Field of Dreams
There is a lot of Medicaid money floating around out there, particulary in the pediatric population where a large portion of the patients are covered by the Children’s Health insurance Program (CHIP). To legally acquire as much of this bonanza as possible, my hospital built a dedicated Pediatric Emergency Department which opened two weeks ago. It has been aggressively advertised as a state-of-the-art facility with private rooms and limited wait times. It even has a separate waiting room from the adult Emergency Department and video games for the kids.
There has been both the usual adulation from the press and the self-congratulation from the advocates of everything and anything as long as it’s “for the children.” If we step back from the hyperbole however, in a city the size of ours there are not that many real pediatric emergencies…or at least not enough to justify building a Pediatric Emergency Department. The traumas and critically sick children still come to the adult side (also newly constructed) and as we usually get them up to the PICU extremely quickly, what’s left is mostly urgent care and general after hours pediatrics which is, of course, what the hospital is angling for. It looks to be a stunning success and the new department daily harvests a bumper crop of essentially well children eating up a couple or three hundred bucks apiece of scarce medical resources for mostly minor, self-limiting things that are thankfully mostly relegated to the Physician Assistants.
Build it and they will come and this is exactly what is happening. Why go to some crappy urgent care or the wait at the health department with the hookers and drug addicts if you can sit in a nice room with your children watching MTV on a brand-new flat-panel television while you wait for the doctor? Unfortunately, there are still long waiting times, you just wait in a private room instead of the waiting room, an improvement even if this is not what the hospital has disingenuously lead the patients to expect. Rooms are cheap. Doctors and Physician Assistants are not so real estate has never really been the bottleneck. The most common thing I hear when I am sent to the Third Level of Hell (the Pediatric Emergency Department I mean) to help clear out some of the backlog is the exasperated parent asking the nurse when the doctor will see them.
So the other night after my third twelve-hour shift in a row, I was riding the elevator to the parking deck with a disgruntled-looking tatooed couple and their mullet-bedecked toddler. The mother eyed my hospital identification badge, clearly identifying me as an Emergency Medicine Resident Physician, rolled her eyes and looked disgusted.
“How do you like our new Emergency Department?” I asked, somewhat taken aback by the hostility..
“They made us wait six hours just to tell us our kid has a cold,” snorted the mother, her nose stud gleaming in the soft recessed lighting as she and the putative father of her child stormed out of the elevator.
After the doors closed, another passenger looked at me and said, “Well I guess they shouldn’t bring the little motherfucker in if all he has is a cold.”
On The Other Hand….
I don’t have to tell you how much most doctors dislike patients who are google-based medical experts. Not that we don’t like well-informed patients because we certainly do, it’s just that the internet is so jam-packed with misinformation that without a background in science and critical thinking, two things which are not major selling points of our public schools, it is hard for many people to separate fact from fiction much less interpret their information in the appropriate context. The tendency is for people to view anything they see in a written form as the truth, or, as one of my patients put it about her stack of googled articles about the benefits of large doses of Vitamin C, “If it wasn’t true they wouldn’t write it.”
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I knocked on the door to a patient’s room whose parents, the nurse warned me, had a whole binder of articles downloaded from the internet. The patient turned out to be a sick-looking, febrile nine-week-old baby who required a full septic workup including a lumbar puncture that was positive for a bacterial infection and who was rapidly admitted for IV antibiotics and supportive care. The mother initially apologized and said that although her parents said the baby didn’t need to come in, she had read some articles on the internet and decided to bring him in anyway.
I looked at her binder and the first article was the exact same one I had skimmed on the internet just before knocking on the door. I guess if you’re going to use the internet you may as well use it right.
During my history, I asked if the baby’s vaccinations were up to date. The mother looked embarrassed and said that her parents were against vaccinations and had told her not to get the baby his shots but that she had decided to do it anyway.
“My in-laws are retarded,” Explained the father.
Hope Springs Eternal
I have never seen a sicker patient who wasn’t actually dead or heading that way shortly (e.g. the typical 92-year-old cardiac arrest who looks like a cadaver but who we try to resuscitate anyways). About my age, emaciated, cachetic, profoundly pallorous, and acutely short of breath with any exertion more strenouos than talking. He had what felt like a large, sold mass in his abdomen that started under his left rib cage and seemed to extend into his pelvis. His teeth were rotted, his hair was dry and sparse, he had creepy-looking fungus-like lesions all over his body, and he was covered with a fine layer of what looked like powdered sugar but was actually uric acid salts, an indicator of end-stage renal disease. His chief complaint was hematuria (blood in his urine) but if there was any urine in his blood I would have been suprised. His serum hemoglobin, a surrogate marker for the amount of blood in the body, was 3.9 or about the blood content of a medium sized yorkshire terrier. And yet for all that he was alert, cheerful, and a fairly pleasant guy.
“Do you have any medical problems” I asked.
“No,” he said.
And he was technically correct because a search of our records and those of the other major hospital in town showed that this gentleman, a lifelong resident of our city, had never so much as visted the Emergency Department. Apparently he had been getting sicker and sicker and, like most guys, initially decided to ignore his symptoms but then got so used to being tired and worn out that he forgot he had ever lived any other way.
“I’ve got a good one for you,” I said to the tired medicine resident who was down in the department admitting his sixth vague abdominal pain of the night.
“Ooh, let me guess, another bogus chest pain,” he said wearily, “I can barely contain my excitement.”
“Naw,” I said, “This guy is the real deal.”
I explained the particulars of the case and the resident perked up a little.
“And get this, he has never seen a doctor. He’s terra incognito, man! Virgin territory. You’ll be the first guy to plant the flag, kind of like Neil Armstrong.”
“What studies have you ordered?” the resident asked.
“Not a whole lot,” I said, “We’re going to transfuse him but other than that…well…knock yourself out.”
“I love you, man.”