Is More Medical Testing Better?

“I think this patient needs a CT scan of her chest,” the consulting
physician said to me over the phone. “Her lungs sound bad, and given her
history, we need to make sure she isn’t developing pneumonia.”

The patient, though only thirty-five, had been through a lot during her
hospitalization. She came in a week prior with some shortness of breath, an
abnormally high heart rate (tachycardia) and chest pain. But her heart
checked out just fine. An EKG was normal and her troponin, a protein
that spills into the blood with damage to heart, was undetectable. Because
of her tachycardia and chest pain we tested her for a

pulmonary embolus
, or clot in the lungs, with a CT scan. It was positive. The potentially
deadly clot blocks off blood flow coming from the right side of the heart
into the lungs causing heart strain and disrupting oxygenation of blood and
the functioning of the heart.

We admitted the patient to the

intensive care unit

where she received IV medication to thin her blood. She recovered but
continued to experience residual chest pain that would clear in the months
ahead. As we prepared to discharge the patient, the consulting physician, a
cardiologist, told us he wanted her to get another CT scan of her chest.
She had not had a scan since the initial stages of her workup. What if she
developed pneumonia in the interim? Her white blood cell count, often a
crude marker of infection, was not elevated. She did not have fevers. When
asked, she felt well enough to go home and wanted to leave. Then again,
being in the hospital made her susceptible to infection. Moreover, on her
physical exam, we heard crackles in her lungs –
this sometimes indicates an intrapulmonary pathology. The cardiologist’s
concern gave us pause and we ordered the imaging study.


Doctors often feel uncomfortable with areas outside of our expertise. Consequently, we call other specialists to see the patient and give us advice. Moreover,
patients sometimes ask to see a specialist in the hospital: “Can you call
the neurologist to come see me?” or “We’d like you to call a cardiologist
to see our father while he’s here.” Because consultants share a different
knowledge base than the team primarily caring for the patient they may ask
for more tests to rule out other serious pathologies that the primary team
neglected to consider.

The patient’s repeat CT scan merely demonstrated small collapsed alveoli.
These terminal branches of the lungs often collapse when we draw shallow
breaths or lie flat for a long time, a typical finding in many hospitalized
patients. Given the benign nature of this finding, we discharged the
patient. Yet she had received an extraneous dose of radiation and her
hospital bill would be hundreds of dollars more. Did she absolutely need
this? This common story raises other questions, too. Do patients do better
with more specialists seeing them? Do patients do better with more testing?

In a 2012 post for the New York Times Well blog, Tara Parker-Pope

pointed out

that “overtreatment – too many scans, too many blood tests, too many
procedures – is costing the nation’s healthcare system at least $210
billion a year, according to the Institute of Medicine.” And the stories
she tells about astronomical hospital bills due to overtesting are

a 2015 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group of researchers found mortality for high-risk
heart failure and cardiac arrest among patients was lower in teaching hospitals
during national cardiology meetings compared to the rest of the year – meaning that the absence of a large number of cardiologists, who were attending meetings, was correlated with lower mortality for these heart conditions in the hospital. In an editorial in the same issue, Dr.
Rita Redberg makes a disquieting suggestion: “How should we interpret these findings? One possibility is that more interventions in high-risk patients with heart failure and cardiac arrest leads to higher mortality.” Is there too much being done, especially by experienced

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist, elaborated on these questions in a New York Times op-ed in 2015:

We – both physicians and patients – usually think more treatment means
better treatment. We often forget that every test and treatment can go
wrong, produce side effects or lead to additional interventions that
themselves can go wrong. We have learned this lesson with treatments like
antibiotics for simple medical problems from sore throats to ear
infections. Despite often repeating the mantra “First, do no harm,” doctors
have difficulty with doing less – even nothing. We find it hard to refrain
from trying another drug, blood test, imaging study or surgery.

When specialists like neurologists or cardiologists see a patient, they
approach the bedside from a unique perspective. The pathologies they know
and think about are very different from what family medicine or internal medicine doctors thinks of when they see a patient. Specialists, who often act as consultants, consider the diseases they are most worried about within their field. They’ve been asked to see the patient to
recommend workup for a disease potentially related to
their area of expertise. Their view, in other words, is necessarily myopic – if you give a carpenter a hammer, surely the carpenter will find a nail.
This does not always happen, but by nature there is a bias when a consultant
approaches a patient – and that bias is toward ordering another test,
toward doing something. Part of the art of medicine, especially as a specialist or consultant, is figuring out when the patient needs
something and when the best approach is to do nothing at all. Our patient
at the beginning of the story did not really need a repeat CT scan. To be
sure, the cardiologist didn’t recommend it simply to radiate the patient or
increase the hospital bill. But none of us wanted to miss something.

A conservative method of practice can come with experience, but as evident
from the JAMA study referenced above, that’s not necessarily the
whole story. Some of this, I think, requires thinking regularly about how well the
patient in front of the doctor is doing and how a test will change the
course of the patient’s treatment. “Will this change our management?” is a
question our attending physicians always ask us before we order a test. And it is a
question all doctors must ask themselves.

The Problem with the New Patient Autonomy

The neurology team shuffled single-file into the patient’s small room. The patient, probably in his 30s, had black hair, brown eyes, and an unsettling
demeanor. He glared icily at us from his bed, the blankets covering him up to the neck. His pale brow furrowed even more noticeably as all nine of us
intruded on his privacy. In a scene out of a futuristic movie, EEG (electroencephalogram) leads on his scalp connected his
head via wires to a screen showing squiggly lines representing brain activity; a small video camera attached to the screen monitored the patient’s movement. He had come to the hospital overnight after falling and shaking, a story worryingly suggestive of a seizure.

Brain waves on EEG
Image via Shutterstock

An electroencephalogram records neuronal signals in the brain and is used by neurologists to diagnose seizure activity. When a
patient has a seizure, which can manifest as full-body convulsions, a family member in the room pushes a button on the machine which starts the video
camera recording the patient’s movements. Then, neurologists examine the movements in the video and the waves tracked by the EEG to see if they are consistent with seizures.

There are different kinds of seizures depending on which part of the brain is affected. Symptoms range from a loss of attention for a few seconds (absence seizures) to full-body convulsions
which we typically associate with seizures (generalized tonic-clonic seizures). Different conditions can cause these events — for instance, high fever as a child (febrile seizures) and brain tumors can induce
hyper-excitability in the brain. If the seizure does not stop, a patient can enter status epilepticus, a state of prolonged epileptic activity that can cause permanent damage.

Having a seizure, then, can be very serious business. Physicians must perform a medical work-up to ensure that the patient is not at great risk. In
addition to an EEG, our patient’s neurologist ordered labs and a CT scan of the brain. However, these tests were all negative. Even overnight, when the patient and his mother both claimed that the patient seized, there were no abnormal
electrical discharges on the EEG.

Indeed, not all physical manifestations of seizures indicate the presence of legitimate seizure activity in the brain, which is why the EEG is such a valuable diagnostic
tool. It turns out that certain patients may believe they are having seizures when they are actually having pseudoseizures or psychogenic non-epileptic seizures. To most observers,
pseudoseizures look exactly like generalized tonic-clonic seizures. Patients shake, tense up, and flail violently and frighteningly. However, certain
differences exist that distinguish them from each other. During pseudoseizures, EEGs show no abnormal brain activity, patients do not bite their tongues (this can occur with real seizures), and patients do not
respond to anti-epileptic or anti-seizure medications. It’s not that patients undergoing pseudoseizures aren’t sick, it’s just that their sickness has nothing to do with neurological pathology or seizure activity.

Frequently, patients who experience pseudoseizures do have underlying psychiatric disorders, like anxiety or PTSD, but not always. Other risk factors and
triggers include interpersonal conflicts, childhood abuse, and past sexual abuse. Seemingly, then, a pseudoseizure is a symptom of a psychiatric illness. Another factor that distinguishes pseudoseizures is that patients are conscious during the events. I’ve seen one attending push down hard on a patient’s hand during a pseudoseizure while telling the patient he was going to do so. The
patient suddenly awoke before the attending pushed hard enough to hurt the patient. (If the patient was having a generalized seizure, he would
not have felt anyone pressing on his hand nor would he have heard anyone giving him a verbal warning of it.)

In explaining the concept of pseudoseizures to a patient who has them, one must take great care. If a physician tells a patient, “these are not real — it
is in your head, so grow up,” no one will benefit. Psychiatric illness cannot be fixed with a stern rebuke. One must explain that these are not
seizures and that it will take time to fix whatever is happening, but anti-seizure medications will not help. (While there are no medications for pseudoseizures, behavioral therapy can be efficacious.) Through this
conversation, one hopes the patient will seek help from a psychiatrist.

The patient we saw that morning did have pseudoseizures rather than seizures, as the EEG and the video of his body movements indicated. Additionally, and
tragically, he had a horrific childhood and had been physically abused by his father. The attending explained all this very gently in the course of nearly
twenty minutes. When he finished, the patient and his mother both burst out indignantly: How could this physician ignore the symptoms? How could he be so
callous as to dismiss this disease? Why wouldn’t he prescribe medications? Why did he not order an MRI of the patient’s brain (an expensive type of imaging) to further investigate the
cause of this? In the patient’s words: “I’m not believing any of this bullshit.” Although the physician calmly tried to explain everything again, the patient
refused to listen and eventually the team left to continue rounding. Still enraged, the patient called the customer-service department of the
hospital and continued to argue with the team throughout the day. Eventually, after numerous disputes, our attending physician caved (and who could blame him given that there were nineteen other sick patients on the service who needed his attention?): the patient got what
he wanted, an MRI study which showed nothing abnormal.

Unfortunately, this
is a weekly if not a daily experience in hospitals across the country. Patients frequently make inappropriate requests of physicians, which are subsequently granted. What has brought our system to the point where a patient issues orders and the
physician must about-face from a medically sensible course?

*   *   *

In ancient times, patients had very little, if any, autonomy, as R. Kaba and P. Sooriakumaran point out in their 2007 article, The Evolution of the Doctor-Patient Relationship in the International Journal of Surgery. Doctors decided what was good for patients and what wasn’t. There was no informed consent — a doctor told a
patient what the patient needed and expected him or her to comply.

This interaction may have evolved from the ancient Egyptian “priest-supplicant” relationship, in which magicians and priests with access to gods conjured up
cures for various medical disorders. The patient, without a modicum of holiness, had to supplicate to the priest, or father figure, in
order to get well. Even for the Greeks, who developed slightly more scientific ways of approaching disease and more ethical ways of approaching the patient
(see the Hippocratic Oath), the doctor was a paternalistic figure granting “hard-line
beneficence” to the patient. All this was akin to a parent-child relationship, a model for the doctor-patient interaction that was considered normal even in the
mid-twentieth century, as I wrote in my essay on vaccines for The New Atlantis:

The unchecked authority of medical experts in those days allowed doctors to trammel the rights of both patients and research subjects. Many of those whose
research laid the foundations for modern vaccines, such as Jonas Salk, Maurice Hilleman, and Stanley Plotkin, tested their vaccines on mentally
retarded children. Starting in the mid-1950s and continuing for about fifteen years, the infectious-disease doctor Saul Krugman fed hepatitis virus to
severely disabled residents of the Willowbrook State School in order to study the virus. The enshrinement of patient autonomy in the 1970s was in part a
response to these very serious ethical problems.

Recently, though, things have changed:

Over the past few decades, however, the boat has tipped to the other side. Now, patients rate doctors online at sites like Healthgrades or Yelp or Vitals
the same way one rates a restaurant. This puts pressure on physicians to give patients what they want rather than what they need in order to garner more
business. The government bases Medicare reimbursements, in part, on patient satisfaction scores, putting further pressure on physicians to make patients
happy [In fact, patient satisfaction score surveys

play a significant role in determining how much money hospitals receive from Medicare
.] Dr. Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, has explained that the increasing power of patients is bringing us to a point where
“there is no ‘truth’ defined by experts. Rather there are many opinions based on very different views and theories of the world.” If a patient wants a test
or procedure, he or she can have it. The same goes for refusing it, even against the advice of doctors.

This modus operandi of allowing patient satisfaction to dictate medical care is becoming more and more common. It is even encouraged. Kai Falkenberg, a
journalist, notes in a must-read 2013 article in Forbes,

Nearly two-thirds of all physicians now have annual incentive plans, according to the Hay Group, a Philadelphia-based management consultancy that surveyed
182 health care groups. Of those, 66% rely on patient satisfaction to measure physician performance; that number has increased 23% over the past two years.

And that’s not all, according to her article. These metrics encourage physicians to do things that are not always in the best interests of the patient:

In a recent online survey of 700-plus emergency room doctors by Emergency Physicians Monthly, 59% admitted they increased the number of tests they
performed because of patient satisfaction surveys. The South Carolina Medical Association asked its members whether they’d ever ordered a test they felt
was inappropriate because of such pressures, and 55% of 131 respondents said yes. Nearly half said they’d improperly prescribed antibiotics and narcotic
pain medication in direct response to patient satisfaction surveys.

Satisfying patients and practicing good medicine are not always the same. Data on this abounds. A 2013 study by physicians at Johns Hopkins demonstrated little evidence that patient satisfaction
corresponds to the quality of surgical care. Furthermore, in a 2012 study,
physicians at UC Davis found that increased patient satisfaction scores were associated with higher health care expenditures and even increased

Of course, I’m not arguing against patient autonomy or patient satisfaction. People ought to have a voice in their healthcare. But attributing excessive importance to patient satisfaction scores stymies medicine and encourages confusion among patients who don’t necessarily know what is and
isn’t medically appropriate, thus putting them at risk. This is borne out in the story of our pseudoseizing patient, and in the data from studies. If we,
as physicians, merely do what the patient asks of us, we are no longer practicing medicine; we are technicians for hire, something I pointed out in a previous post on the purpose of medicine.
Evidently, then, the push for patient autonomy can hurt both patients and doctors.

Indeed, the solution is not to incentivize the physician to give the patient what he or she wants. Nor is it to force the patient to do only what the
physician demands. What we need is balance. As suggested in a 1996 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, what we need is not a consumer model but a model that promotes “an intense collaboration between patient and physician so that patients can autonomously
make choices that are informed by both the medical facts and the physician’s experience.” Doctors don’t have a monopoly on medical truth but they have
years of education and experience and they must help patients to make a reasoned choice.

Physicians need to provide patients with information, evidence, and guidance. They need to negotiate with patients, just as patients need to negotiate with
doctors. And sometimes physicians need to draw a hard line. If a doctor encounters a patient who demands something a physician is not comfortable with or if the “chosen course violates the physician’s fundamental values” despite negotiations and
conversations, “he should inform the patient of that fact and perhaps help the patient find another physician.”

Yes, final choices belong to patients and not doctors. But both must invest a lot in order to allow patients to make informed decisions. We should not let the mistaken primacy of satisfaction surveys and radical autonomy obstruct this negotiation — there is more at stake for all of us than just an
extraneous MRI.

The Costly Complications of Emergency Medical Care

During one Emergency Department (ED) shift, EMTs brought in an older woman to the hospital. She had called emergency medical services (EMS) and explained that she had low blood
sugar, or hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia can lead to
coma, brain damage, and death as well as other more minor symptoms such as tremors and sweats. But when the EMTs arrived to pick this woman up, her blood sugar levels were normal — there was no emergency at all. In fact, as she admitted once she was in the back of the ambulance, she only called EMS because she had run out of glucose strips, which diabetic patients use to monitor their blood
sugar. A family medicine doctor can easily procure these for a patient, and running out of these strips in no way constitutes a medical emergency. Once this
woman got to the ED, the physicians drew her blood for labs, examined her, and measured her blood sugar again in order to make sure there was no emergency.

In another instance of misused resources, a middle-aged gentleman called an ambulance because, supposedly, he could not walk. However, the patient was able to get himself up from the stretcher and climb onto the ambulance, which his daughter said was normal behavior for him. He received a full workup in the ED with labs and x-rays. Similarly, a mother brought her son into the ED because he needed a full physical before playing sports. The ED physicians spent time speaking to the patient, doing a physical exam and drawing basic labs to look at his blood.

These kinds of situations occur daily — we squander emergency medical resources on non-acute medical conditions. Sadly, emergency physicians and EMTs do not have a choice in the matter, which can be disheartening in a system where resources are precious. And while there are many factors affecting inefficient emergency medical care, we have a law to blame for at least some of the daily inefficiencies — EMTALA (the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act).

*   *   *

Congress passed EMTALA in 1986 with Ronald Reagan’s signature, ensuring, among other things, that patients requesting emergency medical care receive it regardless of their ability to pay. In a 2001 article published in the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings journal, Dr. Joseph Zibulewsky puts the law in perspective. In 1986 and 1987, case studies from Cook County Hospital in Chicago described how other hospitals transferred patients to Cook County because the patients could not pay for their care, a practice known as “patient dumping.” The studies concluded, as Dr. Zibulewsky writes, that “this practice was done primarily for financial reasons.” In fact, “the reason given for the transfer by the sending institution was lack of insurance in 87% of the cases.” Moreover, the patients who were transferred were twice as likely to die as those who were not transferred. Nor were these isolated events: “This practice was not limited to Chicago but occurred in most large cities with public hospitals. In Dallas, such transfers increased from 70 per month in 1982 to more than 200 per month in 1983.” As a result of widespread patient dumping, EMTALA was signed into law.

EMTALA consists of three basic tenets all of which must be followed regardless of a patient’s insurance or financial status. First, any person who presents
to the hospital for medical care must receive a medical screening examination (MSE) to ensure that there is no emergency medical problem. As the law reads:

if any individual (whether or not eligible for benefits under this subchapter) comes to the
emergency department and a request is made on the individual’s behalf for examination or treatment for a medical condition, the hospital must provide for
an appropriate medical screening examination within the capability of the hospital’s emergency department, including ancillary services routinely available
to the emergency department, to determine whether or not an emergency medical condition…exists.

As the examples at the beginning of this post illustrate, no matter what a patient comes in with, an emergency medical condition must be ruled out, so a medical workup must be performed. Additionally, the ED must “provide such medical treatment of the condition as may be necessary to assure, within reasonable medical probability, that no material deterioration of the condition is likely to result from or occur during the transfer of the individual from a facility.” In other words, the patient’s condition must be stabilized before discharge. If the hospital is not equipped to care for a particular medical condition, the hospital must transfer the patient to another hospital capable of providing the needed care.

And all this does not just apply to ED physicians. Any specialist consulted by the ED (in fields like neurology or psychiatry) must see the patient within 30 to 60 minutes of being called. EMTs are also beholden to
this law. As Zibulewsky explains, an “appeals ruling in Hawaii has extended this [EMTALA] to virtually any ambulance, even those run by city or county services.”

Thus, once a patient is in an ambulance, he or she “can be considered to have come to the ED.”

Image via Shutterstock

Hospitals and physicians face stiff consequences for failing to abide by EMTALA. The law applies only to those hospitals and physicians who
participate in Medicare, which nearly all of them do. And if the
hospital violates EMTALA, reimbursements can be taken away. On an individual level, physicians can be responsible for up to $50,000 in civil court if they violate the law. Given how many
hospitals and doctors receive reimbursements from Medicare and how much money hospitals receive from Medicare (hundreds of
billions of dollars), it behooves institutions to follow EMTALA as best they can.

Unfortunately, the law is incredibly problematic for many reasons. In the first place, vagueness abounds: what counts as a medical screening examination? Is it just a physical exam? Is it just a history of the patient’s present illness? Must a CT scan be included? This is completely nebulous. Also, what counts as stabilized? If a person is bleeding to death with a broken leg and a physician stops the bleeding and casts the leg, can the patient be discharged without a follow-up appointment with a physician? If the trauma has left someone severely debilitated and is surviving only on a ventilator, is it now the hospital’s responsibility to find an acute care nursing home and continuous care for this patient? Does the hospital keep the patient in the ICU and eat the cost indefinitely?

Furthermore, the law adds population burden and financial cost to a floundering medical system. A 2008 article by Dr. Damon Dietrich and Dr. Michael Crapanzano concluded that while “EMTALA was intended to provide all patients the right of medical care in the ED regardless of ability to pay, a cost: benefit analysis performed by Duke University…suggests it did just the opposite.” Moreover, “EMTALA actually impedes access for an EMC [emergency medical condition] by overwhelming resource capacity.” Many people who come to the ED actually need emergency medical care, not just glucose strips. And putting time and resources into non-emergency care takes away resources and time from emergency care. Also, because care is “free” in the ED, patients have no qualms about coming in whether their problems are or are not acute. In turn, this leads to overcrowding. Some statistics, though not proven to be a direct consequence of EMTALA, demonstrate the severity of the problem. In 2001, “two out of every three hospitals reported diverting ambulances to other hospitals” due to ED overcrowding. Additionally, “ED visits in 2003 rose to 114 million, up from 97 million in 1997.” This overcrowding with uninsured patients costs the hospitals and its patients tremendous amounts of money. As a result, emergency rooms close, further exacerbating the problem of ED overcrowding. Between 1988 and 1998, 1,128 EDs closed, leading to dramatic increases in patient volumes and waiting times at other EDs.

Then, of course, there is the financial burden. An ambulance ride itself can cost over a thousand dollars. Also, the authors of the Duke study estimated that EMTALA has a net cost on hospitals, government agencies, and social welfare that runs in the billions of dollars. We thus have good reason to think that EMTALA places financial strain on our medical system as well.

But it’s not just patient care and hospital emergency rooms that are negatively affected by this law. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, ED doctors “on average provide $138,300 of EMTALA-related charity care each year, and one-third of emergency physicians provide more than 30 hours of EMTALA-related care each week.” Unfortunately, ED physicians have no say in the matter — the federal government mandates that they donate their time and money. Some physicians are rightfully upset that they are not receiving compensation for the work that they have no choice but to do.

And yet, I support the idea of EMTALA. It would be callous to kick patients in need of emergency care to the curb simply because they can’t pay. As Avik Roy, health care policy expert and Opinion Editor at Forbes, has written in National Affairs, “There are some instances in which we should obviously consider more than economics: Certainly no wealthy nation should allow a destitute woman who has been hit by a car to die in the street. Likewise, in a pressing emergency, catastrophic care should be provided to those who need it, and the costs can be sorted out later.” Absolutely.

However, this law, a classic example of unintended consequences, is not the way to assure that care. It increases the cost, time, and population burden on the ED and also mandates that physicians give up their time and money to treat patients whether or not those patients need emergency medical care. And this is not just a partisan fight: political and healthcare activists of all stripes find this law deleterious and inadequate and have called for its repeal. But repeal of EMTALA seems distant as we try to sort out the effects of the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, if we cannot repeal it, we must improve upon it and rectify its effects as best we can to ameliorate patient care in the emergency room.

Image via Shutterstock

Incidentally, the problems arising from this law also illustrate an important point about medicine and politics. Politics is not some drama playing out on a distant stage and leaving most of us unaffected; it affects physicians and patients — so at some point all of us — every day in very practical, tangible ways. Whether EDs or hospitals face overcrowding, closures, or mandated care, all roads lead through the workings of politics, a topic which we can’t ignore if we want to understand medical practice. As John Adams famously wrote in a letter to Abigail Adams, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy.” Adams’s point, though meant for his generation, holds true for all of us. We must familiarize ourselves with politics and ideas — these affect every interest and every profession as all are confined and freed by law. Medicine is no exception.

A Day in the Life, Part 2

This post continues my description in the last one of a day in the life of a medical student on rotation, where I’ve left off at lunchtime of an inpatient service day.

During the afternoon, the work of executing plans continues. If the team discharges a patient, that patient needs a follow-up appointment in clinic to make
sure there are no complications from the hospital visit. We call up the outpatient clinics and schedule patients for their next appointments. In other
cases, we need a patient’s hospital records from his or her previous visit to another hospital. Because electronic health records are usually closed within
a hospital system, we have to request that other hospitals fax us medical information. This is a rate-limiting factor in getting complete access to lab and
imaging results, which are integral to patient care. For instance, if a patient comes in with a severe headache and another hospital performed a CT scan of
his head, access to that scan may be essential to ruling out a diagnosis of something serious, like a brain tumor or infection. And if we can’t get
the images from the other hospital we may have to do one at our hospital. This is, undoubtedly, one of the major weaknesses of a non-universal electronic
health record system.

The medical team may also discharge a patient to a skilled nursing facility (SNF) or an old-age home, in which case the facility needs documentation
regarding what further care is needed. Some patients do not have anywhere to go after the hospital; some abuse alcohol or drugs and must go to a rehab
program; some can’t pay for the oxygen they need at home or medications for HIV; others started taking a blood thinner called warfarin and need to schedule appointments at a lab to get blood levels of this medication checked. To
deal with all this, the residents, attending, pharmacists, nurses, and social workers all coordinate with each other and with governmental and private
organizations to get the patient where he or she needs to be and what he or she needs in order to stay healthy. The healthcare team takes on this Sisyphean
task with varied success. Given the number of factors involved in this transition, one of which is whether the patient takes his or her medication, the
result is not always ideal. I’ll write more about this later.

Additionally, the residents and attending physician sometimes admit new patients to the hospital during the afternoons from smaller hospitals in the
community. Community hospitals are not always capable of caring for patients with a rare tumor or disease, while academic medical centers, which are
attached to medical schools, have more physicians who specialize in and research rare disorders. For example, a patient having seizures that cannot be controlled with first or second-line medications is sent
over to an academic institution where neurologists experienced in handling refractory seizures can care for the patient.

The medical team may also admit a patient from the Emergency Department (ED) for a full diagnostic workup and treatment of an acute or chronic disease. For instance, a patient
with worsening Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) needs temporary
high-potency medications for a few days before going back home. Some patients with an exacerbation of this disease need constant monitoring so they don’t
experience respiratory failure. Clearly, then, the afternoons can get busy, especially if the residents have to finish their notes.

At 6 p.m., the night intern arrives and receives checkout from the day team: The day intern runs through a list with the night intern, describing the new
admissions to the hospital service, the events over the course of the day for each patient, and which lab and imaging results the night intern needs to

Image via Shutterstock

Outpatient and the ED

The time that we spend in a doctor’s office — on our outpatient weeks — is a lot less hectic. Whether we are in family medicine, pediatrics, or obstetrics/gynecology clinic, we arrive at 8 a.m., which
gives us time to exercise in the morning or stay up a bit later at night. The residents arrive at the same time. We look at the clinic schedule for the
day on the electronic health system and begin to read old notes in the electronic health record to get ourselves up to date with the latest medical information
on each patient.

When patients arrive, the medical student goes in first to interview a patient and do a focused physical exam, after which the student reports his findings and his plan to the resident, just like we do in the ED. The attending and the
resident then see the patient and come up with a tailored plan for how to proceed. We have an hour for lunch at noon and then come back from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (This is similar to our ED
shifts, since they are both eight hours — except of course our ED shifts are sometimes late at night or overnight, and there are no scheduled meal breaks during an ED shift.)

After our days finish, we are expected to do research on a disease process we saw during the day. If a patient comes in with pneumonia, we read up on the
common causes of pneumonia and the various treatments available for it. We also study for our shelf exam, which is a national multiple-choice test that we must pass
after each third-year rotation. At the end of pediatrics, for instance, the shelf exam tests us on pediatric illnesses and treatments. These tests are difficult
and so we frequently study from various third-party review resources —

, UWorld, PreTest, Case Files, and others. A whole industry is built around these shelf exams, which
eventually culminate in a nine-hour, eight-section national licensing exam called STEP 2 CK. This comprehensive exam
tests basic clinical knowledge at the end of third year. So on a day-to-day basis we not only worry about learning how to deal with patients and their
illnesses but we also study for our exams, which is a requirement that ensures we know the important information involved in our daily practice.

How the ED (Emergency Department) Works

Ambulance image via Shutterstock

The Emergency Department is one of the most active and exciting parts of the hospital because it is the hospital’s sieve. The ED physician determines
whether an injury or complaint is life-threatening or not and then treats or admits the patient to the hospital if necessary. Someone usually comes in by
ambulance or private vehicle with a general complaint — referred to as the chief complaint — such as “stomach pain,” “chest pain,” “leg pain,” or “shortness
of breath.”

But occasionally, the first assessment of this chief complaint begins outside of the emergency room. Paramedics or emergency medical technicians who bring
the patient in by ambulance identify someone clearly in need of medical attention. Outside of the hospital they take the patient’s blood pressure, heart
rate, breathing rate, and temperature (collectively known as vital signs). These measurements indicate the seriousness of the situation. For example, if a
patient looks pale and sweaty, and his blood pressure is 80/40 (extremely low), this indicates the need for emergency treatment. However, if a patient calls
for an ambulance but has normal vital signs and looks healthy, then he can wait a bit longer for medical care, and the ambulance does not rush to the

When the patient arrives in the emergency room, he will see a similar setup at many different institutions (I can testify to this because of my days spent
as an emergency medical technician in New York City, where I saw the emergency rooms of many hospitals). The doctors and nurses sit at an open station with
computers in the center of the circular or semi-circular room. The patient beds stand on the outer edges of the circle in small slots separated from each
other by curtains and, in some cases, by an actual wall. Usually, a patient is hooked up to a machine that continually takes vital signs and projects them
onto a screen facing the doctors and nurses.

Once the nurses bring a new patient back to a bed, the resident physician assigned to that bed asks one of the medical students to go see the patient. We
have ten minutes to interview the patient about the chief complaint and do a focused physical exam, which means we only ask about and examine bodily
systems that relate to the chief complaint. If a patient has chest pain, we do not ask about or examine the foot.

Difficulties abound with this assignment. First, some patients come to the ED and want to have all their problems taken care of, which is impossible to do
in a short period of time. Additionally, the ED is only meant to handle emergencies. Someone who has a broken leg, for example, may also want to talk about
a muscle sprain in his shoulder — but a sprain is far less concerning and does not need immediate attention. Second, some patients want to have a long
conversation with a medical student or physician. They may feel lonely at home, or have a difficult social situation, or just want to chat. And while we
must listen to the patient, these conversations may be irrelevant to the chief complaint. Moreover, other patients with life-threatening problems arrive
regularly and need an ED doctor more urgently. Finally, some patients come seeking pain medications because of an addiction, or some may malinger (faking an illness for some type of secondary gain, like getting out of school
or criminal prosecution).

Dealing with these kinds of patients is integral to the art of medicine in the ED. The methods we were taught in first and second year
about how to manage disease and what questions to ask tend to dissolve when dealing with human beings who have different motivations for coming in to the
ED. We need to understand those motivations and, occasionally, quickly work around them in order to address a patient’s life-threatening

After we see and examine the patient, we tell the resident what we think the diagnosis is and what lab tests or imaging we want to get. The resident then
sees the patient briefly and tells the attending physician his or her plan for the patient. The attending finalizes the plan for the patient and the
resident executes it. All this might be clearer with an example from my own experience.

During one of my shifts, a patient presented to the ED with severe back pain. He could not sit still, and cried out every few seconds. He squirmed on the
stretcher, moving his legs up and down, tearing sheets off the bed and clenching his hands to his chest while grimacing. Watching someone in pain is
extremely difficult and can even cause the observer to feel pain. And
there is no question that I felt incredibly sympathetic for this man — so much so that I didn’t want to disturb him by asking him questions and examining

This is another difficulty in the field of medicine. We need to perform certain exam maneuvers or tests even though they cause the patient pain and
frustration. But it can be so difficult to bring oneself, especially in the student role, to swallow that difficulty and foist the necessary exam onto
the patient. How could I bear to push on and examine this man’s back when I knew this would cause immense discomfort? With difficulty, I continued the
interview and briefly palpated the spot on his back that hurt.

Once I finished the interview, I thought about a differential diagnosis. A differential diagnosis is a list of possible diagnoses for the patient given the
signs and symptoms the patient is presenting with, usually listed from the most likely to least likely. This gentleman with left lower back pain, for
instance, had a differential diagnosis list as follows:

1. Kidney stones

2. Herniated disc

3. Pulled muscle

4. Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)

5. Spinal abscess

6. Appendicitis

This list may not be complete, but it gives a sense of the kind of approach a physician takes to a medical issue. And as the physician questions the patient, the list changes. A doctor might ask if this particular patient had his appendix removed. If the answer is yes, then appendicitis comes off the list. A
practitioner uses interview questions and physical exam maneuvers to narrow the list down to one or two very likely diagnoses.

As for labs or imaging tests, these are only done to rule out or in diagnoses after narrowing down the list of possibilities with an interview and physical
exam. This man most likely had a kidney stone, as his presentation of severe back pain with an inability to sit still is a classic demonstration of this
pathology. Therefore, a urinalysis (examination of the urine) or CT scan (an imaging study to look for the stone) was integral to the diagnosis.

After deciding on this, I presented the patient to the resident. Across the field of medicine, medical students, residents, and attending physicians
present patients to each other in a standard format with an ordered listing of information. This information includes the age of the patient, history of
the chief complaint, relevant past medical history, physical exam findings, and a plan for the patient’s care. This gives all medical professionals a
concise, relevant, and standardized summary of the situation. In this case, for example, I might present the patient to the resident by saying this:

“Mr. B is a 44 year old caucasian male with a relevant past medical history of previous kidney stones, here today with a chief complaint of severe back
pain. The pain began five hours ago while showering with no apparent preceding incident. The pain is only better when the patient brings his knees up to
his stomach but otherwise remains severe. The pain is sharp and unilateral on the left side and does not radiate anywhere. The patient took ibuprofen
earlier, but that has not helped. He reports no blood in the urine, no difficulty urinating and no change in bowel movements. On physical exam, the patient
is extremely tender to palpation on his left flank but the exam is otherwise normal. My differential diagnosis includes kidney stones, pyelonephritis,
herniated disc, pulled muscle, spinal abscess, and appendicitis. I’d like to get a urinalysis and CT scan of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, and give the
patient morphine for pain.”

That’s not a perfect presentation (and at the time mine was far less comprehensive), but it is the kind of formatted presentation that doctors look for
when they see a patient who has severe back pain.

If the ED attending physician is unsure of what is going on or how to treat the problem, the resident usually calls a consult. If the patient is bipolar,
for example, the ED resident calls a psychiatrist to see the patient in the ED and possibly admit the patient to the psychiatric ward in the hospital. If
the patient presents with a stroke, the resident calls a neurologist, who treats and admits the patient to the stroke service. While emergency medicine
physicians are excellent at figuring out what might be going on and whether it is serious, and while they are meant to know a little bit about everything, they
don’t know as much about specific problems as a specialist in that field. Therefore, it is not the ED physician’s job to treat everything neurological,
psychiatric, or cardiac in nature. It is the ED physician’s job to determine who needs to see which specialist physician, and to treat those urgent problems
that they can treat.