Joint Commission Inspection and Data Entry Duty for the Doctors

I received an email from our hospital Accreditation Coordinator/Quality Coordinator in a manner that wasn’t clear if it was directed to me personally or if it was sent to the entire medical staff.  It said that she was reviewing the Joint Commission Accreditation of Hospitals recent survey which found that the charts did a poor job of reflecting the patient’s “Code Status”.  The institution only received a 40% rating.

Some patients were listed as “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) but did not have the yellow State of Florida DNR Form on the chart.  Some charts had the DNR form but the physician, in a progress note, had incorrectly indicated that if the patient’s heart stopped beating, or they stopped breathing, that the patient was in fact a “Full Code.”   Of the 25 charts reviewed only ten were in full compliance.

For some reason I took this email very personally.  In my practice I take the time to discuss end of life issues with all my patients who are at an age, or have issues, that make one believe they may face a catastrophic cardio- respiratory arrest in the future.  When I have the discussion with the patient and family, I present them with a large yellow State of Florida DNR form. The large top half and small detachable bottom half are identical. The patient is supposed to fill both out, with the physician signing both.  We photo copy the form and scan it into the patient chart while listing DNR Status on the electronic health record face sheet for all to see.  The patient is supposed to place the large yellow upper half on their refrigerator while carrying the smaller wallet sized version in their wallet or purse.

Most of my patients get to the hospital through the emergency department by self-referral. Sometimes they call us first but most times they call 911 or go themselves.  Most situations involve unexpected falls and trauma or pain from a chronic source.

When I am called by the ER staff the patient has been registered in, insurance has been checked, medications have been reviewed, as have allergies to medication, and the patient has been evaluated by nurses and physicians.  The patient’s record is a mix of paper documents and electronic health records.  The hospital recently instituted a new electronic health record system with inadequate staff training and support (in my opinion) with decisions for financial reasons.  The result is that most clinicians are constantly searching for information and not quite sure where all of it is.  There is still a loose leaf binder type shell for some daily paper information such as the EKG rhythm strips created on the telemetry monitors.  Where a State of Florida DNR form is kept is anyone’s guess.  I took the electronic health record training course on line and the two in person events. At no time did they discuss entering a code status or show us how to enter this data.

It seems to me that the question of a patients “Code status” is something that should be asked at registration in the ER and at elective pre admission. All patients should be considered a full and complete code unless they say otherwise and can produce the documentation needed. If they are not carrying the documents with them then the document should be re-executed and signed at the registration desk by the patient or their legal health care surrogate. When their physician shows up to admit them the document should be on the chart, filled out for us to see.  I can access my office patient files at the emergency department from my iPad but, due to lack of interoperability between electronic health records in the office and in the hospital, I have no way to print out the document from my office electronic health record while I am at the hospital.

If end of life issues have not been discussed with the patient prior to hospitalization, I have no problem beginning the conversation when the medical condition they are there with has been addressed and stabilized.

It turns out that the email was addressed to the entire medical staff and not directed at me alone.  None of the 25 charts reviewed by JCAHO were mine.  If administration wishes to fix the problem it needs to make sure its employed clerical staff are trained to ask the right questions and list the answers where the doctors and nurses can easily see them and interpret them and act on them if necessary. Don’t ask caregivers to be data entry clerks for JCAHO or anyone else.

Leave us free to provide health care.

End of Life Decisions Are Tougher Than We Think

As an internist and geriatrician I deal with elderly patients all the time. We always end up talking about end of life issues such as “Should I be resuscitated if my heart stops and I stop breathing?”. “Do I want a feeding tube or gastrostomy tube if I stop eating and require nutrition?” “Should I be kept alive on machines and for how long if there is no reasonable hope of recovery?” “When should we refuse tests for diagnosis and subsequent treatments due to frailty, age and quality of life.” These are all immensely difficult decisions for patients and their loved ones. We have documents available such as living wills and medical directives and we appoint health care surrogates to carry out our wishes when we cannot direct care ourselves due to health reasons. Despite this, disagreement often happens between family members and loved ones when the time comes to institute the plans outlined by the incapacitated patient. There are different interpretations of “living”, “terminal condition”, “life prolonging treatment”, etc. Is having a heartbeat and a spontaneous respiration truly living if you cannot eat by mouth, walk to the bathroom, recognize your loved one?

I faced these decisions as a caregiver and co-healthcare surrogate earlier this year and, despite being a professional, felt the decision making was extraordinarily painful and difficult. I share decision making with my brother who lives out of state but will hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to help out. He is an extraordinary son to my chronically ill mom. Widowed a few years back, and suffering from severe and chronic lower extremity issues, she became wheel chair bound and incontinent in the last year. Mom has been living in a highly rated senior facility with its own on-site medical staff in a complex supported by a religious philanthropic organization. Her doctor is a “fellowship trained geriatrician” from an Ivy League institution supported by a team of nurse practitioners. For this reason I decided to interact strictly as her son, not her doctor. Since dad passed away several years ago, she became withdrawn, angry and stopped participating in facility functions. The care team brought in psychiatrists who prescribed medications that left her calmer but clearly hallucinating frequently.

With isolation came increasing cognitive dysfunction with poor decision making and extremely fuzzy thinking. Four months ago she complained to me about having foot pain. I reported it to the nurse rather than undress her and examine her. The LPN reported it to the nurse practitioner. She was seen by a podiatrist several days later and several hours after that visit a nursing aide called my brother in NYC to ask permission to apply betadine (iodine solution) to an infection on her toes. He granted it. Several weeks later while visiting her I smelled decaying flesh. I noticed that when she moved her feet under her sheets she grimaced. I walked over and lifted the sheets and gasped. I was looking at seven gangrenous toes with a blue cool foot and absent pulses in both feet. No one had told my brother or me that mom had vascular insufficiency with gangrenous feet and toes. I called in the nurse and she called the nurse practitioner. The nurse practitioner had no answer as to why no one had told my brother or me that mom had a serious vascular problem going on for months. We had participated in the monthly team telephone conference calls where we listened to social workers, dietitians and therapists discuss her eating habits, socialization and participation. No one discussed gangrene.

Mom had a living will and a State of Florida DNR form. At best she enjoyed holiday trips to my home for family dinners, reading a book and watching TV. Injuries to her hands from repeated falls had made reading a book difficult. Sensitivity about wearing adult diapers and having an accident while visiting my home or out to a restaurant had made those trips a thing of the past. No one at the facility or care team discussed gangrene, evaluation and care for it or the option of palliative care. The Nurse Practitioner said that they hoped the iodine applied to the toes would stem an infection and the bloodless toes would just fall off.

I had numerous discussions with my brother about asking Hospice to intervene and provide comfort measures only at that point. My thinking was colored by my experiences as a resident at a big city hospital where a man with a gangrenous leg chose not to amputate it for religious reasons. We treated his infection but packed his gangrenous leg in ice so the decaying tissue would not rapidly deteriorate and to reduce the horrible odor. I did not want my mother to become that gentleman dying a horrible death, packed in dry ice while caregivers avoided her room due to the horrible odor.

A kind vascular surgeon in the area with excellent credentials offered to see her and offer an opinion. He said that without a diagnostic angiogram he would recommend an amputation above the knee on one side and below the knee on the other. I could not see amputating two legs. Had mom been rational and competent she would not have wanted that. Hospice seemed like the rational decision but that decision required two health care surrogates to reach agreement. “Steve I called her on the phone yesterday and the nurse brought her the phone. We had a wonderful conversation about your nephew and your kids. She seemed with it.” Grandchildren called her and had rational conversations with her. There was resistance to calling in Hospice within the family and their concerns created seeds of doubt in me. I am not blaming my relatives at all. I never stood up to them and strongly said, “She is infirm, with a miserable quality of life and no hope of improvement and you are all crazy for wanting to intervene.” So she went for an angiogram and they opened up three arteries in the right leg and then two on the left. The vascular doctor recommended amputating the gangrenous toes while the circulation was good and creating a clean margin of tissue receiving blood. That procedure took about an hour and was done right after the angiogram. All looked well when I saw her back in her room and snuck in a forbidden corned beef sandwich and kosher pickle. One week later the pain returned to the left foot. It looked dusky and pale. Noninvasive vascular studies showed the arteries that had been opened were now closed. The vascular surgeon recommended above the knee amputation. During this period of time my brother had made multiple trips back and forth from NYC to visit Nana. Our children had flown in from out of town to rally her and support her. They saw her deterioration. They saw her go from recognizing them to confusing them for our wives and her mother and sister. The decision to call Hospice this time met with no family resistance. Hospice arrived as Hurricane Matthew bore down on this area. We went home to prepare our homes for the storm and mom died during it.

Her death clearly relieved her of suffering with a horrible quality of life. That fact is comforting. Losing a mom is an irreplaceable loss. Should I have been more forceful in demanding palliative care earlier? I am still not sure. I am very comfortable with the effort to restore blood circulation to her feet to relieve pain and suffering. I would make that decision again. Other families and clinicians might not have decided that was the best course of action for their loved ones. I will say I had no guidance or help from her medical care team. I think patients and families need guidance at times like these because the choices are not black and white. There is much grey and much pain and many life experiences and emotion coloring your decisions.

I still sit down with my patient’s families and review the end of life options. We talk more about what “living” actually means to their loved ones. The decisions are never easy.

End of Life Issues

Sun and Wispy Clouds Over MountainsIt is the right of every individual to choose and define how they wish to be treated if they are faced with a terminal or life threatening illness and are incapacitated and unable to make the decisions needed to provide care and relief of discomfort. It is best to make these decisions while alive, healthy and mentally competent. The State of Florida has created the Florida Living Will which directs how you wish to be cared for if you develop a terminal illness and end stage condition or enter into a vegetative state and are unable to convey the answers about your care yourself. It is a nonspecific document requiring your signature and the signature of two witnesses. I address these issues with my patients frequently. The living will should be reviewed and signed and given to your physicians, lawyers and a copy kept at home. I usually advise patients to be more specific than the document requires. Do you wish to have a feeding tube placed and be fed artificially if you stop orally taking food and liquids due to a life ending illness? Do you wish to be resuscitated if your heart stops or you spontaneously stop breathing. There is a particular form called a Do Not Resuscitate or DNR form that should be signed and prominently displayed on your refrigerator if you do not want caregivers or first responders to perform CPR on you. A copy can be kept in your wallet and your physician and attorney should have a copy.

You should appoint a health care surrogate to make decisions about your care if you are unable to. This should be someone who knows you and has discussed with you how you wish to be treated in these situations. There is a form to designate a surrogate and it too must be signed and witnessed by two people. It is best to have one surrogate and one alternate. Appointing all your children surrogates just leads to confusion and conflict by committee when a decision that you have already made needs to be instituted.

As a patient you have the right to change your mind at any time either verbally or in writing. It is not unusual for patients to change their mind when they develop an acute medical illness which complicates their chronic life threatening issues which led to executing these documents. Make your choices for yourself. Your doctor and attorney should be able to direct you to the appropriate documents and discuss these issues in greater detail with you.

Where Do You Go To Die?

Question Mark v3A long-time patient in his mid-nineties, who lived an independent and full life style, became acutely ill six weeks ago. He lost his equilibrium and was unable to get up from a chair without having his blood pressure plummet and him faint.  When we could keep his blood pressure up, and he tried to walk, he ambulated like an intoxicated individual, swaying from side to side slapping his feet down like Goofy in Disney World.  CT scans of the brain, neck and spine, MRI scans of the brain, neurological testing, cardiac testing and multiple consultants in cardiology, neurology, and endocrinology could not find the cause of his problems. He did develop an aggressive and fastidious urine infection which improved with antibiotics.  It was hoped that with time, good nutrition and help from a team of occupational and physical therapists at a skilled nursing facility, we could return this sweet gentleman to his previous state of life. It did not work out that way.  Instead of improving he declined. He refused to eat or drink. He refused to consider intravenous nutrition or a feeding tube. He was judged by psychiatry to be sane and competent to make those decisions.   Trials of mood and appetite stimulants did not work. The decline occurred over a five day period at the SNF during which I called on him at least daily.

The patient and I had discussions about end of life issues yearly which we documented on his chart. The last discussion in January 2013 revealed that he did not want to be kept alive by machines but was not ready to sign a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order. He was against artificial feeding measures such as NG tubes and PEG’s.  As he declined clinically, I reintroduced that discussion to his wife and children.  I suggested we execute a DNR form and begin comfort measures. I asked them to consider a consult with Hospice but assured them we could provide comfort measures without them as well. They declined all help saying they were beginning to consider it but were not quite ready yet to make a decision. The SNF charge nurse was present at one of these discussions and to my surprise called me aside and said, “That man cannot die here. People cannot die here unless they execute a DNR or are in a hospice bed.”   I could not believe what I was hearing. We were in an old age home in a geriatric community with multiple custodial care patients plus the post-hospital rehab type patients.  The charge nurse then brought in the administrator who emphasized the same message. “He cannot die here.”

If the patient’s demise was imminent, the SNF wanted him transferred to the acute care hospital or else they threatened to call 911.    Where then are deteriorating patients supposed to die?  Hospice has become a bureaucracy unto itself and, while their efforts and works are admirable, the cost to Medicare is extraordinary.  Why can’t a deteriorating patient who is not uncomfortable or in distress expire quietly surrounded by family in a SNF?  Ideally this patient should be at home but sometimes the family just cannot provide the support and care in their home?  Is the only alternative an acute care hospital via 911 or Hospice?

Medicare Will Never Be Able to Reduce the Cost of Care in the Last Three Months of Life

MedicareWe are frequently reminded by the General Accounting Office and CMS that a great proportion of Medicare health costs are incurred in the last three months of a patient’s life. Health care policy experts have tried to reduce these costs by encouraging end of life planning.  Living Wills, health care directives and the availability of hospice and palliative services will not put a dent in these costs because of human nature. I will provide some examples in the next few blogs.  Patient “L.J.” is my first example.

 I have a sweet 97 year old patient L.J., who lives in an upscale skilled nursing facility. He has a living will and a yellow “Do Not Resuscitate” sticker on his room door.  Three years ago he went into a severe depression after losing his second wife, to dementia.  His diabetes and chronic kidney disease have exacerbated because in addition to the natural progression of his diseases, he chooses not to take care of himself or follow instructions. His depression has been refractory to treatment despite the best efforts of two caring and experienced geriatric psychiatrists and their staffs.  He suffers from myelodysplasia and requires periodic blood transfusions to keep his blood count at a level that will keep him comfortable.

In recent months he has refused to be transported to an infusion center for his transfusions.  Despite his blood count dropping he remains comfortable, in no pain and able to participate successfully in those facility activities that he chooses to.   His nurse has become exceptionally attached to him.  As the patient’s health declines, despite being in no discomfort, the nurse is tortured by his decline. She calls and emails the out-of-state children and makes suggestions for additional care that the patient does not need or want.

Three months ago she suggested a palliative care consult.  I asked her “why” and questioned what services the palliative care team will provide that the patient is not already receiving or that he needs?  The children had demanded the palliative care consult so one was called. 

The local hospice program has a new palliative care program. They bill Medicare Part B for their services.  The palliative team arrived and wrote a consult that basically said there was nothing for them to do. They saw no need for their services. 

Three months later the same nurse contacted the family and said the patient needs Hospice care. I asked “why”?  She told me her mother had died of cancer and Hospice had been very helpful. I have no objections to working with Hospice and have over the years been a voluntary hospice medical director as well as referring many patients for end of life care. There is nothing for them to do at this point.  When the nurse contacted the out of state children they chose to “not leave any options on the table” and asked for Hospice to evaluate the patient. They did and billed Medicare Part B. They had nothing new to offer other than sending in a social worker and chaplain periodically to meet with the patient. Each time they visit the patient they bill Medicare Part B.

It is unclear if hospice is treating the floor nurse or the out of town children but they are certainly not adding anything to the patient’s care.   The taxpayers’ foot the bill as the system fails from expenses it cannot meet.