The Hahnemann Disaster

Though the news at first stayed local in Philadelphia and the northeast, it’s gaining traction nationwide. ZDoggMD is on it. Bernie Sanders held a rally.

What happened? The venerable Hahnemann University Hospital, the main teaching hospital for Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, is bankrupt and will soon close its doors after more than 170 years as a safety-net hospital serving inner city patients.

Why should we care? After all, there are other teaching hospitals in the immediate area with capacity to absorb the patients, and they had several months’ warning to prepare.

We should care for many reasons, but I’ll start with the plight of the 570 residents and fellows who are being displaced from their jobs. Getting a residency position in the first place is a perilous process – there aren’t enough spots for all the graduating medical students who want them. Only 79% of the more than 38,000 applicants in 2019 snagged a first-year or internship position in a residency program.

So the Hahnemann residents – the “Orphans from HUH”, as they’ve started to call themselves – are scrambling on their own to find new jobs at a time when most residents are thankfully settling in to the new academic year. There’s no organized program to help them.

Even for the residents who’ve already found new positions, there are other boulders in the road. To begin with, they haven’t been released yet. They can’t start their new jobs and the Medicare funding for their positions is still tied up in bankruptcy court.

They’re still at work, wandering around a nearly empty Hahnemann with only a handful of patients left. The ER isn’t admitting any new patients and will shut down completely on August 16. The labor-and-delivery ward has closed. The new interns aren’t gaining any real experience and will be lagging behind their peers wherever they go.

“Doctors have been writing notes to update plans of care and people have come in as part of the liquidation to take away their computers,” a third-year internal medicine resident named Tom Sibert, MD, told Medscape reporter Marcia Frelick last week.

Tom Sibert? Any relation? Why yes; he’s my son. You can understand, I’m sure, why I went into full-blown mama lion fury when the Hahnemann situation blew up, and why I was beside myself with worry until he locked in an acceptance to an excellent program where he’ll finish his training.

At risk for deportation

I’m still indignant and angry, though, over the chaos that reigns for the rest of the Hahnemann orphans. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, 55 of them hold J-1 visas and could be deported if they can’t secure a position in an accredited program within 30 days of the hospital’s closure. Interns are in an especially tough position if they hold a “preliminary” spot in medicine or surgery without a guaranteed residency position to follow. The ACGME, the accrediting organization for residency programs, says it is “acutely aware of the uncertainty and stress”, but “is not directly involved in resident or fellow placement or decisions related to funding.”

Residents and fellows who can’t secure a position near Philadelphia will face moving expenses, penalties for breaking their leases, and possibly the substantial cost of obtaining a license in another state. The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECGME) is offering some help. But for many residents and fellows – whether international or American graduates – who may be the sole supporters of their families, and often are heavily in debt from student loans, these costs will be devastating.

Residency programs across the country need to pick up the phone and help these residents find new positions. Too many are taking the attitude that their programs are already full and it’s not their problem. The ones that are stepping up – like UCLA and Creighton – deserve our gratitude. The others should realize that the Hahnemann residents are innocent victims who need help. They should realize also that their hospitals aren’t immune from the financial stresses that finally broke Hahnemann – more about that in a moment.

Meanwhile, Drexel University announced that about 40 percent of the 800 physicians and clinical staff will lose their current jobs, including 245 physicians who’ve received severance notices. Tower Health is working with Drexel to try to place employees in affiliated community hospitals, and is planning to increase its residency positions, but does not offer all the accredited programs it would need to accommodate all the Hahnemann personnel.

How did this disaster happen?

You can be sure it didn’t happen overnight. Hahnemann has been on shaky financial footing for decades. Tenet Healthcare Corp. acquired Hahnemann in 1998 following the bankruptcy of Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, but couldn’t make a financial go of it either.

In January 2018, Tenet sold the hospital to the private American Academic Health System LLC, an affiliate of Paladin Healthcare. Though new CEO Joel Freedman had prior experience in turning distressed hospitals around, this spring he announced that Hahnemann was losing $3-5 million a month and began layoffs. The official decision to close was announced on June 26.

Hahnemann’s payer mix was always its biggest problem, with more Medicare and Medicaid patients than its competitors. The bulk of admissions came through the emergency department, and it attracted few of the elective surgical cases that provide key revenue for successful hospitals. No rescue offers have come from the state or federal governments, and a bailout seems unlikely.

If you follow healthcare financial trends, the Hahnemann bankruptcy comes as no surprise. Hospitals are going bankrupt by the dozen. The Health Care Services Distress Research Index has experienced “record or near-record highs in each of the past eight quarters”, and is up 305 percent since 2010, which is when the rest of the economy started to turn around after the Great Recession. Since January 1, Becker’s Hospital Review reports that 12 other hospitals in addition to Hahnemann filed for bankruptcy. Dozens of others undoubtedly are in distress due to “reimbursement challenges”, the cost of new electronic health records, and dwindling inpatient volumes.

Just for clarity – no hospital or medical practice can stay afloat on what CMS pays, regardless of what Bernie Sanders thinks. Private insurance payments make up the difference. When private insurance payments shrink, patients can’t pay their high deductibles; and when outpatient centers pick up a growing share of revenue-generating surgical procedures, hospitals are at risk for failure – even teaching hospitals that you might think are too big or too important to fail.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Hahnemann will be razed and some more profitable enterprise – a hotel, perhaps, or condominiums – will rise where a hospital once stood. The diaspora of its residents and fellows is just beginning.

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When adjectives obfuscate

A few years ago, at the misguided recommendation of a public relations consultant, many of us in America started referring to ourselves as “physician anesthesiologists”. That was a silly move. The term is cumbersome and does not flow trippingly on the tongue. It is also redundant. You don’t hear our colleagues referring to themselves as “physician cardiologists” or “physician urologists”.

There was never any need of an adjective to modify “anesthesiologist”.

Anesthesiology is a medical specialty, practiced by physicians who have completed residency training in anesthesiology. To become board-certified, we undergo a rigorous examination program conducted by the American Board of Anesthesiology.

In England, comparably trained physicians are called “anaesthetists”. In England, they also refer to their subway system as “the underground”, and to the hood of the car as the “bonnet”. It’s confusing, but we muddle through.

The term “nurse anesthesiologist” is an oxymoron.

I’m all done with the term “physician anesthesiologist”. I am the immediate past president of the California Society of Anesthesiologists, and a 30+ year member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. I am a physician who is immensely proud to practice anesthesiology. My patients know I am a physician because I make it clear to them when I introduce myself and give them my business card.

Dr. Virginia Apgar was an anesthesiologist. It is an honor to follow in her footsteps, even if most of us will never match her achievements. That is all.

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If you’re a parent who is still on the fence, trying to decide whether or not to vaccinate your children, I’m going to try to be kind and helpful. Here is a link to a video by a physician and father, Dr. Zubin Damania, with facts that may address some of your fears.

If you’re firmly pro-disease and anti-vaccine, however, I am baffled at your irrationality and frankly enraged by it. I am speaking from the intensely personal point of view of a physician and mother who knows what it’s like to attend the funeral and watch the coffin of her own child being lowered into the ground.

My daughter Alexandra is dead. There is no vaccine that could have saved her. The only thing that could make that enduring grief any worse would be the knowledge that there was a vaccine, and she didn’t get it because of me.

The only bright side to the recent outbreak of measles in the northwestern U.S. is the fact that some parents are finally deciding to protect their children with vaccination, as the New York Times reported on February 16.

I’m old enough to remember the terror that my parents went through every summer as polio epidemics swept the country, and the miracle of standing in line to take the sugar cube with the first oral vaccine in 1961. I have two dear friends who are paraplegic as the result of childhood polio, and you don’t want to have the anti-vaccine conversation with them, I promise you.

Our duty — all of us, as human beings in a civilized society — is to make sure that we and our children are immune to measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, and other infectious diseases so we can protect those who can’t be vaccinated due to real medical problems. We are the herd that has to take responsibility for herd immunity.

Every single one of us has a duty to the cause of public health to be vaccinated ourselves, and a duty to our children to make sure that they are vaccinated on schedule. Yes, I understand that in rare cases the flu vaccine can result in Guillain-Barre syndrome, but I still get the shot every year. It’s my duty to protect my patients, my husband, my children, and my grandchildren from being exposed to the flu, which could happen in the early stage before I might even realize that I was getting sick.

It’s particularly mind-bending to see that some parents think diseases like measles and chickenpox are benign. For every 1000 children who catch measles, one to three will develop encephalitis. Of those, 10 to 15 percent will die, and many more will have permanent neurologic damage. Chickenpox too can lead to encephalitis, and the blisters can get infected and cause full-blown sepsis or pneumonia.

The death of Olivia Dahl

Have you read any of Roald Dahl’s books to your children, and watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach with them? Did you know that his seven-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis in 1962, before the MMR vaccine was available? Here is what Mr. Dahl wrote:

As the illness took its usual course, I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of colored pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.

‘I feel all sleepy’, she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours, she was dead.”

For the rest of his life, Mr. Dahl pleaded with parents to vaccinate their children. Even today, there is little that can be done to save a child who develops measles encephalitis. What we can do is prevent it by vaccinating.

I would never wish for any parent, no matter how irresponsible and irrational the pro-disease advocates are, to suffer the relentless and indescribable grief of their child’s death. In centuries past, parents frequently lost more than one child, but the fact that children’s deaths were common didn’t lessen the pain. If you don’t believe me, read this:

There’s a narrow ridge in the graveyard
Would scarce stay a child in his race,
But to me and my thought it is wider
Than the s
tar-sown vague of Space.

Your logic, my friend, is perfect,
Your moral most drearily true;
But, since the earth clashed on her coffin,
I keep he
aring that, and not you.

Console if you will, I can bear it;
’T is a well-meant alms of breath;
But not all the preaching since Adam
Has made Death other than Death.

It is pagan; but wait till you feel it,—
That jar of our earth, that dull shock
When the ploughshare of deeper passion
Tears down to our primitive rock.

Communion in spirit! Forgive me,
But I, who am earthly and weak,
Would give all my incomes from dream-land
For a touch of her hand on my cheek.

That little shoe in the corner,
So worn and wrinkled and brown,
With its emptiness confutes you,
And argues your wisdom down.

That poem, “After the Burial“, was written by American poet James Russell Lowell, who suffered the loss of three of his four children in the mid-nineteenth century. He hit the mark. So did Ben Jonson, writing about the death of his first daughter in 1593.

I will never write as eloquently as they have. So here’s the bottom line. Get a grip. Vaccinate your kids.

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We’re very fortunate in anesthesiology. We’re seldom the physicians who have to face families with the terrible news that a patient has died from a gunshot wound.

But all too often we’re right there in the operating room for the frantic attempts to repair the bullet hole in the heart before it stops beating, or the blast wound to the shattered liver before the patient bleeds to death.

Despite all the skills of everyone in the operating room – surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, technicians – and all the blood in the blood bank, we’re not always successful. A death on the OR table is a traumatic event and a defeat; we remember it decades later.

So yes, this is our lane too. Memories haunt me of the times when mine was the last voice a gunshot victim heard on this earth, telling him he was about to go to sleep as he went under anesthesia for the last-ditch, futile attempt to save him.

I use the pronoun “he” intentionally, as every one of those cases in my professional life has been a young man. My experience is representative; most gunshot victims aren’t the random targets of mass shootings. They are overwhelmingly male (89 percent), under the age of 30 (61 percent), and over half are from the lowest income quartile.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is way off base in telling physicians to mind their own business as it did in its infamous November 7 tweet. Human life is our business. Pediatricians have every right to remind parents that gun security, and keeping guns out of the hands of children, are vital to their well-being right up there with getting them vaccinated.

At my house, we’ve always kept our guns padlocked in a safe that our children couldn’t have broken into with a crowbar. We’re not NRA members, but we enjoy going to a shooting range on occasion. I learned gun safety during my officer training in the Army Reserve Medical Corps. My husband and I are firmly in the category of gun-owners who take both the right and the responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

Physician opinions on gun control and gun ownership vary just as much as the opinions of the rest of the population. What doesn’t vary is our collective sense of responsibility for public health and our support for better, more readily available, mental health care.

The solutions to America’s horrific rate of gun-related deaths aren’t easy or obvious. But the NRA isn’t helping matters with its thoughtless and incendiary social media message.

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Keep calm and give the Ancef

A true allergic reaction is one of the most terrifying events in medicine. A child or adult who is highly allergic to bee stings or peanuts, for instance, can die within minutes without a life-saving epinephrine injection.

But one of the most commonly reported allergies — to penicillin — often isn’t a true allergy at all. The urgent question that faces physicians every day in emergency rooms and operating rooms is this:  How can we know whether or not the patient is truly allergic to penicillin, and what should we give when antibiotic treatment is indicated?

It’s time for us to stop making these decisions out of fear, and look squarely at the evidence. Withholding the right antibiotic may be exactly the wrong thing to do for our patients. Here’s why.

Can’t we just prescribe a different antibiotic?

When we hear that patients are “PCN-allergic”, we’ve been trained from our first days as medical students to avoid every drug in the penicillin family. We’re also taught to avoid antibiotics called “cephalosporins”, which include common medications like Keflex. This is because penicillin and cephalosporin molecules have some structural features in common, raising the odds that a patient allergic to one may also be allergic to the other.

What does it matter? Can’t physicians just prescribe a different antibiotic?

Read the Full Article

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