Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Common Doctor Blind Spot

Patient alert: Many doctors seem to have a blindspot while treating infections. This can subject patients to needless agony or worse. I have personally observed this at least half a dozen times in India and the US, and some cases ended very badly. In all of these the patients were intensively treated with all kinds of strong antibiotics, to no avail. Here they are in chronological order:
  1. Over forty years ago my father's uncle suffered a slow and agonizing death from virtual starvation after being hospitalized and then released. He refused to eat anything, and by the time they figured out why, it was too late.
  2. My brother Kaku as an infant was afflicted with this infection and suffered for weeks after a hernia operation. It even transferred to my mother who was breast-feeding him. Finally, a very good and experienced doctor diagnosed the problem and it disappeared quickly.
  3. Vivek from my college and subsequently my IAS batchmate in HP had a severe illness in the late 70's that landed him in one hospital in India and then another for several weeks. He had high fever, loss of appetite, yellow eyes and other symptoms of hepatitis that had doctors stumped since he did not respond to conventional treatments. Starting from a healthy body weight he lost about forty pounds in that time before doctors in India's famed AIIMS hospital correctly identified the infection. They then quickly (and easily) treated him, bringing him back from the brink.
  4. In the late 80's my friend Raj was hospitalised in LA for several days with high fever and other symptoms that defied any treatment. Finally, a doctor of Indian origin happened upon his case, asked him one very relevant question, then ordered a test that confirmed that doctor's suspicions and prescribed medication that rapidly cured Raj.
  5. About 10 years ago my young cousin Pavan in the US who was a medical student had a tonsillectomy. A few days later the pain in his throat was so acute despite all the medicines he received that he couldn't eat. Based on her experience (and high intelligence) my mother who has no medical background guessed at the problem and asked Pavan's family to bring it up with his doctor. The doctor after needless delay finally listened and Pavan was treated, but his prolonged suffering caused him to miss his medical board exams that year.
  6. Just last month my father-in-law (Daddy) was recovering from two major surgeries at Inlaks hospital in Pune, including complications of pneumonia and hospital acquired infections. His lungs cleared and surgical wounds healed after a strong regimen of antibiotics, but he continued suffer from cough and persistent throat irritation. He couldn't sleep, asked to gargle every 15 - 30 minutes even at night. The Inlaks doctors ordered more antibiotics and tests and thought the irritation was due to residual infection in the breathing passages, as well as the feeding tube that was subsequently inserted because Daddy wouldn't eat or drink. But the problems was as bad or worse for several days after the feeding tube was removed and he was taken back home. Then I had Dr. I examine Daddy at home. Dr. I is very intelligent and sought after though he doesn't have quite the fancy qualifications of the Inlaks doctors. He had Daddy open his mouth wide, depressed his tongue and peered at the back of his throat with a flashlight. That was enough to provide the answer and clearing the condition in two days, though this was after two weeks of avoidable suffering and debilitation.
There is a common thread in all these cases. The doctors did not consider anything beyond bacteria and viruses as the cause of the infections, or simply ascribed the problem to "weakness" or irritation.

But in four of these cases at 1, 2, 5 and 6 above involving my great-uncle, brother Kaku, cousin Pavan and Daddy respectively the culprit was oral fungus, commonly known as thrush. The "good" bacteria in the oral cavity normally keeps this fungus in check, but antibiotics can kill this good bacteria. Then this very painful fungus infects the delicate lining of the oral cavity and typically shows up as white spots (though these may not be visible in the esophagus.) Once diagnosed, thrush is easily and rapidly treated. But if doctors who don't catch on and simply give more antibiotics can make the problem worse instead of better.

In case 3 involving my colleague Vivek, the culprit was amoebiasis where it was the amoeba that had invaded the liver. Again, while antibiotics don't work at all, anti-amoebic medications rapidly clear the condition - provided the doctors make the correct call.

Wanna guess what Raj had come down with in case 4? Well, it was malaria. The American doctors did not have this on their radar as it rarely occurs in the US. But the Indian doctor asked Raj if he had been abroad recently, and when Raj mentioned his recent trip to India, the doctor asked for his blood to be tested for the malarial parasite, and viola!

The takeaway: it seems to be a fairly common doctors' blind spot. If conventional treatment isn't working ask your doctor early on if he / she has considered and ruled out non-bacterial and non-viral infections like those caused by fungi, amoeba and parasites.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hospital Drug Deals

My in-laws' lengthy hospitalization at Inlaks in Pune exposed me to the gamut of practices and attitudes of the doctors prescribing drugs. Most of my observations are applicable to medical practitioners elsewhere in India and the world, including in the US. An eye-opener for me is how largely unseen doctors like pathologists can steer expensive drugs to patients.

But first the main takeaway: it can help a lot to seek multiple inputs, even informally, especially when expensive drugs or treatment are involved. I managed to identify some good and caring doctors and asked them questions like, "If our patient were your own parent, then what would you do or advise?"

As elsewhere, the Inlaks doctors can be divided according to their prescribing behavior into three types.

Type 1 had close ties with the pharma reps who frequent hospital hallways and waiting areas. These doctors aggressively prescribed expensive brand name drugs (when cheaper generics or substitutes were available), and especially so if you appeared to be a patient of some means. My in-laws were regarded as such because Anita and I live in the US.

Type 2 were the bystanders or silent collaborators of the Type 1's. They didn't actively push the most (unnecessarily) expensive drugs themselves, but tended to concur with colleagues who did, when specifically pressed on the issue, or consulted for a second opinion.

Type 3 were the ones I truly liked and respected. They were strongly guided by their patients' physical as well as financial well-being. They recommended expensive drugs and treatments if they felt we could afford these, AND if these had significant advantages over cheaper options. They also laid out any trade offs fairly. More importantly, they were uncomfortable enough with the behavior of Type 1's to be willing to call them out.

My sense of the Inlaks doctors is that about 20% of them are Type 1, 70% are Type 2 and 10% are Type 3. Dr. Y, a Type 3 whom I came to like a lot wryly noted that most doctors will support their colleagues because they expect to be similarly served when their own actions are questioned. That's why there are so many Type 2's, apart from this being the path of least resistance.

I had noteworthy experiences with some Type 1 and Type 3 doctors.

I regretfully categorized Dr. R as a Type 1 because he otherwise had many positives. He was highly experienced and competent, with a great bedside manner. It was his quick conclusion that Daddy may need emergency surgery, his ordering immediate tests and alerting the surgeon Dr. P that helped saved Daddy's life. Dr. R also sized up Mummy's condition and treatment well. But he spent much more time with pharma reps than his colleagues did. He prescribed a lot of expensive drugs for Daddy that his colleagues felt were unnecessary, or where cheaper substitutes could have worked as well. It's possible that Dr. R genuinely believed in the greater efficacy of the more expensive options, but I sought other opinions to settle nagging doubts.

It was also revealing to see how the Inlaks pathologist Dr. A and his staff from behind the scenes could foist expensive drugs on to patients. Their role may or may not have been in concert with others like Dr. R. Dr. A performed culture and sensitivity tests on Daddy's sputum and other samples. In this, the harmful bacteria present in the sample is cultured for 2-3 days and tested with various antibiotics to see which ones kill it and should be given. The only thing is, Dr. A only tested some of the costliest versions of some drug categories, and omitted the cheap ones that may have worked just as well.

Such practices create broader problems that go beyond draining patients financially. You, see, a lot of these costly new drugs have been introduced to combat germs that are resistant to the cheap conventional ones. They should be sparingly used only when others don't work, or else we'll quickly end up with bacterial strains that are resistant to the new drugs as well.

Case in point: Dr. A's lab tested tigecyclin to combat Daddy's infection caused by the pseudomonas bacterium. This tigecyclin is a tetracyclin-variant drug patented by Wyeth. It was shown to work, but costed $500 - $700, and they never tested for basic tetracyclin or its off-patent versions like doxycycline that cost as little as $20.

I learned about this only because I routinely sought out the opinions of other doctors, two of whom turned out to be Type 3's. One was Daddy's surgeon, Dr. P whom I've talked about in the previous post. The other was Dr. Y in the ICU who was passionate about his patients and visibly worked up over any instances of their inadequate care by the hospital staff.

I asked Dr. A why the much cheaper alternatives to tigecyclin were not tested on Daddy's sputum sample. Dr. A's unsatisfactory response was that he stocked a limited number of drugs for testing, and that his lab "did not concern itself with the costs (of the drugs)." When I expressed my dissatisfaction he agreed to test a fresh sputum sample against drugs that other doctors suggested, like doxycyclin, so I had a fresh sample submitted. But we still had to start Daddy's treatment with the costly tigecyclin since we couldn't wait another 2 - 3 days for the new culture and sensitivity results.

Then Dr. A quietly "rejected" Daddy's new sputum sample as being insufficient in quantity and discarded it without testing. By then it was too late to test another sample since Daddy's tigecyclin treatment had already started and killed off the invading pathogens.

I'm convinced Dr. A acted this way to avoid being exposed if the cheap doxycyclin turned out to be just as effective as tigecyclin. I voiced my concerns to the Inlaks Medical Superintendent who oversees all medical matters. She promised to thoroughly look into these practices though I wonder if anything came of it.

What I do know is the immense value of identifying and dealing with Type 3 doctors. I relied on four of them at Inlaks - apart from Dr. P and Dr. Y, there was the head of surgery Dr. L and orthopedic surgeon Dr. D. Even though we ended up using tigecyclin we were spared other unnecessary treatments.

But being a Type 3 isn't easy. I could see the pressure on Dr. P who was Daddy's attending physician. Guided by his convictions Dr. P would cut out treatments (especially costly ones) that he felt were unnecessary. This often put him at odds with more senior colleagues like Dr. R who could impact his professional career, yet he followed his conscience. I hope he and others like him are appreciated and do well.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Medical Blunder and its Aftermath

We faced this situation while in India last month: How to react when a dedicated and otherwise competent doctor makes a grave mistake that puts the life of your loved one in limbo?

Our spirits were high on October 1st. It had been almost nine days since my father-in-law (Daddy's) emergency surgery for a ruptured duodenal ulcer. Anita had joined me in Pune, and my mother-in-law (Mummy) was also doing well in an adjacent private ward in the same Inlaks Hospital. Both were to be sent home the following day.

Daddy's surgeon Dr. P had said that the first 6-7 days were the most critical in Daddy's case. This is because the sutures to repair the large perforation of the duodenum are very vulnerable to the strong acids in the stomach, and can typically give out by day 6. If they hold past that, then the prognosis is very good. Daddy was now past that critical period. He had some problems with cough, pneumonia and weakness following the surgery, but this was under control and considered normal for someone of his age who was inactive after a major surgery.

Daddy's IV lines were removed and similar preparations were made for his urinary catheter as well. Dr. P came in and removed the external staples that had held Daddy's almost 2 feet long abdominal incision together. He then urged Daddy to try and resume normal activities including walking as quickly as he could.

An hour later things went terribly wrong. Daddy was coughing hard, and as a result suffered a burst abdomen, meaning that his recently stitched abdominal wall gave out, spilling out some of his insides. Anita raised an alarm and Dr. P. was there within five minutes. He and his juniors hastily tended to the gaping wound, temporarily taped it up, assembled a surgical team and began an emergency surgery within 45 minutes to repair the damage.

The cause of the problem? Daddy is 89, and many of Dr. P's colleagues told us that they'd have not removed the staples for at least 12-14 days after the surgery (instead of the nine days as happened here) and have taken other precautions to protect the healing wound.

The trauma of this second surgery and its consequences placed Daddy's life in the balance for the next couple of weeks. Apart from blood and fluid loss his complications included pneumonia, kidney malfunction, severe hospital acquired infections and heart complications. He was in pain and delirious or semi-conscious for several days. Anita and I cancelled our flights back to the US and postponed subsequent programs in this period. Fortunately, Daddy pulled through, slowly recovered and is now recuperating at home.

Despite his blunder my relations with Dr. P and his colleagues remained warm and cordial. I have repeatedly been asked two questions. First, did I genuinely harbor no ill will towards Dr. P, or did I just mask my true feelings? Second, had this happened in the US, would we have sued and made Dr. P pay heavily for his mistake?

To the first question, I obviously very much wish that Dr. P had played it safe and none of this had happened. But after it did, I still had good feelings about him. We continued to have an easy relationship and I'd even joke about the colorful shirts worn beneath the white coat of one of his cheery-faced residents when they'd visit us in Daddy's room. Here's why:
  • I believe Dr. P's prompt action and skill during the first surgery on September 22 was a big factor in enabling Daddy to pull through. So I attribute Daddy's being home and improving today to Dr. P's initial action
  • Dr. P is overall an accomplished surgeon who is also very responsive. Like many of his colleagues (and not at all like in the US) he had given me his cell phone number at the time of the first surgery and was directly accessible on that when I needed him. (Of course I tried not to abuse this privilege)
  • I perceive a big difference between negligence that may come from not putting in the required time or effort, and "just" a misjudgement. I knew that Dr. P never lacked for sincerity, dedication to Daddy's welfare, or hard work. His unfortunate miscalculation in removing staples prematurely stemmed from a concern about their continued insertion causing a surface infection. I'm sure the consequences will guide his future judgement and help other elderly patients
  • We were fairly high profile at Inlaks (partly because it is rare for both husband and wife to be simultaneously checked into adjoining deluxe wards, and that too by a son-in-law visiting from the US.) Dr. P's mistake was widely known among his colleagues. He paid enough of a price in that sense without me raising the subject with him
  • Dr. P as a person was decent, caring and straightforward. He was uncomfortable when other doctors tending to Daddy prescribed medications that he felt were unnecessary or even needlessly expensive (yes, some of that pharma - doctor linkage seemed to exist here, too.) As coordinating physician he struck off some of these medications or expressed reservations about them, even at the risk of running afoul of his colleagues. I felt I could trust his commitment and intentions
  • Once the second surgery became necessary, Dr. P did everything necessary to reduce its risk. General anesthesia for a second time in a frail patient is a major risk, so he performed this surgery using spinal tap and local anesthesia. He also got his team to waive overtime charges for performing it after hours. He closely monitored Daddy's condition and incessantly advised and encouraged him

Coming to the second question, how would we have acted had the same lapse occurred in the US? We wouldn't have sued Dr. P for all the reasons above. A sued physician pays a huge price even when he is fully insured. This price is in terms of damage to his record and reputation, the distraction of defending a lawsuit, and increases in future premiums.

However, in the US the extra cost following the second surgery may have exceeded $100,000 even at negotiated rates. A substantial chunk may have been payable out of pocket and I would probably have asked the hospital to waive or substantially reduce this. At Inlaks in India the extra charges only came to about $3,500. Given how everyone pulled so hard for Daddy's recovery I didn't seek any reduction in this. In fact when it was Daddy's time to leave he asked me to give some gifts to the staff that had attended to him so well.