I’ve learned the geography for maybe 120 miles around my new city by dint of making polite conversation with my patients, and hearing that they live in such-and-such a city, ten miles east of X small country hospital, and two hours north of our place; and so on. Thus, my picture of the surrounding territory consists of outcroppings of towns labeled predominantly with the names of our referring hospitals.

The attendings and chiefs are a step ahead of me. They know not merely the hospitals, but the physicians who transfer patients to us regularly. In fact, they know them too well for their own happiness.

There’s one doctor in particular, I’m not sure yet whether he’s ER or a surgeon, but when the attendings hear his name (“Dr. Smith called about transferring a patient to your service”) an expression of disgust comes over their face, usually accompanied by several unprintable words. We’ve figured out, through too much experience, that when he bills a patient as stable and ok for a regular floor, we’d better prepare an ICU bed, and maybe have the OR on standby. Whereas when he describes a patient as septic, on death’s door, requiring urgent operation, we can safely order a regular floor bed, and consider whether a CT scan might suggest the need for surgery, or simply send the OR staff to bed. If he describes right upper quadrant pain, it’s invariably in the left lower quadrant. If he says the patient has no cardiac problems, they’re most likely in decompensated heart failure and/or infectious endocarditis. If he says a patient has necrotizing fasciitis, we can safely conclude that it’s simple cellulitis. If he says there’s a rigid abdomen, it’s sure to be as soft as a kitten.

The real problem is when he says he’s not sure what’s going on. Then we have nothing whasoever to base our conclusions on.

So my question is: was he always this poor of a doctor, or did he change after he left residency? If I’m a conscientious, careful resident, and learn how to accurately assess my patients, will that protect me from becoming this kind of terror to my colleagues? Or is it that once you leave the demanding academic environment, where there’s always someone looking over your shoulder and evaluating you, it’s just as easy to slip into this lackadaisical, “we’ll let the big hospital handle it,” mode? What can I do to keep myself from becoming this doctor?

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