When physicians don’t communicate about their patients

One of the gripes that patients have about the medical profession is that we physicians don’t communicate sufficiently about our patients. In my view, this criticism is spot on.

Patients we see in the office often have several physicians participating in their care. The level of communication among us is variable. While electronic medical records (EMR) has the potential to facilitate communication between physicians’ offices and hospitals, the promise has not yet been realized. The physicians in our community, for example, all have different EMR systems which simply can’t talk to each other. We can access hospital data banks from our office, but this is cumbersome and burns up time. Ideally, there should be a universal system, an Esperanto approach where all of us utilize the same EMR language.

On the day I wrote this post, I participated in a direct conversation with the treating physician at the hospital bedside which vexed me. This scenario would seem to be ideal from the patient’s perspective. At the bedside were the attending physician, the gastroenterologist and the anesthesiologist who were conferring about the next appropriate diagnostic step in a patient who had experienced upper gastrointestinal (UGI) bleeding.

I was asked to evaluate this patient with UGI bleeding and to arrange an expeditious endoscopy to examine the esophagus and stomach region in order to identify a bleeding source. Hours prior to seeing the patient, I scheduled the procedure that I knew would be needed, a short cut that every gastroenterologist will do in order to be efficient. As the patient had other medical conditions, I requested that the sedation be administered by an anesthesiologist, rather than by me, to provide greater safety to the patient.

I arrived and became acquainted with the medical particulars. I agreed with the diagnosis of UGI bleeding and also that an endoscopy was the next logical step in this patient’s care. These observations are not sufficient, however, to proceed with the examination. There are other criteria that must be considered.

  • Does the procedure need to be done now?
  • Do the risks justify performing the procedure?
  • Has the patient provided informed consent for the procedure?

After I arrived on the scene, the anesthesiologist approached me and advised me that the anesthesia risks were extraordinarily high. He was concerned that performing the case could have a disastrous outcome. My reaction to his frank assessment? Thank you! The decision then fell to me to decide on whether to proceed. For me, this was an easy call. The patient did not need an endoscopy at that moment to save his life, the only reason that would justify subjecting him to the prohibitive risks of the procedure.

Before discussing this decision with the family, who were awaiting an endoscopy, I summoned the attending hospitalist to relate to him our revised plan. In my view, when an anesthesiologist and the gastroenterologist advise an attending doctor that it would be unsafe to proceed with a planned procedure, the response should be, “thank you!”

But, it wasn’t. This physician wanted the test and seemed irritated that the set diagnostic plans had been set aside. He wanted a diagnosis, and we declined to proceed after concluding that the risks exceeded the benefits. I was as comfortable with this medical decision as I have been with any other decision I had made in my career. On other cases, when a consultant advises me against a planned course of action for safety reasons, I am so grateful that a patient has been spared from danger.

We got to the right answer here, but had to set aside an unforeseen obstacle to get there. Communication means listening to another point of view and being able to change your mind. As a doctor, when it’s my finger is on the trigger, I call the shots.  I this case, a doctor misfired.

Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

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