Friday, December 28, 2012

New screening test for diabetes unveiled

Game-changing new screening test for Type I diabetes. Read all about it on Surgery Watch. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My seven most-read blogs of 2012



I want to again thank everyone who has taken the time to read my blog and follow me on Twitter. I appreciate all the comments agreeing or disagreeing with what I have written.

Interest in the blog has grown over the last year. It’s averaging about 800 page views per day, up from 400 per day at the end of last year. And I now have over 4200 followers on Twitter, a gain of about 2700 over the year.

Here is a list of my top seven most-read blogs of 2012:








I hope you have a healthy and prosperous new year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

"Thousands" of errors made by surgeons



Over the last few days, stories about “thousands of errors made by surgeons” have received a lot of media and Internet attention. All of this was the result of a paper from Johns Hopkins that says surgeons leave an object in 40 patients per week, perform wrong site surgery on 20 patients per week and perform the wrong operation altogether in 20 patients per week.

The paper reported 9,744 such errors in a review of the National Practitioner Data Bank over the 20 years from 1990 to 2010. I’d love to tell you how they extrapolated from 9,744, which over 20 years averages 9.4 such errors per week, to 80 per week, but the paper is not accessible to those who do not subscribe to the journal Surgery.

I agree with those who say these are “never” events that are totally preventable and should never happen.

But I want to set the record straight.

Listen to me. Surgeons are not the cause of sponges being left in patients. I’ll explain.

A surgeon is about to perform an appendectomy. Before she arrives in the operating room, the circulating nurse and the scrub technician will have assembled all of the equipment needed to do the case. They also will have carefully counted all of the instruments, needles and sponges. [The “sponges” are not like the ones you use to clean your sink. They are 4 X 4 inch gauze pads or larger cloths called lap (short for “laparotomy”) pads.]

The surgeon has nothing to do with the counting either before or at the end of the surgery. As the wound is being closed, the nurse and tech perform another count to verify that all sponges etc. are accounted for. A third count is done after the skin is closed. There are checklists for this.

When I protested on Twitter that surgeons were being blamed for the errors involving objects left in patients, many people responded that if I was in charge, I should verify that the counts were correct. I replied that I could either do the surgery or do the counting, but not both. You see, as the case progresses, I might have asked for more equipment or a suture that was not on hand at the start of the case. The staff must add these things to the total count. If a new package of lap pads was opened, they must be counted before they can be used. Would you want your surgeon to look away from your bleeding wound to count the sponges?

Others brought up the alleged “fact” that the surgeon is the “captain of the ship.” That principle, which was established in Pennsylvania law in 1949, has been abandoned by most states. Here is a quote from a textbook on nursing malpractice:

“The viability of this doctrine is dubious, at best, in today’s health care system. Each perioperative health care provider is considered a professional with responsibility and hence accountability for specified tasks and individual actions.”

Many more such references can be found.

By the way, I wanted to see how the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital, which is where the authors of the paper work, is dealing with medical errors. However, when I searched the Leapfrog patient safety website, this is what I found for Johns Hopkins Hospital.


Attempts to solve the problem of retained objects with technology such as barcoding sponges or placing radio frequency tags on them have not caught on. And those measures would not be able to help with instruments or needles.

Yes, no object should ever be left in a patient. But at least get the headlines straight. If nurses and techs do their jobs, surgeons cannot leave things in patients.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Speed bumps & appendicitis: The facts



Increased abdominal pain experienced by people when riding in a car which traverses speed bumps has been found to be a symptom of appendicitis.

As usual, several media outlets reported this topic uncritically. Medpage Today even had a video explanation of the results by an internist who suggested that this finding might one day lead to fewer CT scans being done.

I don’t think so.

Researchers from the UK prospectively questioned 101 patients with possible appendicitis, 68 of whom had ridden over speed bumps on the way to the hospital. Four were excluded because of missing data.

Increased speed bump-related pain was experienced by 54 patients, and 33 of them had appendicitis. Ten patients had no speed bump-related pain with only 1 having appendicitis.

A confirmed diagnosis of appendicitis was found in 34 patients, 33 of whom had worsened pain over speed bumps, sensitivity = 97% (85% to 100%) and specificity = 30% (15% to 49%). Positive predictive value = 61% (47% to 74%); and negative predictive value = 90% (56% to 100%). The likelihood ratios (LRs) were 1.4 (1.1 to 1.8) for a positive test result and 0.1 (0.0 to 0.7) for a negative result.

What does a likelihood ratio mean?

For a positive LR of 1.4: The following nomogram illustrates that if after you assess a patient with abdominal pain, you think he has a 90% chance of having appendicitis then a positive speed bump test would increase his odds of having appendicitis from 90% to about 92%. The green line starts at 90% and crosses the middle line at 1.4.


For a negative LR of 0.1: Suppose the patient went over a speed bump and said he had no pain but based on other signs and symptoms, you still think he has a 90% chance of having appendicitis. The red line shows that a negative LR of 0.1 would give you a 48% chance that the patient actually has appendicitis. That’s not enough to convince you not to operate.

You can see that the speed bump test adds very little to the diagnostic workup for appendicitis. As the MedPage video stated, it is well-known that pain with motion is a symptom that is often found in patients with peritonitis. I always have asked questions related to pain during the car ride to the hospital or when riding the gurney ride to and from CT.

Further proof of the lack of utility of the test is found in the paper itself, published in the British Medical Journal. Full text here.

In the introduction the paper states that the rate of negative appendectomy "ranges from 5% to 42%, and this can be associated with considerable morbidity.”

This is very old data. The standard of care in this part of the 21st century is that the negative rate should be well below 10%. My own rate of negative appendectomy for my last 200 cases is 4.5%.

The negative appendectomy rate for the speed bump study was not mentioned in any of the media reports nor is it in the abstract. But the full text of the paper reveals that the negative appendectomy rate in this study was 20%.

I don’t see this test replacing CT scanning any time soon.

Once again to get the facts, you have to read the whole paper, not just the abstract or the press release.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Electronic medical records: Documentation of care and upcoding



Electronic medical records make documentation easier and that may be a problem.

There are many interesting unintended consequences of electronic medical records (EMRs). I was reminded of this by a recent blog I wrote about what interns really do when they are on call. According to a study from a VA hospital using trained time-motion observers, interns spend 40% of their time on a computer and only 12% of their time taking care of patients. This meshes well with other reports noting that doctors are staring at screens instead of talking to patients.

Here’s the problem. The system actually rewards extensive documentation which may result in less patient contact. The saying “If you didn’t document it, you didn’t do it” has morphed into “Document it, and you can use a higher billing code.”

Here are some CPT billing codes for hospital visits.

99221 Initial Hospital Care, Physician spends 30 minutes at the bedside
99222 Initial Hospital Care, Physician spends 50 minutes at the bedside
99223 Initial Hospital Care, Physician spends 70 minutes at the bedside

Sources tell me that they know of physicians who never bill for less than 99223 or 70 minutes for a history and physical (H&P) examination. In order to do this the doctor must document such things as having reviewed at least 10 different systems (e.g., respiratory, GI, musculoskeletal etc.). This is easy to document without having actually done it. The EMR may have popup windows with lists of systems and symptoms that can be checked off as reviewed.

This problem is more prevalent among the so-called “cognitive” specialties like internal medicine and primary care because for procedure-based specialties like surgery, the H&P is usually “bundled” (included) as part of the fee for the surgery.

Now that it is so easy to write a very detailed H&P, it must be tempting to bill every encounter at the maximum level. However, this may come back to bite those who try it. Medicare has been known to audit hospital charts and office records. They have profiles of what the distribution of the various levels of care should be.

Also, there are only so many hours in a day. Let’s say you are working a 12-hour shift and bill for eight 75 minute H&Ps and ten 25 minute subsequent visits. That’s 600 + 250 = 850 minutes or over 14 hours. If you are audited, you will have some explaining to do.

You may think that I am exaggerating but I am not the only one to raise this issue.

A recent long-read from the Center for Public Integrity confirms my thoughts. Here’s a quote from that piece, “And Medicare regulators worry that the coding levels may be accelerating in part because of increased use of electronic health records, which make it easy to create detailed patient files with just a few mouse clicks.

The article points out that billing for higher codes has risen over the last several years and it’s costing the taxpayers over $6 billion. It warns that Medicare audits might be forthcoming, but some feel that audits might cost more to perform than the revenue they generate.

We will see.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How lawyers deal with being sued for legal malpractice




The September 2012 issue of the AARP Bulletin has a story about a woman who sued an elder-law attorney for legal malpractice. Bear with me. It’s an interesting tale.

In 2004, a man consulted an elder-law attorney to set up a trust that would distribute his assets fairly. He had a daughter from his previous marriage and his wife had five children from her previous marriage. The story is a bit complicated, but his plan was that should he die first, the wife would inherit everything. Then when she died, his biologic daughter was to receive all of whatever was left of the money.

But the lawyer made an error and the trust actually was written in such a way that all six children (his daughter and his wife’s five) would get equal shares of the estate instead of his daughter getting it all.

Sure enough, the man died first and the mistake was discovered. The wife had not yet died but the man’s daughter sued the attorney for legal malpractice. He admitted the error but defended himself by saying the daughter had not yet suffered any damages so he owed her nothing. He also said the amount of money that might be left in the trust was impossible to calculate.

Based on the life expectancy of the wife and the amount of money in the trust, it was estimated that the daughter should have been entitled to over $500,000 when the wife finally dies.

The court ruled that the lawyer’s reasoning had some merit, but because of the serious nature of the error, it awarded the daughter $472,000 in damages.

Fine and dandy, right?

Not so fast. You see, lawyers don’t have to carry malpractice insurance.

Here’s how the story ends: “[The lawyer] decided to declare bankruptcy, which released him from his obligation to pay [the daughter].”

The story doesn’t mention whether the daughter had to pay her lawyer or any other fees.

When I finished reading the article, I was infuriated. I thought back to the origins of the medical malpractice crisis. When I was a resident in the early 1970s, general surgeons were paying less than $500 per year for malpractice insurance. When commercial insurers withdrew from the market, many state medical societies hastily established physician-owned mutual insurance companies. Shortly thereafter, premium rates shot up and here we are.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened had the medical societies simply thrown up their collective hands and said, “What are we to do? No one will insure our doctors.” Would state governments have stepped in? Would that have been a good thing or a bad thing? What about the federal government? Would we still have the ongoing crisis?

If you want to have some fun, play “What’s My Premium?” on the New York physician-owned malpractice company’s website. You can query any specialty in any county in the state. For example, a neurosurgeon in Nassau County (suburban New York City) is currently paying $315,000 per year for malpractice coverage. OB/GYN in the Bronx? $183,247.00.

In July, the New York Times reported that some hospitals in New York are dropping their malpractice insurance because they can’t afford it any longer, and they may not have enough money set aside to pay judgments against them.

The hospitals use the fact that they have little money to pay out as negotiating leverage. The hospitals tell plaintiffs to either take what little is offered as a settlement or risk getting nothing if the hospital goes bankrupt and closes.

Maybe the hospitals are learning from the lawyers. What about us physicians? Will we ever learn?