Beyond the White Coat

The modern physician-communicator


Forty years ago, the revered physician was a walking textbook able to recall vast amounts of information. Things have changed. A photographic memory is less valuable since Google was created. Medical knowledge has a much shorter shelf life. Specialization has become increasingly fragmented. The orthopedic surgeon who replaced my hip 5 years ago would not see me for a shoulder problem. He only does hips and knees. Ingrown toenails are referred to a podiatrist. Now the ideal physician is a team player able to communicate well with many other physicians and allied health care providers so that the patches of individual expertise combine to create a quilt that covers the patient’s needs. Poor communicators are like odd-shaped and frayed pieces of fabric that are hard to fit into the quilt.

Medical errors were identified by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1999 as a major cause of preventable deaths. What has become clear in research since then is that most of these errors are not caused by deficits in knowledge or to carelessness. They are partly because of communication skills and because of attitudes that impede collaborative comanagement. Errors are mostly systemic problems and should be addressed in that paradigm.

Since that first IOM report, several other areas have been identified as major causes of preventable deaths in hospitals. These problems include nosocomial infections, antibiotic stewardship, medication list reconciliation, overdiagnosis, and the handoff of care at discharge (N Engl J Med. 2014 Nov 6;371[19]:1803-12). The lack of a cure for Ebola is a minor problem, compared with these weaknesses in the hospital care system. Too much futile care and the delay of palliative care also are frequent problems, more so with adults than pediatrics. Pediatric hospitalists have been more focused on value (Pediatrics 2015 Aug 1. [doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-1549A]).

Most of these issues were never discussed in the pathophysiology courses of medical school. They are outside the biological sciences. As a result, it has become a major part of graduate Continuing Medical Education. The schedule for the recent Pediatric Hospital Medicine 2015 conference reflects this. The 830 attendees could choose from 12 simultaneous breakout sessions, but typically only 3 or 4 were primarily about clinical medicine. Quality improvement, education, research, and practice management made up the lion’s share of the topics.

This emphasis on systems is the core of hospital medicine. It isn’t about knowing which antibiotic is best for a given patient with a particular pneumonia because usually we don’t know the organism. It is about saying, “We will admit 300 patients with pneumonia to this hospital this year. What are best practices?” In pediatrics, many pneumonias will be viral. The vast majority of bacterial pneumonia will be pneumococcal. Staphylococcus aureus is involved in less than 1% and most of those cases present differently. So what criteria do we use to determine who gets narrow-spectrum antibiotics, who gets broad spectrum, who gets mycoplasma coverage, and who gets supportive care without unnecessary antibiotics? Practice guidelines for the provision of oxygen, intravenous fluids, and the use of continuous pulse oximetry monitoring each were covered in other presentations at the 2015 pediatric hospitalist meeting. More importantly, as Dr. Brian K. Alverson, director, division of pediatric hospital medicine, Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., explained, guidelines are meant to cover only 95% of patients. It is the job of the patient’s physician to decide whether that patient fits into the 95% or is one of the 5% who need customized, less evidence-based plans of care. Perhaps most importantly, the guidelines themselves are undergoing continuous quality improvement. The Infectious Diseases Society of American (IDSA) guidelines for pediatric community-acquired pneumonia were published just 4 years ago, but already have recommendations that are refuted by more recent research.

Author Robert Fulghum is right. Most of the lessons I learned in kindergarten are still applicable. Medical school – not so much.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at Dr. Powell said he had no relevant financial disclosures.

Recommended Reading

Caps on malpractice damages
MDedge Pediatrics
Last-minute ICD-10 help for docs who are lagging
MDedge Pediatrics
Ellmers’ bill seeks delay for Stage 3 meaningful use
MDedge Pediatrics
More lawsuits against doctors? Overpayment ruling could be bad news
MDedge Pediatrics
End-user agreements
MDedge Pediatrics