Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Archive for December, 2011

An Epic Adventure: Introduction

I am about to be forced to use the EMR abomination know as “Epic” in order to continue to perform surgery at a particular institution, one where I spend ~10% of my clinical time. My work there is very profitable for the institution; I am not paid by the institution. At present my administrative load is 2X what it was 5 years ago, but the majority is borne by my staff. Once I am required to use their EHR my administrative load will increase at least 20X and I will bear all of it.

Why? My forms are standardized and fulfilling my part of the administrative load presently requires approximately 8 signatures for each case. 8 swipes with a pen on 8 pages layed out before me and marked “sign here”. Time = 0:10/case. Soon I will have to sign into the system for each case and move through a series of ~5 steps to reach the point where I will perform the digital version of my sweeping pen. Time, I am told by colleagues using the system to achieve this, = ~4:00/case. Let’s be generous and assume that they can’t possibly be correct, that it can’t possibly take 4:00 to do digitally what I now do with a pen (Heaven help if I have to enter pre- and post-op orders w/out standard forms!), and that it’s only 2:00. A typical OR day includes 20+ patients. 40 minutes added minimum. Did I mention that I have to do it TWICE because you can’t sign an op note right after surgery?

Lest you think this 52 yo doc is a Luddite and has avoided any and all such technology let me assure you that quite the opposite is the case. We have had an extremely efficient EMR in our office for 7 years; our management and scheduling has been done by computer for 16. My home is littered with Apple products. I’m a buyer of tech WHEN IT MAKES SENSE.

Unfortunately, it appears that I’m about to be forced to be a buyer of this “meaningless use” very soon. I thought I’d share the experience with you here. I’ll keep a log under “The Epic Adventure” and I’ll record not only my experiences but also the time I will be forced to “invest” in learning how to use the system and the time it takes me to comply with its requirements.

It promises to be quite a ride, albeit a rather slow one

EMR and Underpants

Skyvision Centers has a subsidiary company called the Skyvision Business Lab. We do business process research for pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, and other medical businesses in the eye care arena. One of the companies we have worked for is a very cool company that produces animated educational videos for a ophthalmologists and optometrists. I had an interesting experience while talking to their chief technology officer. It was interesting because the conversation proved our basic reason for existence at the Business Lab, that it is impossible for any company to develop, sell, and install any kind of product in our world without understanding the ins and outs of every day activities in an eye care practice.

Of course, I always find it extremely interesting when I’m right!

It was a tiny little point, really, but how could you know something this small and seemingly insignificant unless you had spent time on the “frontline” of medical practice? The chief technology officer for the video company was frustrated because doctors and their staff were not using this really cool product that they had purchased. Furthermore, because they weren’t using it, they were failing to buy downstream products from the video company. As it turns out the salespeople for this company were telling the doctors that this particular product should be “turned on” by the staff at the front desk of the office. This is exactly the wrong place because the front staff personnel simply have neither the time, nor the understanding, nor any incentive whatsoever to do this! The product actually works beautifully if it is “turned on” by the back-office staff. Bingo! Problem solved.

So what does this have to do with Electronic Medical Records (EMR), and for heaven’s sake what does this have to do with underpants? It’s simple, really. When was the last time you bought a totally new type of underpants, underpants that you had never seen before, and underpants that you had certainly never worn before, without trying them on? Furthermore, what’s the likelihood that you would allow someone else to design, fit, and choose a style  of underpants for you if that someone has not only never met you but has never even seen a picture of you?!  That’s the image I get every time I read an article about EMR.

In theory the concept of an electronic medical record that would allow permanent storage of every bit of medical information, with the ability to share that information between and among doctors and hospitals involved in the patient’s care is so logical and obvious that debating the point seems silly. If you have ever seen my handwriting, for example, you’d realize that the entire field of EMR was worth developing just to make doctors stop using pens and pencils! Trust me on this… the doctor hasn’t yet been trained who is also a specialist in penmanship.

I actually trained at  two of the pioneering hospitals in the use of electronic medical records, and indeed in the use of computers in medicine in general. Dr. Larry Weed and Dr. Dennis Plante at the University of Vermont were pioneers in the concept of using computing power to make more accurate medical diagnoses. Both the University of Vermont Medical Center and the Maine Medical Center were among the very first institutions to develop and implement digital medical records for the storage and use of clinical data like lab reports and radiology reports. In theory both of these areas make sense, but in practice the storage and display of clinical data is all that’s actually helpful in day-to-day practice.

If this is the case, if the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of critical data is helpful, the next logical step must be to do the same thing with the information obtained in doctor’s offices, right? Well, in theory this makes a ton of sense. The problem is that nearly none of the EMR systems now in place have been designed from the doctor — patient experience outward; they’ve all been designed from the outside in, kind of like someone imagining what kind of underpants you might need or might like to wear, and making a guess about what size would fit you. With a few exceptions, tiny companies that are likely to be steamrolled in the process, every single EMR on the market is the wrong fit for a doctor and a patient.

Why is this? How could this possibly be with all the lip service that is being paid to the doctor — patient relationship and the importance of getting better care to patients? It goes back to that same tiny little problem that the medical video company tripped over: it’s really hard to know how something should work unless you spend some time where the work is going to be done. Electronic medical records in today’s market are responsive to INSTITUTIONS, insurance companies and governments and large hospital systems. System before doctor, doctor before staff, staff before patient. Today’s EMR’s have been designed with two goals in mind: saving money and reducing medical errors. Should be a slamdunk at that, right? But even here the systems bat only .500, producing reams of data that will eventually allow distant institutions to pare medical spending, but neither capturing nor analyzing the correct data to improve both medical outcomes and medical safety. Fail here, too, but that’s another story entirely.

So what’s the solution? Well for me the answer is really pretty easy and pretty obvious. Send the underwear designer into the dressing room! Program design, programs of any type, are one part “knowledge of need” and one part plumbing. How can you know what type of plumbing is necessary unless you go and look at the exact place where the plumbing is needed? How can you know what size and what shape and what style of underwear will fit unless you actually go and look at the person who will be wearing the underwear? It’s so simple and so obvious that it sometimes makes me want to scream. Put the program designers in the offices of doctors who are actually seeing patients. Set them side-by-each. Make them sit next to the patients and experience what it’s like to receive care.

THEN design the program.

I’m available.The  Skyvision Business Lab is available. I have a hunch that the solution will hinge on something as simple and fundamental as my example above — front desk versus back office.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be me, and doesn’t necessarily have to be us, but it absolutely is necessary for it to be doctors and practices like Skyvision Centers, places where doctors and nurses and staff members actually take care of patients. Places where patients go to stay healthy or return to health. Places where it’s patient before staff, staff before doctor, doctor before system.

For whatever it’s worth I’m 5’8″ tall, I weigh 150 pounds, and I’m relatively lean for an old guy. I guess it’s a little embarrassing to admit this… I still wear “TightyWhiteys”, but I’m open-minded. I’m willing to change.

Just take a look at me first before you choose my underpants for me.

 

Fill It With Love

It’s really weird to spend an extended amount of time in the same house with multiple families while they are each actively pursuing the act of parenting. Have you ever done this? Done it when there was no escaping?

Beth and I are the oldest, first married, and first to create grandchildren. We are therefore also, now and evermore, the stupidest. No one is able to appreciate the difficulty and complexity of addressing any child developmental stage until they are knee deep in living it, although it’s amazing how much advice one receives from those not yet at any particular stage! Despite our shortcomings and obvious intellectual insufficiencies we have soldiered on nonetheless with good humor and grace…at least in the case of Beth.

After a week of (silent) observation of various parenting techniques and styles (silent because no one ever wants to hear “I told you so”, do they) I think I’ve come up with a general rule, or guideline, to the parenting thing. It seems that successful parents, those who manage to create useful, productive, mostly happy progeny who do not hate their parents, do so by setting clear and uniformly observed limits. Boundries within which the children live and learn. A sort of “silo” with virtual walls that exist both indoors and out. An open-ended silo is never successful because there is ultimately no clear limit established. A very skinny silo, bound up in rules and regs, with very little room for growth can be just as unsuccessful, and can be pretty tough to watch at that.

But it IS possible for even the tightest, skinniest silo to be successful in creating happy, successful, well-adjusted children. Why is that, if it’s so painful to watch a family silo that is so tight, so rigid, with so little room for growth? Ah, it’s because it’s not only the presence of parentally laid limits, the creation of the silo that is the ultimate source of parental success, it’s what ELSE you put in that silo that counts.

You gotta add love. It doesn’t matter whether your silo is looks like Old McDonald’s or a McDonald’s straw. Lots and lots of love. Fill every space in that silo that’s not already filled up with a kid with love.

There’s never enough of that in any family, ya know?

 

Does “MD” = Manic Depression?

“Manic depression is touching my soul.”

You’re up;  you’re down. You’re happy; you’re sad. You have the best job in the world; thinking about going to work makes you sick to your stomach. You’re so good at what you do, everybody loves you; everyone is out to get you.

You are an American physician.

Recently I’ve been asked at least a dozen times why I became a doctor, or why I became an eye doctor. I’m not really sure why this has come up now, because most of the people who are asking have known me in some way for many years. Why I became an eye doctor is really rather simple, and I have written about it HERE. The question “why did you become a doctor” is much more complex, much more involved, and frankly I’m beginning to wonder about that myself.

“Why do you want to be a doctor” was at the same time the easiest and most difficult question for me to answer, especially during medical school interviews. I grew up in a small, dying mill town in Massachusetts. The happiest, most fulfilled, most IMPORTANT people in that town were the doctors, of which there were very few. The busiest surgeon in town, Dr. L., could possibly have been the happiest person in the entire town. Beautiful wife, attractive, intelligent, athletic children, really big house. He was even a decent golfer! I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face.

It was Dr. Roy, though, my pediatrician, who really clinched it for me. There must have been another pediatrician in town–heck, there were 24,000 people there. For the life of me, though, I can’t ever recall any of my friends seeing any doctor other than Dr. Roy. He was confident. Secure. Always with a gentle smile whether in the office or on Main Street. My mom later told me that he was perhaps the most influential politician in town as well. Everybody looked up to Dr. Roy, no matter how young or old they might be. His was a happy, contented, full life, largely because he was a respected physician.

Can you name a single pediatrician now living and practicing in the United States whom you would describe like that?

Nevertheless, that’s mostly why I wanted to be a doctor. I want to be Dr. Roy. I wanted people to look up to me because I was good at doing something that was important, something that was meaningful to their lives. All of the doctors in town were like that.

Now? Well, I’m a 51-year-old eye surgeon and I am just like every other physician in the United States. I swing between the euphoria associated with a good outcome or a happy patient, and the bitter black hole that appears when a disease wins. My world is actually pretty good in this regard: for every defeat there are literally hundreds of victories. For every patient who is dissatisfied or unfulfilled there are hundreds who can’t wait to tell everyone in their lives how good their experience was. It’s just that there seems to be a couple more people who are less satisfied. A couple more each year.

Again, the success rate in my particular specialty is incredibly high, and these people who are less than satisfied have actually had an extraordinary good outcome if you look objectively. I think it all tracks back to the creeping consumerism in health care. It’s not good enough to have an outstanding outcome, it’s only truly even good enough if it meets the expectations of the consumer, the patient, no matter how outlandish or inappropriate those expectations might be.

I’m up. I’m down. The downs seem to hurt more because they are so much more, I don’t know, personal now.

I always got the idea that there was pretty much nothing to the business of being a doctor. All the docs seemed to have enough money, although none of them seemed wealthy. There was only one “girl” in the office and she made the appointments, gave you your bill, and took your payment. No back office or billing department. No special personnel responsible for charting, compliance, insurance communications. My “chart” was a couple of 5×7 cards stapled together.

Now? Oh man…the squeeze is coming from all directions. Private practice or big group practice, it doesn’t matter. You either deal with the external forces conspiring to make it more unpleasant to make a living as a doctor (insurance companies, the government, malpractice attorneys) or you deal with your boss (or more likely your boss’ secretary since you’re just another employee, after all). Your chart is now a legal document littered with land mines meant to ensnare even the most pious and dedicated among us.  Most docs do OK financially, maybe not 1%’ers but pretty well. It just seems like so many folks go so far out of their way to make us feel like we don’t deserve our pay. Any of us. Any of it.

I’m comfortable; you don’t deserve it.

Now, if you are not a doc you could sit back and rightly say “quit yer whinin”. I’d get it. I just can’t shake the feeling that Dr. Roy, and all of the Dr. Roy’s of the day, got and gave more out of what medicine could offer than any of us do now, despite the fact that those of us who practice now have so much more at our disposal on the medical side of the equation. It just doesn’t feel as good. There’s just too much that comes between doctors and that sense of service, of satisfaction in those bygone days. It just seems so much like work now. I don’t think Dr. Roy ever went to work. I believe he would have practiced pretty much the same way if he’d inherited a million dollars.

You’re up; you’re down. You have the best job in the world; you can barely make yourself open the office door. Everybody loves you;  you don’t deserve it.

“Manic depression is a frustrating mess.”

 

 

Enough Is Enough

Someone posted on Facebook something about always wanting more. NEEDING more. Always striving for more. The sense I got from the post, and indeed the theme that ran throughout the comments, was that to NOT be ever–striving for more, to not EVER be satisfied, was to somehow settle. Settle for less. This was pretty much universally agreed to be a bad thing.

But where does happiness fit in here? If one never has enough, if one can never even be content, how is it that one can ever be happy? Frankly, I spent most of the day looking for the vocabulary to explain this. It’s just another version of the “want versus need” issue, complicated by a misunderstanding of the concept “ambition”.

I am ambitious. I have aspirations. Some of them are grand (reform organized youth sports, save the city of Cleveland), and some of them are quite trivial (own a home in Park city again, buy a watch). The difference, though, is that I’m really quite happy with what I have, who I am, where I am, and what I’ve done right now. I am thankful, openly and consciously thankful, for each one of those things.

Would I like more? Why, yes thank you. I’ve HAD more and it was really quite lovely. The only thing better than enough is more, eh? But there’s the rub: the man who knows when enough is enough will always have enough. We could say that one who is thankful for enough is living a life of gratitude. That certainly does not rule out ambition or aspiration, but it does leave a great big open door to happiness. People who are thankful for what they have, even those who constantly strive for more, tend to be quite happy.

I’m really quite happy. You?

 

The Truth From A True Friend

Everyone should have a friend who will tell them the truth, specifically the truth about themselves. At least the truth about how the world views them. It’s impossible to accurately observe our own footprints; we need someone to show them to us.

This is not to say that one should form an opinion of one’s self or one’s self-worth solely on the basis of some external view. Hopefully our friend speaks kindly to us out of love and caring in the hope that the truth will lead us to a better version of ourselves, or allow us to feel better about the present version.

I have such a friend, and we recently had such a talk. It turns out that my doubts about the man I am now are unfounded, that I have grown into the type of man with whom others genuinely wish to gather, despite my fears to the contrary. It can be hard to sit still for such a compliment, uncomfortable to hear it no matter how lovingly it is offered, the urge to demure nearly overpowering.

How I have arrived here is quite another story, and a painful truth that my friend offered as well. In my younger years, a time filled with the external measurable trappings of success, I thought I’d already reached a place where people of all shapes and sizes were comfortable and happy in my company, and I in theirs. Hmm..turns out, not so much. No, it turns out that I was much too pleased with myself, too pleased myself with having achieved that visible success. I held myself apart, above. I was liked, but mostly because those to whom I would be compared were less likable. Ouch.

Would I have heard my friend if she told me this back in the day? I don’t know. I doubt it. A massive dose of humble pie was probably necessary, not only to hear and listen, to be ready to hear and listen, but certainly to have become who I am today. The details of my humbling are not really relevant, it was the lessons taught by humility that matter. Chicken? Egg? Does it matter? I do wish that she, someone, had told me then, though.

Why does it matter now? Why is this not simply a case of a friend congratulating me on growing up to be a better adult than I once was? Some times we get a mulligan. A do-over or a re-start. I may once again achieve a kind of success with all of the visible trappings, and the truth my friend shared is not just a pat on the back but a kick in the pants. A warning that I should do a better job this time around.

Everyone should have a friend who will tell them the truth. Each of us should care enough to listen.

 

 

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