This story was first published on Thursday, September 5th, 2019 in Stat News
By KEITH CORL
If you’ve needed emergency care in the last few years, you probably encountered this situation: Soon after entering the emergency department, you were asked to go to a triage area in the waiting room where a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant asked you a few questions and ordered some diagnostic tests while you waited.
That’s a departure from the traditional form of triage, in which a nurse assesses the level of acuity of a patient’s illness or injury. This basic and time-honored system ensures that someone with a gunshot wound gets seen before someone with a sprained ankle.
The new “provider-in-triage” system ostensibly accelerates care. On the surface, ordering tests in the waiting room to get the ball rolling might seem like a good way to save time. A closer look reveals a system that sacrifices medical care for hospital profits.
Approximately 150 million Americans will visit an emergency department this year. Many of them won’t be seen right away by their treatment team, and instead will enter into the new triage system.
The provider-in-triage system turns the doctor-patient encounter on its head. In triage, physicians do not practice the thoughtful form of medicine they learned in medical school. Instead they perform a rapid medical evaluation. During this cursory encounter, often lasting less than two minutes, a patient is asked to convey an abbreviated story of what brought him or her to the hospital, the doctor asks a few questions, and performs a limited examination.
None of this is ideal. Patients’ stories are cut short. Physical exams are encumbered by clothing, hiding findings from the doctor’s sight or touch. And interruptions are common.
In a busy emergency department, a doctor or other provider repeats this process in rapid succession, sometimes completing more than 15 rapid medical evaluations in an hour. Using this quick snapshot as a guide, the provider then orders laboratory tests and x-rays, CT scans, or other imaging studies to be used later by the diagnosis and treatment team. Some are necessary, others are not.
Emergency departments were built to deliver fast high-quality medical care when needed. But in very few cases do seconds matter. Patients do best when doctors sit with them, listen to their complete stories, then perform unencumbered physical exams. Only after this can doctors compile a thoughtful list of possible diagnoses. Many of them can be ruled in or out without any blood work or special imaging.
Working with limited information, the provider in triage often resorts to shotgun testing — over-ordering laboratory tests and imaging studies out of fear of missing the diagnosis. Shotgun testing unnecessarily inflates the cost of health care. I once took care of a middle-age man who came to the emergency department because of chest pain. Thinking heart attack, the provider in triage ordered a chest x-ray, an electrocardiogram, and blood work. Later, when an emergency bed became available and I was able to take a complete history and perform a physical exam, I quickly determined that the patient had shingles, a painful rash, across his chest. I didn’t need a chest x-ray, electrocardiogram, or blood work to make that diagnosis. Nevertheless, he left the hospital that day with a bill for thousands of dollars.
Another problem with shotgun testing is that it can lead doctors to make incorrect diagnoses. While having lab and imaging results ready may seem like a good way to speed up care, it isn’t. Seeing test results before meeting a patient can bias a physician’s thinking and nudge him or her to land on the wrong diagnosis. It also leads to extra tests, radiation exposure, and medical procedures that patients don’t need.
Advocates of the provider-in-triage model argue that reducing patient lengths of stay without increasing mortality or return emergency visits justify the practice. These gains are modest. On average, patients spend 26 fewer minutes in the emergency department, though overall patient satisfaction scores are unchanged. And while it’s true that a handful of patients are diagnosed by this type of triage and promptly discharged, saving them a long wait, this comes at the expense of the other patients.
The provider-in-triage model was created by health care consultants who applied the Toyota model of lean production to health care. Hospital administrators and emergency department directors embrace lean production with the hopes of reducing inefficiencies and improving patient throughput. But while a manufacturing model that favors standardization and reproducibility might be ideal for making quality SUVs, it leads to mediocre medicine. Each patient has a unique story and illness that require thoughtful and individualized care, not production-line uniformity.
Hospitals adopt the provider-in-triage model to increase productivity and profitability. Billboards advertising emergency departments with clocks showing wait times are becoming popular across the country. Some hospitals post their wait times online. These practices are deceptive. They lure patients in with short wait times to see the provider in triage, while the real wait time to receive treatment is often measured in hours.