asking the dentist to call me. He asked me to write about it in my blog to let the other patients know why they need to keep their doctor informed of all their health care comings and goings.

Whatever Happened To Nursing Care and Communication?

When I completed my training and joined the staff of our local community hospital to practice General Internal Medicine, every floor was run by a charge nurse. I had learned in medical school and during residency that if you wanted to get things done in a timely manner and get nights sleep while on call, you learned the rules and regulations on Mr. or Mrs. Jones floor and followed them.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when you arrived to make patient rounds, the floor nurse would gather the medication list, the patient vital signs and go with you to the bedside. You would greet the patient, take a brief history, perform an exam and discuss the problems of the previous night with the patient and the nurse. You would receive a direct verbal report from the day shift nurse or departing night shift nurse of the patient’s concerns and the nursing staffs’ insights, thoughts and concerns. By the time you moved on to the next patient you had answered all questions, reviewed all medications, discussed the plans and goals for the day and reviewed the lines of communication .  These nurses had graduated high school and gone on to a two year nursing school. They received on the job training and supervision from senior staff who had been working at that hospital on that floor for decades. These nurses could change a sheet and bedding on a patient immobilized in bed in traction. They took vital signs by holding the patient’s hand and looking into the patient’s eyes and feeling if the pulse was healthy and brisk and if the hand temperature was warm and dry. The therapeutic nature of the hand holding and human touch was grossly underestimated by administrators and economists

In the mid nineteen eighties, as health insurance companies began to rule the care of patients at a discounted rate, things changed. At the local corporate hospital nurses stopped coming to the bedside. In fact they stopped getting a direct verbal report from the outgoing nursing shift.  The outgoing shift left their report on tape recorders for the incoming shift to listen to when they had a chance. Gone was the stability of tenured and experienced nurses replaced by per diem nurses from temporary agencies who could be practicing in one hospital on Monday and four others the rest of the week.  These nurses might be seasonal employees flown in from Scandinavia or Canada to service the increased winter seasonal volume in South Florida. They were no longer great care givers. Most of them were now going from high school to four year colleges to study nursing. Many were then encouraged to go on and get graduate nursing degrees.  Nurses with a four year degree were not looking to empty bed pans, change bedding or even change bandages unless wound care was their designated specialty. Outside the critical care units, they were primarily administrative, directing “aides” with little or no formal school training and no nursing school training. BP cuffs were replaced at the bedside by robots. No longer were hands held to check vital signs. No longer did the nurse have time to go to the bedside with the doctor to review the patient’s progress and identify the problems and goals for the day.

They became so well educated that nursing couldn’t keep them in the profession. They wanted more. They became physician assistants and nurse practitioners so that with their advanced degrees they could be given more clinical responsibility and allowed more clinical decision making. The problem is that they were not given the formal training one need to have to make these decisions. They were not given the arduous clinical oversight of a large volume of cases one needs over a prolonged training period to become a trained clinician.  They were supposed to assist primary care doctors and generalists and expand the ability of our small primary care population to see patients. Unfortunately, these PA’s and NP’s soon realized that there was no money in primary care and most generalists could not afford to employ them anyway. It was much nicer to work for a plastic surgeon and orthopedist and do their entire pre op and post op care so they could stay in the OR and generate more revenue. It was much easier to leave the bedside and go work for hospital administration or a medical equipment manufacturer in sales then become a supervisor of under educated aides while filling out paper work all day long.

I miss the days of going to the bedside with the nurse and the medication sheets. We made fewer errors. The communication and rapport were better. The nurses were our eyes and ears watching and caring for our patients while we were in the office. The technology and training was supposed to improve communication not make it more difficult. I would love to see the two year nursing program for care givers return. We need doctors and nurses going back to the bedside. We need nurses who are allowed to care for patients rather than supervise others and fill out checklists.