Edumucation and Other Things

Perspective

While driving through the downtown of our small but not insignificant Midwestern city (there are corn fields five miles from the city center but we do have the state capital and a handful of miniature skyscrapers) I noticed a fat brown squirrel scampering down a tree and bounding across the street in the halting but graceful manner that can only be executed by a squirrel.   From between two buildings a large hawk dove at the squirrel and, opening its wings and rotating its talons forward at the last second, grabbed the squirrel by the head nearly decapitating it from the violence of the attack.   It flew back into the skyline with the limp body of the squirrel swinging from its claws.

My friends, the squirrel is us, you me and everybody bouncing along through life in our own halting, occasionally graceful manner.

The hawk is death.

Edumucation

Our good blog-friend Cosmic Connie over at Whirled Musings brings up an interesting point about the proliferation of easily obtainable on-line and mail-order degrees.  I think she is just scratching the surface of the problem.  While it is easy to identify fly-by-night diploma mills, most of what is considered legitimate higher education in this country is essentially the same thing; a lot more expensive with better ambiance and legions of fawning admirers but diploma mills just the same.

In fact, if there is a bigger scam than higher education or one supported by such a collection of self-interested grifters (who nevertheless bask in public adulation) I have yet to hear about it.  In terms of shadiness, only the CHIP program, an offshoot of Medicaid designed to funnel Other People’s Money into lucrative Pediatric Emergency Departments and Children’s Hospitals purpose-built to loot this rich bonanza even comes close.  Indeed, just as most of the money spent on the goat-rodeo of American Medicine is mostly wasted, most of the money spent on higher education is also mostly just thrown away producing little benefit to society except the employment of fearsome armies of educational bureaucrats who would otherwise be fit for nothing but agricultural labor.

That and serving as federally subsidized day care for 18-to-24-year-olds who would otherwise be inflating the unemployment statistics, safely warehousing them for another four years as sizable majorities of them pursue Mickey Mouse degrees.

Even prestigious universities are mostly now nothing but diploma mills and federal student aid farms where anybody who qualifies for student loans will be fed into the pipeline to emerge at the other end with as much money squeezed out of them as possible. If you think it is otherwise you are sadly deluded. A modern university is a self-perpetuating bureaucratic octopus, growing bloated as only an organization with unlimited access to public money can, and requiring only one thing: a steady supply of warm students shoveled into the front end to be kept in the mill as long as possible.

And the price of a degree keeps going up, outpacing inflation, not because the quality of the educational product has improved but because there is so much federal loan money available to pay for it.  The suckers keep lining up to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars for easy, meaningless degrees that give them something to put on their resume when they apply for a job at Starbucks.  There used to be educational standards but now there is a university for everyone and a Mickey Mouse degree to be had at any level of educational ability and for any level of scholarly ambition.  May as well get a mail-order degree and save yourself the tuition.

The relevance to Goat Rodeodery?  Only that maybe the string of initials after everybody and his brother’s name may not mean as much as was once believed.  Certainly the number of initials, abbreviations, and credentials listed on a hospital identification badge is usually inversely proportional to real education.

You Missed It…

Every week or so I get a comment or an email from someone who was once passionate about the idea of Emergency Medicine but after reading my blog decided to eschew it in favor of some other specialty.

Unfortunately, I may have given the wrong impression about Emergency Medicine. It is true that much of American medicine is either a cruel grind or sublimely ridiculous.  Keeping this in mind however, Emergency Medicine is a blast.  It has everything: Sick patients who really need your help and are mighty appreciative of it. Absolute medical train wrecks who, tenaciously refusing to shuffle off their mortal coil, are dumped onto you with the expectation that you can and will squeeze just a little more functionally pointless life out of them.  Shootings.  Stabbings.  Every manner of human virtue and vice.  Minor complaints.  Serious complaints. Ridiculous complaints. Really, really ridiculous complaints.  You name it, we’ve got it and to reject the never-ending passion play and freak show of Emergency Medicine is to avow a certain disinterest in mankind, a desire to have nothing but sanitized interactions with your patients who have been scrubbed clean (often literally) and filtered through the Emergency Department.  People are generally on their best behavior in a clinic or the wards (or at least their better behavior) but in the Emergency Department we see them in the raw; man primordial, folly and nobility magnified.

But you have to love chaos.  I’ll give you that.  Not that the department is chaotic all of time but every now and then when the waiting room is packed and the ambulances keep rolling in with more critical patients, when the Friday night drunks are particularly demanding and the drug-seekers exceptionally whiny, when you are short-staffed and the charge nurse is making fists at you to move your many patients either in or out; when the impatient families are growing angrier by the minute and everybody is feeling harassed and overworked…when everything seems to be devolving into mayhem, confusion, and carnage you had best be able to prioritize and multitask like a friggin’ supercomputer or you probably actually won’t like Emergency Medicine.

The hurricane rages and blows.  Huge waves slam onto the deck as the rigging comes down around your head and the ship wallows in a following sea.  You are either the kind of lunatic who laughs at the gale and spits in the wind or this kind of thing intimidates you and you can only cling to the mast in terror.  I exaggerate of course but we have had off-service rotators in tears at various points of their brief exposure to Emergency Medicine.

Another Pet Peeve

“You goddman doctors killed my mother (who is sixty-two years old, on hemodialysis three times a week for kidney failure, has bad congestive heart failure, is blind and has double below-the-knee amputations from the ravages of diabetes, has had so many strokes in the last two years that the neurologists just stand in the door and sigh, is recovering from her fifth heart attack, has been in the intensive care unit six times in the last two years, and had a very  challenging case of pneumonia which was probably the result of aspirating the chicken soup her daugter fed her even though her strokes have made it difficult for her to swallow and all of her nutrition is poured into a tube going directly into her stomach).”

Edumucation and Other Things

Panda-emic

“I got the Swine”

I’m hoarse from explaining influenza to my patients, the numbers of whom showed a small but significant increase over the last two weeks as Swine Flu hysteria grew, peaked, and then receded.  Everybody wanted a pill for “The Swine” for which, unfortunately, there is none except an essentially useless anti-viral that works but has to be given almost before you even know you are sick to have any effectiveness.  Antibiotics are useless against a virus of course and I spent hours explaining to my patients who, being mostly products of the public school system, had no clear idea of the difference between bacteria and viruses or even what these tricky sounding things were in the first place.  To their credit they had terrific self-esteem and confidence in their ignorance so the schools must be doing something.

Undaunted, I came up with all kinds of simple analogies to explain the difference between bacteria and viruses. I thought I was doing pretty well but invariably they would smile, nod at the crazy doctor, and ask for some antibiotics.

Simply because it is the first instinct of the public to seek safety at the Emergency Department I think if we ever have an epidemic of a dangerous and essentially incurable viral illness we are all screwed .  Going to the Emergency Department during an epidemic is exactly the wrong thing to do if all you have is a sore throat and some sniffles.  Some of your fellow citizens sitting next to you in the packed waiting room may actually have Ebola and when we invariably send you home with Motrin and our best wishes you are going to spread it to everybody in your house.

What we need is a public awareness campaign to keep people away from hospitals during an epidemic.   At least we need to put triage out in the parking lot and not in front of the triage nurse’s counter.  That way we can send the not-that-sick or not-sick-at-all home without exposing them to everybody in town.

I’ve got news for all of you: If things get really bad there’s not much The Man can do to help you anyway and if you are old, multiply co-morbid, or unhealthy you will probably die as there are not enough ICU beds or staff who will show up to work to take care of you.

Super Users Revisited

I know everybody and his brother is outraged at the examples of lone-gunmen patients who make so many Emergency Department visits that the cost of their care runs into the millions but the problem is actually much bigger than that.   While the Super Users are an obvious problem, they are also something of a red herring.  Sure, they cost a lot of money but as there are not that many of them we could conceivably solve the problem with a little creative but humiliating bribery (say a permanent suite at the best hotel in Vegas which would be a bargain compared to the alternative) or a couple hundred bucks to the right seedy character and no questions asked.

The real problem is the patients who don’t rise to the level of Super User but nonetheless spend a significant amount of their time trying to wrangle an admission for chronic medical problems, an admission that, as it involves 24-hour care, hot-and-cold-running-narcotics, room service, and chambermaids and butlers who dress like nurses is viewed as something of a vacation from the daily grind of anticipating the next disability check.

I almost always look at the List of Previous Visits before I go see a patient, just to see what I’m dealing with you understand.  It is, for example, useful to know that the last time your asthma patient came in he had to be intubated and spent a week in the Intensive Care Unit.  This kind of information keeps you on your toes.  Lately I’ve noticed quite a few patients coming in for what turn out to be minor complaints who have twenty or thirty Emergency Department visits in the past couple of years, also for what were presumably minor complaints as they were frequently sent home without admission.  Not enough visits to rise to the level of Super User but how many times do most people go to the doctor, much less the Emergency Department, in a couple of years?

I’ve seen a doctor four or five times in the last thirty years but I have so far enjoyed good health.  On the other hand I have patients who have quite a few medical problems but still manage to get through a year with only four or five doctor visits and trip or two to the Emergency Department.    Would twenty doctor visits a year for chronic but easily controlled medical problems be considered excessive?  How about four or five admissions, most of which were probably incredibly weak and more to ward off the legal vampires than for any sound medical reasons?

Anecdotally, and take it therefore for what it is worth, I would say that if I excluded my incredibly co-morbid patients who would die if not symbiotically grafted to every hospital in town as well as the handful of people with rare and unstable conditions, at least a third of my patients have a rather large number of visits, seemingly out of proportion to their medical history.

Don’t get yer’ shorts in a bunch.  I’m just throwing it out there.  But the wails and gnashing of teeth when medical care is finally overtly rationed as it must be under any system where it is given away for free will rend the very stones…and not just from the patients either.  Money drives medicine and the steady flow of government money cannot possibly continue.  Somebody is going to start saying “No” one of these days.

My Pet Peeve

You came to the emergency Department by ambulance, sirens blaring and tires squealing.  You were in excruciating pain, so much so that the ten-point pain scale was inadequate and you swore it was a “twenty out of ten.”  You clutched your chest (or your abdomen or your head) and I, taking you extremely seriously, initiated the Million-Dollar-Workup to find a heart attack (or an aortic dissection or a intracranial bleed).  I poured pain medication into you and stood ready to resuscitate you when you finally succumbed to whatever horror had you in its deadly grip.

So please, a scant half hour after your arrival and while we are well on our way to proving that all you had was a little bit of gas or maybe some particularly vicious esophageal reflux, please do not stand outside the door to the critical care/trauma bay asking when you can go home and demanding food.

Dude, you were dyin’ twenty-five minutes ago.  Can you wait another half hour for a sandwich?

Panda-emic