“Of course, health care is a right,” my young friend said with a
disdainful twist of her face and a shudder that seemed to shake off the
unthinkable. “You are a doctor,” she added, reminding me of what I had
done for thirty years. “ Surely you agree that health care is a basic
Have you ever gotten a chance to see how one of your ‘one in a million’
cases turned out? You know, the gunshot to the chest that got opened in
the ED and actually lived? In emergency medicine, unless you work in an
academic center doing research, most of our cases are lost to any long
term follow up. But that doesn’t keep us from wondering just how things
I don’t often get calls from thoracic surgeons asking for my help. But
this was a unique circumstance. His son, a first year student at the
U.S. Naval Academy (a plebe as we call them) was going through his first
baptism by fire. He was concerned that his son was hitting a breaking
point, so he reached out for my help.
It’s a simple question. Given a specific set of facts concerning the
presentation of a patient in the ED, what would the reasonably prudent
physician do? Or stated more specifically, was an emergency physician’s
actions in response to a given set of facts reasonable? This is the
“standard of care” against which the physician’s actions will be judged
in a case of alleged negligence.
As I arrived to work I saw that the parking lot and the waiting room were packed. This is not supposed to happen at this place. “I’m getting too old for this,” I mumbled to myself as I dropped
my 2am lunch in the frig and grabbed a handful of charts. I’d raced
through an hour of charts before it dawned on me that they were filling
the rack as fast as I could empty it.
Barry, the senior paramedic, was at the head of the gurney as they wheeled into the trauma bay of our ER. “This guy shot himself,” Barry said. “It’s a mess.” One of the other paramedics pumped on the guy’s chest while a firefighter fumbled to undo the yellow straps securing him to their gurney.
With less access to primary care and multiple gatekeepers adding to the expense of health care, perhaps EPs should be the final stop for many ED patients.
Last spring a group of physicians and medical societies filed suit in
federal court to overturn a state law that bans healthcare professionals
from asking patients about whether they own a gun. On first blush, it
seems like the reasonable and responsible thing to do. The government
has no place in telling doctors what they may or may not ask a patient,
“Did you know that sleep walking will get you disqualified from the
Navy?” I asked my wife in response to her usual “What did you do today?”
interrogatory. It was drill weekend and I had just finished one of my
rare day shifts serving at the Naval Academy clinic.
Over the years I’ve gotten many calls like this one. “Will you look at
this case? Something very bad happened and I think someone screwed up.”
They seldom say it quite that bluntly, but that’s what they mean.