Long heralded anecdotally as “the best medicine,” laughter maintains a nebulous position in the medical literature. While it is unlikely to be able to cure cancer, as some proponents have maintained, it does seem to be connected to health, and most certainly has an impact on a person’s stress and anxiety levels. So while it won’t necessarily let you stop taking your daily medications, adding a little more laughter to your day may be helpful in improving your overall health.
The Known Benefits of Laughter
According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter does more than just make you “feel good.” It actually improves your health in the process through a series of physical changes. One of the main ways this can be felt is through the release of extra endorphins, the hormonal pleasure chemicals normally sent by your brain during sex, eating or other pleasurable activities. This chemical release is one of the main reasons that people enjoy laughing, and contributes to the urge to watch comedy movies or attend comedy events. These endorphins can also contribute to pain relief, helping those with pain feel better with less need for pain medicine.
In addition, the act of laughing makes your body’s stress response engage and then release, which contributes to a feeling of relief and relaxation. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase and then return to normal, giving you the sensation of something exciting happening to you. This activation and release actually reduces overall stress, promoting circulation and improving your overall muscle relaxation. It can decrease the effects of depression and anxiety and help you navigate the world around you with greater control. It can also improve your immune system response through the release of neuropeptides that fight stress but also protect you from more serious illnesses.
Laughter has been the subject of much research and many unresearched claims. While the benefits listed above have been well proven, other claims may have only anecdotal evidence behind them. While laughter alone is not able to cure cancer, as some suggest, it may be very effective at improving a patient’s outlook during their cancer treatment, and can strengthen their immune system and improve their treatment response.
One very famous example of the anecdotal benefits of laughter is Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness: as Perceived by a Patient, in which he treats his pain successfully with Marx Brothers comedies and Vitamin C in 1964. This has been proven in the scientific literature, including in one study which showed that patients who watch a comedy had improved pain tolerance afterwards, while those who were exposed to a drama or a documentary actually had a reduced pain tolerance. Food for thought during Oscar season…
The research community has made it clear: the ambulatory clinic setting is full of opportunities to improve quality and safety. And while it may be difficult for many budget-conscious clinics to embrace recommendations with no immediate financial incentives, the benefits of improved safety and quality of care include long-term financial benefits. By keeping patients safer and improving the quality of their care, visit numbers and reimbursements should continue to improve.
Keeping it Simple
Addressing all the problems present in the ambulatory care environment is an overwhelming task in any clinic. Additionally, each clinic has its own unique set of problems, which may or may not be apparent initially. By breaking this overwhelming load of issues into manageable chunks, each clinic can take control of its own quality. In this way, clinic employees and management can feel optimistic and inspired about the way that they are taking control of the future of their own clinic.
As mentioned in previous articles in this series, the core of the ambulatory quality/safety philosophy is establishing ownership within small teams. These teams are expected to watch for, suggest, discuss, implement, and monitor initiatives for quality and safety improvement. This can dramatically impact each area of the clinic, and also fundamentally shift the culture of the clinic itself. As employees get used to watching for improvement opportunities, they will feel connected to the success of the clinic itself at each level. This is also protective against burnout and indifference toward portions of clinic operation that are broken or dysfunctional.
Watching for Common Safety Stumbling Blocks
Previous articles have discussed the many common safety and quality concerns that are most frequently seen in the ambulatory setting. Thanks to this ongoing research from the Department of Defense and others, we now know many of the areas that clinics can monitor initially to make the most dramatic improvement on safety and quality. These include delays in diagnosis, diagnoses that are missed altogether, medication errors, adverse drug events, issues with communication within teams and between patients and providers, and delays in patient care and preventative services.
Another important way to approach common errors is to think about the entire chain of care that patients experience, from the time they first hear about the clinic until they pay their final bill. Errors that contribute to decreased quality of care and patient safety can occur at any point along this chain of care. The best way to prevent these errors is to study each point of the chain specifically, utilizing those who are most familiar with the way that it operates. This study can be used to label the most common errors that occur at that point of care, and predict other possible errors to be avoided. By utilizing these and other preventative measures, clinics can take control of the quality and safety of their ambulatory care center.
As further study is done on the improvement of efficiency and safety in ambulatory care, the Department of Defense and other institutions have been able to identify several proven ways of enhancing care across a range of clinic types and specialties. Here are six of the most helpful:
SBAR: the Structured Handoff: One of the areas of greatest risk for patient care is the handoff from provider to provider. Whether occurring between specialties, across shifts or at the end of a provider’s career, the handoff is a crucial area where patient details can fall through the cracks. By adopting a structured handoff option, these risks can be mitigated and the process can even be streamlined. SBAR (Situation, Background, Assessment, Response) can be used to rapidly express the following: Situation: their current clinic presentation, Background: their relevant medical health history, Assessment: their current differential diagnosis, Response: their current plan of active medical care.
Team Briefs: Just as pilots give a brief before each flight, medical care teams can benefit from a team message when a new week begins, before a specific shift, or before a specific procedure. This standardized message template can cover all the important topics of the day, and can be updated as needed for each unique situation. This can help ensure that fewer things fall through the cracks, and that there is a standardized method of information distribution.
Team Huddles: Team huddles are a crucial aspect of patient care when there are a range of patient and providers involved with varying levels of experience. A provider may not have met a patient, but the patient care staff may be very familiar with them and can offer some insight. These huddles can be done at the start of the shift with the entire patient care staff in a particular clinic team, and can also be very helpful between each provider and their patient care staff for that particular shift. This can help things get done in advance and avoid delays.
Team Debriefs: Regular, scheduled debrief time is crucial for the distribution of relevant feedback. If there is time built in for debrief after every shift or every week, it becomes much easier for perceived concerns to be voiced and addressed in a timely manner. When things have to be addressed only at an individual’s discretion, only the most serious concerns will be voiced, and often after much time has passed. Scheduled debrief sessions can help suss out feedback of various levels of importance and with greater clarity and detail.
Closed loop communication: As the medical environment advances with technology, it has become standard for most orders and much of the communication to be sent electronically. Though this is quite convenient, it is important for these communication loops to be closed, meaning that the person sending the information receives a response from the person receiving it to know that it will be carried out. This can take many forms, but must be adopted in a variety of ways throughout the clinic environment for the best possible care.
Clinical team leaders and mentors: One of the most important aspects of long-term health and vitality of an ambulatory clinic is the establishment of clinic leaders and mentors. These leaders will often naturally emerge, but they may need to be assigned as well when there is no clear leader for an initiative or aspect of clinic management. Supporting these leaders is crucial, and mentorship may be an excellent way to ensure this. Both informal and formal mentorship relationships should be encouraged, and having an established mentorship program which participants may opt out of is often considered the standard.
The problems of quality and safety in the ambulatory care environment have received significant attention from government and non-government research entities in recent years. Some of the major players currently are the Joint Commission, the American College of Physicians, the National Quality Forum, and the Institute of Healthcare Improvement. One of their major findings was that taking a team-based approach to these issues can have a large impact on a clinic’s performance.
Three Ways to Address Quality and Safety with a Team Approach
Teamwork as Science: While perhaps not heavily studied in traditional scientific investigation, the importance of team effectiveness and communication is now coming forward as a scientifically provable and fundamental aspect of knowledge gathering. For example, recent changes in one study of ambulatory centers (the Safety Attitudes Questionnaire) has given researchers additional insight into the dynamics and culture of the medical clinic and office. As a result of these changes, experts in teamwork and workplace dynamics are now partnering with medical professionals, providers and clinic managers. Three major areas of study in this field are team performance, system/reliability theory, and the science of human factors.
Improvement Teams: Rather than tasking the entire clinic with improving the entire clinic, an overwhelming and difficult job, it has been shown to be far more effective to use smaller teams for smaller projects. Interdisciplinary teams composed of team members of all specialities can be used to follow the PDSA model. Plan, Do, Study, Act has been shown to be an effective and repeatable model for improving care in the ambulatory setting. A specific problem is brought before the small group through a brainstorming session, various ideas are suggested, one idea is settled on and discussed, and then a plan is made. This plan is typically implemented in one smaller area of the clinic if possible prior to implementation clinic-wide, to serve as a controlled study environment. These plans can be followed for 3-6 months depending on the specific plan, and then implemented for the whole clinic if found to be helpful.
Care Provision Teams: In addition to the improvement teams, which focus primarily on clinic processes and care plans, care provision teams can be used to focus specifically on patient populations that may benefit from additional attention. Team members of various specialties can come together to focus on improving the care of their clinic’s patients with a specific chronic disease or situation, such as diabetes, heart failure or high-risk OB care. The actions and structure of these teams can vary significantly depending on the specific patient population of focus. Several care provision teams can be used to give the best possible care clinic-wide.
Ambulatory clinics across the country see more than a billion visits each year (+4 visits per person), an incredible volume of patient interactions. Possibly as a result of the low acuity of many of these interactions, the ambulatory setting has not been held to the same sort of quality improvement and standardization expectations as the inpatient environment. And yet, even if the majority of ambulatory visits are fairly specific and low-risk, the incredibly high volume of these visits ensures that even events that occur rarely (missed diagnosis, unexpectedly high acuity presentations) can have a startling impact if not handled properly.
Four of the Most Common Safety and Quality Issues in the Ambulatory Clinic
Delays: Whether they occur due to patient factors, scheduling issues, clinical delays or provider error, delays at the various stages of treatment can have a major impact on patient health. At the most direct level, delays in the waiting room can decrease a patient’s willingness to be open with a provider, can cause the visit to be rushed, can increase the chance of error and can even lead to patients leaving without being seen. At the most extreme, patients who leave this way can be hesitant to seek care at other clinics, and can even be put on “no-show” lists at their home clinic which further delay their seeking care in the future. Delays at other levels of care, whether in scheduling or follow-up, can also cause problems to be missed, to not receive the proper amount of attention, or can lead to serious problems being dismissed through denial.
Missed diagnosis: While no provider is expected to be perfect, missed diagnosis is clearly a source of concern for patients, and with good reason. Over 50% of lawsuits brought as a result of ambulatory care concern the failure to diagnose conditions with significant repercussions, primarily cancer. These issues can occur as the result of poor judgement, inappropriate surveillance, insufficient knowledge, and even unclear handoffs between providers. While this problem in particular may seem overwhelming to understand, let alone address, by breaking it down into several different contributing factors, it becomes easier for clinics to face. In addition to ongoing education for providers, it is important to be aware of systemic issues, communication standards, information recording, and patient communication methods.
Communication breakdown: Communication is critical to the loose organization of the ambulatory setting. Without the rigid structure found in the hospital or ER, it is all too easy for things to fall through the cracks. Having standardized communication protocols for patient results, referrals, questions, and refills can help prevent these problems. Having a clear and permanently recorded communication chain from patient to staff to primary care provider to specialist can help smooth the flow of this information. In addition, there need to be protocols for communication with specialty laboratories, direct patient admissions to the hospital, and medical record transfers for new or outgoing patients.
Adverse Drug Events: The inappropriate prescription, refilling, or mixing of medications is a constant concern, and can lead to frustrating side effects, poor compliance, unnecessary hospital admissions and even death. One study of these ADEs showed an estimated 50 of these events for every 1,000 patient years in older patients. Though only 11% of these events were considered “preventable” by the study, that still represents a notable burden of care that could be improved for patients. The implementation of safeguards, double-checks and protocols can help prevent these ADEs, but the pressure to circumvent these safety measures to save time remains a strong factor for many providers.
We will discuss these, and many other potentially life-saving topics, in future installments of our Patient Safety Toolkit Series. Stay tuned!
Headaches don’t have to be debilitating or life-threatening when you can identify the cause. For so many patients, once the initial workup to rule out major pathology has been completed, it can be difficult to feel like their symptoms are important to anyone but themselves. After being labeled as “migraine with aura,” “cluster headache” or “atypical tension headache,” there is little incentive to hunt up another diagnosis which might fit the symptom set more completely and offer additional insight. In addition to this being frustrating, it can be deeply dangerous, as these headaches can be life-threatening.
Symptoms that Worsen with Postural Change
One of the headache red flags that healthcare providers may be less familiar with is the presence of an orthostatic component to a patient’s symptoms. These symptoms may be subtle, slowly increasing throughout the day as a person spends more time erect, or they may be dramatic, worsening when standing and improving quickly when laying down. While the dramatic symptoms may be easier to identify, both versions can be indicative of a unique headache cause: cerebrospinal fluid leak.
While far less common than the other worst-case headache scenarios, a CSF leak can have a range of presentations and outcomes. It can last a long time without worsening or can become life-threatening in an instant. When CSF leaks out of the dura through a small tear or hole, this can cause pressure changes in the brain that cause the symptoms of orthostatic headache. The staggering variance of these symptoms from this increased intracranial pressure are part of what makes this diagnosis so difficult, and can include:
These symptoms can also include vague neurological changes like unusual smells without a source, visual disturbances, areas of numbness or tingling on the skin, and metal tastes in the mouth.
Causes and More Confusion
Frustratingly, this CSF leak can occur for many reasons, some of them silent. The most commonly known and easily diagnosed cause is a known piercing of the dura, such as would occur during surgery of the brain or spine, or with an epidural or lumbar puncture. Another common cause is a bone spur or bony change such as occur during spinal damage via trauma or long-term degenerative disk disease. A third known cause is connective tissue disease, which may contribute to the dura being less resistant to damage or stretching from minor trauma. This third cause may be particular difficult for patients, as they may not know they suffer from this connective tissue disease until these symptoms present.
For patients concerned that they may be suffering from these debilitating symptoms as a result of a CSF leak, an expert in the newly growing field, Dr. Ian Carroll at Stanford, recommends spending an entire day laying down. Those with a CSF leak may find that they are symptom free all day as a result, and if the experience is dramatic, it’s a sign of a possible leak. Once diagnosed, these leaks can be repaired with specific patches and even dural glue that are specifically designed to seal these leaks. Dr. Carroll is actively searching for patients who may be suffering from these headaches, and has identified 26 such patients in the last six months alone. In his words, “Having lives derailed by intractable headaches is a tragedy, but it is a much greater tragedy when the person has an undiagnosed CSF leak that could be fixed easily if only recognized. We can help them be back at work and live life more fully.”
In this video Dr. Ian Carroll, discusses an often overlooked diagnosis for migraine, positional headache that can be treated.
For many women, the day to day gender bias they face feels like a part of life. But for women seeking medical care, this bias is a dangerous and under-discussed factor which can be life-threatening. In many cases, women complaining of headaches, abdominal pain, unusual vaginal bleeding, or other worrisome concerns are not treated with the same respect male patients receive. This has been seen in numerous medical studies and investigated by The New York Times. A troubling undercurrent in many of these reports is a theme of discounting women’s issues and assigning physical issues mental causes.
A History of Medical Discrimination
Reaching as far back as 1900BCE, the idea of “female hysteria” has linked symptoms of pain, discomfort and mental illness with the female reproductive system. The word hysteria comes from the same Greek work as uterus as a result of this close linkage. This thinking has been used in the years since to keep women in rigid gender roles. The Victorian era was notorious for this practice, which at times included sending women to mental asylums for “hysteria” when they refused to fit into expected gender roles. In extreme cases, these women even received hysterectomies, presumably because the uterus was the cause of these issues.
This diagnosis of “hysteria” persisted officially until it was removed from the medical literature in 1980. It is now avoided due to its roots and associations. The new terminology “psychosomatic symptoms” refers more generally to mental issues manifesting as physical ailments, and is not gender-specific. However, studies have shown that this term is used more frequently in describing women. One of the most famous studies of this phenomenon is “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” which highlights this practice in pain patients.
The Modern Era of Feminine Prejudice
These feelings of prejudice have not diminished in the minds of many female patients. According to a recent article by the National Pain Report, 90% of female pain patients felt like they were being discriminated against by their providers. This feeling can contribute to another issue many female patients face, in which they feel afraid to speak up about their concerns as a result of their previous experiences. This can put them in situations of true medical risk, in which early symptoms of medical problems like heart attacks, cancers and strokes can be dismissed for months or even years.
Some of the problem stems from the training medical professionals receive. For example, though heart disease is far more common in men, women are more likely to die from heart attacks and heart disease than men are. For the past thirty years, more women have died from cardiovascular causes than men every year. A 2005 study showed that only 20% of physicians were aware of that even generally. Women are less likely to receive prompt cardiovascular examinations, including EKGs, generally as a result of training. While they are less likely to present with “classic” (i.e. male) symptoms, they are also more likely to be labeled as “anxiety” patients. This reflects a need to improve training in the presentation of classic symptoms for women as distinct from those of men.
The question remains: how can this imbalance be addressed? For medical professionals, training changes and challenging implicit bias are crucial elements of facing this problem. Making female patients aware of the challenges they face and creating an environment where they can feel empowered to confidently share their medical concerns should be the duty of every medical provider.
For primary care providers looking to learn and earn CME credits in an unbiased environment, the current medical culture has a environment that makes it difficult to attend continuing medical education events not sponsored by commercial interests. Rather than strolling past booth after booth of advertisers all jockeying for attention, at MCE’s global conferences, primary care clinicians can simply focus on learning more about the topics that most interest them. The ethical belief in unbiased training represents the cornerstone of the MCE philosophy, and is catching the attention of medical providers and thought leaders around the world.
MCE’s half-day conferences focus on providing the highest quality of information and training to primary care clinicians hoping to improve their knowledge base. MCE offers nationally-known speakers known for innovative, up-to-date, evidence-based medicine. MCE focuses also on CME programs that promote wellness for health care professionals and their patients. Topics discussed are burnout, stress management and prevention, nutrition, exercise, communication, and more.
MCE conferences occur in specially chosen locations that appeal to those both with and without families. The schedules are specially crafted to leave participants with ample time to explore these conference destinations and spend time with their families or fellow conference attendees. With domestic locations ranging from DisneyWorld to Napa Valley and IRS-approved international locations including Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Caribbean, there are MCE conferences for primary care providers looking for any type of location and conference environment.
These conferences are open to primary care providers at all levels of training, including Physician Assistants, Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, Nurses and any other health care professionals looking to learn and earn CME credits. US and international primary care providers are welcome regardless of practice location.
• “This was undoubtedly the best CME experience I have had thus far. From the excellent speakers, to the wonderful destination, to the clinical pearls, I can incorporate everything I learned in my daily medical practice.” – Jim Crenshaw, PA
• “The presentations were AWESOME! I have been to a lot of CME conferences lately, but none were quite like this MCE Conference. None were specifically tailored for primary care physicians like this conference was.” – Jason P. Donahue, MD
• “…the staff was courteous and prompt in answering my questions and taking care of all my conference arrangements. Speakers’ presentations at this conference were organized, concise, and devoid of useless factoids or intros. MCE Conferences really knows how to put a CME conference together.” – Carol Jenkins, FNP-C
Additionally, MCE conferences are highly regarded as professional, authoritative educational experiences. In the words of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP): “The procedures established for conducting CME activities at your institution are exemplary. You are in total compliance with current regulations governing CME.” Part of this regard is due to the fact that these conferences are certified and credential-oriented. They are specifically focused on a smaller, case-based interactions that allow for a more personal experience for attendees.
Register for one of MCE’s conferences and experience the MCE difference! For more information about the full range of conferences and opportunities MCE offers primary care providers, visit www.mceconferences.com or contact MCE via email email@example.com
Media reports and insurance companies have often discussed the phenomenon of providers ordering extra and possibly unnecessary testing in order to prevent lawsuits, a practice known as “defensive medicine.” However, new research shows that this may be less commonplace than people previously thought, and that the motivations may be somewhat more straightforward for ordering these exams. As the legal environment surrounding medicine continues to evolve, it will be important to fully explore these issues and prevent the creation of a fear culture among providers.
Researching Defensive Medicine
A robust study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies has shown that the number of expensive screening tests and procedures ordered by providers is not related to the severity or perception of severity of an area’s malpractice rules. This means that the frequency with which providers ordered screening tests did not increase in areas with tougher malpractice laws, which would be expected if providers were truly ordering extra testing to protect themselves, as many have suggested. In actuality, it tended to be more randomly distributed, with more tests ordered in urban centers, possibly due to the increased access patients have to testing facilities.
Surprisingly, when some communities passed “tort reform” legislation that made it harder for malpractice suits to be brought against providers and decreased their overall risk of a malpractice claim, many of these communities showed an increase in the amount of screening tests ordered. This is exactly the opposite reaction one would expect if these tests were truly being influenced heavily by the fear of malpractice. This means that it is likely the motivations for testing are more straightforward, and hopefully are mostly centered around what is best for the patient and what makes sense in the clinical environment. For example, providers are more likely to order MRI testing (and patients are more likely to follow through) when they have in-house MRI capability (even if it is not financially linked to their practice) than if patients have to travel to another location.
The Origins of Defensive Medicine
Traditionally, the core of the defensive medicine argument has been based on surveys of providers, which tend to be sponsored and interpreted by lobbyist groups with a specific agenda. This simply muddies the waters by creating a narrative for what is happening with our nation’s providers that may not be the truth. As a profession, we will continue to explore our own motivations in order to ensure that we are providing the best care possible for our patients. Navigating the legal landscape of malpractice is difficult, but having a solid knowledge of the ongoing malpractice reform conversation can be beneficial to both patients and providers.
The conversation over healthcare costs has a major impact here, as over-utilization of expensive medical imaging is often cited as a contributor to expanding medical budgets, and is also a key component of the practice of defensive medicine. Other factors that can boost health care costs include lack of patient involvement in decision making, payment systems that encourage overusing, health care pricing, administrative costs, and a population that is living longer with more chronic diseases. Many of these factors can also contribute to defensive medicine practices.
For many providers, the ideals of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) represent a level of care they wish to be providing their patient, but the implementation is difficult. Everyone wants the clinical questions raised during their patient visits to be answered with the most up-to-date information possible, but the practicality of that makes it difficult.
The original plan of care for an EBM visit would start when a clinical question comes up during a patient interaction in which there seems to be no clear answer in the available knowledge or practice standards. The provider would then excuse themselves, consult the most relevant and recent research on the topic, find a primary source of research, interpret the findings, and apply them to the situation. In reality, this isn’t a practical option – it simply takes too much time. While it may be appropriate for patients with longer-term treatment plans, such as oncologists and chronic disease management, in everyday appointments providers need something better.
The Future of EBM
Luckily, the internet has changed all of that. With searchable access to journal archives from reliable sources like The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet and American Family Physician, providers can now instantly access up-to-date research on topics that are as generalized or specific as their patient’s needs. This radically changes the process of EBM from its functionality in the pre-internet era.
However, even higher quality information is also available for providers through sites that aggregate the data compiled by these journals. Notable leaders in this area include Clinical Evidence and The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. By focusing on systematic reviews, providers can see higher levels of evidence for the issues they are most concerned about. In addition, other sites like DynaMed and FirstConsult have taken this information to the next level, by improving the clinical experience of these research tools, allowing providers to use them right in the exam room.
EBM Tips for Providers
Integrating EBM into your practice can be as easy as using a few websites. Here are some tips to further improve the quality of care you provide through EBM:
• Get familiar with a few EBM resources and use them often: once you know how a site works, you’ll be better at getting information out of it quickly, making you more likely to use it
• Read with a critical eye: make sure that the information you are reading is applicable to your situation, but also that it seems to be collected well and the study gathering it was well designed.
• Bring EBM into the exam room: by accessing information right from your work computer, and making it a regular part of your visit procedure
• Focus on patients with concerns you see regularly: the things you learn will be most likely to be applied to future patients if they cover illnesses and treatments you see regularly.