Commentary

Med students: Look up from your EMRs

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I was feeling anorexic and chilled as I sat with my wife at a local diner. The right lower quadrant pain that had been worsening over the past 3 days could no longer be ignored.

“I have acute appendicitis,” I told my wife. “I need to go to the radiologist.”

A computed tomography (CT) scan of my abdomen confirmed my suspicion. After learning that I also had leukocytosis, we headed to the emergency department. The ED doctor was pleasantly surprised that someone had come to his facility completely evaluated. All he had to do was call the surgeon. But first he introduced me to a 4th-year medical student who was participating in a surgical rotation.

Prioritizing the EMR over the patient

The student wheeled his large computer to the side of my gurney and began to question me about my abdominal pain. Within 5 minutes, this unsupervised student had somehow acquired all the information he needed for my admission. He thanked me for my time and told me that he would see me in the operating room.

Unfortunately for him, I was not about to let him leave my cubicle without a redirect. I told him I have type 1 diabetes and several comorbidities. I wear an insulin pump and continuous glucose sensor that alerts me to impending hypoglycemia. I take 11 medications to successfully manage my metabolic disorders.

The student wheeled his machine back to the side of my gurney.

With his eyes fixed squarely on his computer and his finger on a mouse, he asked me to list all of my medications. He had never heard of a rapid-acting insulin analogue, nor was he familiar with my GLP-1 receptor agonist or SGLT2 inhibitor. And the pump and sensor? There were no check boxes for these devices in his electronic medical record (EMR).

He—like several of the doctors I met during my subsequent stay—suggested that I remove the pump and meter so that they could manage my diabetes.

Still in considerable pain, I suggested to the student and anyone else who would listen that my pump and sensor were off limits. As long as I was conscious, I would self-manage my diabetes.

I also told him that his history and physical exam were deficient. Although he did listen to my bowel sounds (or lack thereof) through a blanket and hospital gown, he overlooked examining my heart, lungs, eyes, mouth, and feet.

It frightens me to think what might have happened during my hospital stay if I hadn’t provided information that wasn’t required by the EMR.

“You failed to ask me about my medical history or my diabetes," I said. The student searched his EMR for the appropriate questions to ask, but to no avail. Stunned, he appeared to be at a loss of words. I suggested that he ask about the type of diabetes I had, the duration of the disease, how well my glucose levels were controlled, my most recent HbA1c, and if I had developed any long-term microvascular or macrovascular complications. He politely thanked me, moved the mouse around on his computer stand, and began to wheel his computer away.

“Wait!” I thought. “Don’t you think you should examine my eyes, mouth, and feet?” I reminded myself that this student hadn’t evaluated me for peritoneal signs. So why should I insist that he look at non-critical parts of my body?

My physical pain was increasing and I was becoming increasingly distressed. The student was more interested in inputting data into the EMR than learning about acute abdomens and type 1 diabetes.

Postop: From bad to worse

My postoperative course was dreadful. I nearly died from complications that included acute renal failure, dehydration, hypokalemia, and a postoperative ileus that persisted for 8 days. My blood glucose levels, however, were perfect. Still, the Attendings and the students blamed my complications on diabetes.

“Yeah, I see this all the time,” said the hospitalist who was caring for me. “Diabetes causes gastroparesis. What we should do is have you take off that pump and sensor device. We’ll have the pharmacist help you manage your diabetes.” The hospitalist who suggested this course of action was immediately relieved of his duties by my wife as I drifted in and out of consciousness in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Despite the state of my health, I began to provide professional guidance for my own care. I demanded that the nurse give me a 250 cc rider of normal saline and increase my IV flow rate from 50 cc to 150 cc. The nasogastric tube was removed and I began using IV erythromycin, which increases gastric motility. I received oral and IV potassium.

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