The Pitfalls of Linking Doctors’ Pay to Performance

From the NY Times (Essay):

Not long ago, a colleague asked me for help in treating a patient with congestive heart failure who had just been transferred from another hospital.

When I looked over the medical chart, I noticed that the patient, in his early 60s, was receiving an intravenous antibiotic every day. No one seemed to know why. Apparently it had been started in the emergency room at the other hospital because doctors there thought he might have pneumonia.

But he did not appear to have pneumonia or any other infection. He had no fever. His white blood cell count was normal, and he wasn’t coughing up sputum. His chest X-ray did show a vague marking, but that was probably just fluid in the lungs from heart failure.

I ordered the antibiotic stopped — but not in time to prevent the patient from developing a severe diarrheal infection called C. difficile colitis, often caused by antibiotics. He became dehydrated. His temperature spiked to alarming levels. His white blood cell count almost tripled. In the end, with different antibiotics, the infection was brought under control, but not before the patient had spent almost two weeks in the hospital.

The case illustrates a problem all too common in hospitals today: patients receiving antibiotics without solid evidence of an infection. And part of the blame lies with a program meant to improve patient care.