Once again government regulators have put in place well-meaning rules without anticipating the consequences. We all hate sitting around in the emergency department waiting to be seen and to be treated. On October 15, 2014 as part of the new Affordable Health Care Act and the patient satisfaction portion, hospital ERs will have about 180 minutes from the time you arrive and sign in to evaluate you , treat you and make a disposition or decision. The game starts on October 15th but already hospital administrators have their systems operating to prepare to comply. If you fail to comply the hospital will be punished financially with fines and reductions in payments.
Take the case of L.H. who is 88-years-old, demented and lives with her loving and nurturing son in South Florida. She went to the beach with her son on a hot humid day in August with temperatures in the 90-degree range and humidity of almost 80% for a feels like temperature of 110 degrees. While she sat under an umbrella for several hours, the beers she drank to celebrate her birthday did not react well with her medications for dementia. She stood up and swooned to the ground and ended up in the ER. Labs, EKGs and chest x-rays were done and it was decided that she was dehydrated. She was given some fluids and sent home. Two days later a urine culture obtained at that visit became positive indicating an excessive number of bacteria and she was placed on an oral antibiotic for ten days.
Six days later she was still feeling weak and shaking when she stood up and moved about. Her son took her back to the ER concerned that she was having seizures. She was evaluated by the ER staff and noted to be running a fever. A chest x-ray was taken and was read as left lower lobe pneumonia by the radiologist without comparing it to her film six days prior. As I was finishing up with my last morning patient I received a phone call from the ER physician advising me that my patient was there with pneumonia and fever and required admission. He told me he had obtained blood and urine cultures and started her on Rocephin. I reminded him she was already on an antibiotic trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole for a urinary tract infection. I told him I could be there in about 30 minutes and asked him to keep her in the ER until I got there. He said that was fine. To meet the core measures need for a quick disposition I suggested that the patient be admitted to a medical floor on my service, be given a clear liquid diet and I would take care of the rest. He said that was fine.
In August, Boca Raton, Florida is a sleepy seasonal vacation town enjoying the offseason quiet with its two colleges and seasonal visitors off on holiday. Restaurants are never full. There are no lines at the movies. There are few if any traffic jams and beds are readily available in the hospital. The hospital is usually 1/3 to 1/2 full at best. Our brand new emergency room is bright, wonderfully equipped with digital and manual blood pressure cuffs, otoscopes and opthalmoscopes at each bedside in marked contrast to the paucity of them on the hospital inpatient floors. It is always easier to be thorough and complete in your exam in the emergency department where you are not wasting time looking for equipment to examine the patient.
I arrived at the ER in 40 minutes and was met by the icy stare of the staff nurse who said, “She has a bed upstairs can I send her?” My response was, “Not until I have a chance to take a history from her and her son and examine her.” While I was taking the history and doing the exam my cell phone went off. It was another physician in the ER department calling to talk to me about another patient who was in the department having been sent there by his surgical specialty physician who had just examined him in his office for a problem. I excused myself and walked toward another section of the ER when my patients nurse asked, “Are you finished can I send her up?” I again declined and informed her that Dr. L in the urgent care session wished to talk to me about a patient now and I would be back. My patient was not critically ill. Antibiotics, food and fluids had been ordered. Taking a short break to speak to the other ER doctor would not jeopardize her care or safety.
I returned 10 minutes later to learn that the nurse had called the nurse practitioner working with the hospitalist service and she had written admitting orders in my absence to speed the process along the way. In the hospital’s view the most important issues were to move the patients along, get the medication reconciliation form filled out and get the form on preventing phlebitis and use of anticoagulants filled out so they can meet their core measures goals. I went into the patient and son, completed my exam, explained my findings and disappeared into the physician computer room to enter orders, dictate the admission summary after I had reviewed the nurse practitioner’s orders, reviewed the chest x-ray and all the lab data. The computerized orders revealed the patient had been admitted to a medical floor, on antibiotics, on heparin for phlebitis and pulmonary embolus protection. They had missed the fact that the patient had executed a do-not-resuscitate form and her son had brought it with him. This was not recorded in the orders.
They had also missed the fact that the pneumonia or left lower lobe consolidation they diagnosed was the same on the x-ray from 6 days prior and another from one year prior. I walked over to the radiology reading room and pointed this out to the radiologist who said what was being called a pneumonia was actually an innocent long standing hiatal hernia appearing behind the heart on x-ray. Despite not having pneumonia, the patient was sick, weak, and febrile and needed admission to sort it out. I sat down at the computer and spent thirty minutes on the orders and admission notes and then spoke to the patient and family. At that point I allowed the ER nurse to call the transporter and bring the patient up to the floor. The nurse literally scowled at me and told me I was violating their core measures policy and their director would not be happy and would want to talk to me. I told her I had another patient to see and that if her director wanted to talk to me they knew where to find me since I have been on staff for 35 years.
I reminded her core measures criteria did not officially start for three more months and that with an empty ER she needed to take a deep breath, count to ten slowly and relax. My comments were not appreciated.
Steven Reznick is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at Boca Raton Concierge Doctor.