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Sunday, August 20, 2017

How a pocket sized ultrasound pays for itself--every week

I bought a pocket ultrasound in 2011, determined to learn how to perform and interpret ultrasound at the bedside and thus transform my internal medicine practice. I bought it new and it cost over $8000. That was a staggering amount of money to spend on something I knew very little about. In 2015 after having performed many thousand ultrasound exams with my little GE Vscan with the phased array transducer, I replaced it with the new model which had a dual transducer, with one side for deep structures and one for superficial structures, such as bones and blood vessels. It cost around $10,000. This was an even more staggering amount of money, but more of a sure thing. I knew that it made a difference and that the cost of the machine was a very small portion of the benefit that I would get from using it.

Since the time I bought the new machine, GE has come out with an even fancier machine that is just a wee bit faster and has internet connectivity and a touch screen. Because everyone needs the newest thing, the earlier models like I have are much more reasonable. Without even bargaining, the first machine I bought is available on Ebay for many thousands of dollars less than I paid. I am not trying to sell Vscans. In fact, Phillips has a very lightweight tablet model that gives even better pictures than mine and Sonosite has the iVIZ which also has gorgeous images. These machines are not yet inexpensive, but some day will be. There are bluetooth transducers which interface with tablets. There are very small Chinese machines that are quite inexpensive, but I haven't played with them and can't vouch for their quality.

I think of my Vscan as an $8000 machine. Now it's more like a $6000 machine per Ebay, but it still isn't a small expenditure. I like to believe that it's worth it. Since a day in the hospital in the US costs about $2500, when I avoid 3 hospital days by doing ultrasound I consider the machine paid for. Every time using it saves someone's life, I consider that it paid for itself several times over. In the small picture, I don't actually get that money, but in the big picture I do, since all healthcare dollars come out of the same pot eventually.

Here are the ways bedside ultrasound paid for itself this week:

1. A 45 year old man was admitted with alcoholic hepatitis on top of known cirrhosis. He starts to improve but his abdomen is painfully large and so he is sent by my colleague for a paracentesis, to have the fluid in his abdomen drained. They are able to remove a liter of fluid but a couple of days later he is feeling full again and wants the procedure repeated. I look at his abdomen with my bedside machine and am able to reassure him that there is very little fluid to drain and that his discomfort is caused by his huge liver which will gradually return to a more normal size if he stays off alcohol. One procedure and one hospital day saved.

2. A 90 year old woman whose small bowel obstruction has resolved is ready to go home. I notice that she is a little bit short of breath and I wonder if she has developed congestive heart failure. Her lung exam shows some crackles. I ultrasound her lungs and find that she has just a few "B lines" (indicative of wetness of the lung tissue) in the lower right lung, most consistent with the mild changes often present when a person has been at bedrest. She can go home. She is happy. One hospital day saved.

3. A 50 year old man is recovering from surgery for a perforated colon. He has developed abdominal distension and pain. The surgeon orders a CT scan with oral contrast. The patient is sitting up in bed with a bottle of contrast solution beside him. He is very unhappy. He can't imagine drinking the 500 ml of liquid and feels he might vomit it. I ultrasound his abdomen and find that his stomach is huge and fluid filled and his intestines are swollen and completely full of fluid, filling his abdominal cavity. With this information the surgeon, radiologist and I come to the consensus that having him drink the contrast medium will be useless since it will go nowhere, and what he really needs is a nasogastric tube to drain his stomach and small intestine. The patient is spared the bad things that might have occurred had we attempted to add more fluid to a tense water balloon and appropriate therapy is not delayed. Monetary value=hard to say.

4. 60 year old man is in the hospital after a hip fracture. He is on many pills for pain and for blood pressure which have been re-started after his hip surgery. I am called to the bedside because his blood pressure is very low and he won't respond. Bedside ultrasound shows that his heart, lungs and abdomen are all normal, with no evidence of a heart attack or a blood clot to the lung. His inferior vena cava, which brings blood to his heart from the lower part of his body is so small that it is invisible. He responds well to a liter of IV fluid and a little bit of oxygen and is sitting up eating dinner a couple of hours later. Ultrasound allowed me to rule out complications that would have required further testing or intensive care. In retrospect, he had very little money and no way to pay for most of his medication, so had not been taking all the pills on his list. The many sedatives and blood pressure pills hit him hard. Beside avoiding an intensive care unit transfer and complex testing, he was also able to be discharged the following day since he felt fine on fewer pills.

It's not just the money. (Though, in my experience, it does save money.) Knowing more about what's going on by way of bedside ultrasound allows for more appropriate and compassionate care. It's also much more gratifying to a doctor than guessing.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The demise of the lecture--the rise of real education?

Today in the New England Journal of Medicine I read an editorial that discussed how lectures are being phased out in medical school education. I was, at first, a little bit appalled. Why would they eliminate an educational method that worked so well for me and my generation of doctors?

Or did it? I actually remember only a few things now from lectures, and all of those things don't support the idea that lectures were an effective way of teaching. I remember vividly how I would fall asleep and write progressively more poetic and less linear notes in my binder. How I would startle myself awake, causing heavy textbooks to fly in the air. I remember the time when the professor showed us the structure of vitamin B12 and I considered learning it, just for grins, and decided not to. I remember formulating questions for the lecturer that would display such minuscule understanding of the material that he or she would actually understand how deeply we students had been left in the dust. But I don't remember learning anything. I'm sure I did, at least eventually, when I highlighted and rewrote my lecture notes and read the material in the book. I'm not sure lectures were a good use of my time, or that of the eminent scientists and clinicians who were trying to teach us.

I do remember learning things in the laboratory. I remember learning about diptheria as we carefully sucked virulent Corynebacteria diphtheriae into glass pipets to examine it under the microscope. I remember using machines to understand sine waves and the concept of gain in order to learn how monitoring of vital signs could go wrong. I remember working with a group of 4 medical students to dissect a human body and how I worked with my professor-attending to reveal obscure diagnoses of real people. I particularly remember how a classmate and I decided to learn half the material in a certain class really well and teach it to the other person, creating a typed handout with jokes and cartoons and completely acing the essay exam on that subject.

What particularly bothered me about this idea of getting rid of lectures was the thought that students would have no structure to their learning, that they would just bop around aimlessly trying to absorb the enormity of medical science. Reading on, however, I realized that what is intended to replace the lecture are shorter and smaller doses of facts interspersed with questions and group work and cases that integrate the facts with problem solving. Medical students will still need to get up in the morning and come together in classes, but the classes will be different. The author mentions that students who hear an eloquently presented lecture may feel that they understand the material, but on further questioning realize that they have only a very superficial grasp. This is intuitively true and I know I have seen it, meaning that even the most clearly delivered lecture probably isn't very useful from a practical standpoint.

A few years ago I attended a talk about how to give a talk. In the talk the speaker said that most people remember only 1 (or is it 3?) things from a lecture. I also remember that he said to practice in front of a mirror which I tried but will never do. I don't remember what else he said, except that he thought Steve Jobs gave a great talk. He was definitely right about the number of things most people remember, though I don't quite remember what he said.

The conclusion of the article about saying goodbye to lectures was that they really are going away, at least in their long and fact filled monologing glory. Good teaching may involve a speaker and a large group of listeners, but will include shorter and more easily absorbed facts interspersed with questions to ascertain understanding.

New methods of learning are based not only on the fact that humans have limitations in their ability to absorb information, but also on the exponentially increasing amount of it as communication and technology co-evolve to deepen our potential understanding of the natural world. It is no longer practical to expect a person to keep an adequate body of knowledge to practice medicine in his or her brain. A couple of teachers of bedside ultrasound, Mike Mallin and Matt Dawson spoke about "just in time" rather than "just in case" learning at a meeting a few years ago, arguing that we remember and learn things better when we access the information at a time when it is relevant. They created a phone app called "1 minute ultrasound" which gives a person just the information they need to perform a bedside ultrasound exam right before they go into a patient's room. "Just in time" learning. I know that I would never have remembered the basic science behind Acute Intermittent Porphyria had I not had a patient suffering from it who needed me to mix up an ink-black orphan drug to abort her painful episode. In fact, the disease was so complex and obscure that I had sworn NOT to learn about it since I would likely never use the information in practice.

Not all learning can happen "just in time" since a certain knowledge base is necessary to filter the information a patient provides in order to be thinking in the right general area. Also some emergency conditions require immediate action, though I'm often surprised how easy it is to brush up on a condition by using my cell phone, even in dire situations. A fourth year medical student pulled out a Palm Pilot 15 years ago when a patient asked about a drug interaction. As I promised I would check a reference on it, she had the answer. I am eternally grateful for my first introduction to a peripheral brain that expanded my own. Now I have volumes of updated information on any condition known to man in my pocket.

I know that we will cling to the lecture for many years, in medicine and in other learning situations. Big changes happen slowly. As I partake of them I will appreciate the art and the effort that goes into their creation and sense that they are a noble tradition. I will try to learn more than 1 (or is it 3?) things from each one, but I won't beat myself up when I don't. As a tool for learning or teaching, though, I may be about ready to say "Goodbye."