Category Archives: Surgery

Lessons After the Storm: Joplin Surgeon Looks Back

Take emergency weather warnings seriously, prepare a plan to triage and treat mass casualties, and consider how you would work in a worst-case scenario following a major natural disaster. These are some lessons learned by a thoracic surgeon who survived a devastating EF 5 tornado that ripped through his hometown of Joplin, Mo.

The tornado was on the ground for 32 minutes and cut a 6-mile-wide swath through residential and downtown areas. (Photos courtesy Dr. Michael Phillips)

All normal communications were down when Dr. Michael Phillips arrived at his hospital, the Freeman Health System Heart and Vascular Institute. Staff figured out they could communicate via Facebook, Twitter, and texts. There was no water pressure or clean water.  “We were on generator power only, with no ability to identify any patient and no labs or x-rays,” Dr. Phillips said at the annual meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery.

Nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center, a 360-bed hospital, “was lifted off the ground and moved four inches off its foundation.” There were 183 inpatients at St. John’s when the tornado touched down

Cars were tossed about in front of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin.

with winds approaching 300 mph on May 22, 2011. More than 70 patients, including 11 on ventilator support, “came to our hospital needing a place to stay, and we were already full. We

have a 250 bed hospital – what do you do from there?”

More than 1,000 patients were treated in the first 24 hours. There were 11 deaths in the first six hours and “I pronounced seven of them,” said Dr. Phillips, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Freeman. There were 161 deaths overall, making the Joplin tornado the deadliest on record since 1950.

“We didn’t sleep. We operated nonstop. We performed 22 operations during that time, 13 of which I performed. It was almost 30 hours before I took a break, the same thing with all the people around me,” Dr. Phillips replied. “I was really blessed by having a wonderful staff around me.”

“There were so many challenges to overcome; it’s really hard to put into words. You have to overcome that initial shock. The layperson doesn’t understand the devastation around them; you do. You have to get your arms around it and move on and deal with the situation at hand.”

A transition zone of less than 100 yards separated “completely normal from complete and total devastation.”

“One can never train enough for such an event. We have to try to be prepared as much as possible. Preparation should include all levels within the health system,” Dr. Phillips said. “Mass triage plans are critical.”

Lessons learned include taking weather warnings seriously.  “We used to blow these off and we pay attention now,” Dr. Phillips said. Take shelter when a siren sounds and review your plans for worst case scenarios.  All this advice applies to other natural disasters – including tsunamis, typhoons, and hurricanes, he said.

“These are all natural disasters that not only take life and create mass casualties, but they also take away our basic essentials of communications, food, clothing, and shelter.”

–Damian McNamara (on Twitter @MedReporter )

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Filed under Cardiovascular Medicine, Emergency Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Surgery, Thoracic Surgery, Uncategorized

Rock as Remedy: Band Builds Work-life Balance

Lots of good advice got dispensed at a session on work-life balance at the Society of Hospital Medicine meeting recently, including the importance of honoring your inner self, having a supportive spouse, working with your hospitalist colleagues to support each other around scheduling difficulties, even hiring a nanny. Surprising to me, nothing was said explicitly about keeping creativity and fun in your life.

Dr. McIlraith is lead singer for The Remedies. (Courtesy Sam Hayashi/Zuma Light Works)

Dr. Thomas McIlraith knows about that last part. The chairman of the hospital medicine department for Mercy Medical Group, a large hospital medicine and multispecialty medical group in Sacramento, Calif., he’s also the lead singer and songwriter for The Remedies, a regionally popular five-member rock band that includes nephrologist Dr. David Pai playing bass and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dan Anderson, who is the band’s sound engineer.

“My experience has been that if I don’t have music in my life, the rest of my life doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s kind of a left-brain, right-brain balance. I find that when I fulfill that creative need, I have more energy for other things,” he said. “It feeds back on itself; it pays back in the inspiration and energy you have for patient care.”

He first noticed this in medical school at the University of Wisconsin in 1992, when he ran a 15-person band called The Arrhythmias. Scheduling practices, etc. in the era before e-mail was time-consuming. “I was worried that I’d flunk out, but that’s when I got my best grades,” he said.

Scheduling for The Remedies isn’t simple either, with three physicians on board plus drummer and geologist Greg Marquis, who is gone for long stretches in the field, and guitarist and recycling worker Walt Simmons. As the chairman of his department, Dr. McIlraith’s schedule consists of the leftovers after the other 55 hospitalists have claimed shifts to fill their schedules.

“I work a lot of nights, and then work some days, so it can be a little haphazard. Before our recent show, we went three weeks straight when we couldn’t manage to fit in a practice. Then we had two, and the show went great,” he said.

Dr. McIlraith (left) rocks with Walt Simmons (center) and Dr. David Pai. (Courtesy Sam Hayashi/Zuma Light Works)

Playing in the band is fun, but so is watching co-workers let loose at the shows. It’s a work-hard, play-hard thing. “We work very, very hard on very tough issues, and when we play, it’s nice to see these people cuttin’ loose and dancing. That’s very fulfilling for me,” he said.

The Remedies play mostly covers with some original tunes thrown in, including two that Dr. McIlraith wrote specifically about hospitalist work. “The Long Ride” recalls the early difficult days of establishing hospitalist medicine. McIlraith sings,

Switching back and forth between night and day

Getting’ no respect, never getting’ our way

Stood our ground and demanded a say

That’s why we’re all here today

The lyrics specifically call out the contributions of founding hospitalists Dr. Winthrop F. Whitcomb, Dr. John R. Nelson, and Dr. Laurence D. Wellikson, as well as the Society of Hospital Medicine itself:

Come together, stay strong, and SHM will help carry you on

Gonna do more than just get by

Who would have known it would be such a long ride

The CPOE Blues” is another original tune that physicians in many specialties might relate to, singing of the “joys” of computerized physician order entry:

Now, there are a few things I’ve come to hate

Like forgetting to click on “initiate”…

Everybody’s looking ’round for clues

On how they’re s’posed to deal with the CPOE blues

Dr. McIlraith’s roles don’t end with hospitalist and rock musician. He’s also a husband and father of two children. How does he juggle all this? Through the magic ingredient that every session on work-life balance emphasizes as a key factor: a supportive spouse.

His wife works at home as an investment manager and she handles much of the home care as well. “She really takes very good care of all of us,” he acknowledged. “I’m extraordinarily blessed in that regard.”

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Filed under Hospital and Critical Care Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Nephrology, Surgery, Uncategorized

Real World Full of Medical Ethics Challenges

There’s the ideal world, and then there’s the real world. Humans have a wonderful hubris in forever trying to get the twain to meet, and a necessary humility in examining ways that they don’t. That’s as true in medicine as anywhere else.

The Charter on Medical Professionalism, endorsed by the U.S. Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education and more than 130 professional groups worldwide, contains three fundamental principles: the primacy of patient welfare; respect for patient autonomy, and promotion of social justice. Who wouldn’t want that? A physician’s professional responsibility as spelled out in the charter entails honesty (including disclosure of medical error), patient confidentiality, maintaining trust by managing conflicts of interest, and much more.

Ben A. Rich, J.D., Ph.D. (SHERRY BOSCHERT/IMNG Medical Media)

Yet, more than 10% of 1,891 practicing U.S. physicians surveyed recently in seven specialities said that they had told adult patients or a minor’s parent or guardian something that was not true, Ben A. Rich, J.D., Ph.D. noted during a session on ethics at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

Results of the survey of physicians in internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, cardiology, general surgery, psychiatry, and anesthesiology also showed that 20% of physicians had not fully disclosed mistakes to patients out of fear of malpractice litigation.

More than 33% said they do not agree that physicians necessarily must disclose all serious medical errors to affected patients, or that it’s important to disclose to patients any financial relationships with drug and device manufacturers (Health Affairs 2012;31:383-391).

More than 25% of the physicians said they had revealed unauthorized information about a patient. More than 50% had described a prognosis to a patient more positively than the clinical facts warranted.

Women were more likely than men to practice consistently within the Charter on Medical Professionalism, as were physicians from racial and ethnic minorities, the survey found.

It’s comforting to note that a majority of physicians seem to adhere to the professional principles, and perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on those who admit their actions sometimes diverge from the ideals, said Dr. Rich, professor of medicine and director of the Bioethics Program at the University of California, Davis. The “messy facts” of real cases show the challenges that physicians face in trying to help patients while also respecting their autonomy while also being honest, etc.

One example: A published case of a 45-year-old licensed practical nurse whose license had been suspended due to her medical problems. She was being treated for migraine headaches by a psychiatric neurologist and was on gabapentin, topirimate, propranolol for prophylaxis, oxycodone for breakthrough headaches, and IM injections of meperidine and hydroxyzine for breakthrough pain. She signed a contract with her physician saying she would only take narcotic medications that he prescribed and would not seek painkillers from emergency departments (Nursing Journal 2007;29:35-40).

“She violated that contract repeatedly and with impunity and was becoming a `frequent flyer’ in the local E.D.s.,” Dr. Rich said. Her physician persuaded her to get inpatient treatment, but afterward she relapsed and continued E.D.-hopping in pursuit of pain meds. One local E.D. suggested to her physician that he be notified whenever she turned up in an E.D. Her physician suggested instead that the E.D. do what he had resorted to doing — injecting her with saline and telling her it’s meperidine.

Some E.D. physicians gave her medications just to get her out the door. Others refused to give her any narcotics for her pain because of her addiction and violations of her contract. All the healthcare providers in the medical group of one emergency department signed a letter to the patient telling her that if she came there for treatment, she would be evaluated and treated with non-narcotic medications recommended by her treating neurologist but she would no longer be given narcotics.

Which, if any, of these approaches pass ethical scrutiny? What would you do if you were her neurologist or saw her in pain in the emergency department?

The group that sent her a joint letter was “at least trying a collaborative approach and putting her on notice about how she would be treated if she continued to present there,” Dr. Rich said.

The lengthy Ethics Charter of the American Academy of Pain Medicine lists many physician duties, including this “intriguing” one, he noted: Any reports to law enforcement of attempts to acquire pain medications illegally should be based on confirmed firsthand information.

“Some of my colleagues at UC Davis are working on a manuscript right now where we’re finding it’s not as clear as one might hope” when deciding whether you have a duty to report a patient to law enforcement or a duty not to report to law enforcement because reporting the patient may infringe upon patient confidentially, not to mention potentially violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), he said.

The messiness of real life doesn’t diminish the importance of standards, it just reinforces the need for ideals to guide us as we muddle our way through the real world.

Dr. Rich has been a consultant to KOL, L.L.C.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Filed under Anesthesia and Analgesia, Cardiovascular Medicine, Clinical Psychiatry News, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Surgery, Uncategorized

Taking the QE? Do It PDQ!

Surgeons who delay taking the American Board of Surgery Qualifying Examination immediately after completing their residency in hopes of boning up on their skills may want to rethink the strategy.

A new analysis of 4,909 residents found that candidates who took the exam immediate after residency had an average first-time QE pass rate of 87%, compared with 57% for those who delayed 1 year and just 48% for those who delayed 2 years or more.

PATRICE WENDLING/Elsevier Global Medical News

“This idea of somehow thinking your results are going to improve if you wait a year is not borne out by the information we’ve shown,” study author and ABS associate executive director Dr. Mark Malangoni said in an interview.

While the study identified an association and not cause and effect, Dr. Malangoni and his colleagues suggest that poor performance is “most likely due to a deterioration of knowledge over time.”

That may not sit all that well with the average patient, who likes to think that physicians (like parents and even journalists) get smarter with experience.

Dr. Malangoni explained that one of two things may be going on. Roughly 80% of general surgery residents pursue a fellowship and focus on learning in a very narrow area. So, when they take the QE, which tests a very broad base of surgical knowledge, they may actually be forgetting things because of the narrow focus of their fellowships.

The second scenario is that the candidates start a practice, and the activities and stressors inherent in this new venture, may divert them from maintaining their knowledge base, he said.

Still others attending the recent Central Surgical Association meeting, where the study was presented, suggest that candidates who delay taking the QE may simply be poor learners or poor test takers.

Regression analysis, however, found that the effect was tempered but still significant after controlling for the candidate’s fund of knowledge using ABS In-Training Examination (ABSITE) scores. Undergraduate medical education and post-residency training also did not affect the results.

“There are a lot of reasons why someone might delay taking the examination and some of them are perfectly understandable,” Dr. Malangoni said. “I think the message we’d like to transmit to someone who’s thinking of delaying, is that if you’re able to adequately prepare for the examination, you should take it with that first opportunity right after completing residency because it appears, from what information we have, that that’s your greatest chance of being successful in passing the examination.”

By Patrice Wendling

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Do Trauma Patients Need An Aspirin?

Acute traumatic injury has been shown to produce a prothrombotic state that predisposes trauma patients to an increased risk of venous thromboembolic events. But are these patients also at increased risk for stroke?

Researchers at the University of Louisville report that trauma patients were 1.6 times more likely to develop a cerebrovascular accident (CVA) after admission than medical and surgical controls matched for known CVA risk factors such as age, hypertension, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, and tobacco use.

On logistic regression, trauma was the only significant risk factor for CVA between the two groups, Dr. Jason W. Smith reported at the recent meeting of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

By Patrice Wendling/Elsevier Global Medical News

Dr. Smith called for more studies concerning the etiology and management of post-traumatic hypercoagulability and suggested that “CVA prophylaxis may be warranted in select trauma patients.”

The analysis identified 64 strokes after admission among 7,633 trauma admissions from 2008-2010, for an overall CVA rate of 0.8%. Out of this group, 23 strokes were found to be related to TBI and blunt cervical vascular injury, leaving 41 patients with non-injury related CVA in the analysis. The medical/surgical controls included 14,121 patients obtained from the university’s hospital database over the same time period.

When compared with a second control group of 120 trauma patients matched for Injury Severity Score and mechanism of action, the 41 trauma-related CVA patients presented with significantly more stroke risk factors, including older age, pre-existing hypertension, diabetes, and tobacco use.

Their chance of placement in an extended care facility also skyrocketed from 28% to 81%, while mortality rates more than tripled from 7% in controls to 22% in the trauma-related CVA patients, Dr. Smith and his co-authors reported.

The one bright spot was that on follow-up in the medical/surgical analysis, trauma patients had higher six-month post-CVA functional assessment compared with the controls.

–Patrice Wendling

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Better Thyroidectomy Outcomes Seen by Mid-Career Surgeons

Surgeons aged 35-50 years tend to have fewer complications during thyroid removal surgery compared with their younger and older peers, results from a multicenter French study show.

Courtesy Flickr/buzzthrill/Creative Commons

The findings “suggest that a surgeon cannot achieve or maintain top performance passively by accumulating experience, which raises concerns about ongoing training and motivation throughout a career that extends several decades,” according to the study, which was published Jan. 11 in BMJ. “Solutions to help surgeons avoid poor outcomes could include simulation and proctoring in the early years of their careers, continuous monitoring of performance, and targeted retraining if appropriate. Individual feedback based on outcome indicators might increase awareness about performance and improve safety in surgical practice.”

The researchers, led by Dr. Antoine Duclos, assistant professor of public health at the University of Lyon, France, evaluated data from 3,574 thyroidectomies performed by 28 surgeons at five French hospitals between April 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009, (BMJ 2012 Jan. 11 [Epub doi:10.1136/bmj.d8041]). The main outcome measure was the presence of two permanent major complications 6 months following thyroid surgery: recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy or hypoparathyroidism.

The surgeons had a mean age of 41 years and had been in practice for a mean of 10 years. After adjusting for patient and surgeon variables, the researchers found that surgical experience of 20 years or more was the only factor significantly associated with an increased probability of recurrent laryngeal nerve palsy (odd ratio 3.06) and hypoparathyroidism (OR 7.56). They also observed what they described as a “concave association between surgeons’ experience and their case mix adjusted performance, suggesting that surgeons aged 35-50 years provided the safest care.”

The researchers acknowledged that other unknown or unexamined factors may explain part of the variation in patient complication rates, including the combination of manual and intellectual skills acquired during a surgeon’s academic and professional training. “Future studies should be conducted with larger populations of surgeons in various settings and other surgical specialties to corroborate the potential link between experience and performance,” they advised. “Since a cross sectional study might be inappropriate to resolve a dynamic phenomenon, a recommended design would be to follow a particular cohort of surgeons over time.”

— Doug Brunk (on Twitter@dougbrunk)

Image courtesy buzzthrill’s photostream

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Filed under Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, Family Medicine, Hospital and Critical Care Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Surgery, Uncategorized

New Questions on Lung Cancer Screening

Would you allow patients to self-refer for a CT lung cancer screening? Would you screen a never-smoker? What size nodule would trigger a follow-up exam? What is your lower age limit and lower pack-year limit for screening?

These are just a few of the questions tackled during an interactive lung cancer screening session at the recent Radiological Society of North America meeting, and that highlight the uncharted waters physicians face in the wake of the pivotal National Lung Screening Trial.

The NLST demonstrated a 20% reduction in lung cancer mortality when low-dose CT screening was used, compared to chest X-ray, among 53,000 asymptomatic current or former heavy smokers. However, CT produced more than three times the number of positive results and a higher false-positive rate than radiography.

Without a clear plan to manage abnormal findings or a firm handle on cost, policymakers and payors are hesitant to back reimbursement for widespread lung cancer screening. Results of the ongoing NLST cost-effectiveness analysis are expected early next year. Based on already published data, however, a crude back-of-the-envelope estimate puts the incremental cost-effectiveness ratio at $38,000 per life-year gained, NLST investigator Dr. William Black told attendees.

“That actually is a pretty good deal compared to a lot of things we do in medicine, and in fact most people would put the threshold for acceptability somewhere between $50,000 to $100,000 per life-year gained,” he said. “So it certainly is feasible”

Dr. Black pointed out that low-dose CT saved one lung cancer death per 346 persons screened in NLST, which again is very favorable compared to the rate of 1 per 2,000 patients for mammography.

Although the session provided just a small snapshot in time, audience responses suggest there is much work ahead. A full 77% of attendees were not using low-dose CT to screen for lung cancer and 72% reported not being familiar with the recently published National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines for lung cancer screening.

One-quarter of the audience had no lower age limit for screening, and 34% said they did not provide either decision support or obtain informed consent.

Dr. Caroline Chiles. Image by Patrice Wendling/Elsevier Global Medical News

Radiologist and NLST collaborator Dr. Caroline Chiles said informed consent in NLST helped prepare patients for the potential risks of a screen, the likelihood of a positive result and that a positive result didn’t mean they had lung cancer.

“It made a huge difference once they got that letter saying they had a positive screen, because at that point you don’t want everyone rushing out to a surgeon to get that nodule resected,” she added.

What attendees and panelists could agree on is the need for smoking cessation to be included in any future lung cancer CT screening program, with 60% of attendees saying they already do so.

Dr. Chiles pointed out that 16.6% of participants in the NELSON lung screening trial quit smoking compared with 3%-7% in the general public, but that participants were less likely to stay non-smokers. She also cited a recent MMWR that found 70% of adult smokers want to quit smoking, but only about half had been advised by a health professional to quit.

“We really have to think of lung cancer screening as being a teachable moment,” she said.

She suggested physicians visit www.smokefree.gov for help in guiding their patients. Dr. Black also noted that the NLST team is working on a lung cancer screening fact sheet for physicians and patients that will be ready in a few weeks and made available on the Internet.

—Patrice Wendling

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Filed under Cardiovascular Medicine, Family Medicine, Health Policy, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Oncology, Physician Reimbursement, Practice Trends, Pulmonary Diseases and Sleep Medicine, Radiology, Surgery, Thoracic Surgery