how doctors think, a dual pathway

A friend calls today and says that another person is bleeding and yet they have been set up to be seen Monday. Why isn’t this an emergency?

Based on the limited information the friend tells me, I agree with the doctors. It is NOT an emergency and I explain why. It is uncomfortable for the person because it may be cancer. Why is that not an emergency?

Let’s use chest pain in the emergency room as an example. Doctors have two brain tracks that are triggered simultaneously by every patient. The first one is “What could kill this person in the next five minutes?” The second is “What is common?” Common things are common and more likely. In medical school the really rare things are nicknamed zebras. You know there are a lot of horses but you can’t miss the zebra. I suppose that in Africa the common things are zebras and the rare ones are orcas or something like that.

Anyhow, the killers for chest pain are heart attacks, sudden death. But there could also be a dissecting aortic aneurysm, where the largest artery in the body is tearing. That person can bleed to death really really fast and that is a surgical emergency. No doctor wants to miss it. There could be a pulmonary embolism, a clot blocking the lung. Chest pain could be from a cancer. A very rare chest pain is from the valve leaflets in the heart tearing so that the person goes in to flash pulmonary edema. And there is Takayasu’s Arteritis, “broken heart syndrome”, where the heart suddenly balloons in size and again, heart failure ensues. Heart failure is actually pump failure, so fluid backs up in the lungs or the legs or both. It is usually slow but rarely very fast and dramatic. A collapsed lung can also cause a lot of pain. And my list is still not complete, I haven’t mentioned pericarditis or myocarditis or a compression fracture.

The common things do include heart attacks, but also anxiety, musculoskeletal problems, inflamed cartilage of the chest wall, fibromyalgia flares, broken ribs, trauma and other things. I was very puzzled in clinic by a woman with pain on both sides of her lower chest wall. In front but cutting through her chest. I ruled out many things. I thought that it was her diaphragm. I sent her to a rehab doctor for help. The rehab doctor sent her to radiology. She had a compression fracture of her spine and the nerves were sending pain messages on both sides. That was not even on my “differential diagnosis” list, because she had no back pain at all. My list changed that day.

Physicians and nurse practitioners and physicians assistants and registered nurses and licensed practical nurses and medical assistants are all trained to think of this differential diagnosis. We are alerted by the history and have to think down both pathways. Last year working as a temporary doctor, the medical assistant came to me saying, “This patient’s blood pressure is 80/60.” “Is he conscious?” I asked, as I went straight for the room. “Yes, he’s talking.” He WAS talking, which means that he’s gotten to 80/60 slowly or is used to it. His heart rate was fast, up near 120. I immediately had him drink water and keep drinking, as soon as he denied chest pain. The problem was dehydration: he was developmentally delayed and had only had one cup of fluid that day and it was now midafternoon. I spent time explaining that he needed 8 cups each day. Not more than that, because if he had too much fluid, it would lower his sodium and make his muscles weak. Most days he drank 3-4 cups. His chart graphed the problem: some days he had normal blood pressure and a normal heart rate. Other days his blood pressure was below normal and his heart rate was fast, his heart trying to make up for the low level of fluid. Cars don’t do so well when there is almost no oil, do they? His kidneys were affected as well. I asked him to drink the 8 cups a day, discussed the size of the cup (not 8 gallons, please) and then recheck labs in 2 weeks. If his kidneys did not improve, he would need a kidney specialist. It turned out that he had nearly fainted that morning in the waiting room. His group home person admitted that no one had noticed that he really was not drinking fluid. I thought that the patient understood and would try to drink a better amount of fluid.

So back to the person I was called about. Infection has been ruled out. This is blood in the urine. A kidney stone has been ruled out, but there is something in the kidney. This is urgent, but if the person is not bleeding hard, it is not emergent. When there is blood in the urine it does not take very much to turn it red. If there is a lot of blood, that can be an emergency, but from the story I got third person, it’s not very much. The emergency things are ruled out but there is still not a clear diagnosis. Yes, cancer is one of the possibilities but it could also be benign. Now a specialist is needed to figure out the next step and the differential diagnosis, the list of things it could be. They will order tests in the same dual order: what could kill this person quickly and what do we need to rule out as common? People often can be very anxious during this period, which is normal. The person says, “I don’t care what it ISN’T, I want to know what it IS.” But sometimes it is a zebra and it takes a while to get to that specific test.

Another example is a woman that I sent to the eye doctor. The optometrist thought it was something rare and bad. He sent her to the opthamologist, who ruled out the first thing, but thought it was something else rare and bad. He sent her to a retinal specialist. The retinal specialist ruled out the second rare and bad thing and said, “No, you have something very rare that is benign.” My patient said, “I have three diagnoses. Who do I believe?” I replied, “No, you have one. The optometrist knew it was unusual and sent you to an eye doctor. The eye doctor know it was unusual and sent you to an even more specialized eye doctor (a “sub specialist”. We keep them in basements.) Now you have a diagnosis. It was a scary process, but I think you should focus on the third opinion because hey, she said it’s benign and it won’t hurt you! That is the best outcome!” She thought about it and agreed. The process was frightening but the conclusion could not have been better.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: disquieting.

Local art

I took a photograph yesterday of a large chalkboard outside a coffee shop downtown. Isn’t it fabulous and creative? And she has a website, here:

Now you can name another woman artist, who does chalk pastels and gorgeous water colors.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: creativity. My photograph of her chalk art and my blog!

how to use a specialist

I am a rural Family Medicine doctor, board certified and board eligible. I have used the Telemedicine groups in the nearest big University Hospital since 2010.

Initially I started with the Addiction Telemedicine. I accidentally became the only physician in my county prescribing buprenorphine for opioid overuse in 2010. I panicked when I started getting calls. Dr. Merrill from UW had taught the course and gave me his pager number. I acquired 30 patients in three weeks, because the only other provider was suddenly unavailable. Dr. Merrill talked me through that 21 day trial by fire.

I think that I presented at least 20 patients to telemedicine the first year. The telemedicine took an hour and a half. First was a continuing medical education talk on some aspect of “overuse”, aka addiction, and then different doctors would present cases. We had to fill out a form and send it in. It had the gender and year of birth, but was not otherwise supposed to identify the person. TeleAddiction had a panel, consisting of Dr. Merrill (addiction), a psychiatrist, the moderator/pain doctor, and a physiatrist. Physiatrists are the doctor version of a physical therapist. They are the experts in trying to get people the best equipment and function after being blown up in the military or after a terrible car wreck or with multiple sclerosis. There would usually be a fifth guest specialist, often the presenter.

After a while, TeleAddiction got rolled into Telepain and changed days. They added other groups: one for psychiatry, one for HIV and one for hepatitis C. These can all overlap. I mostly attend TelePain and TelePsychiatry.

After a while, I pretty much know what the Telepain specialists are going to advise. So why would I present a patient at that point? Ah, good question. I use Telepain for the weight of authority. I would present a patient when the patient was refusing to follow my recommendations. I would present to Telepain, usually with a very good idea of what the recommendations would be. The team would each speak and fax me a hard copy. I would present this to the patient. Not one physician, and a rural primary care doctor, but five: I was backed up by four specialists. My patients still have a choice. They can negotiate and they always have the right to switch to another doctor. Some do, some don’t.

I am a specialist too. Family Practice is a specialty requiring a three year residency. The general practitioners used to go into practice after one year of internship. My residency was at OHSU in Portland, with rotations through multiple other specialties. We rotated through the high risk obstetrics group, alternating call with the obstetrics residents, which gave me excellent training for doing rural obstetrics and knowing when to call the high risk perinatologist. In my first job I was four hours by fixed wing from the nearest more comprehensive obstetrics, so we really had to think ahead. No helicopter, the distance was too far and over a 9000 foot pass, in all four directions. That was rather exciting as well.

Patient Satisfaction Score

The latest issue of Family Practice Medicine has an article on patient satisfaction scores.

I remember my first patient satisfaction score VIVIDLY.

I am in my first family medicine job in Alamosa, Colorado. I receive a 21 page handout with multiple graphs about my patient satisfaction scores. I am horrified because I score 30% overall. I am more horrified by the score than the information that I will not receive the bonus.

I go to my PA (physician’s assistant). He too has scored 30%. We are clearly complete failures as medical providers.

Then I go to my partner who has been there for over 20 years.

She snorts. “Look at the number of patients.”

“What?” I say. I look.

My score is based on interviews with three patients. Yes, you read that correctly. THREE PEOPLE.

And I have 21 pages of graphs in color based on three people.

I am annoyed and creative. I talk to the Physicians Assistant and we plan. I call the CFO.

“My PA and I think we should resign.”

“What? Why?”

“We scored 30% on the patient satisfaction. We have never scored that low on anything in our lives before. We are failures as medical people. We are going to go work for the post office.”

“NO! It’s not that important! It is only three patients! You are not failures!”

“Three patients?” I ask.

“Yes, just three.”

“And you based a bonus on three patients? And sent me 21 pages of colored graphs based on three patients?”


“I think we should discuss the bonus further….”

I did not get the bonus. It was a total set up and I am not sure that ANYONE got that bonus. Much of the maximum “earning potential” advertised was impossible for any one person to get. You would have to work around the clock. They got out of paying us by having multiple bonuses that each required a lot of extra work…. They were experts in cheating the employed physicians. That became pretty clear and I was 5th senior physician out of 15 in two years, because ten physicians got right out of there. I lasted three years, barely. I knew I would not last when an excellent partner refused her second year of $50,000 in federal rural underserved loan repayment to quit AND stayed in the Valley working in the emergency room. I called the CEO: “Doesn’t this get your attention?”

“She just didn’t fit in.”

“Yes, well, I don’t think anyone will.” I asked my senior partner how she stayed. “You pick your turf and you guard it!” said my partner. I thought, you know, I hope that medicine is not that grim everywhere.

Unfortunately I think that it IS that grim and getting grimmer. Remember that in the end, it is we the people who vote who control the US medical system. If we vote to privatize Medicare, we will destroy it. Right now 1 in 5 doctors and 1 in 4 nurses want to leave medicine. Covid-19 has accelerated the destruction of the US medical non-system, as my fellow Mad as Hell Doctor calls it. We need Medicare for all, a shut down of US health insurance companies, and to have money going to healthcare rather than to paying employees $100,000 or more per year to try to get prior authorizations from over 500 different insurance companies all with different rules, multiple insurance plans and different computer websites. Right now I have specialists in four different local systems. The only person who has read everyone’s clinic notes is ME because it is nearly impossible to get them to communicate with each other. Two of them use the EPIC electronic medical record but consider the patient information “proprietary” and I have to call to get them to release the notes to each other. Is this something that we think helps people’s health? I don’t think so. I have trouble with the system in spite of being a physician and I HATE going to my local healthcare organization. Vote the system down and tell your congresspeople that you too want Medicare For All and single payer.

Physicians for a National Healthcare Program:

Healthcare Now:

I have had people say, but think of all the people out of work when we shut down insurance companies. Yes AND think of the freedom to start small businesses if we no longer have to fear the huge cost of insurance: Medicare for all!

G is for greenish blue

G for greenish blue. I am blogging A to Z about artists, particularly women artists and mostly about my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway.

Greenish blue is a stretch, but this is a blue crab. They are greenish blue. I wrote the poem and my mother did the etching. I was thinking of a cooked crab, but H. Ottaway did a live crab. I went with her to the crab restaurant, where she explained that we wanted one live crab. “One live crab?” said the restaurateur. “Yes, one live crab.” The owner shook her head, but sold us one live crab.

At home, my mother got the crab out and put it on the floor. The cat was intrigued. The crab was NOT happy. I took photographs of her drawing the crab and making the etching. Apologies for the reflections but I am not at home, so I can’t retake these!

Three photographs: Helen Ottaway drawing a blue crab on the floor, the crab and Helen running an etching on the press.

You can see the crab and her drawing it, as well as the etching press. I took the photographs in the mid 1980s.

Our poem/etching collaboration was a delight! She said that she would illustrate poems as long as they rhymed. “No free verse,” she said. “I don’t like it.” So, the poems had to rhyme. We did ten different ones. I am so glad that we did, since we didn’t have nearly enough time together!

ATOZBLOGGINGCHALLENGE2022 #art #Women artists #Helen Burling Ottaway #ATOZCHALLENGE

within normal limits

I think doctoring makes one cynical. Or at least messes up the scale of normal.

Maybe there are Marcus Welby docs out there, but I don’t know any. Doctoring messes up one’s scale. A wound is compared to black horrifying gangrene to the knee, pain is compared to screaming delirium tremens or full thickness burns or heroin withdrawal, one in four adults can be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder at some time in their life…. so then, what is normal?

What is normal for relationships? How many deeply happy marriages do you know? If half end in divorce, what are the odds?

Where is the line in love? Where is the line between loving the other person no matter what and wait, that is domestic violence. Where is the line for abuse? Do people agree on it?

No. They do not. What I think is behavior that is frightening may be normal behavior to my partner. Is it ok to drink until one is drunk? I don’t want to be around it. I saw enough of that shit at work. I deal with addiction daily. If someone wants to get drunk, they can choose to do that. But not around me. And no, I don’t want to date them. And if they are working themselves to death, is that ok? Well, I might be a tad hypersensitive to that, since I nearly managed that myself. So I don’t want to be around that either. That might be viewed as noble self-sacrifice. But at work, I see the caregiver die before the recipient of the care, all too often. Especially in older couples, where neither one wants to let anyone in the house to help….

….but then, some people do hear me. A woman thanked me last year for saying she should quit covering for her husband. She was afraid, but backed off. He is able to do more than she expected and he also is more respectful and kind to her. She thanked me and I got all shy and tongue-tied.

My definition of love is listening. Someone who listens and hears and lets me listen and hear. When each person can say what they are thinking and feeling and wanting and worried about…. because if only one person is speaking, if only one person is determining what the relationship is, it is not a relationship.

Take down

This is a beautiful living cedar.

Unfortunately, the trunk, twenty feet high, had split in half in high winds. So now it was a very dangerous very tall living cedar that is going to come down and is right next to a house.

An expert was consulted. He said the tree could not be taken down intact. Each of the four tall trunks would have to come down individually. This is terribly dangerous, because felling trees is dangerous enough, but when you are up IN the tree, it is worse.

Gear for the take down.

There are four men and me. I am there with a camera. I do not help at all, I just try to stay well out of the way.

I am filming with a zoom lens from a nearby hill. They are trying to control the direction of the fall. Not on me or the house or any of them.
One down, three to go. When the top starts falling, it accelerates very quickly and crashes. He is trying to stay out of the way.
Going up to attach the cable high up to guide the fall direction.
Way up.
The falls take out smaller trees, but are controlled. It is raining.
Two trunks left.
Studying trunk three.
One left.
The last one is down. The trunk is still alive, with the split.
A closer view of the split trunk.

When the last trunk fell, it swung towards me and they shouted “Run!” It had slipped of the trunk and can’t be controlled as well even though there was a cable and a machine pulling in the desired direction. I ran and I am still here, thankfully.

Clean up on another day and the cedar goes to the sawmill.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: WAR. I wish we were all just working and there was no war.

No names or faces, because you know, those loggers are shy and wild, right?


This is one of the ten poems that my mother made etchings for, the year I was just done with college. 1983-4. I wanted to write, but had no idea what to do with the poems that I was writing. My mother Helen Burling Ottaway had done a series of etchings with a family friend’s poems, so I asked if she would do the same with me. She said, “Yes, on one condition.” “What is that?” “They have to rhyme.” She did not like the free verse. Almost all of the poems were about animals, except for one about my sister. Another friend printed the poems on a lead type press and then my mother worked on editions numbered 1-50 of each, inking the plate separately for each one. This one is number 5/50. You can see the imprint of the plate on the paper in the photograph.

If I could be anything
I’ll tell you what I’d like to be
One of those small green frogs
That sails from tree to tree

These frogs can jump, they have no laps
They are not birds with wings
the have parachutes between their toes
And I am sure that they can sing

They spread their toes and jump so high
To float like snowflakes in the air
Frogs fall like rain from clear blue skies
It must be nice up there

Why they jump I do not know
Maybe escaping hungry eyes
Perhaps to catch a tender bug
Or they just like to fly

If I could be anything
I’ll tell you what I’d like to be
One of those small green frogs
That sails from tree to tree.

What I learned from my first doctor job

When I started my first job, I had a nurse and a receptionist within a bigger clinic, all primary care. Fresh out of residency. One month in I asked to meet with my nurse and the receptionist.

The receptionist brought the office manager. I was surprised, but ok.

I started the meeting. “I am having trouble keeping up with 18-20 patients with fat charts that I have never seen before, but I think I am getting a little better at it. What sort of complaints are you hearing and how can we make it smoother?”

The office manager and the receptionist exchanged a look. Then the office manager excused herself.

Weird, I thought.

The three of us talked about the patients and the flow and me trying to keep up. About one third were Spanish speaking only and I needed my nurse to translate. That tended to gum things up a bit, because she could not be rooming another patient or giving a child vaccinations.

I thanked them both and the meeting broke up.

Later I found that the office manager had been brought in because another doctor tended to manage by yelling and throwing things. And another doctor had tantrums. So the receptionist was afraid of me and had asked the office manager to stay. The moment they realized that it was collaborative and I was asking for feedback and help, the receptionist was fine without the office manager.

That was an interesting lesson on working with people. I had been very collaborative with the nurses and unit secretaries in residency. As a chief resident, I told my Family Practice residents to treat the nurses and unit secretaries and in fact everyone, like gold. “They know more than you do and if you take care of them, they will save your ass!” The unit secretaries would go out of their way to call me in residency. “Mr. Smith is not getting that ultrasound today.”

“Shit. Why not? What the hell?” I would go roaring off to radiology to see what the hold up was.

The unit secretaries did not help the arrogant residents who treated them like dirt.

I thought it takes a team. I can’t do my work without the nurse, the pharmacist, the unit secretary, the laundry, the cafeteria workers, the administration. It takes the whole team. I value all of them.