I keep games on the 4th home screen of my cell phone. The third screen is blank. A minuscule of energy required to swipe my thumb has prevented me one too many times from mindlessly launching an RPG. Only to realize 2 hours later I had other plans for those 2 hours. An American comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg famously joked once,
I have always believed that the subtle truths kneaded so artfully in seemingly light, small-talk-worthy jokes are what makes a comedian a genius. How many times have you thought that you need to pick up that particular grocery or fill up that one conference form only to instead get consumed by what was easily available?
Our mind is built so that it follows the path of least resistance no matter how insignificant the resistance is. Although smudged all over the canvas of self-help, non-fiction genre, medicine somehow isn’t used frequently to exemplify the path of least resistance.
Today, I present to you a case that inspired us at Beltar, to remove one such small resistance from our workflow. The implications as you will see were no less than life-saving.
Rural Health System : Oversimplified
Before I present to you the case, a small preamble: Health care in rural Nepal is still run mostly by paramedics. No matter what spectrum you fall in terms of appreciating their work, the fact remains that they are the major workforce we have at the rural. It suffices to say that they are the portal of entry to the health system of our country for many. All emergency cases, once screened and declared complicated, the medical officer (usually a MBBS doctor) at the PHC sees the patient. Majority of cases are seen only by paramedics – considering 3 to 5 paramedics, usually and barely one medical officer in most PHCs.
A mobile game I wouldn't play
Now that the characters are in place, let’s dive right into the no less than a fairy tale land of the rural health system. Lamenting about the obvious lack of resources has been so old school that I don’t even make a typo while typing about it these days. We had one ECG machine at Beltar. The old ECG machine with its squeaky sound and myriad varieties of artifacts stood with all its mighty bulk inside a locked door of a room. The key protected from no one in particular by the office assistant who would open the door, drag the machine out, bring it to the bedside. The paramedic who decided to do the ECG would then untangle the wire glazed with what little of gel we had applied to the previous patient. He would then connect the limb leads and the pre-cordial leads with the trusty suction knobs which hopefully has some gel left from the previous use and then comes the biggest connection to be made: connecting the machine to the power grid. “Don’t you keep your machine charged!?”, you ask. We do. But the Li-ion battery probably has undergone autophagy, or whatever fancy name the process is given. That is a lot of steps and by extension, a lot of resistance. If this were a mobile game, I don’t think I would be addicted to it.
A Race Against Time
A patient with diabetes who had visited our ER a couple of times before was being monitored for chest pain at around 7 AM on a Saturday morning. I was washing my clothes on the first floor unaware that my Saturday is not going to be about laundry and daily chores. When I was called to check the patient, she was already deteriorating at a rate far greater than our PHC could ever catch up. We tried to borrow the speed of an ambulance and refer the patient to a higher center. An ST elevation in any two contiguous lead is an MI. Our paramedics knew that. To everybody’s surprise, ECG was not done! Given the fact that we did not have cardiac enzymes available at the PHC and Aspirin was all we could have prescribed before discharge anyway: we gave the patient 2 Aspirin tablets to chew and referred her as fast as we could. My paramedic colleagues have demonstrated utmost clinical competence and professionalism too many times to doubt any of that. The work environment was still error-prone and the circumstance demanded a change. Could we have changed the outcome given the same resources and clinical scenario? Maybe we need to decrease the resistance I thought. Changing how we store ECG (shown in the picture below), making it more accessible not only increased the frequency with which it was being used but also served as a reminder. A physical question hanging down the IV stand asking anyone who is attending a case, “Do you need to use me?”
Workarounds: Because Solutions are Late to the Party.
If you have been following my writings, you’d have noticed this as another small tweak, a workaround, a nudge to the existing system so to speak that isn’t the substitute for the actual sustainable solution. Robust training that helps hard-working paramedics conceptualize and understand the protocols related to the use of basic yet life-saving diagnostics like ECG can be a start. We tried printing and pasting some protocols on the walls; another workaround we hope would help make patient care better until it actually sustainably improves. Another workaround that a friend suggested was: everyone who aches above the waist, gets an ECG. Such simplification works well to decrease the resistance in learning complex protocols. I am sure there are plenty of workarounds used worldwide, a necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. I leave you with a thought: What effect do you think will a systematic sharing of such workarounds among the rural healthcare workers will produce?