Monday, August 17, 2015

A Poor Predictor is Worse than No Predictor: On the Superiority of Empiricism in Some Medical Decisions

John Locke, empiricist.
The moral of this story is that much maligned empiricism is sometimes (often?) both the only thing to guide you and also the best thing to guide you.

I recently received a call (at an odd hour on the weekend) from an otolaryngologist (ENT) regarding a patient from whom she had drained a large submandibular abcess.  She was calling to tell me that she planned to leave the patient intubated in the ICU overnight and she wanted "help with ventilator management" (which of course the patient does not need - he can be managed with an endotracheal tube not connected to any mechanical ventilator).  The patient did not have airway compromise or concerns thereof prior to surgery, but, she said, there was swelling noted after the case that (for her) raised concerns about the patency of the patient's airway if the endotracheal tube were to be removed.

(There is a second moral to this story: far too often, patients such as this are left intubated post-operatively not for their own safety, but rather for the convenience of surgeons and anesthesiologists who do not wish to spend the extra time awakening them from anesthesia and observing them carefully in the post-anesthesia care unit.  It is far easier to not fret over the depth of anesthesia, atelectasis, oxygen levels, fluid status, and leave the patient intubated and send them to the ICU and let somebody else sort it out.  If I had a family member undergo a relatively routine, even if urgent or emergent operation at an odd hour [holidays, weekends, after hours] and they were sent to the ICU post-op for no apparently good reason, there would be hell to pay.  Note also that for the surgeon and anesthesiologist to save an hour of their time, another physician has to drive to the hospital to take over for them spending hours of his time, and also often a nurse must be called in from home to accommodate the unexpected post-op admission [as was the case here].  The sheer arrogance and egocnetricity of this is mind-boggling.  But I digress.)

Back to the story.  I naturally inquired as to what criteria we would use the next day to determine if the patient's oropharyngeal swelling had abated sufficiently such that we could safely extubate him.  The ENT replied that she would scope (endoscopy) the patient again in the morning and if the swelling had decreased we could proceed with extubation (removing the endotracheal tube).  Well and good.  Or is it?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Accidental Survival from Beneficent Neglect: When "There's Nothing More We Can Do" Becomes Your Salvation

"There's nothing more we can do", according to this NYT article, is a terrible thing for a physician to say to a patient or his family member, even if the intention is much needed candor.

Yet sometimes, a physician's resignation or a patient's refusal becomes the patient's salvation.  There is something to be learned about the futility of many of our treatments and our arrogant ignorance of our impotence in many situations.  Several examples, I hope, will cause physicians to reflect on many of our practices.

A study showing that cancer patients choosing palliative care outlived those choosing aggressive care should have caused a lot of introspection about the possibility that many things we do harm rather than help patients.  How are we to know?  In the ICU, we have several unique opportunities to observe the futility or downright harm of many things we do.

A young woman came to the ICU with mental status changes, an EEG was ordered, and a diagnosis of "non-convulsive status epilepticus" (NCSE) was made.  She was intubated and heavily sedated and treated with every manner of anticonvulsant and CNS depressants and coma-inducing agents.  The EEG continued to show, according to the report, NCSE two weeks later.  The family was told that "there's nothing more we can do" and a decision was made to stop all therapy and withdraw care and prepare to send her to hospice.  This was done, but over the next 24 hours, she awakened and was alert and oriented. She walked out of the hospital later that week.