Like many parts of the US, my city has spent the weekend heading deeper into the polar vortex. I’m not a big fan of sub-zero temperatures, let alone wind chills in the negative double digits. We’re expecting snow throughout the night and into the morning, which will make for less-than-fun conditions driving to work in the morning. While some of my physician colleagues were scrambling to move their in-person patients to virtual visits, I reminded them that some of us have to work in person regardless of the weather.
I’m a bit tired of being an all-purpose clinical safety net for practices that don’t want to or otherwise can’t see patients in person, and especially having to see those patients without any supporting medical information. That’s one of the pitfalls of being part of an independent organization. We don’t have access to anyone’s broader medical records, unless you count patients who log into MyChart and hand you their phone. Our state charges exorbitant rates for independent physicians to participate in its health information exchange, so we don’t have that data, either.
Back when I was a community-based family physician, I used to call ahead when I referred patients to urgent care or to the emergency department to let them know what I was thinking and why I was sending the patient. It doesn’t seem like anyone does that any more. Half the time when I try to call a patient’s personal physician to discuss their case, either I don’t get a call back or they act bothered that I even called in the first place. I’ve had a total of two physicians thank me for calling them about their patients in the last six months. One of them was an orthopedic surgeon who not only gave me advice on how to handle the patient’s unique problem, but made the patient an appointment for first thing in the morning while she and I were on the phone discussing the case.
I try to keep positive situations like this one at the top of my thoughts when I’m dreading tomorrow’s bone-chilling and potentially dangerous trek. Due to the pandemic, plenty of people are out of practice driving in poor conditions, so who knows what it will look like. I’d much rather be at home working on technology projects. I have some interesting ones in the works. One takes me into a world where I haven’t had a lot of experience outside the clinical realm, and that’s the perioperative services arena. I’ve been contracted by a health system that is trying to be proactive about the significant number of surgeries that patients have delayed during the pandemic. As COVID-19 numbers begin to fall across the region, they are looking at the best ways to bring those patients back into care.
As you can imagine, a number of the cases are orthopedic in nature – hip and knee replacements, shoulder reconstructions, and the like. For those patients whose procedures were on the books at one time and were rescheduled or canceled during the pandemic, outreach is fairly straightforward. The challenge is identifying the patients who never made it to the surgical scheduling team. Perhaps the procedure had been discussed with a surgeon, some of whom are employed by the health system, so we have access to medical records and can begin to identify those patients depending on how the visits were documented and whether the procedure recommendations were captured in discrete data. Others had surgeries recommended by community-based physicians who are on staff at the system’s hospitals, and identifying those patients is more challenging.
Beyond identifying the patients and their respective procedures, there are several other related projects that I’m being pulled into. They look at various details including surgical scheduling, staffing for perioperative personnel, equipment management, sterilization and central supply processes, and more. One sub-project looks at the surgical instrument preferences for various procedures across surgeons and how they might be standardized. That’s where it gets exciting for me, because I get to try to look at relationships between surgical outcomes and a number of factors, including level of standardization, number of cases performed at the different facilities, staffing, and how those factors might influence each other.
Right now, I’m overseeing the gathering of the data from various sources and its aggregation into a central database. We’re designing the questions we need to ask and looking at known pain points in the processes, from scheduling to day of surgery to follow up. This is where it’s fun to be the outsider, because I don’t know any of the people or the personalities and I’m eager to let the data speak for itself.
I don’t know that Dr. X has been on staff for 30 years and that people tolerate his quirkiness because he’s considered the elder statesman of his subspecialty. I am not swayed by people’s claims that their patients require special equipment different than that used by all their peers. I don’t know any of the stories about why one hospital has been allowed to operate outside the system’s standards or why everyone else is in alignment. I’m eager to see what stories emerge as the data begins to tell its tale. I can also look at data that overarches the procedures and surgeons, such as operating room turnover time, housekeeping data, central supply factors, length of stay data, surgical complications, readmissions data, and more.
The other element that excites me about this project is having support staff to work with who know the system from the inside. It’s not the usual “let’s outsource this” type of project of which I am usually on the receiving end. I get to work with people across the health system who possess deep experience in quality improvement projects and clinical transformation work and are similarly motivated to try to find ways to improve the process as well as patient experiences and outcomes.
I knew this was going to be an interesting project, but now that I’m really involved, I feel like a kid in a candy store. What projects are you most looking forward to this year? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.