Year Long Sacrifice

Reflecting back on the events of this year, I’m amazed at how fast time has gone.

First comes the moving back to the big city from a regional centre, then comes the job applications and interviews for general practice positions, and now finally, I have finished my paediatrics diploma in child health exam! Well, to be more precise I sat the exam on Friday, and only had time to write about it now. I’m such a bad blogger :p

No more needing to rush home to study paediatrics. No more weekends spent listening to online lectures. No more stress!

I was lucky to have been able to take an entire week out to study, which was really helpful. My work colleague jokingly told me off on the bus after the exam, saying how busy it got in obstetrics and gynaecology without me. She ended up having to do my postnatal checks in addition to hers. But, I had to do that for a week before, when one of the previous residents resigned as well. So in my defence, I can at least say I’ve done the work before.

But after all this, I feel like I need to start preparing for study for general practice… A life in medicine entails exams till you’re at least 30 years old.

Now, at least I can come home without need to worry about intense study at least. I can study at a somewhat more relaxed pace for general practice.

 

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Signs of Impending Death

The title of this post may sound too medically based, since it seems to focus more on just the signs of death. But having a palliative care doctor assign me this topic to present at our next palliative ward round, I figured it would make for an interesting read.

I was 25 when I witnessed a patient who passed away in front of me. I was still an intern then, and was asked to see the patient in front of many family members. The patient had agonal breathing – periods of deep sighing breathing, followed by long pauses of silence. After a few minutes, the patient stopped breathing at all. Being fairly uncomfortable in such a situation, all I could do at the time was examine the patient, and inform the family that their loved one has passed away.

That was some 3 years ago. I have assessed many more deceased patients since then.

Having used an ebook database, I find out that some of the signs of impending death include:

  • Decreasing cardiac output: increased heart rate, hypotension, cyanosis, mottling, livedo reticularis
  • Renal failure: oliguria, anuria
  • Neurologic dysfunction: decreased level of consciousness, terminal delirium, hypo/hyperactivity
  • Reduced oral intake.

During our palliative ward round, we see a patient who seems to have signs of dying. It was an elderly man who presented due to what appears to be pneumonia. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. He had reduced oral intake. And he looked pale. The man ended up succumbing to his pneumonia, despite IV antibiotics we were giving. Realistically, he didn’t improve after 3 – 4 days of IV antibiotics, and so we had to explain to the 2 daughters that he wasn’t likely to pull through.

I remembered this man from a few weeks back. He was up and talking back then, cracking a few jokes even. I found it hard to believe that he was so well just a few weeks ago.

From what I’ve seen, disease does not discriminate against people. It attacks people of any age.

Breaking Bad News

Having been in oncology/palliative for the past couple of weeks, giving bad news was bound to happen some time.

In medical school, it was always about SPIKES. That’s:

S – Setting – Make sure you’re in the right setting for such a discussion where there is minimal interruption, and plenty of time available for discussion.

P-Perception – Gauge an understanding of what the patient knows to date about their condition so that you know how much you need to tell them.

I-Invitation – This for me seems to be the hardest to get my head around. But the invitation is the time where you essentially ask the patient how much information they want eg “with your recent CT scan, would you like me to tell you everything about it even including the not so nice information, or would you like me to skim through the results and go onto treatment options?”

K-Knowledge – This is essentially the delivery of the detailed information to the patient.

E-Empathy/emotions – Be empathetic and understanding. Essentially, if a patient is crying, offer some tissues. If they look stunned, and shocked, give them some time to process the information.

S-Summary – This is about repetition of the information given beforehand. It’s likely many patients have stopped absorbing information after the initial bad news. Repetition allows them to get the information again.

 

Having been the radiation oncology resident (in addition to the palliative/oncology resident as well – where’s my triple pay?), I was tasked into reviewing radiation oncology patients. There had been this one lady in her 70’s, who had recurrence of vaginal vault cancer, with previous groin lymph node removals for her cancer. She was undergoing radiation therapy with potential curative intent initially.

When the patient was initially admitted under radiation oncology, palliative services were provided, given the patient had pain issues on mobilizing. What didn’t help was this patient had a BMI of 53.

On the palliative ward round, the patient had advised of left hip pain as well. An examination revealed extreme tenderness on passive motion. So a CT hip scan was ordered. And then a CT chest and abdomen were ordered as well (let’s scan everything as well while we’re at it! ). The CT results weren’t good. The left hip pain – completely explained by a pathological fracture at the left hip – specifically the labrum of the hip. And the abdomen – showed that there was a right adrenal gland metastases.

With that CT scan, the patient had gone from “potentially curable” to “incurable”. Of course, being the resident to first see these results, I had the unfortunate job of breaking such bad news. The husband and the patient were lovely people, and were very friendly. Being Italian may have had something to do with it.

So, after reading and re-reading the report numerous times, I prepared to walk over to tell them the results. I was scared though. Scared that I’d break the news terribly. Scared that perhaps the husband might get angry and start shouting at me.

It wasn’t as bad as I had thought, and the patient and husband were very understanding people. On reflection, I don’t think I did invitation in the SPIKES protocol too well. But then, it seems like a really awkward way to ask a patient “if they want to know everything, or only a little of something”. I ended up just telling her “unfortunately, the scan appears to have showed that your cancer has spread to the left hip region, and to the glands sitting above the kidney”. I later explained that given the spread, the prognosis is not too good now compared to her previous well localized cancer.

The husband later ended up telling me how he appreciated my honesty and the straightforwardness of telling them. “You’re not like the last doctors that kept beating around the bush”. Well, I suppose the previous doctors had more uncertainty in breaking the news back then compared to me who had clear results from the scan.

On reflection, I think that it was a very important learning experience. I’m pretty sure as a GP next year, I’ll have lots more of these situations.

You’ll never forget a patient like me

So today, I went on an extra ED shift. I’ve been on Ward Call for the past 4 weeks, but decided on one of my days off, I’d pick up an extra ED shift for some extra pocket money (really helpful when you’re about to go on a date soon).

With the large amount of patient’s you see in ED, one is bound to find a few crazies in there. And today, I found a crazy. Not violent crazy, but pleasant crazy in a way that is just entertaining.

So I see a woman in her mid 30’s present due to a laceration of the right knee. Chased some kids up an escalator, and had a tumble, gashing it open. Why was she chasing the children? I don’t know. But she told me she had some alcohol prior, so maybe it’s alcohol induced laceration.

Anyway, I knew she was slightly crazy when she asked for something stronger than paracetamol.

“Doctor, this is the most interesting thing medically that has happened to me. Can you please give me something strong? Something like pethidine, or some knock out gas would do.”

“Erm…. No. We don’t even use pethidine anymore here in hospital. I can give you some paracetamol and ibuprofen.”

“But, but, I’ve made a massive gash in my knee! Surely it warrants something stronger than paracetamol and ibuprofen!”

“Well, I’ll be putting local anaesthetic in, so that should numb the pain when I stitch it up.”

“Can you please put in like twice the amount usual for your other patients?”

“We’ll see how things go as I inject.”

She later on reminded me a further 2 times about how pethidine or something “strong” would be great for her knee.

And so afterwards, with the laceration exposed after unwrapping bandages, I asked my registrar to cast an eye on it to decide best which stitch pattern to use (I thought I might have needed a vertical mattress, but turns out all simple interrupted sutures were all that were needed).

After my registrar left, the patient said “wow, that doctor looks grumpy. I wouldn’t want him to be doing this procedure.”

Later on as I’m stitching “Geez, that other doctor, is he always that grumpy? He looks permanently angry. He’s actually kind of cute though. Is he single, is he married?”

“By the way, are you single or married?”

Good grief…..

After putting in 8 stitches, the patient thought that falling on an escalator to make the gash in the knee was too boring of a story. So I suggested to her that maybe she could tell people that after having some alcohol, she decided she needed to do battle with the evil escalator, and in the end, knee vs escalator left her knee smashed up at the end.

“Hahaha. I bet you’ll never forget me as your patient. I’m so interesting, and you’ll remember me forever!”

Ha. Yes, she was right. I won’t forget her. But you’ll remembered as that “crazy lady with right knee gash from escalator”. And she gets to be memorialized in my blog as well.

The Legal Responsibilities

The hospital system is the mash up of many different specialties, all with the common goal of patient centred care; people are sick, so they come to hospital to get better.

With these different specialties, comes different responsibilities, and if you overstep your boundaries and encroach onto a different specialty, there are legal liabilities. Hence, a physiotherapists providing medical advice about orthopaedic problems becomes a legal issue.

I understand why there are such legal liabilities, and in fact, I think these boundaries are necessary to protect patients. But having been in the hospital system, I think it can get pretty ridiculous at times. For instance, at the previous hospital I worked at, an ultrasonographer could mark out the level of pleural effusion, but would not mark the spot for fear of legal liabilities should any issues arise if it was drained. Hence the doctor (usually a resident) would need to come and mark the site that the ultrasonagrapher had indicated. So as a result, any issues with a drain insertion would be blamed on the resident, even though it was the ultrasonographer who technically marked out the site.

In a way, I feel that some of these legal responsibilities leads to a decay in upholding good moral standards. The other day I was asked by the nurse to come and console an anxious patient who had her belonging stolen by an outsider. It was a strange request, because what was I supposed to do as a doctor? I felt that a social worker would have been more appropriate. So I arrived and sat at the patient’s bedside, and started listening.

“Ms X, I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you. How are you feeling?”

“I feel terrible. This everything has gone missing including my phone and all my credit cards. I have at least 12 credit cards in my wallet!”

“Ok. Have you started trying to cancel your credit cards yet?”

“I have Westpac here in Australia, and all the others are in England. But I wouldn’t know how to cancel the cards.”

“Ok, maybe I can try and call the Westpac number and we can try and cancel the card.”

I went back to the doctors desk, and asked one of the nurses if social work was doing anything about cancelling the credit cards. Apparently, social work thought it was not their job to cancel credit cards, and declined to help (it was a Sunday anyway).

Anyway, the dect phone I was holding was too unreliable and kept cutting out, so I ended up asking the patient to come to the doctors desk to use the landline. Partway through, one of the surgical doctors asked me to come into a side office. When I got in, she stated firmly “You need to stop what you are doing. It’s not your role to cancel credit cards, and there are legal boundaries in helping her to do so.”

I had a think about this, and could definitely see where she was coming from. It looks sketchy to say the least when a doctor is helping a patient to cancel her credit cards. Almost like I could somehow financially benefit from the situation. I know I couldn’t do much for the patient aside from listening, so I thought the least I could do was to help her cancel her credit card to prevent someone from stealing her money.

In the end, her daughter arrived, and I quietly left the patient in the care of the daughter.

It frustrates me that because of legal issues, it prevents us from doing something decent. It’s something that I hear about to no end in China, where people are too afraid to help people on the streets who are hurt or ill, due to the fears of legal proceedings against them with false accusations.

But then again, in any system, if things like that are allowed to happen, then people end up changing. If the patient made a complaint against me, or if I was penalized for what I did for that elderly woman, I would be pretty stupid to do it all over again if something similar happens.

In the Deep End

I remember my very first formal interview – it ended in failure. What made it so depressing too was that it was THE interview that my future depended on – medical school.

So having failed at that, I realized that either I was an immature 19 year old that lacked life experience, or that I lacked interview experience. I chose to realize the second option, and vowed that some day, I would be great at interviews.

Since then, I suppose interviews just happened. Interviews for entry into the GP program, some interviews for part time jobs. With each interview, I picked up basic skills, such as knowing what to say, and what not to say. I learned to never offer more information then was required to answer a question. And that advice has served me well.

It just so happens that on the 1st of June, all GP registrars could apply to practices for next year, and of course, this would mean submitting a CV, cover letter, and attending an interview.

So in my holiday in China, I spent a great deal of time updating my CV, looking back at the past 3 years and deciding what to put on my CV. I put effort into making it look neat, and to also demonstrate my well roundedness for GP (to my credit, I have done lots of different rotations including surgery, medicine, ED, psychiatry, Paediatrics, O+G and orthopaedics).

Having submitted my cover letter and CV for 5 different practices, I was offered 3 interviews. It was just a matter of preparation.

I think I may have over prepared for these interviews, since I anticipated questions asked, and thought of thoughtful answers to say. And then I reflected on past cases seen, and what I really wanted out of the practices I applied to. And research. Probably the most important thing was knowing about the practice I applied to.

It was a total pain trying to attend interviews when I’m on ED because of the weird rostering. So I ended up attending an interview even though I finished a night of ED. So, I rocked up probably with only 4 hours sleep.

In the end, I managed to get an offer from all 3 places that I interviewed at, which I was pretty impressed with, since I had failed so miserably in my first ever interview. The interviews were so easy compared to what I expected, and I felt a tad silly for overpreparing. But I don’t think one can ever overprepare for an interview.

Again, I stress the importance of research, because I was asked by one interviewer what I knew about their practice. And that’s when I said “I understand that your practice opens 365 days per year, and holds an excellent philosophical principle of providing affordable and accessible health care which is exactly in line with what I believe health care should be.”

In the end, I chose a practice that would be very busy and most likely stressful. But hey, at least I’d learn a lot from it. The supervisor even told me that he would “throw me in the deep end”, so I even got a warning that it was going to be stressful. But isn’t that how one grows and learns, by being outside of their comfort zone? So why not.

Next year’s going to be interesting….. And probably stressful too.

 

The Chinese Doctor

Fascinated by the Chinese culture, I had researched what it was like to be a doctor in China. My thinking was that if my Chinese was good enough, I could go to China to practice for a few months to a year or so, and develop more of my Chinese, as well as see how healthcare works in another country. I didn’t mind if my wages would be much lower, but it was the experience that would make the decreased wages worth it.

My research led me to see how fractured and weak the healthcare system in China was.

Doctors are overworked, and underpaid. A lot of doctors provided substandard health care as a result of an overwhelming number of patient demand that could not be met by the health care system. With a country that has over a billion people, it’s no wonder. Coupled with the fact that there has been a net migration of rural residents flooding into the cities, and this will burden the health care system a lot.

Last year, my grandma needed to pay a visit to the hospital as a result of what was likely an asthma attack. In the hospital, everything is based around the almighty dollar. A deposit of around 5000 yuan was required upon being admitted as a patient, just so that you will be able to pay for your medical fees. And what should happen if you end up spending all that 5000 yuan? You get refused medical service. My aunty managed to bargain with the doctor’s in hospital and was able to bargain the deposit down to 2000 yuan. But a couple of days as a patient, my grandma was not given her morning medications. When asked why, the nurse advised that her 2000 yuan deposit was all spent, and no medications would be provided until this amount was topped up.

Other things that seem to be wrong with the health system there, is the encouragement of the “hong bao” or red envelope. In China, a red envelope contains money, and is often given as a token of goodwill. For the rich in China, giving a red envelope gives them a sense that things can be accomplished more quickly, that the doctor will spend more quality time with the patient. My mum who had been to one of the hospitals had clearly seen a Chinese sign that states “No red envelopes allowed”, yet I’ve heard that this gets curtailed by the use of credit cards given instead that are loaded with money.

The way that the doctor gets paid is also shocking. Doctors seem to get paid for prescribing things. In that way, this ends up to a lot of unnecessary prescribing for the sake of earning extra money. My father who had gone to one of the hospitals because of an upset tummy and 1 or 2 episodes of diarrhoea was offered IV fluids. He wasn’t dehydrated or anything, and didn’t need the IV fluids. Why give someone something when the risks of infection from the cannula etc outweighed the benefits? Perhaps by giving IV fluids, it is relatively “safe” and makes good money as well, and in the minds of other patients, they think something is being done.

Finally, perhaps the most disheartening thing I’ve read, have been doctor killings from patients. A times article sums up this perfectly here.

It’s quite sad actually, but I’ve been told that being a doctor in China is not what people aspire to, given the great responsibility and little financial reward given. I don’t blame them given the way doctors are being treated there.

 

 

GP Placements

Having just had about 4 weeks of annual leave, I wish I could say that I had a pleasant holiday. However, aside from going to a foreign country that has a great big firewall *Cough* *China*, I have to say that it felt incredibly busy, almost as if I was working.

For starters, on return from my trip from China, I would have to sit a Chinese written exam. I suppose being in China helped somewhat with this by being exposed to the language, but what we get tested on is entirely based off a textbook, which I had to carry around and study in my spare time while at the hotel.

The next most annoying thing, was that I had somehow organized an oral assessment task for my paediatrics diploma for the 3rd of June, also a few days after I returned back home from China. So I ended up studying for that as well, staying up late at night in the hotel to study. It was only after 2 weeks into my trip to china that my assessor advised me that she couldn’t make the 3rd of June, so I was able to push it back to the 17th of June.

Another thing (the tasks just keep piling!), was that I had to do some research into the application process for next year’s GP practice intake. This involved lots of boring reading online about the steps needed, the rules and regulations etc… And I also needed to update my CV, and write a letter of application, not to mention thinking about interview questions and how to best answer them. So this too involved long late nights of work in the hotel as well.

So my holiday kind of went like this….

  1. Arrive in Guangzhou, China all exhausted
  2. Find hotel and place to stay
  3. Study
  4. Go to Guilin and Qingdao by train and plane respectively
  5. Study on the train and on the plane while going to destinations
  6. Start stressing out as date of chinese exam, paediatrics assessment task and GP application date starts approaching
  7. Big sigh of relief once assessor postpones oral assessment task
  8. Continue to study in hotel till late night anyway despite the above

After that, I came back home, having happy memories of my time spent studying in the hotels…….

Well, I still need to work on my applications for GP, which I shall hopefully submit tomorrow.

Looking at the World

Since having a medical education, it has made me look at people in ways that I never used to look at them. I’m more observant of people around me.

In medical school, the crucial thing we were taught, was to use our eyes. In our clinical examination classes, we were taught that a general order of examination of the patient was: observation, palpation, percussion, auscultation. Note how observation comes first and foremost before you touch them, and before you use your stethoscope.

And so we’re told that you can glimpse a lot of information about your patient just from watching them. A person who limps into your practice may indicate something like pain from the knee or hip (maybe from osteoarthritis), and an infant who is brought in in the mother’s arms with reduced responsiveness and alertness is probably quite sick.

When you’re observing people all the time, it only becomes natural that you apply it in public. In general, the major thing I glean from seeing people are whether they are well or sick. Then little other subtle things I may observe – things like gait, scars present (may indicate things like past knee replacements), and just other things in general like if they’re pale, have rashes or so.

In turn, I guess being able to apply it in public means that I’m constantly using the skill of observation, and hopefully it will aid in my further career development.