Properly Unprepared

It was late afternoon, and the current nursing shift would be relieved in less than ninety minutes. The feeling of impending Friday freedom was palpable on the floor of the intensive care unit. I was on my way to meet with my last patient of the week, who had been brought in for an unintentional drug overdose. My goal was to determine whether the overdose was truly accidental, and if she was a candidate for compulsory psychiatric hospitalization. I passed by a large bank of computers without stopping, and knocked on the patient’s door. When I walked in that room, all I knew was the patient’s name, her age, and the reason for her hospitalization. Other than those preliminary facts, she was a complete mystery to me. I spent fifty minutes with the patient, and had a relatively pleasant conversation. When I walked out of her room, I opened her medical chart for the first time.

Unfortunately, that day, the story that I received from the patient and the information that I got from her chart told two different stories. Numerous providers had noted that she was irresponsible with medications, and I got the sense from the chart that she only sought medical care to gain access to controlled substances. Now that I had established a good relationship with my patient, I would have to re-interview her in an attempt to reconcile the information I had seen in her chart with the picture she had painted for me in the moments prior. My Friday freedom would just have to wait.

I would not be surprised to find out that the ICU staff was laughing at me that day. After all, I ended up spending more than two hours with this patient when I could have conducted only one brief interview. Even though the majority of my first hour with the patient was pure confabulation, I viewed it as a valuable component of my assessment. That first hour represented my sole opportunity to get to know my patient without any bias. Had I looked at her chart before walking into the room, I unquestionably would have written her off as an irresponsible, drug-seeking troublemaker. I would have asked her pointed, perhaps accusatory questions about her behaviors, and worse, I would have known exactly when she was lying to me, further eroding any respect I may have had for this patient.

Electronic medical record systems help to facilitate the sequestration of large amounts of information about our patients with minimal effort, and it’s largely considered taboo to meet with patients without first researching their medical record.  The information physicians can learn from the medical record can be undoubtedly beneficial in many situations, but extensive chart reviews can also lure us into a false sense of security, allowing us to preconceive an identity for our patients before ever having met them.

Had I read my patient’s chart that afternoon, I am certain that I would have made judgments about her that would have influenced my interview. Instead, I learned about my patient by allowing her to tell her own story. I thought about the information she shared with me, and, perhaps more importantly, what she failed to tell me. Because the patient never discussed her well-documented mishandling and possible dependence on prescription medications, I felt confident in making an assessment that this patient had relatively poor insight about her problems.

Featured image:
hGraph: patient + clinician looking together by Juhan Sonin

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