doctors

What Can the Unmatched Seniors Tell Us?

Yesterday, after the mayhem and jubilation of celebrating a successful match at the Pritzker School of Medicine with our students, I went onto Twitter to follow the #match2013 hashtag to understand what the reactions were.  Most were positive, but one headline caught my attention ‘In Record-Setting ‘Match Day,’ 1,100 Medical Students Don’t Find Residencies.”

It is true this was the largest match because it was “All-in” – programs either were in the match for all their positions (including international medical graduates or IMGs) or they were not.  Obviously, many programs put more positions up for grabs in the Match.  After I reposted this article to Twitter, there were many theories and questions about who these unmatched students were and why  – some of which I have tried to answer to the best of my ability below.  I welcome your input as well.

  • Are these IMGs?  This number is US Senior medical students who have been admitted and graduated from US medical schools but now have no place to go to practice medicine.
  • Does this include those that entered the “scramble” now called SOAP. Technically, those that entered SOAP and were successful would have been counted as “matched” on Friday.   Last year,  815 Us seniors went unmatched after the SOAP.
  • Did they choose to go into competitive specialties? We have to wait for the 2013 NRMP statistics, which will likely address this.  The 2012 data shows that more unmatched seniors did choose to go into competitive fields.  Last year, the % unmatched is much higher for students applying to radiation oncology, dermatology, and competitive surgical fields for example.
  • Did they go unmatched to due to poor strategy or poor academic performance? While poor strategy such as ‘suicide’ ranking only one program is related to the risk of going unmatched, the truth is getting into residency is competitive and there are some who will not match because of poor academic performance. Some even argue that medical schools have little incentive to fail students and a portion of these students should not be graduating to begin with.
  • If they had gone into primary care, would they would have matched?  I hear this myth that program directors in primary care fields only take international medical graduates (IMGs) since not enough US medical graduates apply.   This is due to the largely untested assumption that any US Senior would be preferred to an IMG.  However, I personally know program directors who would definitely take a seasoned and high performing IMG over a below-average US Student.   The reason this is important is the rationale for not lifting the GME cap is that we have 50% of certain fields filled by IMGs and those spots would naturally be filled by US grads. Interestingly, many of these spots happen to be primary care driven fields.   Yet, it is still unclear if US Seniors will displace IMGs for spots in IMG oriented residencies.  It is also unclear if they will be willing to apply to programs that typically cater to IMGs, since they are often not considered as prestigious or geographically desirable to US students.
  • Is this related to the lack of GME spots? Certainly, it is true that more effective career advising may have resulted in applicants being more strategic about their rank list and not reaching for a competitive field.  However, we cannot ignore the supply/demand side of this equation.  At a time when there is a shortage of physicians and a call to increase the number of physicians, the US medical school system by responded to this call.   New medical schools have opened.  Existing medical schools have increased their enrollments.  So, there are now more US Seniors entering the match and there will be even more in the future as new medical schools mature their entering classes to graduating students over the next four years.  Given that the supply of matched candidates includes both foreign-born IMGs and US-born IMGs, there are more candidates than spots.  And while many believe IMGs will be the ones that get “squeezed out” in this shortage situation, again this is an untested assumption.  It is also important to recognize that IMGs often play a significant role in ensuring primary care for rural populations and underserved communities,which are often not geographically desirable by US graduates.

 We are left with a fundamental question:  Do we owe it to our entering medical students who successfully graduate from medical school to have a residency spot?   At a time when we have a shortage of physicians and a call for medical schools to increase in size, should we not expand our residencies?   Unfortunately, GME funding is on the chopping block because of the belief that too much money is being wasted on residency training.  Moreover, hospitals seem less enthusiastic about expanding residencies, as it is not as much of a bargain due to caps on hours residents work, and all the other new accreditation standards for residency training.

There is a potential solution.  The “Training Tomorrow’s Doctors Today Act” by Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), and the “Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2013” sponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would enable training 15,000 more physicians over 5 years.   Moreover, spots would be distributed to programs and specialties in critical shortages, like primary care.

Given the time that it takes to train a physician, now is the time to act to ensure we have the doctors we need for the future.

 —Vineet Arora MD MAPP

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Making the Most of the iPad Mini on Medicine Rounds

On my birthday several weeks ago, I was lucky to get an iPad Mini from my husband. I already have an iPad and have shared my experience. In fact, we gave all of our residents iPads (one of them contacted Steve Jobs and got a response), and documented an improvement in efficiency on the wards. So why the Mini? What is all the fuss? Well, after finishing 2 weeks on service, I can finally tell you why the Mini is the new must-have for doctors and future doctors.

  1. It fits in your white coat! Yes, while there were entrepeneurs who started creating the iCoat, the truth is who wants to wear a coat with a huge pocket on the side? This means that you also don’t need to wear the “strap’ that we require our residents to wear for the iPad since we did not yet invest in the iCoat.
  2. You can hold it in one hand! This for me is the best part and very underappreciated point in the blogs and reviews I have read. This means you can tough the screen with one hand while you are palming it with the other. I don’t even have the largest hands so I would say it definitely was just at the reach of my palm grasp but I can imagine it would be perfect for my male colleagues.
  3. It fits in your purse! While the female docs may find palming the iPad mini not as easy as the men, never fear…since this one is for the ladies. Many female doctors are always on a quest to find the right handbag/workbag combination. Owning an iPad always meant buying boxy “folio” type purses or shoving it to barely fit in a handbag. The mini is the PERFECT size for a medium size handbag – hobo or satchel. This means that you can go from day to night without carrying your “work bag” to the restaurant. And for the men out there, you can always get a “murse” this holiday season. I hear that they are making a big splash.
  4. You’ll carry it more. Number 1 through 3 really boil down to the fact that it is hard to carry the iPad. Because it is so easy to carry, you won’t find yourself without access to the electronic health record or paging directory. You may be more apt to show patients their images or X-rays or look something up because it is not as hard to use.
  5. You’ll make friends. Basically the minute I brought out the Mini, everyone…nurses, social workers, residents, students, and yes patients were interested in seeing it – “Mini envy” as my students called it. It’s a conversation starter that can improve collegiality and teamwork. When I visited floors that I did not usually work on (overflow patients), I met a nurse who asked me about the Mini – and the next day, she came to our rescue when we were trying to decipher the timing of a patient’s medication and a potential new allergy.
  6. It is more discrete to use at a conference (once everyone stops staring). The Mini is smaller so a bit more stealth in terms of answering a text page or checking a lab while you are sitting in case conference, and you can easily stash it back in your purse as noted above.

Some things to think about. The Mini is not without its pitfalls – many of which are predictable due to its size and interface.

  1. For the visually challenged, it can be hard to see. Sure… you can always “magnify” things with the correct gestures. But, if you are in your Citrix Client looking at your electronic health record, it may not be so easy to magnify and you may have to hold it up closer to your face which can be awkward. Maybe I just need to get my vision tested? Either way, something to be aware of.
  2. Easy to lose. As part of the residency program project, the nice thing about the iPad with strap is you an see it on the resident and its harder to walk off with. The Mini could disappear in a snap. Could someone even “pick-pocket” a doctor coat? Very possible.
  3. It is not a complete substitute for a workstation or pen and paper. This is not unique to the Mini. There is a reason that mobile tablet computing is not a complete substitute for a workstation – the lack of a keyboard. As a result, some our residents carry “paper notes” with their iPad – the paper notes are to take notes of the to-do list that is created on rounds -nothing like checking all those boxes off as an intern. The iPad does not replace that so readily – and while there others thinking about this space, its worth noting that the preference for pen and paper to organize one’s thoughts is very strong. I have to admit, watching the catchy commercial for the Windows Surface, there is still something so appealing about an external keyboard.

So what is the verdict for the Mini? Well, as we say in medicine, the risks of the Mini are outweighed by its benefits making it the perfect prescription for all the physicians or physicians to be in your life. And there’s still a few shopping days left before Christmas…

Happy Holidays!

Vineet Arora MD

Time to Fight Horrors of Healthcare Costs by Taking Charge of Teaching Value

This Halloween, several creative costumes have emerged from the zingers of the Presidential debates – Big Bird costumes are selling out like hotcakes. For a more do it yourself look, here’s a recipe for Binders full of women.  The debate over the best way to contain healthcare costs have also been a central part of the debates, and yet medical bills do not seem to make popular costumes. Maybe that is because that unaffordability of healthcare is too horrifying for ironic humor – even on Halloween.

As we head into the election, patients are increasingly being terrorized by runaway healthcare costs.  Americans outspend our peers two to one and still seem to be worse off. We overtest and overtreat to the point of absurdity.   According to a recent report, “The U.S. did 100 MRI tests and 265 CT tests for every 1000 people in 2010 — more than twice the average in other OECD countries.”  The causes are multifactorial but the solutions can’t be left to presidents and policymakers alone. An important part of the responsibility rests with healthcare professionals and the educators who train them.

Experts in health professions education and economics have lamented the poor state of education on healthcare costs.  Over 60% of U.S. medical graduates describe their medical economics training as “inadequate.”  Not only are medical trainees unaware of the costs of the tests that they order, they are rarely positioned to understand the downstream financial harms medical bills can have on patients.  More recently, Medicare, the largest funder of residency training in the United States, is concerned that we are not producing the physicians to practice cost-conscious medicine in an era of diminished resources.

We have been scared in the dark too long and this Halloween the time has come to Take Charge.

Join us now at http://teachingvalue.org/takecharge

About Teaching Value: the Costs of Care Teaching Value Project is an initiative of Costs of Care that is funded by the ABIM Foundation.  Our team is comprised of medical educators and trainees who believe it is time to transform the American healthcare system by empowering cost-conscious caregivers to deflate medical bills and protect patients’ wallets.  Our web-based video modules are designed to be easy to access for anyone anywhere and provide a starting point for tackling this problem. It’s time to emerge from the darkness and do our part to tame the terror of healthcare costs.

Teaching Crucial Conversations: The Curse of Knowledge & the ASK Problem

One of the most interesting conversations that I had recently was at the ABIM Foundation Summer Forum Open Space Sessions.  The ABIM Foundation Summer Forum is a summit of thought leaders and experts representing healthcare organizations, policymakers, patients, payers, doctors, and trainees who come together to tackle a major problem in healthcare.  The topic of this year’s forum was in keeping with the launch of the new ABIM Choosing Wisely Campaign and aptly named “Choosing Wisely in an Era of Limited Resources.”

The Forum has a unique format, employing a mix of routine panel discussions, but also “Open Space” conversations where participants actually drive the agenda, deciding what they want to work on.  One of the Open Space topics that I ended up joining was on how to train physicians to have crucial conversations with patients.   After forming this group, there were some immediate questions raised– why only physicians?  What about other members of the care team, including the patient?  Moreover, individuals in our group each had a different definition of what  “crucial conversations” were.  One clear theme was around end-of-life conversations with patients, but that was not the only one.  For example, how to talk to a patient who is asking for a medical test that is not indicated?

As I returned home, I reread some of the literature I have become acquainted with on why we (humans) don’t communicate as well as we should.  Using this framework, it’s worth considering why doctors and patients may not communicate as well as they should.  Drawing from the knowledge communication literature when an ‘expert’ is communicating to a ‘decision maker’, two distinct problems can arise:

  • Curse of Knowledge– The curse of knowledge, otherwise known as the paradox of expertise, represents the difficulty of experts to use commonplace jargon to communicate their ideas to those that are not experts.  Because experts tend to surround themselves with other experts, it can be very difficult for an expert not to use technical jargon when communicating with people who not experts.  This is easily evident in a variety of scenarios – most notably in the first few seconds of the trailer for the movie Contagion when doctors try to tell Matt Damon that his wife, played by index case Gwyneth Paltrow, is dead.  The doctor starts by saying “I am sorry…she failed to respond”.  On cue, Matt Damon responds, “OK can I go talk to her?” clearly missing the meaning of what the doctor has just tried to communicate.  Likewise, one of the patient advocates at our table shared the story of how she came to know she had cancer – “It’s malignant” …so she deduced from “Mal” and all the words that start with “mal” are bad (malice, malpractice…to name a few) so she thought “Mal … bad”.
  • ASK Problem – the ASK Problem stands for the Anomalous State of Knowledge.  This is a problem that arises when the decision maker does not have the knowledge that it takes to ask questions, since asking questions often relies on having intimate knowledge of the subject at hand.   This is particularly salient since we have major campaigns that often are directed at patients to “ask more questions” of their doctor.  However, it may be very hard for a nonexpert to ask a question of an expert if they don’t have a set of common knowledge to go on.  Asking questions is so difficult that our work shows its rare for even physicians to ask other physicians questions, and instead they opt for what is known as “back-channeling” or saying “Uh-huh” to indicate their agreement.  The only problem with this is that back-channeling is that it can be exhibited by demented patients so it is not necessarily a confirmation of comprehension or understanding.  To make matters worse, a recent study shows that patients may not ask questions for fear of being labeled “difficult”.

How can we get around these problems? Well, improving a conversation requires training on all sides. Patients can also be coached to take a more active role in their care. However, healthcare personnel also need to be prepared so that their newly empowered patients are not an unwelcome surprise. Physicians and other healthcare personnel need to be trained in how to speak to patients about difficult decisions in a sensitive way.   One model curriculum we can learn from has been developed by oncology fellowship directors and is called OncoTalk.  One of the key tenants is the principle of NURSE, which describes how to respond to patient emotions during complex decision-making.

  • Naming the emotion “It sounds like you are afraid of X”
  • Understanding the emotion  “I can understand the fear that goes along with X.”
  • Respecting  “You are asking the right questions…”
  • Supporting  “I am here to support you through this decision…”
  • Exploring  “What are you thinking about now?”

Of course, the age-old question is can you teach empathy? Well, according to one recent study, empathy wanes throughout medical school.   So we should, at the very least, try to at least preserve it.

Vineet Arora MD

Where are the Lollipop Men in Healthcare?

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

The Social History: Going Beyond TED

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

Transforming Medical Education: Trust, Time, Teams & Technology

This past Thanksgiving, I was able to reflect on the always jam-packed and inspiring Association of American Medical Colleges 2011 Meeting that took place earlier this month in Denver.  The theme of the meeting was transformation.  It was certainly an interesting theme with the undertones of economic recession and the GME funding crisis- and that was before the failure of the Supercommittee to reach a resolution.  So, how does medical education need to transform?  In more ways than one, it turns out.  So here are just 4 that were the recurring themes of the meeting and being a fan of alliteration, they all begin with “T”.

  • Trust – it was clear that we need to restore the Americans people trust in physicians and in the medical education process.  While students enter medicine to make a difference, something that they see in their journey to becoming a physician makes them jaded and they sometimes lose sight of their initial intention. Is it debt, burnout, role models…Or likely some combination of the 3? It does not matter, because we have to restore their faith in teaching– yes teaching.  Teaching is the heart and soul of our medical education and it is sometimes the easiest to lose in an academic health center focused on NIH dollars or US news world report rankings.  In addition to teaching our students, it is time to teach another constituency, our patients and Congress about the critical need for medical education.   And in fact, advocacy is something we need to be teaching our own trainees so they can engage in the dialogue regarding the future of healthcare.
  • Time– perhaps the most radical proposal advanced was by Victor Fuchs who suggested that we radically redesign medical school to have medical students specialize 2 years after medical school and enter specific pathways like they do in many other countries and in other fields.  I’m all for shortening dwell time for our medical trainees, but I am not so sure that young people are ready to make a serious commitment about what they want to do at such an early age.  There has to be a middle ground since at the same time, one of the most well attended sessions was “who cares about the 4th year of medical school?” which included many insightful comments about the need for reflection and consolidation of core skills.  So, clearly not all time is easily tossed to the waste side.
  • Teams– given the projected shortage of over 90,000 physicians by 2020, it is important to reorganize care into teams.  While there is a lot of controversy about what to call nurses who have PhDs, that was not the focus of the meeting. It was about how can you encourage everyone to practice to their highest level of certification.  Team based competences have actually been developed by several groups and have been advanced by many schools with inter professional learning.  One difficulty we face at home is that we don’t have allied health professions, but we are brainstorming how to involve actual nurses and pharmacists in training medical students.
  • Technology -there was a lot of discussion about technology to boost medical education.  There was even a technology in medical education abstract session moderated by @motherinmedicine and including podcasts, iPads, and social media in medicine.  Perhaps the most interesting speaker was Chuck Friedman at the University of Michigan who is the former technology czar of the US and eloquently highlighted the need for moving medical education from wrote memorization to a distributed knowledge where the most important information future physicians will need to know is not what the information is off the top of their head BUT how to access information.  He went so far to say testing would move to “unassisted testing” followed by “cloud-supported testing” which would then merge into a pass or fail based on performance on both.  I know all of us who certified or recertified recently would welcome assistance from the cloud- it is after all the closest approximation to real medicine.  However, my hands down favorite moment of this session was when someone astutely asked what about these physicians when the power goes out or when the computer system fries.  His response was simple and so spot on… “Dont get me started on the state of IT in our teaching hospitals”.
So, while we just celebrated a holiday and accompanying ritual to give thanks, it is now time for medical educators to transcend the traditional status quo and instead test novel techniques to transform medical training — not only to restore public trust but so we can also train the trainees who will treat us in the future.
–Vineet Arora MD