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





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 : )





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








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