The Rural Surgeon

The Rural Surgeon: The burden of transfer



I have been on both ends of the phone call. I began my career at a several-hundred bed community hospital in a town without a university medical center. We took all the local knife-and-gun club incidents, and whatever other surgical emergencies might arise, while receiving phone calls from nearly every point of the magnetic compass. It’s easy to recall the sagging feeling when you realize more serious work is coming in on the helicopter from Podunk, USA, and you’re not off call for another few hours. These memories linger as now I’m the one making the phone calls. When I state that I am the one, I mean the one and only; this is solo general surgery practice and I’m the only general surgeon in my county.

When I do speak with colleagues kind enough to accept our patients, I feel relieved. But the burden of transfer doesn’t travel away with the patient in the ambulance or on the airplane. There always seem to be questions or looks of concern lately, and I don’t just mean from other medical professionals. Maybe it is an Internet thing, but everyone is a critic these days. We are being watched by more than partners and employers, more than payers and agencies, more than our government bean counters. Families, allied health professionals, and even nonclinical staff all have opinions about which patients stay and which leaves our 14-bed, critical access hospital. Gods may have once walked these halls, but nowadays it’s just me!

Dr. Glenn L. Levine
Dr. Glenn L. Levine

Of course, any interested party can also criticize my decisions to keep any particular patient; why would anybody restrict their furrowed glare only to transfers? When we keep patients at the edge of our practice, or perform a procedure that is only done rarely locally, we incite more than just the volume debate on the ACS Communities. Goodness – my wife has heard about cases I have done via town chitter-chatter before I even get home!

How does one deal with being whipsawed? This phenomenon is defined in the business world as being subjected to two difficult situations or opposing pressures at the same time. If you transfer, you are criticized. The only thing that changes are the critics if you keep and care for that very same patient! For many rural colleagues, being whipsawed is on the short list of job dissatisfaction drivers; somewhere behind the heavyweight champ of being asked to be in two different places at the same time.

Transferring a patient rarely leads to the lasting criticism that keeping an ill patient locally can. Obviously keeping a patient extends the time period where others can knowingly shake their heads in disbelief. That extra time allows us to educate staff and others as to why a patient with more than simple hernia or appendicitis is being admitted to our little hospital. We can detail why this is a really good thing for everyone – including the patient!

So many of our locals are elderly, and when we keep one for serious surgical illness, so much goes into that decision besides just the patient’s age and comorbid conditions. Immediate family, friends, or existing social support all must be examined and understood. A significant number of geriatric couples are only “independent” together; send one off for surgery a hundred or more miles away and the remaining spouse suffers measurably. Sometimes there is no local family, as nuclear members live in neighboring states or even overseas. I’m always surprised when my patients have trouble even arranging rides to and from our facilities for the routine procedures we do regularly. I think to myself, what will they do when the inevitable happens?

Our geography plays a serious role for those patients who don’t drive any appreciable distances. The mountains to our east are difficult to negotiate and west, well, you’ll get wet rather quickly. Going north and south on Highway 101 can be tricky during summer and dangerous any time in bad weather. I talk to some patients about sending them to Portland and I get looks in response like I’m proposing surgical care in some exotic foreign capital. Urban anxiety, traffic, and unfamiliarity with our largest metropolis make the 300-mile journey untenable for many of our patients; and the TV show isn’t helping our cause! Even cases that define themselves from the get-go as major university referrals return afterward and ask us to assume their postoperative care. Our patients often can’t make the trip to follow-up with the experts who provided their life-saving care.

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