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When Doctors Don’t Listen (And Hangover Leads To Spinal Tap)

Dr. Leana Wen consults with co-author Dr. Joshua Kosowsky (Associated Press)

Dr. Leana Wen consults with co-author Dr. Joshua Kosowsky (Associated Press)

Consider these cautionary tales:

• The college student who came to the emergency room for an intense hangover, only to be told she would need a spinal tap to rule out possible brain hemorrhage. (True story. Spinal tap as in puncturing the back to draw fluid. For a hangover. She slipped away instead.)

• The drowsy obese woman hospitalized for days for a possible clot when all she really had was sleep apnea.

•The strapping middle-aged man whose chest felt sore after a day of moving heavy furniture, condemned to a battery of tests for possible heart attack.

These are the kinds of alarming cases that populate a provocative new book to be published next week: “When Doctors Don’t Listen: How To Avoid Misdiagnoses And Unnecessary Tests,”

Dr. Leana Wen (courtesy Darren Pellegrino)

Dr. Leana Wen (courtesy Darren Pellegrino)

Dr. Joshua Kosowsky

Dr. Joshua Kosowsky

Dr. Leana Wen, a senior resident in emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, co-authored the book with Dr. Joshua Kosowsky, clinical director of the Brigham and Women’s emergency department — a new-minted doctor joining forces with a senior colleague, both seeking to warn patients about prevalent flaws in medical thinking that could cause them harm — and how to counteract them.

Our conversation, lightly edited, is below, and beneath it, an abridged excerpt recounting the tale of the hung-over college student in more detail.

Here’s how I think I’d distill the message of your book: Patients, beware of “cookbook medicine” and of getting stuck on a “diagnostic pathway,” of doctors who get hung up on trying to “rule out” a “worst-case scenario,” and so bombard you with yes-and-no questions that you cannot tell your story, the story that may actually point to your diagnosis.’

But how would you distill it, and translate those phrases I just used? 

I like what you said. The way I think about it, too, is that our health care system, and our individual parterships with our doctors, have become so out of control, and patients have the ability to — and have to empower themselves to — take control of their health care. And they should start by understanding what the doctor’s thought process is, understanding the ‘cookbook medicine’ that many doctors practice, and what they can do to focus care on their individual symptoms and story.

How would you explain what you mean by cookbook medicine?

Doctors are under a lot of pressure to be faster and faster and see patients in shorter and shorter periods of time. And so instead of listening for 10 minutes without interruption, they begin to ask yes/no questions —

Yes, I was amazed by the statistic in the book that the patient on average only gets 12 seconds to start telling the doctor what’s wrong before they get interrupted —

Another study recently showed that it’s more like eight seconds. And so that’s how cookbook medicine comes about. Anyone can relate to being asked, ‘Do you have chest pain? Do you have shortness of breath? Do you have headache?’ That’s not individualized care, that’s putting you in a pre-set mold and trying to say that whatever applies for everyone else, also applies to you.

For example? Continue reading

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez: Make Massachusetts Patients Safer

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez


This Tuesday, the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health is slated to hold a hearing on 33 — count ‘em, 33 — proposed bills on patient safety and quality of care. (The agenda is here.) Here, Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, the joint committee’s House chair, writes a guest post about his own legislative offering, to be heard at the hearing along with the others.

(CommonHealth welcomes guest posts on health care topics of broad public interest. To inquire about submitting one, please click on the “Get in Touch” button below.)

In Massachusetts, we’re surrounded by some of the best health care institutions and practitioners in the world and don’t typically think patient safety is an area that needs to be addressed. But unfortunately, accidents happen.

Back in 1999, the Institute of Medicine released an eye-opening study, “To Err is Human,” which found that nearly 100,000 people die every year in the United States due to medical errors. As the report’s title suggests, these errors aren’t malicious or intentional; they are often a result of systems or a culture that make it too easy for mistakes to occur. We need to encourage systems that make it difficult, if not impossible, to make an error.

Another area that must be addressed in order to improve patient safety is the rate of health-care-associated infections. Each year in the Commonwealth, there are about 34,000 such infections. In addition to delaying recoveries and affecting quality of life, these infections have a significant financial impact, costing the Commonwealth between $200 and $400 million annually.

There are shining examples right here in Massachusetts of the type of systemic changes that are necessary to address these patient safety issues. Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was part of a team that developed a simple two-minute checklist for use in surgery that has seen a drop in deaths and complications of an astounding 36%. New England Baptist Hospital instituted a program to screen and treat patients for MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph) and ended up reducing all surgical site infections by almost 60%. The Massachusetts Hospital Association and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Prevention of Medical Errors are also working together to reduce the number of central line-associated blood stream infections.

These types of initiatives should be implemented across the Commonwealth. To do so, I have filed House Bill 1519, An Act reducing medical errors and improving patient safety. This bill, which is among those to be heard on Tuesday, includes: Continue reading