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The Art of Asking: What Else is Going on?

Walter Brown’s blood sugars were out of control. Ellen Meek had put on 15 lbs. Diane Meserve’s blood pressure was suddenly 30 points higher than ever before.

In Walter’s case, he turned out to have an acute thyroiditis that caused many other symptoms that came to light during our standard Review of Systems.

Ellen, it turned out, was pretty sure her husband was having an affair with one of his coworkers. And, since this wasn’t the first time, she was secretly working on a plan to move out and file for divorce. She admitted she’d always had a tendency to stress eat.

Diane’s daughter had just announced that she was pregnant by a man she wasn’t sure wanted to be around in the long run.

How do we know whether a patient’s subjective symptoms, laboratory values or even their vital signs are caused by their known medical conditions, a new disease or their state of mind?

We are often tempted to proceed down familiar tracks and tackle seemingly straightforward problems with medications: More insulin would take care of Walter’s blood sugar. Ellen could use a couple of months of phentermine. Diane needed a higher dose of lisinopril or perhaps some hydrochlorothiazide.

As Sherlock Holmes said, “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”.

There are all kinds of algorithms and guidelines that are supposed to inform clinicians in situations like these, but I wonder how often they are helpful and how often they might actually cause harm.

Medicine is part physiology and part psychology. Are we giving both aspects of our craft the attention they deserve? And, of course, do we make choices and treatment decisions according to probability or by time available to stay on time in our clinic schedules?

Asking “what else is going on” can open up the dreaded, proverbial floodgates, can of worms or Pandora’s box. We don’t have all these cliches in our language for nothing.

Do we avoid asking the questions that will reveal the real answers we need in order to help our patients, or do we dare to?

Driverless Cars or Keyboardless EMRs? Which Do We Need Most?

I love cars and dislike computers.

My car takes me where I need to go, but it also gives me pleasure along the way. I have had it for just about ten years now and I have driven it almost 300,000 miles. It feels like an extension of me. Everything about it is just perfect for the way I drive and the things I need to do with it. From the sumptuously cavernous interior to the rugged all wheel drive features and the studded Finnish snow tires, it takes me pretty much anywhere, anytime. Why anyone would want to travel in a car without the sublime pleasure of driving it is beyond my comprehension.

My computers, on the other hand, are things I avoid whenever I can. My work laptop is an awkward Windows machine. Need I say more? Whatever it does happens stiltedly and unintuitively behind layers of barriers and firewalls that make me sign in again and again until I get to a pathetically clumsy EMR.

My MacBook Pro is slimmer and slicker but it gives me no pleasure to use it, I’m sorry to say.

Every word I have written and published – about as many words as I have miles on my car – has been put down on the virtual keyboard of my iPad. It feels more like an extension of my brain. I use it in bed, by the fireplace, in the barn or on the lawn. I can even talk into it without a microphone or any special software. I touch the screen and magic happens: Apps open, fonts and colors change and the world is at my fingertips, wherever I am.

The work I do remotely for my downstate clinic happens on my iPad and iPhone. That EMR works totally smoothly on my portable devices; the app is so much more modern and intuitive than the computer version.

Some people derive pleasure from the computer itself. I cringe when I have to use it. But driving is a sensual experience, whether it is my commute through the north woods or weekend drive along the Aroostook River through Fort Fairfield to Tractor Supply in Presque Isle. Shifting the manumatic 7-speed transmission with the steering wheel paddles so as not leaning on the brakes, accelerating gently through each curve for better traction, I am one with my machine.

I derive no pleasure from the process of getting my thoughts from my brain to the medical record. I just want it over and done. So if this Country Doctor had to choose between the future prospects of a driverless car or a driverless, keyboardless EMR, he wouldn’t hesitate for a split second.

(Written on my iPad)

Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.


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