Blog | Friday, October 17, 2014

How can we make hand-offs a good thing?


Health care is actually a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job. People get sick even when we physicians are supposed to be sleeping or eating dinner or showering or brushing our teeth. Having care available all the time often saves lives and usually reduces suffering. In the U.S., we have that pretty well worked out. Everyone with a doctor has an after-hours number to call and if that fails or the problem is too big, there is always an emergency room or at least an ambulance or fire truck to whisk one away to where help is waiting.

One of the problems with our after-hours options is that a person is rarely seen by a doctor who knows them and is familiar with their medical history. It would be ideal for all of us to have rapid access to the doctor (or nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant) who has been with us for years and who knows what works, what doesn’t and who we can relate to and trust. Unfortunately that person has to sleep and eat dinner and sometimes even go on vacations. Most people run into the reality of seeing different doctors depending on who is available.

In my present profession, hospital medicine, I work for several days in a row taking care of a collection of patients who are in the hospital at that time. Most of them I don’t know. When I have days off, I tell another hospitalist about the patients I’ve been seeing and write a rather complete note. We discuss how I envisioned managing the patients’ medical problems, as I understand them and then I go, and Doctor Next takes the helm.

I always feel bad, at least a little bit, deserting my patients and leaving my physician partners with a job half finished, even though that is the nature of the job. But when I think about it, sometimes it is a really positive thing, and if I approach it that way it can be even more positive.

Not all hospitalist programs have “face to face sign-outs.” It is ideal to sit with the doctor who is assuming care of my patients and explain what is going on. That becomes impractical if there are too many patients and when I am not physically working at the same time as the physician assuming my patient’s care, like in places where there is a night shift physician. Telephone sign-outs are not bad, but are also impractical in a big hospitalist group where my 18 or 20 patients may go to several different doctors when I leave. A good sign-out, in person, from a good doctor is key to not being completely helpless on the first day of a set of shifts. Nevertheless, much can be gleaned from reading progress notes and reviewing labs and sometimes that’s all there is, since two minutes sign-out times 20 patients on a service equals 40 minutes, which is way too much time and still not enough detail to really be helpful.

In short, transitions of care are difficult, no matter how you slice it, and the more intensity that is put into the communication, from departing to starting doc, the better it is. But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. Sometimes when we treat patients we go off down a wrong path. We concentrate on one aspect of a history or a data point and head off enthusiastically, missing what is really going on. If the doctor who takes over when we go is attentive and not excessively busy, the patient gets another chance for us to get the right answer. If done right, every transition can be a second opinion.

In some of the hospitals where I did my residency training, they had these wild and woolly doctor free-for-alls called morbidity and mortality conferences. They were a chance to dissect all of the decisions and actions that contributed to a patient becoming sicker or dying under our care. They were not quite blood baths, but doctors did cry regularly as they were grilled on their reasoning by more senior physicians, resting in the certainty of 20-20 hindsight. Besides being confrontational and unpleasant, these were incredibly informative and it was hard to forget the lessons learned in that context. We rarely see these anymore, but I miss them. Instead, I try to keep track of situations where what my colleagues have done or have thought was going on turned out to be wrong, and to discuss it with them later. This can be tricky and needs to be done in a trusting relationship, with the understanding that they will do the same for me.

We have been discussing lately doing a small morbidity and mortality type meeting with the emergency physicians, who by necessity only see the beginning of a patient’s evaluation and frequently do not have the benefit of all of the data, and the hospitalists, like me, who receive and take care of the patients from the emergency room and eventually hear the end of the story. I suspect this will be really interesting and will not only improve our medical thinking but also help us work together better. It will be a little bit tricky finding a time when even a quorum could be present together because of our very different work schedules, but I’m looking forward giving it a try.

Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.