Admitting diagnosis: old guy, don’t know

I wrote this in 2010, after I worked for three months at Madigan Army Hospital. I really enjoyed working there. It was the first time since residency that I had worked in a big hospital — 450 beds — and in a not rural setting. I kept asking to work with residents and eventually the Captain and I worked it out to both our satisfactions.

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During my three months temp job at a nearby Army Hospital, I am asked to help the Family Medicine Inpatient Team (FMIT) whenever a faculty member is sick or out or deployed, which turns out to be fairly often. I enjoy this because I want to work with residents, Family Practice doctors in training. It is very interesting to be at a training program, watch the other faculty and work at a 400 bed hospital instead of my usual 25 bed one.

Two patients need to be admitted at the same time on our call day, so the second year resident takes one and I take the other. The report on mine is an 82 year old male veteran, coughing for three weeks, emergency room diagnosis is pneumonia.

The resident soon catches up with me because her person is too sick and gets diverted to the ICU. Mr. T, our gentleman, is a vague historian. He says that he has always coughed since he quit smoking 15 years ago and he can’t really describe his problem. He’d gotten up at 4:30 to walk around the assisted living; that is normal for him because he still does some o the maintenance. He had either felt bad then or after going back to sleep in a chair and waking at 10. “I didn’t feel good. I knew I shouldn’t drive.”

He’s had a heart attack in the past and heart bypass surgery. Records are vague. The radiologist reads the chest xrays essentially as, “Looks just like the one 3 months ago but we can’t guarantee that there isn’t a pneumonia or something in there.” He has a slightly elevated white blood cell count, no fever, and by then I do a Mini-mental status exam. He scores 22 out of 30. That could mean right on the edge of moderate dementia, or it could be delirium. I get his permission to call his wife.

“Oh, his memory has been bad since he spent a year in a chair telling them not to amputate his toes. And he was on antibiotics the whole time. He wasn’t the same after that. This morning he just said he didn’t feel right and that he shouldn’t drive.” So his wife called an ambulance.

The third year chief resident comes by and wants to know the admitting diagnosis. “Old guy, don’t know.” is my reply. “Either pneumonia or a urinary tract infection or a heart attack maybe with delirium or dementia or both.

The second year is helping me put in the computer orders, because I am terrible at it still. She could put them in upside down and asleep. “Why are we admitting him, anyhow? We can’t really find anything wrong, why not just send him home?”

“We can’t send him home because he can’t tell us what’s wrong. He might have an infection but he might not, and he has a really bad heart. If we send him home and he has a heart attack tonight, we would feel really bad. And he might die.”

I was getting a cold. I had planned to ask to work a half day but half the team was out sick so I just worked. But by morning I had no voice and felt awful. I call in sick.

At noon the phone rings. It is the second year. “You know Mr. T, who we admitted last night?”

“Yes,” I say.

“He had that heart attack during the night. Got taken to the cath lab. You made me look really good.” We had worked on the assumption that it could be early in a heart attack though the first labs and the ECG were negative. I had insisted on cardiac monitoring and repeating the enzymes. The resident had finished the note after I left and the night team had gotten the second and abnormal set of enzymes.

82 year olds are tricky. With some memory loss he couldn’t tell us much except that “I don’t feel right.” He was right not to drive and we were right to keep him in the hospital. And if it had all been normal in the morning, I still would not have felt bad about it. The residents are looking for a definitive diagnosis, but sometimes it’s “Old guy, don’t know,” until you do know.

Why is she really here?

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: object. I strenuously and loudly object to medicine meaning pills.

During my three months temp job at a nearby Army Hospital in 2010, I wanted to work with residents, Family Practice doctors in training. I finished residency in 1996 and have worked in rural clinics and hospitals for 14 years. I want more rural family practice doctors and I agitated to work with the residents in training.

The Family Practice Department had actually hired me to do clinic. They are swamped and trying to hire temporary and permanent providers as quickly as they can. Six different temp companies called me about the same job, so the word is definitely out.

Initially the department head explained that I was there to do clinic, but she changed her mind. I was cheerful about the electronic medical records. Learning a new electronic medical record is awful, but I was happy to be there, excited about working with residents and in a hospital more than 16 times as big as my usual small town hospital. Most importantly, I was patient with the computer. I have finally realized that computers don’t actually speak English. They speak computer and they are dumb as rocks and they make no effort to understand what I am saying. They don’t care. So it is no use getting mad at the dumb thing when it crashes or when it doesn’t do what I want: I have to go find someone who knows the exact language that the stupid machine will understand.

Since I was cheerful, my department head let me do what I want. I was on the clinic schedule every day, but it was empty. I would arrive and see walk-in active duty people from 6:30 to 8:00. At the same time, I would email the department head and ask what I was doing that day. Half the time, a physician was sick or had a family crisis, so she would move people around and put me with the residents. If not, I would open clinic.

I enjoyed the “Attending Room” duty. Family Practice Residents have their MD but then go through three years of training. The first year residents must precept every clinic patient. That is, they see the person and then come discuss the case with the faculty. Second year residents were required to precept two patients per half day and third year residents had to do one; and all obstetric cases were precepted.

Back when I was in residency and the dinosaurs roamed the earth, no one ever read any of my notes. This has changed. Every note that is precepted must be read by the attending and co-signed. After three years hating the electronic medical record that my small hospital bought, it was very interesting to see a different system. In some ways it was better and in some worse.

We had one or two “Attendings” in the faculty room, no more than three residents per attending. One case stands out, more because of the resident than the patient. He was a first year.

He described an elderly woman in her 80s, there for headaches. Two weeks of headaches, getting a bit worse. History of present illness, past medical history, medicines, allergies, family history, social history and the physical exam. He said, “She’s tried tylonol and ibuprofen, but they aren’t helping that much.” He frowned. “She doesn’t seem to want another medicine.”

“No?” I said.

“No.” he said. “I started to talk about medicines. It doesn’t sound like migraines and she doesn’t have anything that’s really worrisome for a tumor……but she doesn’t seem to want a headache medicine.”

“Why is she really here?”

He looked more confused. “What do you mean?”

“Why is she really here?”

“I don’t know.”

“You already said why. Think about the history.” He frowned. I said, “Ok, you said that she was worried that she was going to have a stroke. Are these headaches likely to be a precursor of a stroke?”

“No.”

“Right. But that is why she’s here, because that is what she’s worried about. Look at her blood pressure, see what her last cholesterol was, talk to her about what symptoms ARE worrisome for strokes. Find out if a family member or friend has had a recent stroke. She doesn’t need a medicine. She is here for reassurance.”

“Oh.” he said. He left and came back.

“How did it go?”

“She was happy. She didn’t want a medicine. Her blood pressure is great, her cholesterol is great, we talked about strokes and she left.”

“That’s real medicine. Forget the diagnosis if the visit seems confusing. Ask yourself what is your patient worried about? What are they afraid of? Don’t focus on giving people medicine all the time. Ask yourself, why are they really here?”

And that is why I wanted to work with residents. It’s not all diagnosis and treatment. It is people and thinking about what they want and what they are worried about.

Why is she really here?

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previously published on everything2.com
According to dictionary.com, precept is a noun. Medical school and residency have verbed it. Hey, get updated, dictionary.com!