Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Advocating For Patients

The following is based on an actual conversation from an evening on call. Some details have been changed.

Situation: Emergency surgery for a patient whose vital signs were unstable and whose mental status was deteriorating.

Doctor: "I have some quick questions before we enter the operating room, and I'll also need signed consent for the anesthesia."

Family Member #1: "Oh, I'm his health care proxy. I can sign that."

Doctor: "All right. Can you tell me about his medical history?"

Family Member #2: "You mean why we're here?"

Doctor: "No, I know that part, but I was hoping you could tell me about his major medical problems. Does..."

Family Member #1: "Oh, I don't know any of that. I'm just the health care proxy."

What does the average person understand to be the role of a health care proxy?
What should that role consist of?
Can people really advocate for others whose situation they either are in denial about or don't understand fully?

Family Member #1: "My brother knows some of that stuff, though."

Doctor: "I was reading through some old records. He has high blood pressure?"

Family Member #2: "Oh, no, he doesn't have that."

Family Member #1: "No. Not that."

Doctor: glances at listed hypertension medication in the record

Family Member #1: "He's actually really healthy."

Doctor (puzzled, glancing once again at list of medical issues from previous hospitalizations): "Oh? I thought I saw..."

Family Member #2: "Yeah, he's healthy."


Family Member #2: "He just has a little congestive heart failure and some emphysema."


The physician ran down a list of specific questions, asking about recent hospitalizations, heart symptoms, frequency of inhaler use, mental status changes, and other medical information felt to be germane to the patient's care. In this situation, however, time was short - surgery needed to be performed as soon as possible. Not only was the information not readily available, but also the sources of information were largely unreliable. Such circumstances can have a significant impact on patient care. The doctor here is responsible for efficient and thorough information gathering and the performance of a proper focused physical exam, but time and available sources can be very limited in situations like these.

Plea: Please know your own medical history, and if advocating for another, know that person's issues as well as his or her medical management preferences. The best care is provided when clinicians have the best information available, especially during emergencies, and sometimes loved ones / proxies / advocates are our only source.

1 comment:

Solitary Diner (Also Known as The Frugalish Physician) said...

Great post. My personal favourite (note sarcasm) recently was a family who dropped off a patient who was deaf, suffering from dementia, and didn't speak English in the ER with no collateral information. I wish people understood how essential it is for us to have an accurate medical history in order to do our jobs well.