April 29, 2020

What Has Become of the Patients?

Frontline physicians are reporting a mysterious phenomenon—as hospitals began preparing for and in some cases started receiving an onslaught of COVID-19 patients, patients with other conditions such as heart attacks, stroke, and appendicitis became a rarity. Where, asks the New York Times, are all the patients?

While much of the evidence about declining hospitalization rates is anecdotal, hard data are emerging.The information from disparate sources now strongly suggests that the decline in hospitalization for heart attacks, strokes, and other potentially treatable serious medical problems is real. 

Assuming that the rate at which Americans develop these problems has remained unchanged, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise, the logical conclusion is that patients are staying home. Given this likelihood, the important question to ask is not where are the patients. It’s what’s happening to them? Are they dying? Are they surviving but with significant, avoidable deficits? Or are they doing just fine? And why did they stay home? Were they terrified of going to the hospital, worried about contracting COVID-19, and did not even call their doctor for advice, as is generally assumed? Or did they try, unsuccessfully, to contact a physician by phone or video? Might they have succeeded in reaching a physician but were given poor advice?

We urgently need to investigate the fate of these patients who are performing an uncontrolled natural experiment in home vs hospital care. Physicians tend to assume that the problem is that patients are self-diagnosing and self-treating—to their detriment. But we may find some surprises, both in terms of why patients are staying home and what is happening to them. We might discover that some patients tried to obtain advice and for a variety of reasons were not directed to the emergency department. And we may learn that the outcomes varied, with some patients dying, others surviving but suffering needlessly, and still others doing just fine. While drawing robust conclusions will be challenging because of a lack of a randomized control population, interviews may enable to learn something about the factors that shaped patient behavior and contributed to outcomes.

Telemedicine has to a large extent replaced person to person visits during the COVID-19 epidemic. As a result, when we blame patients for their failure to go to the hospital, we are implicitly assuming that the flaw is in the patients and not in telemedicine. But such a conclusion is too facile. Maybe part of the responsibility lies with the limitations of telemedicine. Maybe telemedicine is an art that physicians need to master, and maybe patients need to be educated about how best to make use of telemedicine.

Consider this analogy: physicians used to believe that anyone trained to take care of patients in the hospital setting automatically knew how to care for them in the office. Only relatively recently did educators suggest that outpatient medicine requires different knowledge and skills from inpatient medicine. As a result, residency programs today have a much larger and more robust outpatient component than did their predecessors 30 years ago. The recognition that patient engagement in their own medical care positively affects outcomes likewise led to a change in the way that primary care physicians are supposed to practice medicine. 

Teaching both physicians and patients how best to utilize telemedicine will also require that learning more about the barriers to the use of telemedicine in the primary care setting—are people who do not have a computer or smartphone simply not contacting their physician? Do older people who have been unable to learn to make a video call assume that telemedicine is unavailable to them? What about on the physician side? Are all primary care physicians using Zoom or its analogs?

Once we have identified and rectified the barriers to use (no mean feat), we will need to figure out how to optimize use of this technology. Patients may have to be equipped with the means to measure their own blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen saturation to be able to provide physicians with crucial data. Physicians may have to learn to ask patients to check for peripheral edema or other signs of illness, and they may need to rely on third parties (home health aides or family caregivers) to provide additional information.

At the same time, we need to clarify whether sick people are currently underutilizing hospitals (the widespread assumption) or whether they were previously over-using hospitals. While there is ample evidence that hospitals have a great deal to offer patients with conditions such as heart attacks and appendicitis, there is also extensive data suggesting that many medical treatments are over- prescribed.

Over the short run, we need to get out the word that hospitals are open for business and have the capacity and the ability to care for patients with all kinds of acute problems, not just COVID-19 pneumonia. But over the long run, we need to learn how and when to best use both telemedicine and hospital care.

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