By HANS DUVEFELT, MD
As a family doctor I receive a lot of reports from emergency room visits, consultations and hospitalizations. Many such reports include a dozen or more blood tests, several x-rays and several prescriptions.
Ideally I would read all these reports in some detail and be more than casually familiar with what happens to my patients.
But how possible is it really to do a good job with that task?
How much time would I need to spend on this to do it well?
Is there any time at all set aside in the typical primary care provider’s schedule for this task?
I think the answers to these questions are obvious and discouraging, if not at least a little bit frightening.
10 years ago I wrote a post titled “If You Find It, You Own It” and that phrase constantly echoes in my mind. You would hope that an emergency room doctor who sees an incidental abnormal finding during a physical exam or in a lab or imaging report would either deal with it or reach out to someone else, like the primary care provider, to pass the baton – making sure the patient doesn’t get lost to followup.
But emergency room medicine is shift work, just like hospital medicine; providers may not be around when the abnormal result comes in, and the next shift worker perhaps can’t see what is in the first doctor’s inbox.
As I click through the “orders to sign off”, I end up prioritizing “my” orders, because I “own” them. The “Outside Provider” orders are in my inbox as a double check, but nobody double checks my results. I have to make them my priority if my time is limited and time, by definition, is always limited.
There is more and more data in medicine, and while I hope technology will make it easier to sort, view and prioritize data, I don’t believe artificial intelligence will do that well for frontline medical providers anytime soon.
I keep thinking that we really need to have a serious debate or examination of what we need primary care providers to do. The Patient Centered Medical Home movement (see my personal take on that here) held a promise of better care coordination by people like me in clinics like mine, but the way we do things hasn’t changed nearly as much as many of us had hoped.
I seriously believe that it would be a worthwhile investment for our whole healthcare “system” to structure and reimburse the care coordination work we primary care providers could do for our patients.
We can certainly use the help and collaboration of other professionals like nurses, but ultimately we need to know what’s going on with our patients. Otherwise their care will continue to suffer from more and more fragmentation as subspecialization brings more different doctors into many patients care “teams”, as hospital stays grow shorter with more loose ends at discharge, as options for urgent care walk-in and virtual visits increase and as more and more patients become afflicted with multiple chronic illnesses because of the declining health of people in this country.
When I started my residency in Lewiston, Maine back in 1981, family doctors were enthusiastic and idealistic. Much has dampened that enthusiasm since then, but I still believe we have a crucial role we could fill for the health of our nation.
If the “system” would only let us.
Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.
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