Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for May, 2013

Memorial Day Musings…

It’s the stories. The stories matter. Whether they died in the heat of battle or in the cold of infirmity, the warriors all have stories. The stories are all important.

It’s remarkable how difficult it is to get at those stories, though. The ones that were the most formative, the ones that turned that one soldier or that one sailor into who s/he became, they tend to be slow in coming, if they come at all. Yet those are the ones that matter most.

The warriors among us tend toward silence. It’s not so much a secret thing (although there is a small group who simply mustn’t tell their stories) I don’t think, as it is a continuation of the protector role our airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines assume. They don’t so much keep the stories secret as they shield us from the effects of the stories, so powerful were those effects on them when they happened. Yet again, to understand those who remain, and to try to know those who have departed, the stories matter.

I drive by a cemetery filled with the graves of those who fought, some who died while fighting, and I try to conjure their stories. It’s pure folly. Dead men tell no tales, eh? Humanity learns of conflict and war from the stories told about both, and humans learn about each other the same way. Asking to hear the stories is an act of respect. Listening to the stories can be an act of love. Telling the stories is a little of both.

The stories of the men and women who have fought our wars are important.

A friend from my youth, a coach not too very much older than I once broke down and cried over his story. A very junior officer, his story of leadership and loss comes to me every year on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I know him so much better, understand who his is so much better because I heard his story. So, too, is my knowledge of the men and women younger than I who have served and fought and graced me with their stories.

Life is long unless you are unlucky, but even the lucky run out of time. We have no Civil War survivors, no one from WWI to tell their stories. Those few from WWII still here are reticent, and time grows short. Even Korea fades ever quickly to time’s passage. My Dad is marooned by his illness somewhere between 1947 and 1974; much of his “time” seems to be spent in Korea at the moment. The smallest of consolations for us, his progeny, is that we may learn his story.

This Memorial Day let us all remember not only those who served and those who died in that service, but let us all remember their stories as well. Let us ponder the lessons those stories teach about not only humanity but also about the warrior, the person we remember. Let us encourage those who still walk among us, especially those whose journeys have been long and must be soon ending, to tell us their stories while they still can. Let us listen to those who know the stories behind each headstone as we gather in their honor. We have much to learn from the stories, about war and conflict, about the people who fight, about ourselves.

The stories matter.



Evaluating A Surgeon: Basic Theory

Transparency is the new buzzword in medicine. Systems should be transparent with regard to prices, if not costs. Doctors and other providers of healthcare services should publish their costs and fees, too. Various ratings and measurements have been developed in an attempt to measure that nebulous and elusive entity “Quality”. Calls have been made for transparency here as well; hospitals, doctors, and others are browbeaten to release any and all manner of quality measurements so that we might create something one could call an “informed patient”.

The first, and therefore most important challenge in the quest to measure quality is to agree on a definition of just what quality is. Like all rational discussions the first order of business is to agree on terms and the terms of engagement.

Let’s take the question of evaluating the quality of an individual surgeon. What are the salient metrics? Are we concerned with only outcomes? You know, success rates, complication rates, stuff like that. Is there more to the measurement? Should we be concerned with EFFICIENCY, the ability to obtain high quality outcomes in a more timely manner? How about VALUE, the soft and difficult to measure combination of quality and COST? In this day and age of “economic credentialing” in which doctors, hospitals, and other providers are held responsible for the cost of care, not only on an individual basis but also a societal one, it seems as if value is an inescapable aspect of quality, at least in the eyes of our government and the people who actually pay for healthcare.

Quality measures will be different for surgeons of different stripes; we will want to evaluate different complications and their rate of occurrence for an ophthalmologist versus, say, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Even similar adverse events like infection rates will have a different meaning across specialties. One classic example of a surgical complication is post-op infections. From my limited reading about heart and chest surgery it appears that the post-op infection rate is around 1-2%. This would be scandalous in eye surgery where the post-op infection rate is 100X lower, closer to .01-.02%. Stuff like this should be fairly easy to uncover, or at least you’d like to think so. It turns out that even this metric is rather hard to come by since multiple doctors will participate in the treatment of post-op infections, and literally no one offers up these stats uncompelled. Similar issues apply to specialty-specific complications (vitreous loss, graft leak) for similar reasons.

Right away the difficulty of measuring quality is obvious: even the simple quality measures appear to be something other than simple to discover right now.

Outcome measures are even trickier. Since I know eye surgery best let me stay in that arena and use cataract surgery as my example. For our discussion let’s assume that we have magically been granted unfettered access to every eye surgeon’s charts (and that they are all legible, and that they all contain the same basic information). It should be a rather simple proposition to draft meaningful criteria–let’s say “how well do the patients see after cataract surgery.?”  Would that it were so. The answer to that very simple question–how well do you see after surgery–depends on several variables, and further varies if you ask the question slightly differently. How much improvement did the patient achieve compared with pre-op? How fast did the improvement come? How well does the patient see without eyeglasses?  Is the patient more or less dependent on eyeglasses following surgery? What level of vision constitutes a success? Does the surgeon get the same results with complex cases?

I imagine these issues are not specific to ophthalmology. I can see the same types of questions and complexities in orthopedic surgery, for example. Think about hip replacement–along with cataract surgery and cardiac bypass surgery, hip replacement is arguably one of the most significant medical developments when we think about the quality of life enjoyed by an older person. What defines success in hip replacement? How long do you allow for success to occur for it to be deemed one for the  ”win” column? Do we give bonus points for speed in the OR, both from a patient’s standpoint and an economic one? How about a surgeon’s ability to achieve the same level of success in a thin 70 year old tennis player and an obese, cart-riding smoker?

Seriously, if docs can’t come to an agreement about what constitutes “quality”, how can we in good faith measure it? Furthermore, if we WON’T define it we have no one but ourselves to blame when some nameless, faceless 30 year old sociology major in D.C. does it for us.

Nobody asked me (again), but as long as I’m here let me offer up a 3-part proposal to measure and promote quality using surgeons as a theoretical template. Let’s start with a thought exercise borrowed from CrossFit. Fitness training using the CrossFit methodology involves high intensity exercise while trying to maintain near-perfect movement and form. One is shown three targets from a shooting range. The first has random bullet holes all around the bullseye, the second has every shot dead-on perfect, and the third has 95% of the shots within the center bullseye and 5% on-target but not perfect. Which one represents the most desirable CrossFit training strategy?

In CrossFit the answer is “C”, 95% accuracy with the misses still close because this represents the optimal combination of form (accuracy) and intensity (speed). Is this directly applicable to surgery? Well, that depends on how far outside the bullseye the misses land, doesn’t it? And in surgery I think we also need a more accurate measurement of intensity; we need a clock. Speed matters, from both a medical standpoint and a financial one. The shorter a surgery lasts while still hitting the target, the less physically and mentally taxing it is for the patient, and the fewer costly resources (OR time, staff time, doctor time, supplies, etc.)  you are consuming during surgery. All things being equal, the surgeon who achieves the desired outcome faster without increasing her complication rate is the better surgeon.

Put surgeons on the clock.

A successful outcome must be explicitly defined for each common surgical procedure. Pre-operative factors that reduce the likelihood of success should certainly be taken into account (e.g. a morbidly obese cart-riding smoker and hip replacement), but care needs to be taken so that a measurement can’t be gamed (two guttata do not constitute a corneal dystrophy and increased likelihood of swelling) in order to work with a lower standard. Surgical societies should show some spine and make a call, define what constitutes a high-quality outcome, regardless of the howling that will emanate from the mediocre and the incompetent. It’s gonna happen anyway, and physicians making the call would be orders of magnitude better than MBA’s and philosophy majors.

Lastly, quality should be measured, publicized and praised, and those surgeons (and other doctors) should be explicitly rewarded with as many cases as they can (or wish to) handle. They should also be paid more. Once we decide what constitutes quality we can measure it and publish the data. People will understand this, just like they understand the data in a box score. Why is it so OK for the baseball player with the highest batting average or lowest ERA to be paid more based on his success, yet somehow the most efficient surgeon who has the best outcomes is labeled a “money grubber” who must somehow be doing something wrong if he is also very busy? We want that high batting average guy at the plate in the 9th inning of a tight ballgame, and we pay him more because of his higher quality outcomes. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with surgeons? The very least we can do is stop accusing surgeons of being successful!

It’s time that we apply basic theories about quality to medicine in general and surgery in particular. Indeed, it should be easier to do it with surgeons. Make a call–define a successful outcome. Pull out a stopwatch. Faster, more efficient surgery is less expensive and generally less taxing physically for patients. Once the data is available be transparent and publish the results. I know what Miguel Cabrera is batting this year; my patients (and potential patients) should know my “batting average” in the OR. While I hold out little hope of being heard on this last point, uncountable articles support the benefit of the carrot at the expense of the stick when it comes to promoting excellence. Higher quality should beget higher pay. At the very least we should stop with the assumption that the busy surgeon is somehow “getting over”, guilty of somehow gaming the system (eg. doing unnecessary surgery) until and unless proven innocent.

She may just be better.


Decision Fatigue

Beth has often wondered why it is that I have so much trouble pulling the trigger on booking a flight. It’s almost pathological, really. I just can’t make myself do it; she books all of my travel.

Now I know why. There was a recent article in some Psychology Something-Or-Other Journal that says it’s classic: judges, doctors, people who must make major, really important decisions all day, every day in their job have trouble making what amounts to relatively trivial decisions elsewhere in life. Has to do with something called “Consequence Fatigue” or “Decision Fatugue”,  something like that. So there you have it.

What do you think? You have a job that involves making significant decisions with measurable consequences–do you clutch on the less momentous ones?


Communicating Across Generations

My Dad has been hospitalized for many, many weeks now. My siblings, a couple of the daughters-in-law (including my wife) and I  have taken turns either keeping my Mom company or spelling her and just hanging with my Dad alone. We have tried mightily to keep each other abreast of a day’s events, and we have made yeoman’s efforts to help Mom communicate with all sorts of members of the medical community involved in Dad’s care. Man, has THAT been a challenge. The differences in understanding the lingo of medicine, not to mention the vast gulf between the frame of reference that exists between  ”civilians” and medical workers on the front line create communication barriers that can seem impenetrable.

Where does the responsibility lie when we enter into a conversation? Let’s define a conversation as the interaction between two people during which there is a purposeful transfer of some kind of information. Let’s refine that by saying that in this day and age we cannot define a conversation as simply as two people talking with one another. We have email, texts, FB chats and PM’s, Twitter @’s and PM’s, phone calls and Skype, and of course plain old face-2-face talking. Any and all of these have been, or yet might be used when we go forward with Dad.

So where does the responsibility lie to ensure effective transfer of information? Upon whom does it rest to make sure that facts or ideas have been successfully transmitted and received? How about the emotional content, the feelings that ride along with the data? Sometimes the emotional content is really the data that’s intended for transfer and is quite obvious, like the color guard accompanying a General. Oft times, though, the feelings attached to the words are as carefully and craftily hidden as a stowaway on a cruise ship. What exactly does it mean when a nurse greets Mom in the morning with the fact that Dad “struggled” the night before?

Here’s my bid: the responsibility lies on BOTH sides of the conversation. Active listening is key. Engaging in the conversation means engaging the individual on the other side. It starts at the very choice of vehicle: to whom am I sending this message? On the receiving end the vehicle should also be evaluated: who sent this to me? Think about it…the universe of topics you would engage with your 75 yo grandparents via text is awfully darned small, and if you are a grandparent who texts you can’t “receive” disrespect in a message filled with contractions and lingo. By the same token, both sender and receiver must be actively conscious of the frame of reference of any “other” in the conversation.

A Facebook status update is like a billboard, meant to be one-way, neither demanding nor expecting a reply. A conversation, on the other hand, is by definition bi-lateral. It requires active listening and anticipatory listening on the part of both people. It requires a shared understanding of the power as well as the limitation of each method one might choose to utilize. The smaller vehicle (text, Tweet) creates the greater distance and so must transfer the more basic information. More nuance or emotional content requires a different vehicle, at once larger (to include the details) and smaller and more intimate (so that everything can be seen as well as heard). Closer.

In the end we are social creatures, driven always to connect. The rules of communication have not really changed despite our ever-increasing ability to communicate, to connect. The more important the interaction the closer we must be to the other. Communication, no matter what vehicle we choose, requires that we listen better. Listen to what is said to us; listen to what we say; listen, especially, to what the other hears.

The responsibility for a successful communication is shared equally by both or all involved. Despite our newfangled world filled with different ways to communicate the most effective strategy hasn’t changed in a few thousand years:

Listen better.


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