Dr. Ilana Yurkiewicz poses holding a copy of "Fragmented"
Dr. Ilana Yurkiewicz, an internist and oncologist at Stanford Medicine, is the author of the forthcoming book "Fragmented: A Doctor's Quest to Piece Together American Health Care."

Stanford doc’s new book sounds alarm about ‘fragmented’ medical care

I first heard about fragmented care in a story told by Dr. Robert Pearl, the former CEO of Northern California Kaiser Permanente, in his 2017 book “Mistreated.”

His father underwent a splenectomy — one of the downsides of which is the risk of developing a severe bacterial infection. Without a spleen that filters out the bacteria pneumococcus, the entire body can get overwhelmed with infection known as sepsis.

Although there is a vaccine for pneumococcus, his medical doctors thought the surgeon ordered it, and vice versa. Also, because he split his time between New York and Florida, there was an absence of communication among all of his doctors. Nobody had ordered the vaccine.

About 10 years later, when he was in the Bay Area visiting his two doctor sons, he was suddenly found unconscious on the living room floor and quickly ended up in the Stanford ICU with life-threatening sepsis.

He was a victim of fragmented care.

Even though most doctors use electronic medical records now, key information like vaccinations is not always easy to find. One of the problems is that there is no universal medical record system, and records from different doctors’ offices or hospitals may not interface with one another.

The cover of "Fragmented" features an illustration of a stethoscope that has been cut into several piecesDr. Ilana Yurkiewicz, an internist and oncologist on the faculty of Stanford Medicine, illustrates how fragmented care can lead to dangerous consequences in “Fragmented: A Doctor’s Quest to Piece Together American Health Care” (to be published next month).

As Yurkiewicz explains in her book, “Critical data get lost in a muddled electronic file.” She goes on to state, “Every year an untold number of patients undergo duplicate procedures — or fail to get them in the first place — because key pieces of their medical history go missing. Countless others suffer from medication errors. Hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical facilities use a patchwork of methods to track records, relying on proprietary technology or old-fashioned communications such as faxes and paper notes.”

Yurkiewicz describes a patient of hers with breast cancer who used four binders to track her medical saga. “The red one was labeled ‘Radiology and Pathology,’ the white one ‘Treatment,’ the orange one, ‘Labs,’ and the blue one ‘Other Medical History.’”

Yurkiewicz thanked her for being so organized, and her patient replied, “It’s my life on the line.”

One of my favorite lines in her book is her telling a patient, “I have read your chart.” Of course, this is critical in taking care of someone, but it does not always happen. Most patients also assume that doctors communicate with one another, but as Yurkiewicz states, “They’re frustrated when information is not exchanged.”

My observation is that because doctors are overworked with so much information to process, they have little time to talk to one another.

When I was working at Kaiser, taking time to discuss a case with a particular specialist was way down on my to-do list; renewing prescriptions, reviewing labs, and responding to patients’ messages took priority. And all of this in addition to seeing a full schedule of patients in the clinic.

Just as Pearl shared the story of his father, Yurkiewicz in her book shares the story of the near-death experience of her father when he too experienced fragmented care. Her father, a relatively healthy 68-year-old professor, was admitted to the ICU after cardiac arrest. He was overly sedated, which led to numerous preventable complications. Fortunately for him, Yurkiewicz and her sister Shara, both doctors, helped steer his bumpy course to survival.

At the end of her book, Yurkiewicz proposes many solutions to make health care less fragmented. Among her suggestions are to “connect electronic records between doctors and hospitals,” and “invest more federal spending in primary care.”

She also offers a three-page checklist for patients and their families to ensure continuity of care.

As Yurkiewicz argues, the challenging problems leading to fragmented care should not be ignored. We all deserve to receive compassionate, high quality, efficient and seamless medical care.

“Fragmented: A Doctor’s Quest to Piece Together American Health Care” by Ilana Yurkiewicz, MD (W. W. Norton, 272 pages) (Dr. Ilana Yurkiewicz is married to J. Culture Editor Andrew Esensten.)

Dr. Jerry Saliman

Jerry Saliman, MD, retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after a 30-year career and is now a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo.