TREATING NUMBERS, NOT PATIENTS

When my third hospital admission eventually put me on the cancer floor, it seemed that I was someplace where doctors treated me holistically, rather than as a set of unrelated conditions for them to manage. Similarly, the oncological doctors who saw me during regular morning rounds regarded me as a patient, rather than as a compilation of numbers from various test results.

My regular readers — and those who have read my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis — know how a myopic focus on short-termism and the metrics that purport to maximize near-term success have undermined the legal profession. Law schools seek to maximize U.S. News rankings, even though the underlying rankings methodology has little to do with the quality of a student’s legal education. Most big law firms obsess over annual Am Law rankings and short-term profits, while ignoring important long-term values that are difficult to measure — including, mentoring, collegiality, and  institutional stability.

Our metrics and data-driven society has swamped the medical profession, too. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an anarchist. I have a master’s degree in economics and understand the importance of data in making sound decisions. But exclusive reliance on numbers without adequate consideration of context, surrounding circumstances, and potential factors that numbers don’t always capture can lead to incomplete and even incorrect conclusions.

My first two hospital admissions provided many examples of the myopia that can impair judgment and wisdom. During the final hours preceding my first hospital discharge. All eyes focused on whether my blood counts (especially hemoglobin) were high enough to send me home. The previous day’s number was 8.7 — far lower than the 14.5 at my annual physical exam six months earlier — albeit high enough to let me leave. But then on the morning of my scheduled discharge a new number arrived: my hemoglobin had dropped to 8.0.

“We can’t discharge you with 8.0,” the resident said. He was a member of hospital’s internal medicine team — the people who are supposed to take the place of your PCP when you’re in the hospital. “I think the earlier, higher 8.7 number was an outlier.”

A few hours later, the next set of blood tests came back with an 8.7 hemoglobin level.

“I think the 8.0 was an outlier,” the resident said.

It was an interesting approach to statistical analysis: Take the most recent value, compare that number to its predecessor, and declare anything inconsistent with the most recent value an outlier.

I didn’t care. I wanted to go home. Based on everything the GI specialists had told me about the results of my colonoscopy and endoscopy, it seemed that things had resolved themselves.

Except for the elevated blood sugar levels. That led to the resident’s incomplete analysis of a second number.

“You definitely have diabetes,” the resident continued as he gave me discharge instructions.

“How is that possible?” I asked. “At my last physical — and for years previously — my blood sugar levels were well within normal range. I’ve unintentionally lost 25 pounds in two months and was slim before all of that started.”

The resident stared at the numbers on the printout of my lab results.

“All I can say is that you definitely have diabetes. One of these measurements allows us to see how your blood has been for the past three months. You’ve had elevated sugar levels for the last three months. You should follow-up with your PCP. Diet and exercise can make a big difference in controlling diabetes.”

“Until this episode, I was working out for 30 minutes on my elliptical trainer every day,” I  explained.

“Maybe more exercise,” he suggested. “Maybe better diet.”

Likewise, a few days latter when I entered the hospital for the second time, the initial blood work in the ER again showed elevated sugar levels.

“Are you diabetic?” the nurse asked.

“Six months ago, I wasn’t,” I said. “And since leaving the hospital five days ago, my wife and daughter have structured my diet to eliminate sugar altogether.”

“Hmmmm,” the nurse said. “Well, your sugar level is quite high.”

The words of my wife — who is not a doctor — echoed in my head. On the drive toward what would become my first hospital admission, I told her that my PCP had reported high sugar levels from the initial blood test in his office that had everyone focused on my low hemoglobin. Her immediate response: “Pancreas.”

But not until the end of my second hospital stay would the results of a CT scan pierce the general medicine hospitalists’ (and some specialists’) narrow view of what could be happening to me. That scan happened only because a talented GI specialist thought outside the box while performing my second endoscopy. His predecessor had been looking for obvious signs of bleeding. But a different GI specialist did the second endoscopy. Although he didn’t see evidence of bleeding, he saw bulges that led him to worry that pressure might be creating varicies — distressed blood vessels that could produce significant intermittent bleeding. To investigate that possibility, he order a CT scan that revealed the tumor on my pancreas.

The GI specialist who performed my second endoscopy saved my life because he thought beyond the specific condition that he was looking for. His intuition — not subject to a protocol or a metric — was critical. Only then, did I become a patient, rather than a collection of test results and unrelated conditions.

3 thoughts on “TREATING NUMBERS, NOT PATIENTS

  1. IMO, what you reported for so long about the law profession, and now recognize extends to medicine, are symptoms of a more pervasive issue that I call “credentialism.” Whether we’re talking about law school rankings or lab results (or any number of other things, including resumes and CVs), we’ve become data groupies. A blood sugar count is the “credential” that, with no context, causes an evaluator to conclude “diabetes.” A J.D. from Yale, out of context, becomes the credential for a law firm to conclude, “a can’t-miss lawyer.” A MSCS from Stanford is the credential that causes a corporate recruiter to conclude “sure-thing engineer.”

    In each case, the out-of-context credential narrows and biases the evaluator’s judgment. At a minimum, it’s facile and intellectually lazy. At its worst, such as in your case, it can be life-threatening.

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