Tag: Communication

Caring for criminals: How to provide good medical care to people who have done bad things

As an Emergency Medicine Physician and EMS provider, I get a lot of questions about my job.  #1 “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”  #2 is “How do you stay motivated and not let it get to you?” And #3 is what I’ll address in this post, “How do you take care of murderers, rapists and other people who have done horrible things?”

It’s an unfortunately common scenario: high-speed MVC, multiple vehicles, one DOA (dead on arrival), two adults in critical condition, being flown by helicopter as the highest level trauma alert, alcohol involved.  And all too often, Paramedics, Nurses and Physicians have to take care of everyone involved, including the intoxicated driver that caused the mayhem.  How do you have compassion, empathy and care for someone that by all evidence just killed someone in a completely preventable way?  I’ve been in Emergency Medicine for 11 years, and I still struggle with this.  It’s never easy, but I’ve found a few strategies to help cope.

1. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

A few months back I was taking care of an ICU patient that I knew was a prisoner in a maximum security prison due to the vigilant watch by 2-3 armed security guards at all times.  Clearly he had done something bad, but for me, knowing exactly what would only potentially worsen the medical care I could give him, not improve it.  So I didn’t ask, I didn’t Google.  Unfortunately someone else did, and shared it with the whole team.

Turns out he beheaded a total stranger, a husband and a father of two, because he didn’t have cash in his wallet when he tried to rob him.  Once I learned that, I couldn’t unknow it.  I struggled to walk in his room each morning with a smiling face and open, non-judging mind.  For the human in me, it was a battle I had to consciously fight.  My advice to anyone who might care for inmates or anyone in police custody, don’t ask, and encourage the whole team not to ask.  And if you find out, don’t tell.  99% of the time it’s not relevant to patient care, and can only cause you (and everyone else on the team) to make mistakes.

2. Be an Advocate

Incarcerated people have difficulty accessing medical care.  Although prisons and jails have a medical clinic, studies show that prisoners get less frequent and timely care for both chronic and acute conditions.  A 2009 report published in the American Journal of Public Health, unearthed some worrisome stats:

  • “Among inmates with a persistent medical problem, 13.9% of federal inmates, 20.1% of state inmates, and 68.4% of local jail inmates had received no medical examination since incarceration.

  • Prior to incarceration, slightly more than 1 in 7 inmates were taking a prescription medication for an active medical problem routinely requiring medication (as defined in the Methods section). Of these, 3314 federal (20.9%), 43 679 state (24.3%), and 28 473 local jail inmates (36.5%) stopped the medication following incarceration.

  • Only a small portion of prison inmates (3.9% of federal and 6.4% of state inmates) with an active medical problem for which laboratory monitoring is routinely indicated had not undergone at least 1 blood test since incarceration. However, most local jail inmates with such a condition (60.1% [SE = 1.8%]) had not undergone a blood test.

  • Following serious injury, 650 federal inmates (7.7%), 12 997 state inmates (12.0%), and 3183 local jail inmates (24.7%) were not seen by medical personnel.

Incarcerated persons have to “prove” to prison staff they are truly sick and need to go to the Emergency Department.  Yes, many prisoners fake or exaggerate symptoms for the secondary gain of getting a break from behind bars: better eye candy, different food, and maybe some good pain medication.  But, 38-43% of inmates have chronic medical conditions, which by all evidence, may not be properly addressed and managed by the prison clinic.  When these patients present to the ED, I play it safe and assume they have been sick a few days longer than a regular person, as they probably had to fight to make their case to prison staff.  Guilty or innocent, these patients all need an advocate for their medical care.  I take pride in being that person, which allows me to keep my personal judgements out of the encounter.

3. We are guilty, too

Last week I took care of a woman addicted to IV heroin.  By all accounts, she was pitiful looking – shivering, sweating, unable to sit still.  She was also curt, demanding and liked to cuss at us.  The medical student with me asked how someone could make such poor choices and then be so demanding.  I didn’t disagree, and I found myself starting to judge.  I had to redirect my thoughts and remember that prescription opioids can be a gateway to heroin for many people.  Heroin is 1/10th the cost of prescription drugs bought on the street.  People get hurt or have surgery, and we (doctors, NPs and PAs) prescribe them pain medication.  When people can’t afford their prescription drug addictions, they turn to the cheaper alternative.  And who writes the most prescriptions for these drugs?  Us. We contribute to this, so we need to accept treating it.


That’s my limited advice.  It’s still a daily struggle, with some days easier than others.  Do you have any tips to offer on how to approach this difficult patient population?  If so, I’d love to hear them.  I encourage you to comment below.


Be Heard in the Bay: Tips for Turnover on Critical Patients

Apparently 12-1 is not an acceptable ratio when it comes to his & hers blogging… So in the interest of continued marital harmony, here’s a few thoughts to newbies on making yourself heard in the resus room.

It happens to the best of us. You’ve been sitting around the station all night and finally decide it’s safe to slip the boots off, only to be immediately reminded that the trauma gods do in fact enjoy tormenting you. On come the lights, quickly followed by a dispatcher’s pressured voice. As you glance at the clock reading 3am, a few words stand out. Gunshot wound. Bleeding. Unconscious.

For the next fifteen minutes you’re on autopilot – reflexively cutting away clothing, occluding that bubbling hole in the chest and dropping a needle down through the second intercostal space, just like you were trained. You watch the vital signs move back towards normal and you justifiably feel like a total badass. Time to load and go.

As you wheel into the trauma bay at your local Level 1, you’re confident you’ve done everything right. There’s the team, gowned and gloved, ready to take over.

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Inside your brain is screaming, “Work mouth, you bastard!” Now is the time to prove to all these doctors how awesome you are, how you saved this guy’s life. “I’ve done all the hard work. Speak damn you!”

“Ummm.. This is Steve, he’s a male..”


“Steve! He’s a male! And.. we found him outside the bar – the one over off Main, well Main and 3rd… closer to 4th. He has asthma and…”

“Airway’s patent! Breath sounds clear bilaterally!” It’s too late. You lost them.

Want to keep the brief attention of your ED colleagues and trauma team? Here’s how:

1. Figure out who’s doing the talking – most critical patients roll in flanked by a entourage of medics, EMTs, fire fighters and/or police. Add to that the near-limitless helping hands in a large ED and there’s usually no need for the AIC to be occupied with distracting tasks like moving the patient off the stretcher or switching O2 from the portable tank to wall supply. Instead, the AIC should be at the foot of bed, addressing the entire room. Yes, everyone – the doctors, nurses, techs, social worker, chaplain and ogling med students ALL need to hear what’s going with this guy, so be ready to project your voice and speak clearly.  And if you are the trainee, don’t disappear to clean the stretcher – stick around and listen.  It’ll be your turn before you know it.

2. Take a deep breath – You made it. Even if the patient is actively coding, you’re here and your job is almost done. The blood splattered sidewalk, flashing lights, noise and confusion are all behind you. It’s our job to shut up and listen, and we will – for about 30 seconds. Starting your turnover in a calm and collected manner is the first sign to us those precious seconds will be well spent.

3. Age. Sex. Chief complaint/most pressing issue. – The first two always go off without a hitch. The third seems obvious, but every now and then it just takes an inexplicably long time to get around to mentioning the multiple stab wounds or EKG reading ***STEMI***STEMI***STEMI***. By the end of your first sentence we should know who your patient is and what went so wrong with their day to now be spending it with all these highly trained individuals.

4. Stay focused – This is not the time for an exhaustive presentation of the history and physical. A remote history of paronychia isn’t of much interest in someone with hemiparesis, but the time of onset certainly is. We can wait to hear she takes 500mg of Vitamin C daily, but Coumadin is a med I want to know about up front. By far this is the most difficult thing to master, because it often means reading our minds, knowing what’s important and what isn’t. A few stand out items in no particular order would be: loss of consciousness yes or no, symptoms improving or worsening, mechanism of injury, relevant surgeries, and medications including blood thinners, cardiac drugs such as beta blockers, and insulin.

5. Vitals – What are they now? Were they different at any time? What do you mean you only got one set?

6. Injuries, EKGs, physical exam and what did you do about it? – This is your chance to brag. “Patient was altered and EKG showed sinus bradycardia. I gave 0.5mg Atropine x1 with improvement in heart rate and mental status.” “The right leg was shortened with deformity at the mid-thigh. I gave 100mcg of Fentanyl and applied a traction splint.”

7. Access – ET tube, King airway, NPA? What size IVs and where are they? Did you drill IOs instead? Kudos if you did.

That’s it really. In 15-30 seconds we should hear what’s wrong with this person, how did it happen, what changes happened while he/she was with you and what did you do about it.

Giving a concise, accurate turnover takes practice. The pressure is on and your adrenaline is already up. You’re mentally exhausted, but those last few moments before he or she is off your stretcher are often the only insight doctors get into what’s going on, so make them count. Once the dust has settled, feel free to pull any of us aside for some feedback.


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Interview with a Charge Nurse: How to be an EMS provider respected by the ED

I had a great response to one of my earliest posts, 5 Things I Learned in Medical School I Wish I’d Learned in EMT School, with many people asking for more tips on improving as an EMT.

Katie Arnold, Charge Nurse
Katie Arnold, Charge Nurse

With that in mind, I realized that learning how to interact with the staff in the Emergency Department (ED) is also an art not often addressed in EMS education.  Clearly you need to know and execute your protocols effectively – but how can you stand out as a respected EMS provider?  Fortunately, I’ve been friends with an awesome charge nurse named Katie Arnold since junior high.  She was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Steph: How long have you been a nurse, and how did you get to be a charge nurse?

Katie: I have been a nurse for 14 years this May 2015 – I have spent my whole career in the emergency department. I was selected for charge nurse by my manager, trained by another charge nurse and then started on my own around 2006-2007.

Steph: What do you like most about your job?

Katie: As an emergency nurse in general I love the unpredictable and unexpected. I tell new nurses, patients and their families all the time that it’s like a jigsaw puzzle: you get a piece here and a piece there but you don’t figure out the whole picture until all the pieces are in place. I love that I can have 5 patients all with the same chief complaint and each will be managed totally differently. As a charge nurse I love being a representative for the department, working with ancillary staff, patients, families, nurses, and EMS. I am there to control the flow of the department, to be a professional example for everyone and handle many administrative duties. It adds a whole other dimension to the role of nurse that allows further development of a holistic nurse.

Steph: Can you explain the goals and responsibilities of a charge nurse, in particular, ways you interact and work with EMS?

Katie: The duties are numerous and in depth. With EMS, we are the liaison between rescue and the ED. EMS providers are the eyes, ears and hands in the field; they are going to paint the picture the charge nurse needs to determine how each ambulance patient that arrives will affect the balance of the ED at every moment. You must appreciate their role in addition to the roles of the ED staff. Their resources are vastly different than the staff in the ED. I think staff nurses as well as some charge nurses lose sight of that fact.

Steph: What makes a good EMT in your mind?

Katie: A good EMT knows their role, provides an accurate concise report of what they are transporting to the ED. They demonstrate professionalism despite the stresses presented by the patient, the scene and the ED. A good EMT knows when to address concerns and when not to.

Steph: Do you have any pet peeves of EMS providers?

Katie: Lengthy reports of extraneous information and lack of recognition about valid concerns of the ED staff. One cannot expect the ED staff to appreciate EMS constraints but then not care about the concerns of the ED staff.

Steph: What can EMS providers do to make your life as a charge nurse easier?

Katie: As Charge Nurse, I have to decide what type of bed is appropriate for the patient based on the EMS report. Do they need a heart monitor, a psych bed or oxygen? Not all rooms are equipped with the same capabilities. A good report provides me with the information to make this decision. Helpful EMS providers also note when the ED is busy, and go the extra mile to be team players. Whether it’s cleaning a bed or hooking a patient up to the monitor, while not the job of the EMS provider, it helps the patient get care faster.

Steph: Which EMS providers impress you and why?

Katie: Those who are clear, concise, professional both in front of their patient and amongst colleagues on the EMS and ED side. Providers that are open to and understanding of constructive criticism.

Steph: Any tips for a brand new EMT?

Katie: I believe that when a new group of EMT’s are coming out they should have an initial interaction with a charge nurse or liaison at the ED to discuss these topics and allow for questions they may have to be asked prior to starting on the road. If that’s not done formally, then an individual EMT should feel free to introduce themselves to ED staff and seek feedback on reports.

Steph: And finally just for my own curiosity, what’s it like to be charge nurse on July 1 when the new Intern doctors start?

Katie: I love to teach and educate, so it does not bother me as it does others. ED Staff tend to become frustrated because each new class of Interns is unaware of how each ED operates with different patterns and order sets, goals and metrics. Some doctors are more receptive to that fact than others. It can drastically slow the flow of the ED and directly affect the care of the patients. New Interns are successful as long as they are willing to listen.

So there you have it, straight from the boss’s mouth.  My advice, pick one thing to try and start there.  Good patient reports are 90% of the game.  Once you nail that, the rest falls into place.

~ Steph