Letters from Maine

Like a hot potato


Most of us did our postgraduate training in tertiary medical centers, ivory towers of medicine often attached to or closely affiliated with medical schools. These are the places where the buck stops. Occasionally, a very complex patient might be sent to another tertiary center that claims to have a supersubspecialist, a one-of-a-kind physician with nationally recognized expertise. But for most patients, the tertiary medical center is the end of the line, and his or her physicians must manage with the resources at hand. They may confer with one another but there is no place for them to pass the buck.

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But most of us who chose primary care left the comforting cocoon of the teaching hospital complex when we finished our training. Those first few months and years in the hinterland can be angst producing. Until we have established our own personal networks of consultants and mentors, patients with more than run-of-the-mill complaints may prompt us to reach for the phone or fire off an email call for help to our recently departed mother ship.

It can take awhile to establish the self-confidence – or at least the appearance of self-confidence – that physicians are expected to exude. But even after years of experience, none of us wants to watch a patient die or suffer preventable complications under our care when we know there is another facility that can provide a higher lever of care just an ambulance ride or short helicopter trip away.

Our primary concern is of course assuring that our patient is receiving the best care. How quickly we reach for the phone to refer out the most fragile patients depends on several factors. Do we practice in a community that has a historic reputation of having a low threshold for malpractice suits? How well do we know the patient and her family? Have we had time to establish bidirectional trust?

Is the patient’s diagnosis one that we feel comfortable with or is the diagnosis one that we believe could quickly deteriorate without warning? For example, a recently published study revealed that 20% of pediatric trauma patients were overtriaged and that the mechanism of injury – firearms or motor vehicle accidents – appeared to have an outsized influence in the triage decision (Trauma Surg Acute Care Open. 2019 Dec 29. doi: 10.1136/tsaco-2019-000300).

Courtesy Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Because I have no experience with firearm injuries and minimal experience with motor vehicle injuries I can understand why the emergency medical technicians might be quick to ship these patients to the trauma center. However, I hope that, were I offered better training and more opportunities to gain experience with these types of injuries, I would have a lower overtriage percentage.

Which begs the question of what is an acceptable rate of overtriage or overreferral? It’s the same old question of how many normal appendixes should one remove to avoid a fatal outcome. Each of us arrives at a given clinical crossroads with our own level of experience and comfort level. Our level of confidence in our local peer and specialty support network helps us decide when it is time to transfer a patient to a higher-level facility.

But in the final analysis it boils down to a personal decision and our own basic level of anxiety. Let’s face it, some of us worry more than others. Physicians come in all shades of anxiety. A hot potato in your hands may feel only room temperature to me.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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