by Joe Lex
Everyone in medicine knows that Emergency Medicine is different, even if they can’t put the reason into words. We know why. We work in an environment that is different, in hours that are different, and with patients who are different more than any other medical specialty. Our motto is “Anyone, anything, anytime.” No other specialty of medicine makes that claim.
While other doctors dwell on “What does this patient have? – that is, “What’s the diagnosis?” – emergency physicians are instead thinking “What does this patient need right now? In 5 minutes? In two hours?”
The concept of seeing undifferentiated patients with symptoms, not diagnoses, is alien to many of our medical colleagues. Yet we do it on a daily basis, many times during a shift. The idea of juggling decisions for several sick people simultaneously is beyond the capabilities of almost everyone else in medicine. They are used to working with one patient at a time in a linear fashion.
I retired a few years ago after more than 45 years in Emergency Medicine, dating back to my time as an Army medic in Vietnam. Every time I introduced myself to a patient, I never knew in advance which direction things were going to head. I never knew whether I could help the patient in 30 seconds or 30 minutes, if at all. I felt like I should have given this disclaimer.
Hello stranger, I am Doctor Joe Lex. I will spend as much time with you as it takes to determine whether you are trying to die on me, and whether I should admit you to the hospital so you can try to die on one of my colleagues.
You and I have never met before today. You must trust me with your life and secrets, and I must trust that the answers you give me are honest.
After today, we may never see one another again. It may turn out to be one of the worst days of your life. For me, it is another workday. I may forget you minutes after you leave the department, but you will probably remember me for many days or months, possibly even for the rest of your life. I will ask you many, many questions. I will do the best I can to ask the right questions in the right order so that I come to a correct decision. I want you to tell me your story, and for me to understand that story, I may have to interrupt you to clarify your answers.
Each question I ask you is a conscious decision on my part. In an average 8-hour shift I will make about 10,000 conscious and subconscious decisions – who should I see next, what question should I ask next, how much physical examination should I perform, is that really a murmur that I am hearing, what lab study should I order, what imaging study should I look at now, and is that really an infiltrate, which consultant will give me the least pushback about caring for you, is your nurse one whom I can trust with the mission of getting your pain under control, and will I remember to give you that work note when it is time for you to go home? And so on… So even if I screw up just 0.1% of these decisions, I will make about ten mistakes today.
I hope for both of our sakes you have a plain, obvious emergency with a high signal-to-noise ratio. Gonorrhea, a dislocated kneecap, chest pain with an obvious STEMI pattern on EKG, shingles, a dental abscess, an eye foreign body … I can recognize and treat those things without even thinking. If, on the other hand, your problem has a lot of background noise and vague signs and symptoms, I am more likely to be led down the wrong path and come to the wrong conclusion.
I am glad to report that the human body is very resilient. We as humans have evolved over millennia to survive, so even if I screw up, the odds are very, very good that you will be fine. Voltaire told us back in the 18th century that “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” For the most part, this has not changed. And Lewis Thomas wrote: “The great secret of doctors, learned by internists and learned early in marriage by internists’ wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves. Most things, in fact, are better by morning.” On the other hand, the path to dying is rather direct – failure of respirations, failure of the heart, failure of the brain, or failure of metabolism.
Remember, you don’t come to me with a diagnosis: you come to me with symptoms. You may have any one of more than 10,000 diseases or conditions that we know about, and – truth be told – the odds of me getting the absolute correct diagnosis are small. You may have an uncommon presentation of a common disease or a common presentation of an uncommon disease. If you are early in your disease process, I may even miss such life-threatening conditions as heart attack or sepsis. If you neglect to truthfully tell me your sexual history or your use of drugs and alcohol, I may not follow through with appropriate questions and might come to a totally incorrect conclusion about what you need or what you have.
You may be disappointed when you feel that you are not being seen by a “specialist.” Many people believe that when they have their heart attack, they should be cared for by a cardiologist. They think that the symptom of “chest pain” is their ticket to the heart specialist. But what if the heart attack is not chest pain, but nausea and breathlessness? And what if the chest pain is aortic dissection? Or a pneumothorax? Or a ruptured esophagus? So, you are being treated by a specialist – one who can discern the life-threatening from the trivial, and the medical from the surgical. We are the specialty trained to think like this.
We started our training in a state of unconscious incompetence – we were so poor at what we did that we did not even know how bad we were. We were lucky if we could care for four patients in an 8-hour shift. But we quickly learned and reached a level of conscious incompetence and multi-tasking – we knew that we were inadequate, but we felt ourselves getting better at our job on a day-to-day basis. By the time we finished our training we had reached the next level: conscious competence. We could deal with almost anything, but we still had to think hard about much of our decision making. After a few more years of practice, we reached our pinnacle of unconscious competence
If you insist on asking “What do I have, Doctor Lex?” you may be disappointed when I tell you “I don’t know what you have, but I do know it is safe for you to go home.” Sometimes I can do this without doing a single test. I do know that if I give you a made-up diagnosis like “gastritis” or “walking pneumonia,” you will think the problem is solved. Worse yet, other doctors will anchor on my false diagnosis, and you may never get the right answers.
Here’s some good news: we are probably both thinking of the worst-case scenario. You get a sudden headache and wonder “Do I have a brain tumor?” You get some belly pain and worry “Is this cancer?” The good news is that I am thinking exactly the same thing. And if you do not hear me say the word “stroke” or “cancer,” then you will think I am an idiot for not reading your mind to determine that is what you are worried about. I understand that no matter how trivial your complaint, you have a fear that something bad is happening.
While we are talking, I may be interrupted once or twice. See, I get interrupted several times every hour – answering calls from consultants, responding to the prehospital personnel, clarifying orders for nurses and technicians. Or I may get suddenly called away to care for someone far sicker than you. I will try very hard to not let these interruptions derail me from doing what is best for you today.
I will use my knowledge and experience to reach the right decisions for you. I know that I am biased, but knowledge of bias is not enough to change it. I know the pathophysiology of pulmonary embolism in excruciating detail, but the literature suggests I may still miss this condition at least half the time it occurs.
And here’s the interesting thing: I will probably make these errors whether I just quickly determine what I think you have by pattern recognition or use analytical reason. Emergency physicians are notorious for thinking quickly and making early decisions based on minimal information (Type 1 thinking). Cognitive psychologists tell us that we can cut down on errors by using analytical reasoning (Type 2 thinking). It turns out that both produce about the same amount of error, and the key is probably to learn both types of reasoning simultaneously.
After I see you, I will go to a computer and probably spend as much time generating your chart as I did while seeing you. This is to document what I have found and how I have worked up your complaint, so the hospital and I can get paid. The more carefully I document what you say and what I did, then the more money I can collect from your insurance carrier. But that chart may be useless in helping other health care providers understand what happened today unless I deviate from the clicks and actually write what we talked about and explained my thought process. In my eight-hour shift today I will click about 4000 times.
What’s that? You say you don’t have insurance? Well, that’s okay too. The U.S. government and many other governments in the world have mandated that I have to see you anyway without asking you how you will pay. No, they haven’t guaranteed me any money for doing this – in fact, I can be fined a hefty amount if I don’t do it. A 2003 article estimated I give away more than $138,000 per year worth of free care because of this law.
But if you are having an emergency, you have come to the right place. If you need a life-saving procedure such as endotracheal intubation or decompression needle thoracotomy, I’ll do it. If you need emergency delivery of your baby or rapid control of your hemorrhage, I can do that too. I can do your spinal tap, I can sew your laceration, I can reduce your shoulder dislocation, and I can insert your Foley catheter. I can float your temporary pacemaker, I can get that pesky foreign body out of your eye or ear or rectum, I can stop your seizure or your nosebleed, and I can talk you through your bad trip.
Emergency medicine really annoys a lot of the other specialists. I think that it is primarily because we are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And we really expect our consultants to be there when we need them. Yes, we are fully prepared to annoy a consultant if that is what you need.
I saw thousands of patients, each unique, in my near-50 years of experience. But every time I thought about writing a book telling of my wondrous career, I quickly stopped short and told myself “You will just be adding more blather to what is already out there – what you have learned cannot easily be taught and will not be easily learned by others. What you see as wisdom, others will see as platitudes.”
As author Norman Douglas once wrote: “What is all wisdom save a collection of platitudes. Take fifty of our current proverbial sayings– they are so trite, so threadbare. None the less they embody the concentrated experience of the race, and the man who orders his life according to their teachings cannot be far wrong. Has any man ever attained to inner harmony by pondering the experience of others? Not since the world began! He must pass through fire.”
Have you ever heard of John Coltrane? He was an astonishing musician who became one of the premiere creators of the 20th century. He started as an imitator of older musicians but quickly changed into his own man. He listened to and borrowed from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, African music and Indian music, Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism. And from these seemingly unrelated parts he created something unique, something no one had ever heard before. Coltrane not only changed music, but he changed people’s expectations of what music could be. In the same way, emergency medicine has taken ideas from surgery and pediatrics, critical care and obstetrics, endocrinology and psychiatry, and orthopedics, and we have created something unique. And in doing so, we altered the world’s expectations of what medicine should be.
Now, how can I help you today?
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