Templates and the death of medicine

One of the many problems that are killing medicine in the US and especially primary care is templates.

Templates are a nightmare.

Why?

In a template, for back pain, there is a list of questions and in some there is also a list of answers. The “provider” asks the questions on the list and then checks off the answers. This is absolutely terrible brainless stupid failure of medicine. Because the most important answer that the patient gives is the one that does not fit the routine pattern of back pain or ear pain.

For example, I saw a woman for a new patient visit for back pain. Years ago. Half way through the questions about back pain I say, “How long have you been hoarse?”

She stops. She has to think about it. “Three months.”

“Continuously or does it come and go?”

Again, thought. “Continuously.”

On with the back pain. But she gets TWO referrals, one to an otolaryngologist. I ask other voice and throat questions.

When she returns she thanks me. Continuous hoarseness is worrisome for vocal cord cancer. You have to rule it out. She did not have vocal cord cancer. She did have vocal cord polyps and was going to have laser surgery.

But as a physician or “provider” you have to PAY ATTENTION. And ignoring the thing that doesn’t “fit” or isn’t relevant or isn’t on the god damned template — just don’t do it.

Another new patient. Back pain. Routine, routine, routine, one in four people get it in their lives. All the questions indicating that it’s musculoskeletal, not a disc, 99% are not discs, until:

“Sometimes my leg goes numb from the knee down.”

I stop. “How often? The whole leg?”

“Whole leg, yes.” She doesn’t know how often.

“If that happens I want to see you right away. Call.”

…because that is not a disc and it’s not musculoskeletal. And people say that but usually it can’t be confirmed on exam.

She calls. “Both legs are numb from the knee down.”

“Get in here.”

On exam she is not only numb but the muscles of her feet and ankles are weak and the reflexes don’t work right. I call neurology, anxious. “MRI from her head to her tailbone.”

She has multiple sclerosis lesions, more than one, in her brain. And a normal brain MRI from a few years before when she also had weird symptoms….

So it is NOT the template, the routine questions, that diagnose odd things in medicine. It’s the off hand comment, the puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, the symptom or sign that I notice and that gets my attention.

I hate the templates when we first get an electronic medical system. It sucks. It generates unreadable generic sentences: “The patient has ear pain. The quality of the ear pain is sharp. The ear pain has gone on for 6 weeks. The level of the ear pain is high.” Etc. Ok, that patient sounds like a robot. I quickly figure out how to type into the stupid boxes and avoid the templates as much as possible. I also start offering additions to the templates. “Ok, add this to quality of ear pain: It feels like being kicked over and over with the metal pointed tip of a cowboy boot.” Also to tachycardia: “It feels like a salmon is swimming upstream in my chest.”

See patients for one thing only. That would have really helped the hoarse woman, right?  Do the template. Do 10, 15, or 20 minute visits. The best doctors are rebelling and quitting, especially in primary care, because this is killing medicine. Why see people for one thing only? MONEY. MONEY MONEY MONEY. No. I like to work in medicine and I like to dig down, pay attention, listen and watch for the little details that stick out, the puzzle pieces that don’t fit….

….because that is what real medicine is. Not template robot medicine.

5 thoughts on “Templates and the death of medicine

  1. One time I went for possible depression. The doctor handed me a handheld electronic contraption and left to go see another patient. It asked me a series of questions, i clicked my answers, moving through the “template.” Later the doctor came in with a print out, offered me a choice of one of three anti-depressants. Wrote the script for my choice and that was that.

    Turns out I am bi-polar and the anti-depressants sent my through the stratosphere.

    • drkottaway says:

      Ugh. No discussion or thought or trying to get to know you at all? Most of the time when I talk to people about being depressed they have a family crisis going on and some good reasons for feeling upset. When we get around to medicine, at least half say, well, let me wait and see. That is with new folks… there are definitely chronically depressed people. I am sorry you went through that.

      • Came to see it as an opportunity for a learning experience, one has to be one’s own advocate. Go in prepared, ask questions. Must add my most recent experiences both with a psychiatrist and nurse practitioner were really positive. One just can’t go in assuming the one in the white coat is going to be engaged and focused.

      • drkottaway says:

        Hooray, you met some good ones…..medicine is a messy pressure cooker right now. We are losing docs here so fast that we can’t absorb the patients from the ones who have left….

      • drkottaway says:

        …I am a sopping sponge, heh….

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