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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Calling Miss Manners! Help with the rules for the game of Medical It.

As we have moved from hospital based medicine, an environment where direct personal interactions between various providers of care were the norm, to distributed care networks where care team embers are connected in an ad hoc manner, we have failed to develop the next generation of effective tools for communication. In addition, we have also failed to develop any standard etiquette to deal with the complexities of shared care responsibilities.

I have a referral practice, both in the ambulatory environment and in the hospital. When the care environments and the volumes of patients were smaller, I encountered colleagues who referred patients directly. We frequently occupied the same spaces. The etiquette was simple. I met them, We talked. They asked for my help. I asked for the specifics and addressed whether I thought I could add value. We both received immediate feedback.

I remember learning a great lesson from one such encounter when I was an intern. I was involved in working up a man with an abnormal chest x-ray in whom I detected an large subraclavicular lymph node. I wrote and order in the chart asking for a surgery consult with the terse request, please biopsy. A fellow intern on the surgical service who I saw on a daily basis pulled me aside and asked me to change the order, requesting instead that the Surgery Service evaluate the patient. He explained that his attending did not take well to being viewed as a biopsy technician and that we ask for our colleagues opinions and expertise, not simply their technical skills. I thought it was wise advice at the time.

I live and and work in a different world. The pace is much faster. The problems are more complex. Many of my colleagues have adapted their practices to be more focused. There is substantially less direct contact. The medical record has become entirely worthless beyond functioning as a billing compliance tool. The requests for help keep coming in except they are generally cryptic. One of my colleagues now describes the phenomena as a game of "medical It", harkening back to the days in childhood when we used to chase each other around, trying to unload the status of being "it" by tagging someone slower than you.

Every week, I get reams of records sent to me. Some physicians are very good about sending a cover letter explaining the purpose of the ask. That is the exception rather than the rule. Many of the records are hand written, unreadable, and I cannot determine who actually sent them. More recently I have been receiving copies of electronic records where I must play the "Where's Waldo" game. Somewhere in there is something relevant.

What I would like is a a very brief summary with the key points:

1. Who is making the referral?
2. What specific questions are you asking?
3. Is this a referral for diagnostic or treatment reasons?
4. Do you want me to manage the patient?
5. What time frame does this need to occur in? Is this medical or personal urgency?
6. Is there any other information that you believe to be crucial for me to know? Logistical, social or financial issues?

I have had discussions with some of my colleagues who believe that the most important element is to pick up the phone and call. While I think this is a nice gesture, it cannot replace an actual written communication. The telephone call tends to result in an unstructured communication which amounts to sending the message that "I need help" and "Can you see this patient?" After the call is over the specifics are often lost and if there are records to review, they often completely fail to communicate the specific issues above.

Taking the time to write something structured tends to require one to reflect, at least for a minute as to what the goals of the referral are? Unless we are simply engaged in the game of "medical It", we can and should stop to think for a moment as to who we are calling for help, specifically why we are calling, and what the care structure might look like after we have enlisted their help. However, if the purpose of the activities is to find another physician to unload care responsibilities, using the consult carpet bombing technique is likely effective to find a target, any target who might say yes. Furthermore ,if you appear sufficiently incompetent to the patient they are not likely to want to return to your care once they have found some other alternative.

This is not rocket science or medical science. It is simply communication etiquette. Etiquette is defined as "conventional requirements as to social behavior; proprieties of conduct as established in any class or community or for any occasion." It is simply not the case of being nice to peers or treating patients and peers with respect. This is important but it is not enough.  Communication etiquette in medicine needs to be functional in that it fosters clear and unambiguous information exchange. We are not there. We have assumed as we moved the face to face communication environment to a virtual communication environment that the pieces would automatically fall into place. Wishful thinking at best. More likely delusional.

One reason this has not happened is that this represents a non-billable activity. From the perspective of getting someone else to be it, it is simplest to delegate the task of referring out to someone else no matter how poorly the task is performed. Call and get an appointment. My job is done. Often the task is delegated to the patient whose level of understanding of the problem might be essentially non-existent. Why are you here? My other doctor wanted me to see you.Why? I am not sure?

We must all to realize this is simply not acceptable and that it is part of our job to at least think about the above questions before we attempt to refer a patient to one of our colleagues. This are basic elements of professional etiquette which should be hammered into medical students and residents and under ideal circumstances reinforced by behavior modeled by teaching physicians. Again, we are not there yet. Perhaps I need to get together with Miss Manners and write a book.

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