What’s NEXT in Residency Training: Fighting off the Tick Box Zombies

11 06 2012

This weekend, an interesting article on the curent state of UK residency training crossed my Twitter feed.   Due to restricted residency duty hours in the UK (yes they have a 48 hour work week for residents aka junior doctors), they fear they are graduating “incompetent doctors who are putting patients at risk.”

This debate is not just isolated to the other side of the Pond.  In fact, a recent reports in the New England Journal of Medicine documented that nearly half of residents are OPPOSED to restricted resident duty hours, with another paper in Academic Medicine showing that many internal medicine residents were concerned about limited educational opportunities with duty hours.  Finally, in a recent study that we did with the Association of Program Directors of Internal Medicine and the Association of Program Directors of Surgery published in Academic Medicine, program directors feared specific consequences of duty hours related to faculty morale, patient continuity and resident education.

While I could go on, the reason I started to write this post was NOT to rehash the duty hours debate!  Instead, I wanted to highlight a very specific concern that is mentioned in this UK story.  One of the chief complaints in the UK medical training system is that junior doctors were being passed on the basis of dreaded ‘tick-box forms’.  (You gotta love the Brits for colorful names to what we simply call evaluations).

So now at this point, I feel like I am watching 28 Days Later, where all of London was quarantined and zombies took over.   Will the Tick Box zombies come to the United States and take over our GME system?  Have they already?  I hope not…but let’s face it.  Everyone is wondering what comes NEXT with milestones and GME.

The “Next Accreditation System” or NAS (not to be confused with the rap artist) is about documenting the achievement of specific milestones related to specific “entrustable professional activity” or EPA.  An EPA is “simply the routine professional-life activities of physicians based on their specialty and subspecialty.”  For example, for internal medicine, one of the end of year EPAs is “Manage the care of patients on general internal medicine inpatient ward.”  In this way, EPAs are more granular than the 6 “core competencies” and should in theory be easier to observe and evaluate.  Lastly, for each EPA, there will be a “narrative” that programs can select to describe how competent the resident is in that area.

While program directors and others involved in GME are all learning the new “compet-english” that has been developed, many are also concerned about the burden of evaluation in a system that is already overburdened.  In other words, will the Tick Box zombies attack us stateside?   Well, some of this is up to how the residency educator community responds to the charge.  To prevent tick box zombie attack, program directors must resist the urge to create hundreds of milestone evaluations and add them to existing evaluations.   The key is not to reinvent the wheel but to modify existing evaluations to link them to milestones and EPAs. In some cases, old evaluations that were not helpful should be re-evaluated to see if they are necessary.  Moreover, to prevent tick box zombies from striking, it’s important to design and implement ‘good’ measures of resident performance.  A good measure would adhere to some of the same properties of optimal National Quality Forum quality measures: reliable, valid, linked to meaningful outcomes, feasible to collect, and distinguish between good and bad performance.  When good measures of residency performance do not always exist, there is an opportunity to work together to figure out what they are.   While this is definitely a work in progress, one nice thing is that no one is alone.  In Chicago, a citywide meeting of residency leaders of over 10 programs was held to share how best to do this and learn from each other.   After all, to truly make our NEXT step in GME, we must all work together to prevent the tick box zombie attack.

Vineet Arora MD  

Special hat tip to @keitharmitage for inspiring this post with his tweet : )





Mentoring in Medical Education: Modeling from the Movies

23 04 2012

A big part of medical education is mentoring.  The term ‘mentor’ originates from Homer’s the Odyssey and refers to an advisor.   The role of mentors vary, but generally serve to guide mentees through work, support them during the process, keep them grounded and focused on the task at hand, and provide general moral support.

Over the weekend, at the Pritzker Revisit session on Scholarship and Discovery, our own students stated the number one thing to consider when finding a project was finding a great mentor.  How does one find a great mentor?  Well, our students are encouraged to seek “CAPE” mentors- think Superhero mentors.  The mentor should be Capable, Available, have a Project that is of interest to the student, and Easy to get along with.   Capable means that the mentor has the skills to not only be a good mentor, but also to carry out the task or project at hand.  This may sound like odd, but sometimes faculty are so excited to have a medical student work for them, they may make the false assumption that the medical student will help them with tasks (i.e. statistics) that they themselves don’t know.  Availability is especially important as it is the number one reason our students state they had a less than optimal experience in the summer doing scholarly work is that their mentor was not available.  While availability of all doctors is an issue, the question is often whether faculty make themselves available when they can (i.e. answer student email, take phone calls, meetings).  Setting expectations for when and how to meet can be very important.  Ideally, the mentor has a project that is interesting to the student since if the work is not interesting, it will be even harder to make progress.  Last but not least, the mentor has to be easy to get along with – meaning that their style meshes well with their mentees.  Some people simply do not work well together do to different personality types.  So, I often tell our students to consider that when meeting potential mentors or deciding between two mentors.

As I was thinking about ways to highlight effective mentors, I recalled some classic movies with mentoring relationship.  In relooking at these scenes this weekend, it struck me that there are some interesting reasons why they are good mentors that correlate with our model (well some of them are a stretch but they are still fun to watch!).

  • Yoda in Empire Strike Back encourages Luke Skywalker to not just try, but do.  When Luke fails to resurrect the wing fighter, he does not allow Luke to make excuses but instead demonstrates that he can do it showing that he is CAPABLE.  
  • Mr Miyagi with the Karate Kid mentors through teaching small movements related to everyday house chores “wax on, wax off.”  While he is certainly gruff and challenges Daniel, Mr Miyagi also makes himself AVAILABLE to Daniel at that moment and in the future by saying at the end “Come back tomorrow” to continue the training.  
  • Remus Lupin goes so far to use a “simulated” Death Eater to challenge Harry Potter to learn the Patronus charm (and making all standardized patient experiences seem like a cake walk!).  When Harry fails at first, he is patient and nurturing, stating that he did not expect Harry to get it on the first try.  He also makes suggestions to the technique which turn out to be the key.   Since Harry really needs this charm, this is a PROJECT THAT IS OF INTEREST and Harry ultimately succeeds in casting the spell.  
  • Gandelf in Lord of the Rings provides consolation to Frotto during a moment of despair by highlighting that it his job and also showing that Gandelf is sensitive to Frotto’s needs and EASY TO GET ALONG WITH.   

In addition to these highly acclaimed superhero and superstar CAPE mentors, let me know if you know of other model mentors from the movies.

Vineet Arora MD






Where are the Lollipop Men in Healthcare?

9 04 2012

I recently watched Dr. Atul Gawande on video describe how what American healthcare needs is pit crews and not cowboys.  This sentiment is also memorialized in his thought-provoking writings for the New Yorker.

Interestingly, Dr. Gawande is not the first person I have heard to suggest such a thing.  A colleague named Dr. Ken Catchpole actually studied Formula 1 pit crews and used the information to guide improvements in pediatric anesthesia handoffs.  His observations were astounding and really highlighted how the culture of medicine is different from Formula 1. In Formula 1, pit crews have a ‘fanatical’ approach to training that relies on repitition.   In healthcare, the first time we often do something is “on the fly”.  Moreover, on-the-job training usually means ‘checking the box’ by attending an annual patient safety lecture.   Perhaps the most important was the role of the “lollipop man” in pit crews.   And yes, even thought it’s a funny name, it’s a critical job.   As shown in the video, the Lollipop man is responsible for signaling and coordinating to the driver the major steps of the pit stop.  When it is safe to step on the gas, the Lollipop man will signal to the driver.  Sounds like a thing so perhaps it can be automated.  Wrong.  When Ferrari tried replacing the Lollipop man with a stop light that signaled the driver, the confusion created (does amber mean stop or go?) led to a driver leaving the pit with his gas still connected.  Quickly after this incident, Ferrari announced it would go back to the tried and trusted Lollipop “hu”man.

So, who are the Lollipop men (or women) in healthcare?  Turns out that Dr. Catchpole and his team observed that it was often unclear who was leading the handoff process that they were observing in healthcare.  With team training and system reengineering, Dr. Catchpole’s team was able to reorganize the pediatric handover so there was a Lollipop man (anesthesiologist) at the helm.

While these handoffs represent a critical element of healthcare communication in a focused area, it is symbolic of a larger problem in healthcare – we are still missing “Lollipop men” to coordinate healthcare for patients across multiple sites and specialties.  This is even more critical on the 2-year anniversary of healthcare reform and this month’s match results. At a time when we need to cultivate and train more “Lollipop men” to coordinate care for patients, we have had stable numbers of students who enter primary care fields.   And like the lessons from the Ferrari team, it is doubtful that a computer (even Watson who is now working in medicine apparently) will be able to do the job of a Lollipop man.

So, how can we recruit more Lollipop men?  While it is tempting to blame the rise or fall of various specialties and market forces, it is important to recognize that being this is a difficult job to do when the Lollipop is broken or even nonexistent.  Without the tools to execute the critical coordination that Lollipop men rely on, they cannot do their job.  So, the first order of business to ensure that the Lollipop, or an infrastructure to coordinate care for patients through their race that is their healthcare journey, exists.  As the Supreme Court debates the future of the Accountable Care Act, there is no greater time to highlight the importance of the Lollipop.

–Vineet Arora MD





What Happens in Vegas Can Be Used to Teach Costs of Care

16 02 2012

Funded with a grant from the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation,  Costs of Care has partnered with medical educators at Harvard Medical School and the University of Chicago (that would be us!) to start addressing this problem. We are developing a series of web-based medical education videos that use clinical vignettes to illustrate core principles of cost-consideration, including how to communicate with patients about avoiding unnecessary care and reducing overused or misused tests and procedures.  As part of the project launch, we released a new teaser video today called “What if Your Hotel Bill Was Like a Hospital Bill?”. The video is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the challenges patients face in deciphering medical expenses, and their additional confusion when they learn doctors are not trained to consider costs.  – Excerpt from Costs of Care Press Release by Dr. Neel Shah  

How does this relate to Vegas?

On a recent trip to Las Vegas with my family for the holidays, I was in the Bellagio lobby admiring the Chihuly glass ceiling.  While that was impressive, I was also watching the clerks check in and out the long lines of visitors to the hotel.  The staff explained any charges on the bill, confirmed that the bill agrees with the expectations of the patron and then finalized the transaction, printing a copy on the spot for the traveler before they got in the cab to the airport hailed by the bellman.   What a far cry from hospitals where most of the hospital staff have no idea how much anything costs!  After all, doctors are notoriously bad at considering costs in the doctor-patient relationship, as demonstrated by a great piece by Dr. Peter Ubel on his experience with the cost of his own prescription medications. As Paolo (or Paul who works as our research project manager in his day job) from Hotel Hospital highlights, “our hotel staff specifically focus on the highest quality of care…I doubt that they even know how much anything costs here.”  The rest of the script was easy to write.  Shooting was a lot harder since we had to find a spot in the hospital that looked like a hotel but thanks to some creative camera angles and props from our MergeLab team, we were able to get it done.

Learning about costs of care is critical to taking care of patients.  This was especially poignant during my recent inpatient service block at a nearby community hospital, since I cared for many uninsured patients who paid out of pocket for their medications (not to mention their hospital stay).   Our residents were concerned about one patient who was uninsured and would have difficulty paying for Plavix, a critically important drug after his heart procedure.  Review of his medications also revealed he was recently put on Lexapro, a nongeneric antidepressant (with a sordid history) that was costing him over 100 dollars a month when there is a generic alternative for 4 dollars a month, which would help him afford his Plavix.   When physicians do discuss costs, they also get it wrong and perpetuate a ‘medical urban legend’ like stating that patients have to pay when they leave the hospital against medical advice (this is not true!).   These are just a few of many examples of why teaching students and residents to bring up costs and arming them with tools to address the issue with their future patients is imperative.  Without considering costs of care, we all take a ‘gamble’ that costs of care are not an issue for patients….Of course, the odds are against that.

Stay tuned for more work from our Teaching Value Project from Costs of Care funded by the ABIM Foundation. 

–Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP

Special thanks to our production team and actors: Mark Saathoff , Andy Levy MS4, Kimberly Beiting, Paul Staisiunas, Jeanne Farnan, and Neel Shah!





The Social History: Going Beyond TED

7 02 2012

As I am on service, I realized that one thing that can be easily lost in the race to take care of patients with limited duty hours – the social history.  The social history is part of the admission “history and physical” that once included a myriad of information about the patient’s job, life, and habits has now “fallen into despair” becoming little more than “negative for TED”, or in other words “no tobacco, alcohol (ethanol) or drugs.”

But, there is so much more to it than that.   How do they afford to pay for their housing, food, and medications?  Do they have insurance?   Where do they live?  Who takes care of them or do they take care of someone else?  Do they have friends or family living nearby?   What do they like to do for fun?  Given that most of the ‘discharge planning’ focuses on these elements of the social history, it seems silly that we don’t include more than just no TED.

So, when I was asked by a very astute medical student if I preferred to hear more in the social history, I said yes.   The information that is usually discussed as the patient gets better and we wonder where they will go was now presented on admission, discussed as a problem just like any other medical problem.   In just a few short days, we discerned that a patient who had chronic hypoxia and shortness of breath worked in a factory which likely contributes to his interstitial lung disease.  Another patient who had been hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal recently broke up with a girlfriend which triggered this bout of drinking.   Another patient who was a Jehovah’s Witness would rather have IV therapy for his wound infection than surgery.  Another patient with repeated hypertensive crisis had skipped his medications since he could not afford them.

Given the tremendous burden of costs of medications and the complex interplay between social factors and health, it’s time that we start teaching people to take a thorough social history. Wondering what should go into a thorough social history, I first did what most physicians do – I went online.  It turns out that Wikipedia has an entry on social history for medicine that starts out with the same substance abuse history.  It also includes occupation, sexual preference, prison, and travel.   I stumbled upon another interesting piece by a medical student in the LA Times who admits that it is easy to skimp on the social history due to the time it takes to take a complete history.  After a brief foray in PubMed, A study demonstrated that internal medicine residents do not often know the social history of patients, and this worsens if the resident is more advanced in training and when the workload is higher.  Then, I recalled the seminal text that is still in use today.  According to the Bates Guide to History and Physical Examination:

The Personal and Social History captures the patient’s personality and interests, sources of support, coping style, strengths, and fears. It should include occupation and the last year of schooling; home situation and significant others; sources of stress, both recent and long-term; important life experiences, such as military service, job history, financial situation, and retirement; leisure activities; religious affiliation and spiritual beliefs; and activities of daily living (ADLs). It also conveys lifestyle habits that promote health or create risk such as exercise and diet, including frequency of exercise; usual daily food intake; dietary supplements or restrictions; and safety measures and other devices related to specific hazards. You may want to include any alternative health care practices. You will come to thread personal and social questions throughout the interview to make the patient feel more at ease.

There is another good reason to teach the social history – another study shows that those residents who took better social histories were actually perceived to be more humanistic.  As others stated, “By knowing patients better—and taking better social histories—we will provide better care and will be more fulfilled and energized in our work as physicians.”

–Vineet Arora MD





The Last Summer for Medical Students

12 01 2012

The summer between first year and second year of medical school is sometimes referred to as the “last summer” since it is the last time students can travel or take off before they start the journey towards USMLE Step 1 and then their third year clerkships.  With the angst building, first year medical students are actively deciding in the dead of winter what they will do over the summer.  One popular decision is to do research – this is not uncommon since residency programs are increasingly competitive and look for students who have a commitment to scholarly work.  However, there are a plethora of other things students could do as well.    As tonight is our “Intro to our Summer Research Program” for Pritzker medical students, I thought I would share some of the most common questions I get about the “Last Summer”:

  • Should I do research in a competitive field?   The answer here is to do substantive research that you are interested in with a “CAPE” mentor (Capable, Available, Project interests you, Easy to get along with).   As my premed advisor once told me, “Mickey Mouse” research is not going to look good to anyone (no offense Mickey).   The key is to find something you are passionate about – after all you have to tell this story on your interview trail of why you choose to do this and the answer “because I wanted to go into ortho” is not really that captivating to anyone (even to an orthopedic surgeon).   Instead, if you do something you are passionate about, like community health work, you can always tie it back to your chosen field.  Most residency program directors don’t expect you arrived in medical school with laser like focus towards their field anyway and expect to hear some type of journey or a-ha moment that drew you to their field.  Because competitive specialties are often reimbursed for clinical work and tend to be smaller departments, they depth of research opportunities may be more limited.  But, don’t forget that neuroscience research is relevant to neurosurgery – and oncology research on head and neck cancer is still relevant for ENT and so forth.  The best research is often interdisciplinary and crosses department boundaries so you should not be afraid to either.  It’s also important to remember that as a first year student, it’s hard to even know if you will be competitive for radiation oncology or associated competitive specialties.  You will need killer board scores, and great clinical grades.  So, while you may think securing the research with the Dept Chair will give you an extra ‘edge’, nothing and no one can make up for a poor performance on high stakes exams or clinical rotations.  So, don’t forget to study!
  • I want to go to country X?  How can I get a global health rotation there?  Well, certainly the urge to travel is strong in anyone (including me).  But, you need to separate your travel bug from a genuine interest in global health.  Most global health rotations are not a vacation – and may not be what you think of as “tourist” destination (despite the short-lived popularity of Off the Map).   Maybe your stars are aligned and your school or a nearby affiliate you know has a program near your hot spot of interest.  Usually, however, it is not that easy and you should consider how strong your affinity is for a specific country or location versus your interest in getting the best global health experience possible.  Global health programs that fund medical students are not easy to come by.  So, if you are genuinely interested in global health, it is always better to go with an established program and mentor to get the most substantive experience even if it’s not in the exact country you are interested in.  The other thing to remember is while this may be your last summer for a while; it is not your last vacation!  You will have time to plan a vacation to your designated hot spot if you can’t work it in this summer.
  • Do I have to do anything?  The answer here is easy – no, you don’t have to do anything per se with your ‘time off’.  Many students find themselves on the hamster wheel of endless extracurricular activities.  The real question is what is your goal? If it is to go home and see family and friends, there is nothing wrong with that!  The key is to ensure that you are doing something with your time off that will make you feel ready to face the second year of medical school.   It is easy to forget that there is a lot of time to participate in extracurricular activities at various other points in your medical school career.   The key is that if you will regret not spending time with your friends or family this summer, then you need to make time to do that.
  • What if I want to do everything because I don’t want to close any doors?  This is not an uncommon feeling for medical students. However, its important to remember that your summer work is not choosing a specialty! There is essentially nothing you can do over the summer that will ‘close a door’ – there may be some things that allow you to put your foot further into the doorway but that does not mean another door will close.   The only doors you close are the ones in your mind.   Most students decide on their specialty after their third year rotations and will often fine-tune their experiences in research in that area in the fourth year.   Another thing to consider is to do research in a cross-cutting area like ethics that could apply to everything.  Sometimes the angst you may be feeling is about making a choice that is wrong for you.  However, the truth is that as long as you are genuinely interested in the opportunity, you cannot make a wrong choice since it will be an easy story to tell no matter what you do.  Since everyone is different, it is always good to get individualized advice from a faculty advisor at your school who can comment on your specific career and research goals.

Finally, no matter what you do with your last summer, don’t forget to make sure you enjoy it!

Vineet Arora MD





A Modern Day Fairy Tale for Medical Education

28 12 2011

Recently, I was asked to speak about innovations in inpatient medical education for leaders in general internal medicine.  Knowing that I would be last in a distinguished lineup of speakers and that my charge was to discuss novel ways to teach in the inpatient setting, I thought it would be important to review how its been done for a long time — so long that it is embodied in one of my favorite fairy tales…

You see, Cinderella dreamed of one day becoming the best clinical educator in the academic kingdom.  Unfortunately, her evil stepmom “Mrs. Dean” scoffed at Cinderella and said “teaching does not pay…look at your hard working and loyal stepbrothers….“Bill” has been our primary breadwinner due to his high volume of Patient Care and “Grant” –yes, while its feast or famine with him, just got a big payout for his Clinical Research.  Teaching? That’s no way to make a living.  Go work work for them until you figure you what you want to do.” 

So Cinderella toiled away…until one day, she met the Godmother of a grateful patient “Mrs. Fairy” who donated a small sum money to improve inpatient teaching…and with this Cinderella was able to transform herself into one of the leading teachers of the new curriculum (she was also able to get a raise to update her wardrobe!).  She quickly became a hit among all the medical students and residents who were truly “charmed”.  Then one day, at the stroke of midnight, Cinderella’s protected time ran out…and all of her work went up in smoke as she was forced back to her life of hardship seeing patients and doing research.  The students and residents were distraught at the thought of losing their most prized teacher and searched the academic complex for her –they were so moved they wanted to award her the precious “Glass Slipper” teaching award, which not only is bestowed with honor, but also a promotion to become a tenured educator in the academic kingdom.   And she lived happily ever after…

While you may think that this is the stuff of fairy tales (especially happily ever after), we all have Cinderellas at our institutions.  And those Cinderellas want to teach, but they struggle not only with funding, but also the realities of today’s inpatient environment.  So, what are these Cinderellas to do? Well, there are few of the ways to ensure that clinical teaching is rewarded – and possible resolutions for the New Year for medical educators.

  • Focus on a gap that needs to be filled:  Protected time is most likely be awarded to someone who is filling a need – think new curriculum that is mandated by LCME/ACGME or other alphabet soup organizational body.  What is the specific need that you can fill with teaching?  Often this may require thinking about a topic that may not exactly match your initial interest, but it is more likely to lead to funding for your teaching.
  • Learn new teaching methods:  Teaching methods for today’s wards are not well developed in the land of an organized chaos.  By incorporating a new platform for teaching (think case blogs, video reflection, standardized patients, or a host of other ideas), you can breathe new life into an old topic.  For example, using simulation to teach end of life discussion, or using blogs to teach about professionalism, can result in a novel curricular program that not only engage next generation learners, but also gains attention of leaders in medical education.
  • Document the effectiveness of the teaching – it is only through methodological evaluation that one can document that teaching translates into practice.  By showing that teaching can be linked to improvements in knowledge, attitudes, or practice, it is more likely that someone (maybe a fairy) will finance this teaching as critical to the mission of the hospital.  Think about procedural training that shows reduction in central lines.
  • Work with a mentor – Just like ‘big research’, mentorship is still important although not always emphasized. To be honest, mentors can serve to mobilize resources or promote your work with senior leaders.

However, regardless of these strategies, funding for teaching requires institutional leadership to recognize that the academic mission of teaching hospitals is still ‘to teach’.   Of course, this mission is sometimes lost in the chaos of teaching hospitals surviving budget crisis in an increasingly competitive environment.  So during this holiday season as everyone is reminded of the time of giving, now is a great time to remind the fiscally minded Mr. Scrooge in your C-suite that the greatest gift they can give is enabling a teacher to teach the future doctors of our nation.

–Vineet Arora MD








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