From Astronauts to Attendings: Workload, Duty Hours and July, Oh My!

31 07 2013

reposted from Academic Medicine’s blog

Every July, as academic hospitals welcome new interns, a flurry of activity ensues. While learning to care for patients and navigating the complex social territories of their new hospitals, interns also are worrying about “getting out on time” and making sure not to “dump” on their colleagues. This work compression, particularly among interns who are not familiar with the day-to-day operations of wards, can strain the learning environment. With the implementation of resident duty hours regulations, attending physicians are subsequently called to provide more direct patient care. Yet residency is a time for learning on the job, and part of that learning comes from the teaching attendings provide. In our recent study in Academic Medicine, we asked: “So what has happened to time for teaching?”

Given the recent changes in academic medicine, attendings’ workload needs to be examined, especially regarding their role as teachers. Previously, most studies of workload and work compression focused on residents. Moreover, these studies commonly focused on workload as it related to patient census. While patient census is one measure of workload, we all have had the experience of how one very complicated patient can add up to more work than 10 relatively straightforward patients. So, should we instead consider perception of workload rather than actual workload measured by volume?

Borrowing from methods developed at NASA to examine astronauts’ workload, we examined attendings’ perceptions of workload and the relationship of those perceptions to reporting enough time for teaching. In doing so, we found a steep relationship between attendings’ greater perceived workload and time for teaching. Additionally, we analyzed our results with respect to the time of year and to the implementation of duty hours regulations. Implementing duty hours regulations, not unexpectedly, reduced attendings’ time for teaching, but the magnitude of this reduction was humbling.  What was most surprising, however, relates to the time of year, specifically summer, which everyone fears because of the “July effect”.  Interestingly, more teaching occurs during summer than during winter and spring. We also found that attendings’ greater workload during winter and spring was more detrimental to their time for teaching than their workload during summer.

Certainly, having attendings provide more direct care when residents have heavy workloads improves patient safety. However, the cost to residents’ education and subsequent learning and growth is not trivial. Ensuring that teaching on the wards is restored should be a central focus of graduate medical education reform.  Moreover, while winter and spring should be times for continued teaching on advanced topics to ensure professional growth towards achieving competence, for some reason, we fall short. Meanwhile, during summer, attendings may cut back on their own busy clinical practice and/or administrative duties in anticipation of their role as teachers and supervisors. Regardless of the reason, to prepare for future changes to the accreditation system and attendings’ role in documenting progression through milestones, testing and implementing innovative ways of re-balancing workload to restore teaching and learning on the wards is imperative.

–Lisa Roshetsky MD MS and Vineet Arora MD MAPP 





Not Getting Sick in July

1 07 2013

Today is July 1st.  While everyone has heard the old adage about not getting sick in July because of new interns, the truth is that new interns nationwide have started already. Yet, you don’t hear much about the “late June effect?”  So is the July effect overblown or true?  Well, there have been many studies – so many so there was a recent systematic review co-authored by one of my own co-interns a long time ago.    While I am sure it was hard to synthesize the studies of often sub-par quality, the review does state “studies with higher-quality designs and larger sample sizes more often showed increased mortality and decreased efficiency at time of changeover.”  The study I recall best examined over 25 years worth of death records and found a pattern.  In the 240,000 deaths due to medication errors, mortality rates did increase in July, especially in counties with teaching hospitals.  I’m not sure death certificates are accurate as a way of diagnosing cause of death but that’s another story.

While it’s not possible for patients to time their illness, the question becomes what can be done to ensure July is as safe as possible? While there is scant literature on this topic, over the last several years, I have had the privilege of attending in July.  While I ended up attending in June this year before the interns switched, I was reminded of several ways in which July is different and can be made safer.

  • July requires more intense supervision.  Residency is a time of graduated supervision.  In June, a few weeks before third year residents graduate, it would be tragic or perhaps a sign of a problem if an attending had to oversee every little decision in the moment.  It would also annoy the senior residents to no end.  The senior residents have matured to the point that they are the team leaders and you are often the advisor and hearing about their decision-making and rationale and providing advice and guidance where needed.  That is certainly not the case in July.  In July, attendings often are hovering (even if they don’t admit it) or “epic-stalking” checking on every lab and medication.  Moreover, greater attending supervision is more commonplace since 2011 due to a huge push by accreditation agencies and in part due to shorter resident duty hours.   The truth is that interns are rarely acting alone and are often working in tandem with a more advanced resident and attending.  While a recent ICU study questions the utility of overnight attending supervision, a systematic review from our group found that enhancing supervision was associated with improved patient outcomes and resident education in a variety of settings.  Faculty can be more formally prepared for their bigger responsibility in July as it will not only require more time, but also more intensity of supervision. While this would include traditional in-person supervision, attendings can be taught to provide formal oversight of care through technology tools, such as the EHR, mobile computing, and yes, even Google Glass.
  • The residents are more eager to learn in July.  July is a time when interns and residents want to learn.  They are eager for feedback.  It is much harder to teach interns and residents in June since they have gotten good at their role…and picked up a lot of medical knowledge on the way.  Because of their umpteenth case of a certain disease, they may not find any additional learning in the case.  Of course, there are always more things to teach, but it is just a little harder than in July when your new interns are ready to soak up knowledge like a sponge.  You can also have a big impact on practice patterns before they form and cement best practices.  While some faculty shy away from signing up for July, many I know prefer to do July because of this reason!
  • Everyone is new in their role in July. July is a time of transition for all residents, such as senior residents, chief residents, not to mention new attendings.  Moreover, other health professional training programs are turning over too such as pharmacy residents.  One potential solution that has been mentioned is to stagger the start date of various specialties/professions so that not everyone is new in July.  While this is probably not as feasible as it sounds (and it doesn’t sound feasible), it is an interesting idea worth entertaining.
  • Anticipate the inefficiency. Because of the turnover in all staff, everything is a little less efficient.  While a little less efficiency may not seem like much, for a resident team, less efficient means likely higher census because of delayed discharges.  These higher patient workloads make caring for existing patients hard, and admitting new patients even harder, and of course all of this is under the pressure of the time clock.  Although not commonplace, I have heard of some programs lower workloads early in the year, anticipating this inefficiency.  Another way is to restructure teams so that there is more ‘redundancy’ on the team to help care for the patients.  Either mechanism seems like something to consider especially for teams that are struggling to get all the work done in time.
  • The patients seem to get sickest when the senior resident is off.  In the back of my head, I know this is probably some type of heuristic in which I am overweighting what the days are like when my senior resident is off….  Regardless, for some reason, it does seem like a good practice to anticipate patient illness on those days. And of course, extra supervision and assistance to the intern when the senior resident is a terrific idea.

While these observations may refer to July, just when the residents get accustomed to their role and rotation, its time to switch.  For this reason, it could be that August (and even September) is not that different from July…so while we focus a lot on July, it may be better to prepare for the Summer of Supervision.

Vineet Arora MD





From Curricula to Crowdsourcing: Trainees Taking Charge to Teach Value

6 06 2013

As part of this week’s Association of American Medical Colleges Integrating Quality (IQ) meeting, we are featuring a post that originally appeared at Wing of Zock about trainees efforts to teach value.

Medical education’s efforts to incorporate the teaching of value-based care into formalized curricula have been remarkably few and fraught with challenges. More than 60% of med school grads feel they get inadequate instruction in medical economics, a figure that hasn’t budged in more than five years. At the same time, residents are subjected to the insidious influence of a “Hidden Curriculum” that seems to shun conservation in favor of consumption. The result is predictable: we are churning out providers that feel neither prepared nor compelled to allocate clinical resources more sustainably.

It’s not uncommon for trainees to contemplate the cost of a test or treatment. But that thought rarely ends up being more than a fleeting curiosity. Whilst juggling an exponentially increasing body of data and evidence, consensus-based guidelines, attending preferences and the increasing complexity of patients, the thought of adding another variable to our calculus seems daunting.

The common refrain is we don’t have enough information to make value-based judgments. Discussion of cost-effectiveness among trainees usually centers on price transparency, or rather, a lack thereof.  Survey the workroom of an academic hospital and you’ll get five different estimates for the cost of a CT scan. The monumental price tag of some items is even the source of folk-lore among residents: “Did you know that stress test costs $5,000?!” Adding to the myth’s power is the fact that prior to the recent decision by Health and Human Services to release hospital chargemasters, these documents have been treated like trade secrets. And even if an enterprising resident were able to obtain the classified dossier, the listed charge would bear no relation to the price the patient eventually pays.

But clinical malaise and the abstruse nature of hospital pricing should not prevent us from grappling with the excess and overuse typical of most training environments. As tertiary referral centers, teaching hospitals attract a subset of patients seeking an exhaustive work-up or more aggressive care from thought leaders – our mentors – in subspecialty fields.  Accordingly, these mentors are more likely to ask, “Why didn’t you order test X?” ratber than, “Why did you order test X, and what are you going to do with the information?” . A superfluous test is a “good thought.” A step-wise evaluation is often “expedited” with a single round of testing. An outside work-up is repeated to have “all the data in-house.”  These behaviors are then reinforced by our conferences, which focus on extensive diagnostic evaluations of rare diseases.

At its core, this is an issue of culture and our unbridled pursuit of clinical excellence. Trainees can and should help refashion this culture to achieve better value for patients. Student activism has heavily influenced the practices of today’s medical schools and residency programs, perhaps best evidenced by the American Medical Student Association’s PharmFree Campaign. The success of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in spreading the principles of quality improvement (QI) can be attributed in part to the enthusiasm of trainees, empowered by the Open School to create and champion their own curricula. At a microsystem level, residents might incorporate value into QI projects and institutional research or lobby at an administrative level for increased information about the costs of their practice. As individuals, we can leverage our greater familiarity with new media and technology to promote resources such as Choosing Wisely, Healthcare Bluebook, and Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

There are promising signs that current physicians-in-training are committed to championing the principles of resource stewardship. Costs of Care, a 501c3 non-profit social venture founded by trainees, has used crowdsourcing to engage both patients and physicians in the discussion of value-based care. More than 300 real patient and physician stories illustrating opportunities to provide high value care have materialized from their widely publicized annual essay contest. More formalized curricula in cost awareness at UCSF and UPenn originated from the work of residents. As a medical student, I was fortunate to be a part of a team that created a web-based curriculum in overuse.

There are undoubtedly other examples of “conservationists” in training out there. We want to meet you! We will be presenting our work at the upcoming AAMC IQ conference on June 6th. Come to Chicago, tell us about your project, be it a completed program or just a fresh idea. Or you can find us online at http://teachingvalue.org/competition.

–Andy Levy MD & Chris Moriates MD

(members of the Teaching Value Team)








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