I’ve discovered something extremely useful that the medical doctors do.

I hate walking into patients’ rooms (or into an office encounter), introducing myself for the first time, and within the next ten to fifteen minutes trying to familiarize a patient with an operation enough for them to consent to it. It feels like such an imposition – Hi, I’m Alice, you have cholecystitis, you need to have your gallbladder taken out, we have an OR slot available tomorrow morning, the risks include death, heart attack, stroke, damage to your liver/intestines/bile ducts, bleeding, and infection, please sign this paper. That is really what I say, except more smoothly, and spread out over fifteen minutes. Or, Hi, I’m Alice, your father really is not getting off the ventilator any time soon, he needs a trach and a feeding tube, he can fit into the schedule tomorrow afternoon, please sign this paper. Or, Hi, I’m Alice, I regret to say that your increasing abdominal pain is due to an obstructive colon cancer, you need to have surgery, you’re first on the list for the morning, please sign this paper.

That’s how it happens, because we try not to drag our feet about inpatients. If they’re inhouse, and they need surgery, we’ll do it within the next day or two. And I simply don’t have the time to walk by the room three times in the next 24 hours, to give the patient time to think about it, and then answer questions, and then get the consent signed. The attending will come around, too, but I’m the one who has to get the paperwork in order.

So the medicine guys are great, because they get the patients and families accustomed to the idea of having an operation, and give them some time to come to terms with it, between when it first comes up, and when we arrive to talk about it. Ok, maybe they could stand to check some coagulation labs for patients on coumadin when they call us for an urgent problem, but there’s a limit to how much surgical thinking you can ask from nonsurgeons. Maybe the patients end up with the strangest ideas about how the operation proceeds, or what they can expect afterwards, but I daresay the majority of those miscommunications come from their ears, not from the medical doctors. It is nice to get into the room, introduce myself as a surgical resident, and have the patient say, “Oh yes, they told me I need to have my gallbladder out, my children agree, let’s get it over with, where do I sign?” Sometimes I regret having the wind taken out of my sails, since the patients often don’t want to listen to my speech about the chances of recurring incidents if they leave the gallbladder in, and the possibility of nonsurgical treatment, but I can’t exactly argue about that.

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