In the hospital, a curbside consult is an informal consultation between physicians that avoids the sometimes cumbersome request and documentation requirements for a “real” consultation. Of course, without the request and documentation piece, it also avoids the billing and payment piece, so it’s essentially a freebie given between colleagues.
Most of the time you never know who the patient is. It just starts out along the lines of, “I wanted to pick your brain about this guy…” Doctors get curbsided by their friends and family members as well, usually about a test result or a visit to the doctor. Most of the time the requests I get from friends are easy to answer. This week though, my IT colleague Jimmy the Greek asked me to translate his MRI and I was digging deep to find anything in my memory about a “pistol grip deformity” of the hip.
Thank goodness for eOrthopod, who was able to quickly answer my question so I could talk intelligently about his situation, which I had been following tangentially over the last few months. As we go boldly where no one has gone before with a new president and the impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act, I thought it was worthy of sharing and discussion. So get your popcorn, wine, tequila, or other beverage of choice and sit back for the first installment of Dr. Jayne’s Journal Club, where we will review a patient case presentation.
A year ago, I injured my hip in martial arts class participating in kicking-for-height competition with a 15-year-old whose flexibility would make Gumby green(er) with envy. I’ll have your loyal readers know that I won that contest, despite the fact that I seem to have lost the war, and have now been set adrift in the murky waters of consumer-driven healthcare. For months, my hip would hurt, so I’d rest it, but then go take another martial arts class, where I’d aggravate the injury again. I finally quit taking lessons in August and I assumed that without the thrice-weekly strain I was putting on the injury, it would heal quickly. Finally, in October, I couldn’t take it anymore and went to see my chiropractor. (Being a savvy consumer of healthcare services, I didn’t want to go see my orthopedist right off, as that’s like asking my barber if I need a haircut).
After a few weeks of adjustments, home exercise, and K-Tape, my chiropractor referred me to a physiatrist. I was warned ahead of time that, “He and his office staff are . . . a bit quirky.” My first impression of this highly-regarded doctor was formed when he blasted the exam room door open, pointed at me, motioned toward the hallway, and said “You – come out here.” While his bedside manner (and as I learned later, professionalism) left quite a bit to be desired, he seemed knowledgeable and capable, and really, that’s what’s important.
I was sent for an x-ray to rule out anything skeletal and told that the office would receive the results electronically and call me to discuss next steps. After completing the x-ray, I left a voice mail in the practice’s general mailbox to let them know. The outgoing message admonished me to wait at least 48 hours for a reply and not to call back before then, as doing so would drop me to the end of the line. I waited a whopping four days for a call back and finally decided to risk my place in line. The not-so-cheery voice on the other end of the phone told me that no, I would not get a call, and no, I did not need an appointment. All I had to do was show up on the practice’s doorstep, imagery in hand, and the doctor would see me immediately. I agreed to come in the next week, as I was on vacation from work.
Fast forward to Monday morning, when I darkened the aforementioned doorstep with my presence. Sadly, that’s all I could darken because the door was locked. It seems that this paragon of all that is good and right with the practice of medicine decided to take Monday off. The desk staff was working, however, and when I bent their collective ear about better communication with patients, I was (quite literally) screamed at for my trouble. For those of you keeping track at home, I had already been given two conflicting pieces of information about how to get my test results, neither of which I would later find out was correct. Dr. Professional reviewed my x-ray early the next morning and decided I was in need of an MRI with contrast agent.
This morning, I dutifully arrived 15 minutes early for the procedure so I could fill out the exact same paperwork I had filled out before the x-ray, despite the fact that I was merely at a different location of the same imaging firm run by the same hospital system. I was told by the technician who was getting me prepped for the procedure that the radiologist performing the arthrogram is notoriously late. When she finally arrived (15 minutes after her scheduled start time), she approached me with a needle that looked like a cross between a whaling harpoon and the drill bits that arctic researchers use to take core samples. Once the lidocaine kicked in, though, it didn’t matter. The staff tried valiantly to get me to use the standard MRI machine, but in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood, a man’s gotta know his limitations. Mine happen to include enclosed spaces. Off we went to the “open” machine, which, much to my chagrin, is about as open as Internet access in North Korea. I only required one break from my incarceration in the evil machine.
Instead of going straight home, I decided to drop in on Dr. Wonderful (CD in hand) to get his take on my MRI. While en route, I called the office to make sure he was there. It only took me three tries to get through to a human. When I told her why I was calling, she was astonished that I would ever think to just drop in, because as everyone knows, an appointment is required to review imaging results with the doctor. So now I wait until next week.
I am familiar with the physician in question, but hadn’t had any patients in common for nearly a decade, so decided to do some Google stalking. He’s on staff at Big Medical Center, so would have access to the clinical data repository at a minimum and most likely would have direct access to the PACS due to his specialty. He’s been recognized multiple times by his peers as one of the community’s “Best Doctors in Town” which can be confusing since patients don’t understand how those honors are usually bestowed. Our city’s magazine that runs the feature every year solicits feedback from other physicians, but many of us think it’s a joke because one colleague had moved away three years prior but continued to be on the “best doctors” honor list.
He’s got four stars on Healthgrades with 28 reviews and no disciplinary actions by the board of healing arts. But it sounds like his practice is disorganized and doesn’t take advantage of patient-friendly technology solutions like a patient portal or secure messaging, even though they have a portal link on the practice website. There’s no information on the website about the processes and procedures that didn’t work so well in this case, so a patient looking to do things the “right way” would have trouble confirming.
Of course, in consumer-driven healthcare, the patient’s main recourse is to vote with his feet, which is sometimes challenging to do when you’re partway into a course of treatment or into a diagnostic process with another provider. Fortunately, our patient has his imaging studies in hand, which sadly not every patient has. Our patient is also a well-educated IT guy with the flexibility to make time during the day to call offices and run down results, and many patients don’t have the ability to do those things, making their diagnostic and treatment course even more fragmented.
When I hear about situations like this, I think about whether technology would have made anything better. There were definitely some opportunities here, but the real issue isn’t something that the current focus of regulation or rulemaking is going to address, other than patient satisfaction scores, which I hope were appropriately low in this case, if they were even solicited.
Our patient has since been referred to an orthopedic surgeon, so we’ll have to check in with him down the line to see if the brave new world of high tech healthcare has done any better for him. As a consultant, I see these situations all the time, and typically the physician is resistant to change as are the members of the office team, who seem to be part of the problem here. The worst cases are often the hardest to fix.
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