As we are all facing uncertainties in caring for our patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic,I practice at the University of Washington, Seattle, in an area that initially had the highest prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the United States.
I have never felt better about being a part of the medical profession because of the altruism, compassion, and deep caring I have seen displayed by my colleagues, our nurses, our staff, and our students. I am proud to have worked with all of them while trying to figure out how to practice in this environment.
These times are really difficult and challenging as we face new problems every day. Last week, we had to send our students home, and we switched to phone and telehealth visits to keep our patients and staff safer.
I have had some unanticipated electronic messages from patients during this time. Two of my patients with major medical problems and very dependent on their medications were stranded internationally and running out of medications. I had the family of an incarcerated patient contact me for a letter because that patient was moved to a part of a jail where all patients with upper respiratory infection symptoms were being housed. My patient has severe immunosuppression, and they were requesting an exception for him.
Another of my patients, who has sarcoidosis and is immunosuppressed, informed me that her daughter who lives with her was diagnosed with COVID-19. After 3 days, this patient told me she had become febrile and short of breath. I instructed her patient to go to a hospital, where she was also diagnosed with COVID-19 and was admitted. This patient was discharged within 24 hours, because the utilization review department did not feel she should be in the hospital.
The lack of beds is forcing physicians to frequently make tough decisions like the one made for this patient. This unfortunate reality raises the question of: “How do you manage a patient you are worried about from his or her home?”
In this particular case, I sent my patient an oxygen saturation monitor. We touched base frequently, and I felt okay as long as her saturations on room air were above 90%. So far, she has done okay.
More recently, I received a message from a patient recently diagnosed with Mycobacterium avium complex. I learned that this patient and her disabled husband’s caregiver refused to continue to provide care to them, because my patient had a cough, which began 2 months prior. In this case, a COVID-19 test was done for the explicit purpose of getting the caregiver to return to work.
So how do we face this?
Burnout had been high before this difficult time. But now physicians are being called to care for more and sicker patients without the necessary personal protective gear. Our physicians have demonstrated strength and commitment to patients in their response to this challenge, but they need help from others, including regulators.
I think a first step that needs to be taken is to decrease the volume of documentation physicians are required to make in this time where we are forced to triage to what is most important and drop what isn’t. How is spending so much time documenting instead of seeing the high volumes of patients who need to be seen a good thing? Documentation to the level that Medicare has required isn’t going to work. In fact, it has never been a good thing and is a big driver of burnout.
Our health care system was broken and badly injured before this crisis, and I think now might be a time when positive changes for the future occur. In fact, COVID-19 has resulted in some temporary changes in medicine that I would like to see outlast this outbreak. The telehealth option is now available, for example, and this kind of care is covered much more broadly by Medicare under the 1135 waiver – this has been needed for years. Being able to conduct regular clinic visits via telehealth without the marked restrictions that were previously in place is a big advance. It is currently in place for this emergency only, but this is the time to start pushing hard to make sure this option will be permanent.
I invite you to help me fight for long-term change. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or blog, share your thoughts on social media, and tweet. (I suggest using #documentationordoctors or, although a bit long, #excessivedocumentationcostslives.) This is an unprecedented time in modern medicine. Traumatic times are when the greatest changes occur. Let’s hope for the better.
Dr. Paauw is professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he serves as third-year medical student clerkship director at the University of Washington. He frequently contributes Pearl of the Month and Myth of the Month columns to MDedge, and he serves on the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News. Dr. Paauw has no conflicts to disclose. Contact Dr. Paauw at [email protected].