Physical Diagnosis is a medical school course that overlaps the conclusion of basic sciences and is given at the end of the second year.
Students are required to buy the “Bible of Physical Signs” other wise aptly known as: Physical Diagnosis, a little red leather covered book by DeGowan and DeGowan, which they are then told to memorize and carry with them in their little black leather bags for the rest of their lives. Memorizing it is easier said than done. After all, it is a Bible and if the Bible itself is all you must memorize, then perhaps over a lifetime you might become successful at regurgitating it.
Just ask Billy Graham, or any other Bible toting evangelist. Pose a question. Receive a parable in return. No real thought required. Problem solved. Or problem only temporarily shelved:
- Go in peace my son; I know that your life really sucks, but keep praying to God for eternal salvation. Things might seem to be bad right now, but ultimately, they can only get better.
- But that’s the same thing my stockbroker told me when I lost all my money. Twice.
- My son. Do not ever confuse the secular world of monetary greed with the promise of joyous everlasting life in the next world.
Unfortunately for physicians, we must memorize a few dozen Bibles, as the solutions to our problems can often be so obscure that even invoking the name of God does not always result in a comforting resolution.
- After this terminally ill patient finally does rest in peace, we’ll say perpetual Novenas to the Gods of Malpractice that we never get sued.
There is a rigorous approach to the Physical Diagnosis course stressing the basic elements of abnormal physical findings that my instructor boiled down to what he thought would be a jocular contemporary mnemonic to assist us getting through it: HIPPAY; which stands for History, Inspection, Percussion, Palpation, And…. Yell for help!
He thought he was being funny. We thought he was being idiotically insulting. After all, we were the nuclear radiated mutant hippie class, were we not, so why keep rubbing it in?
Medicine is replete with mnemonics that are designed to prompt memory and remain useful cues if they are appropriately applied; but not like the singsong one traditionally used to teach children the alphabet. It took my mother quite some time to force my understanding that LMNOP (ele-mena-pee) does not stand for one single letter or a single-minded desire to evacuate the bladder.
This point illustrates that in learning anything, Rote is not necessarily equivalent to Right, unless logical thought processes use the Rote in the Right way.
For example, using MOST DAMP as the mnemonic cue used to treat the internal drowning of congestive heart failure has a rational application, if it is used with a certain clinical panache. If not overzealousness automatic use of all of these elements may sometimes do more harm than good. Sometimes you only need M&Ms to treat heart failure: a little Merck (Lasix) and a few drams of Morphine.
This was only one of the reasons God invented narcotics and why a leading research Cardiologist at the Columbia–Presbyterian Hospital orientation program gives his first-year Fellows a button to wear on their white coats that reads: Lasix kills. This teaching point being not to treat every patient with a cook-book recipe as opposed to an analytical thought process with subsequent careful medical titration.
P: for Phlebotomy did not even work out very well; when in the Middle Ages leaches were used to bleed patients half to death, having subsequently been abandoned as an ancillary therapy for heart failure.
- Yes. Once we leach out all his malodorous phlegmons, your husband will hardly be able to speak, much less ever be able to stand up or possibly even walk again. But he will be better.
- Thank you doctor. I’ve been trying to get him to shut up, sit still and stop chasing after my ass for the last thirty years. I’ll be sure to remember you in his Will.
Mnemonic learning is also helpful in medical training because the body of medical knowledge is so overwhelming. But this method eventually becomes abandoned as clinical experience adds a base of reality testing to rote learning.
Yelling for help is always sound advice for the same reason. One cannot possibly remember everything and so asking a colleague for a consultation or advice or personally consulting text and literature can often be vital. Unfortunately, some egocentric doctors seem to forget this tenet; or worse they sometimes forget that they forgot.
It was amazing as my career in medicine moved along, as to how many colleagues seem to have forgotten that the story a patient tells is about seventy-five percent of the diagnostic battle, the physical exam adds another fifteen percent; and with a good synthesis of both, a seasoned clinician can then direct a limited number of lab tests that should hopefully finish off the job.
That is unless the disease entity is so obscure as to baffle even the best minds, which is why we have places like the Mayo Clinic or other Meccas of academic excellence. When in real doubt: Punt.
It is also unfortunate that many physicians do not care to take the time to listen or do not know how to peel back the onion-skin of the patient’s story to get to the core of the problem. This is a skill that takes years of practice to develop and even more years of practice to ensure that it can be done in a short framework of time.
For the most part, physicians do not have the luxury of the infinite amount of time that Marcus Welby seemed to have when as week after week, not only did he have only one patient to attend, but also found himself purposefully inserting himself into that patient’s personal life and then becoming the family’s best friend.
Better than having a family dog, just go out and get your own personal M.D. and although in real life it simply does not go down like that, some of my patients still think nothing of having me entertain their queries while I am shopping for food or practicing putting.
- Doctah, doctah. I know you’re relaxing on your day off, but do you think you can take just one tiny little minute to take one eensy little peek at my teensy little new skin rash?
- Oy vey. As you know, I am not a Dermatologist. But if I were going to guess, it looks to me like it might be case of genital herpes. So, you can put your clothes back on now, then go ahead and pay for your groceries.
Shortcutting the non-essentials is also critical to saving time. For example, when seeing a patient and asking when the chest pain problem first started, one is not interested in retorts that catalogue every action the patient did from birth or tedious monotonous histories such as:
- I woke up today at 5 a.m. I usually wake up at 4:50 a.m. I knew right then I was in for trouble. Then I had a bagel for breakfast. That’s not what I normally eat. Normally I eat granola and yogurt. Then my coffee pot broke and I need my coffee and my normal food so that I can have my normal bowel movement. If I don’t get my normal bowel movement I know my entire day will be off and I will just be logy and tired and miserable all afternoon or maybe even have to take a nap even though I really don’t want to. So, against my better judgment I gave in and had a Sanka. Then when I finally had my bowel movement, later than I usually like to have it, it wasn’t like the normal one. Usually it is short, fat, tubular, dark and brown, then breaks into pieces and sinks to the bottom of the bowl. This one was long, thin, light and yellowish; about 18 inches total, stayed all in one piece and floated. That was when I knew I was really going to be in for a bad day. So, then I had to get dressed when I normally don’t get dressed and….
Prattling on and on and having nothing to do with the fact that this person is being evaluated for the new onset of chest pain; it took me years of experience to learn how to re-direct a patient’s thought process and expedite getting quickly to the point without being undiplomatic or making the patient feel as though I was rushing them.
- Why don’t you just think about what’s happening in your case as being bad constipation in your coronary arteries. Now tell me about your chest pain.
Unlike the legal system, in which time, like a running taxi meter is endless, where time also then equates to money, and additionally where the truth can be hopelessly perverted, ignored or purposefully obfuscated, in Medicine time is of the essence, money is discounted and the truth is the vitally important element that can mean the difference between life or death. I came to believe that the universally appropriate gift for a Law School graduate should be a tie tack shaped as the Infinity Sign.
After all: Time is infinite. And legal time means infinite money.
(Reminds me a little bit of the 3-Cs (prior post: Cornflakes, Coffee, and Cunnilingus). Except that now everyone is getting fucked, but no one is getting laid)
As a countervailing issue, in the modern era of medicine there is often too much reliance on the shotgun approach to lab or procedural testing, while too little emphasis is placed on basic logical thinking. Accessibility and availability of advanced technology as well as excessive malpractice litigation has sent the cost of medical care through the roof.
With the fear of the Medical Malpractice legal vultures always circling overhead; on wisps of doubt, as well as the fact that it does not cost a physician anything to order a test, we are now living in the era of medical errors of commission. Lawyers have taught us that if one can think of a test to do, one should simply do it. Meanwhile as always viewing issues from the perspective of Monday morning quarterbacking and self-righteous hindsight they constantly feed off the carrion of imperfect outcomes.
When asked to see some patients in consultation, where the requesting physician has omitted many elements of basic training, including a good history and physical examination as well as a dearth of logic or common sense having been applied to a morass of useless information, I rely on an axiomatic statement taught me by an attending physician who supervised us during those first years of training in physical diagnosis:
- Ladies and Gentlemen, when all else fails, why don’t we just begin by examining the patient?
However, there is a certain degree of psychic trauma that accompanies the beginning clinical training as the second-year medical student leaves basic book learning behind.
This is a Right of Passage in which rote memorization does not help unless facts can be synthesized, in which introverted, socially isolated intellects actually have to meet, touch and talk to real people disadvantaged by illness and where quantitative analysis breaks down at the level of qualitative evaluation.
It is a time when multiple choice test questions become replaced by a differential diagnosis and when a patient may face the additional problem of dealing with multiple concurrent illnesses. Guessing wrong on this test runs a gamut of far different potentially negative results than only receiving a poor numerical grade.
- Oops, sorry, it was a really a heart attack and not just a bad case of indigestion.
It is a time when deductive reasoning reigns supreme; but also, when a naïve student begins to develop a personal inventory of logic that only comes with continued experience and clinical exposure. The patient becomes a book that has a limitless number of pages, but a book that also does not have an index or chapter headings.
Every patient becomes a new black box. The student then must logically deduce what is potentially wrong with a person who cannot necessarily explain it well and who may also be covered with dirt, crust, scales, rashes, odors or sometimes even with insects. One also must be able to do it expeditiously; without regard to race, color, creed, personality, sexual identity or personal bias, and preconceptions; not even withstanding the deeper layers of the physical exam than can include a rectal or vaginal probe, or both.
It is a time when the art and science of medicine is a blank palette in a student’s hand and is also a time where the cornerstone of the Hippocratic oath is placed in the foundation of the medical student’s career. But as with any potential building, some cornerstones and some foundations turn out to be more solid than others.
Being shyly xenophobic to begin with and since I had never even wanted to speak to strangers; much less then even having to touch them, I struggled to overcome the barriers I needed to expeditiously become superficially intimate with perfect strangers in a short period of time.
Medical training requires the ability to become intimate while at the same time maintaining a certain professional barrier that should preclude becoming friends. Because once a doctor truly befriends his patient, he tends to lose the ability to think objectively and thus the serious potential pitfall to provide a disservice.
One of the great failures of medical training programs and a disservice to humanity in general is to guide or to allow the student, Intern, or Resident to enter medical disciplines that do not suit any or all of his individual talents, his personality, or his individual skill sets; as well as failing to inform some of these individuals that they should seek career choices in another discipline altogether.
- Son. Surgery is not your forte. But you are good with a knife, so you might want to consider a career as a butcher.
It is very hard to do this after a student has come so far and for so very long. But similarly, the mustard of medicine is often very difficult to cut and not every student really gets truly seasoned by the time he graduates.
Some physicians I know who did make it all the way through, unfortunately should have never even been allowed to lay a hand or a scalpel on a cadaver; much less to later lay either of these two tools upon the body or flesh of a live human being.
Vhere iss Yorgay?
Yorgay is in da bootcher shop practicin’ to be a doctor.
Vhere den iss Svengay?
Svengay is in da medical school practicin’ to be a bootcher.
Und vhere might den be Ingrid?
Ingrid is in da haystack practicin’ to be a nurse
(Swedish Aphorism/courtesy of Michael)