My current medical placement is on an Endocrine ward. This basically means that as a firm, we should get all the acute diabetes cases; complications including renal disease, ulcers, hypoglycaemia etc. We also get people who have deranged electrolytes such as a low sodium, which in some cases is an indication of an underlying cancer or other disease. If I was in a tertiary centre (big teaching hospital) then I would be seeing exciting, rare endocrine cases such as Cushing’s, Addisonian crises and the like. As it is, in a district general hospital, there are not enough endocrine cases to fill the ward and as such we become the dumping ground for various other cases.
We take the social care cases, the patients who are awaiting placement, the long stayers, people with no discharge destination, the waifs and strays of the hospital. Whilst this feels like it should be a varied job, it is actually the dullest thing in the world. Within a very short space of time these patients are medically stable and they are in need of physiotherapy, OT input and social services for packages of care. Or they are awaiting transfer to a rehabilitation ward, or to another hospital for dialysis, or amputation. A typical ward round for us consists of maybe three or four patients who are medically unwell, and then about 20 medically fit long stayers.
This makes you incredibly lazy as a physician. It is so easy to write “obs stable, afebrile, no new issues” in the notes several times over and then go get a coffee and spend the day surfing the net. It is incredibly easy to miss a hospital acquired infection because you haven’t listened to someone’s lungs for a day or two, or noticed that their catheter is draining more concentrated urine. These guys go off quickly too, they go from months of medical stability to dead in a day or two.
It is a well known fact that increased time in hospital increases your risk of getting an infection and dying. It drives me crazy the amount of time it takes to get these guys out of hospital. I understand that there is a complicated assessment process involved in setting up placements, for example. The patient has to be needs assessed, placed in the right type of care facility, means tested for funding and then the individual home has to be seen and agreed by either the patient or their family. This can take weeks. What worsens this process is the total inability of any professional inside or outside of hospital to communicate with someone else. Social services will require a checklist. They will not communicate which checklist to the nursing staff. The nurses will fill in an inappropriate checklist, fax it off and it will be declined. The decision will not be communicated back to the ward. The doctors will go on the ward round and write “medically fit for discharge, awaiting placement” for weeks on end without knowing where in the process they are. Inappropriate people will be asked about updates – OTs get asked when the placement will be approved even though it is driven by social services, but social services are never on the ward and frustration leads to apportioning blame for delay to the wrong people.
Every time that someone is discharged from hospital with an existing package of care that needs restarting, a section 5 is necessary 48 hours prior to discharge to give the carers time to set up the package again. Everyone knows this is necessary, we know who comes in with a POC and therefore they will certainly need the same or increased POC on discharge, yet inevitably we will get to the morning of departure and it is news to everyone that the section 5 has not been sent. It is apparently impossible for the different teams on the ward to communicate directly with each other. People write their interactions in the notes and other teams don’t read them and then plans are made on incorrect information.
In order to attempt to coordinate all these things, there is a multidisciplinary team meeting on a weekly basis. This is my least favourite activity of the week. At face value, it is an excellent plan. You can get updates from therapy, nurses, discharge teams and doctors and then everyone is on the same page and we can expedite someone’s discharge. In reality, however, most weeks social services don’t turn up, totally negating the point of the meeting for at least half of the patients, or the sister in charge will have out of date information, or the doctors will spend half the meeting discussing someone entirely medical, thereby wasting the time of every other professional in the room. In complete defiance of their job title, the discharge liaison team neither discharge, nor liaise. The social worker never has an up to date ward list and is always at least 3 weeks behind with information. It would make a brilliant sketch show, it would be hilarious if it was exaggerated. As it is, people sit in acute hospital beds costing the NHS £500 per night doing nothing other than eat shit hospital food, go delirious from a hospital acquired infection, or become thoroughly institutionalised because it takes four months to communicate the need for placement, fill in the correct forms and get approval.
I don’t know what the answer is, obviously people should be in a place of safety until they can be appropriately discharged, but should that place be an acute ward in a hospital? Arguably not. In addition, most of the patients have come in with relatively minor complaints such as a UTI or chest infection, and got stuck after recovery due to worsened mobility or inappropriate houses for discharge. This job has definitely highlighted to me the importance of trying everything possible in A&E to get these patients safely out of the door. No one wants to take responsibility for discharging a 92 year old with a UTI in case she goes home and falls. But the other option is a 6 month hospital stay, loss of independence and eventual placement. Obviously, if people are unsafe at home I am not suggesting emergency care physicians chuck them out into the cold at 3AM, however, all most people need is a course of antibiotics, or some IV fluids, or plugging in to community services and they will be fine. Alternatively, we saturate our medical wards with people who have no medical problems, and the doctors become deskilled and lazy, and wonder why they bothered going to medical school in the first place.