I’m Better, Thanks
Like I said, it’s only in residency training where one could be happy to be sick while on vacation. I am just getting over a bout of what was probably the flu and as there is no practical way to take any time off as a resident, about the only time we can lay in bed or otherwise rest is either on vacation or when our day’s off correspond to our illness. They make a big deal about cautioning us not to work when we are sick for the sake of patient safety, of course. That’s all some of our patients need, to be exposed to their doctor’s gastroenteritis or other noxious infections but realistically, what are we supposed to do? In a pinch we can usually take one or two days off but as this involves screwing over the person assigned to back-up call, there is a tremendous reluctance to do this among residents. In other words, most of us would have to be spitting up blood or passing large chunks of our large intestine in our stool before we’ll call in sick. Still, there is nothing worse than having to work three fourteen-hour shifts in a row while running to the crapper every hour. Far better to be at home on vacation where you can at least relax between bouts and get some rest. Not to mention that my empathy for the typical 3AM vague-abdominal-pain-and-oh-by-the-way-can-I-have-a-sandwich patient, never very strong, is non-existent which is probably unfair to the patient (but if the shoe fits…).
Some residency programs are so small that they really have no backup for their residents at all and calling in sick in that situation will cause a major panic as well as instantly refuting the assertion made by shifty hospital bureaucrats that residents don’t contribute to the running of the hospital and are a burden to the put-upon institution. If this were really the case then the hospital would be delighted if we took a generous helping of sick days as this could only improve their bottom line. As is, however, when a resident unit goes down the service into which it had been installed goes into a major panic mode complete with sobbing and pleas for help. The sad thing is that a lot of residents buy into the notion that they are a liability to their program and act accordingly. Yes, I will grant you that a brand-new intern may appear to be good for nothing but he is actually many times more savvy than, for example,Â a brand-new PA who is actually paid real money, not to mention that the intern can make medical decisions limited only by his self-awareness of his limitations and his own personal comfort level. And by the time he gets a little experience the intern is a definite asset, many times for all practical purposes running the service at night. Good residents are completely trusted to handle routine admissions as well as routine emergencies and while I have never had an attending physician give me any grief whatsoever for calling him in the middle of the night for advice or to run a difficult patient by him, the expectation is that we should be able to handle most things and maybe the call for a patient admitted at 2AM can wait until 0730.
But most of us, like in any other non-government job, work whenÂ we are sick. What choice do we have?
Some Simple Math To Illustrate Where the Money Goes
“But Panda,” many of my regular readers write, “Surely you are exaggerating the cost of futile care. Is this not a red herring, merely a symptom of your dislike of dealing with living cadavers more than a real problem?”
Let me address this question by making three points. First of all, I am not against providing expensive, high tech medical care to the elderly. How could I be? Not only are the elderly the majority of my patients but most of them are completely lucid, healthy enough to enjoy whatever it is the elderly do for fun in their secret recreational vehicle conclaves, and benefit mightily from the installation of the occasional artificial joint or the correction of a once lethal medical condition or two. While it is true that from a purely economic point of view, it would be better if we all died the day after we retire or from the first major medical problem that blindsides us (whichever came first), we are not pure economic creatures and that two-trillion bucks we’re spending should at least do some good.
Second, while there are gray areas in determining when care is futile, I know real futile care when I see it. The patients I often describe, the ones who are older than dirt, not nearly as responsive, and collections of every major pathology you can imagine but who yet manage to cling to some strict constructionist version of life are distressingly common, so common that I probably see and admit at least one or two of them a week to the ICU. (This is not even considering the patients that are post-arrest or on the losing side of a major cerebral vascular accident accident and who are, in fact, dead except for the polite fiction of ongoing organ perfusion.) Suppose that each of these breathing cadavers is admitted to the ICU and stays for a week before either subverting our best efforts and dying or pulling through and being sent back to their pre-death warehouse until the next time. Suppose also that I work fifty weeks a year and see a hundred of these patients in that time. A week in the ICU probably costs close to twenty thousand dollars, maybe more, maybe less, but probably around that if we add the cost of their passage through the Emergency Department.
Folks, that means that about two million dollars of futile, almost entirely wasted medical spending passes through my humble resident hands every year. There are about 5000 Emergency Medicine residents working at any given time in the United States and through our combined hands, assuming that they all see the same patient mix, must thus pass around 10 billion dollars. And that’s only hospitals with residency programs and not even counting direct admissions to the ICU. Assuming that a year of comprehensive medical insurance (not that I’m into that sort of thing, you understand) costs $12,000-or-so a year for a typical family; that’s about 80,000 families worth of medical insurance. Consider also that only one-fifth of the major hospitals in the United States have residency programs of any kind but most still have the usual ICU facilities and it is not hard to see that the bill for futile, end-of-life care siphons off enough money to pay for all of the medical care for about half a million families (again, not that I think we should do this kind of thing). And that’s just direct hospital costs. We probably spend twice as much in non-critical and non-emergent care in the last long, slow, tango with the reaper.
My third point is that there is no incentive at any level of the medical industry to use a little common sense. At the high end, physicians risk severe legal consequences for not doing exactly what the family wants no matter how unrealistic. So dangerous is the legal terrain in this area of medicine that most hospitals have an ethics committee part of whose purpose is to spread legal responsibility. In many cases, however, there is no financial incentive to withdraw care as Medicare makes no distinction between the living and the living dead. At the patient end, the families have no financial stake in any of the decisions they make. If we but charged the families a small fraction of the cost for futile care or, more diabolically, had payment garnished from the patient’s estate upon their death, the families would be looking for the plug, especially in the cases where the ICU serves as an expensive funeral home where families can meet to see the body. If the family ever says, “We want to keep Uncle Joe on the ventilator until the rest of the family can fly in from Seattle,” they should be responsible for the full cost of the additional stay.