The Good Doctor is Bad Medicine Part 3/3

This is the third part of a series examining the medical aspects of ABC’s new medical drama called The Good Doctor which highlights the struggles of autistic surgical resident Shaun Murphy. You can read Part I and Part II by following the links.

Episode 2 has so many issues it’s taking me two posts just to cover it.

The other issue in Episode 2 is the care of a young girl with abdominal pain. Everyone but Dr. Murphy thinks this belly pain is caused by the girl’s parents’ divorce.

Issue #1: Ordering proper medical tests. One of the easiest things I feel like a medical show can get right is ordering the proper tests. Any medical consultant worth their salt should be able to assist the writing staff in this. For this patient, a child suffering abdominal pain, he orders a D-dimer, lactate, and amylase. Together, these tests make little sense. A D-dimer is used to look at blood coagulation. A lactate at how acidic the blood is. A lactate isn’t crazy, but a more applicable test for this girl would be what’s called a BMP or CMP— both of which are metabolic panels that look at the function of several organs in the abdomen. An amylase is okay as well— but drawn with other tests that make more sense. How about just a plain x-ray of her abdomen while we’re at it?

Issue #2: Going to a patient’s house. Despite the inappropriately ordered, fairly normal lab tests, the results bother Dr. Murphy so much that he goes to the patient’s house and insists on examining her. I cannot emphasize how much this would be frowned upon and I have personally never seen this happen. How would this be handled? First, simply a phone call to the family and request they come back to the hospital for further studies. If the situation is deemed serious enough, and the family cannot be reached by phone, involving law enforcement to help would likely be the next step.

Issue #3: Not calling an ambulance. When the girl is checked on, she is unresponsive and has vomited in her bed. Instead of calling an ambulance, Dr. Murphy insists that they take her by car. In an urban setting (in absence of a mass casualty situation), this is highly irresponsible. EMS response is generally very good and medical care can be started more quickly than driving a patient to the hospital. The episode proves my point when the girl becomes clinically more sick on the drive to the hospital and Dr. Murphy starts CPR. If EMS had been called to the house, this could have been prevented.

Issue #4: When to start CPR? In pediatrics, generally CPR is not started until the heart rate is under 60 beats per minutes. In this case, Dr. Murphy starts CPR for a weak, thready pulse. Looking up American Heart Association guidelines for pediatric CPR would be an easy way to figure out when CPR would be indicated.

Issue #5: Inaccurate medical portrayal of shock. When the 10 y/o girl arrives to the hospital, Dr. Murphy states, “Patient is a ten-year-old female with hypovolemic shock and bradycardia.” Hypovolemic shock is shock related to fluid losses, but seemingly this patient has vomited one time. Really not enough to set in shock in the older child. Also, the body’s response to hypovolemia is to increase the heart rate. The patient should be tachycardic. A pediatric patient can become bradycardic, or have very slow heart rate, in relation to shock, but it is a very late sign and I don’t think the medical history given on this girl is enough to warrant a code.

Issue #6: A surgical resident taking a patient to the OR. Keep in mind, Dr. Murphy is like on day #2 of the first year of his surgical rotation, yet he orders an OR, takes the patient to surgery, and is only interrupted by his attending when he’s about to make his first incision. Just no, no, no.

I think overall The Good Doctor has good intentions in looking at how people with special needs can operate in certain professions. However, don’t look at the first two episodes as any representation of good and accurate medical care.

There is always a way to maintain tension and conflict while still being medically accurate.

Author Question: Unconscious Teen Struck in Head by Baseball Bat

Ari Asks:

Hello and thank you for this blog. It’s a brilliant resource and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to reach out to a professional in this setting.

I have two scenarios in a novel I’m writing that I could use your help with.

First, a teenage boy is struck in the head with a baseball bat. He is knocked unconscious and falls into a coma. When he arrives in the ER, I would like some compelling dialogue between the first responders to convey his condition, rather than just typing it out in the slug lines. What are some of the measures that nurses and/or doctors would take in responding to this injury? Also, what type of jargon or verbiage would make this scene convincing to someone in the field?

Second, is the scenario where the doctor informs the parents of the same boy about his condition. In what setting would he/she do this? Or for that matter, who would be the person to inform the parents to begin with?

Thank you for taking the time to help writers do your profession justice.

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Ari. Thanks for reaching out and all your compliments regarding the blog. I’m glad you’ve found it helpful.

Typically, when a patient arrives to the ER via EMS, they give a report on their patient when they get to the assigned room. In this case, it might be something like this:

“This is John Doe, age 17, struck in the head with a baseball bat at 1600 today. Pt with immediate LOC (loss of consciousness). Was unconscious upon our arrival. Responds only to pain. We started an IV, drew labs, and started normal saline TKO (to keep vein open). His Glasgow Coma Score is eight (this is bad). Vitals signs are as follows: Heart rate 100. BP 124/62. Respirations 16. Pulse ox 100% on 100% non-rebreather. Parents are here. No chronic illnesses. No drug allergies.” 

The ER team will place him on a monitor, assess the status of his IV, and do a thorough physical exam of the patient including an extensive neurological exam. I would follow the link above and do some reading on the Glasgow Coma Scale and how it’s scored.

A Glasgow coma score of eight or less will likely lead to the patient being intubated because there is concern that he would not be able to maintain his airway.

Taking into consideration this patient’s mechanism of injury and the fact that he is unconscious, he would receive an expedited CT scan of his brain to look for injury— likely bleeding in this case.

Past this, it would be hard for me to talk to you about all the things the medical team would say. It’s your scene. If it is a compelling scene in the novel, I’d have a medical person review it.

Keep in mind the POV character you’re writing the scene from. If it comes from a medical person’s perspective, then the use of technical terms, etc is more warranted because they should sound like they know what they’re talking about. If the scene is from a lay person’s POV— then you can write more generally about the medical things being done.

Who informs the parents about their son’s condition? These days, parents are generally not separated from their child, even in instances where the child has lost their heartbeat. The parents likely followed the ambulance and would be updated upon arrival in the patient’s room. A nurse or a doctor can update the parents and give them the medical plan of care as outlined by the physician.

Hope this helps and happy writing!

Author Question: Bullet Wound to the Chest

Gwyn Asks:

I’m writing a scene in which a cop is injured during a confrontation with a suspect.  I’d like to tell you about the scenario I have in mind and hopefully you can tell me how realistic it is.

ammunition-2004236_1920Cop, mid-thirties, in excellent health and physical condition is shot with a low caliber bullet from about 10 feet away.  The bullet hits his chest, goes through the lung and exits out the back.  He’s got colleagues nearby who administer basic first aid and the EMTs get there within 5 minutes.  Say about 15 minute drive to the hospital.  They radioed ahead so the hospital is expecting them and has an OR ready.

First of all, what are the chances of survival?.  Second of all, assuming survival, what are the chances (best case scenario) of full recovery – to the point he can return to active duty.  How long would the recovery time be, how soon would he get out of the hospital, and what complications — pneumonia, blood clots, etc should the doctors be worried about?

Finally, if a full recovery is highly unlikely, are there little changes I can make to the scenario to make it more likely?

Jordyn Says:

Hi, Gwyn! Thanks so much for sending me your question.

In short, this is a survivable injury.

You don’t specify in your question whether this police officer is shot in the right or left chest. Right chest would probably be preferred as there are less vital structures on the right side of the chest then the left.

ambulance1You give your victim immediate first aid and EMS responds quickly. Keep in mind that you’re going to need a paramedic to respond to give more advanced field procedures. A basic EMT is limited in what they can do— CPR, wound dressings, assisting the patient with some of their own medication administration. Depending on the state, some EMTs can start IVs, so if your novel is set in a specific location then I would research this for that area. Assuming he has a paramedic respond then he’ll get an IV, IV fluids, oxygen, and possibly pain medications. Of course, a set of vital signs and cardiac monitoring.

In an urban setting, a drive time of fifteen minutes to the hospital seems a little long. If a rural setting then you’re probably fine but you might need to adjust there as needed.

A bullet passing through the chest is likely going to puncture and deflate the lung. This character will need a chest tube to get the air out of his chest and reinflate the lung. A chest tube can be placed in the ER. This patient would get a CT scan of his chest. If the medical team isn’t worried about any other injuries than this patient may not even need to go to the OR.

A patient with a chest tube will need to be admitted into the hospital. How long it takes the lung to reinflate depends on the size of the pneumothorax or the degree to which the lung has collapsed. Generally, a patient’s chest tube is connected to a drainage box that uses suction to help the lung reinflate. Patients with this type of injury will get daily (or every other day) chest x-rays to see how the lung is expanding. After the lung is fully expanded, the suction is stopped, but the box remains in place. This is generally referred to as placing the chest tube to water seal.

If the lung stays expanded to water seal for one to two days then the medical team would feel good about removing the chest tube. Then the patient would be observed for another one to two days to make sure the lung stayed reexpanded.

Pending any complications, you’re looking at a hospitalization of 4-7 days. Pneumonia is probably your more likely complication. Having a tube in your chest hurts. Because of this, patients don’t want to take deep breaths. This can lead to the smaller air sacs in the lung staying collapsed and trapping bacteria which could lead to pneumonia.

If you add a complication like pneumonia, then you’re easily adding another one to two weeks that he’s out of commission.

If you just stick with a “simple” collapsed lung I would say he’d be out of work for about two weeks. He won’t be physically 100% of what he was before the injury but he should feel back to his physical baseline in about a month.

I would say he can work, but he’s going to have some physical limitations. It would be up to his department what his physical capacity needs to be before he can return to work. Half days at a desk job is not unreasonable for a few weeks.

He’d likely become short of breath during any exertional activity (like running after a bad guy). However, considering his physical shape, he should bounce back fairly quickly.

A nice overview can be found here.

Hope this helps and good luck with your novel!

Author Question: Car versus Pedestrian

Alex Asks:

My character suffers the following injuries. I want the injuries to be severe enough that they require immediate surgery, but also that he recovers after about a month in the hospital and a stay in rehab.

carpedistrian1. Character is standing in the road, tries to run but is hit by the car front on.  Body smashes into the windscreen, sending him up into the air.

2. Hits his head on the pavement on landing and suffers broken bones as a result.

3. He blacks out from the impact and wakes up several hours later. In this instance, would he be able to survive for several hours with the kinds of injuries he could have?

4. Possible injuries I thought he could have included: bleeding on the brain, broken leg/s and/or arms, fractured ribs which could cause a puncture to one of his lungs.

5. As a result he suffers from retrograde amnesia when he wakes up at the scene because of the injuries to his brain. Cannot remember his name/where he is or other events in his memory. Again here I am not sure what kind of specific head trauma could cause this.

6. After surgery to the brain, he is put into an induced coma to monitor the swelling. He will eventually wake up from this about a month later.

Jordyn Says:

The accident you describe would include some very serious injuries— perhaps not even survivable. It’s not just the injuries the character suffers getting thrown from the impact onto the pavement, but also the injuries he suffers from getting hit by the car. An impact that is so violent that it throws someone into the air would also likely shatter the windshield indicating to EMS responders that there was a lot of violent energy associated with this collision— which means bad things for the patient.

My first opinion is if you want this character to wake up in a few hours would be that he doesn’t fall directly on his head after he’s thrown into the air from the first impact. Overall, for your scenario, you might want to lessen the violence of this crash if you want him up in a few hours. It wouldn’t be surprising for this patient to require surgery to fix broken bones and/or internal bleeding.

A pedestrian surviving this crash is not impossible but it is more on the improbable side. This patient will have a lengthy hospital stay. May not wake up for days or months— not just hours. What you outline is a high speed impact to a pedestrian.

To answer some of your medical questions— surgery may be required for the bleeding on the brain depending on its location. All patients who have a brain bleed do not necessarily go to surgery. A punctured lung will require a chest tube to be placed which further complicates your patient’s medical picture. This patient would be placed on a breathing machine for sure to stabilize him until all these injuries could be sorted out.

Could a patient with a significant brain bleed be conscious at the scene after the accident? Yes. There is a specific type of brain bleed that fits this scenario called an epidural bleed. It does have a characteristic lucid period before the patient becomes unconscious again. It does require surgery to correct. If no surgical intervention is done then the patient will likely die. Honestly, as a writer, you have a lot of leeway in regards to what to do with amnesia. Any type of traumatic brain injury (and this certainly qualifies) could cause amnesia.

Medically induced comas are used frequently in medicine as a way to help control brain swelling. However, the medicines are not used forever. Peak brain swelling usually occurs 48-72 hours after the injury. After this time has passed, the medical team will evaluate when to decrease the medications keeping the patient in the coma. Keep in mind, even after these medications are discontinued, the patient may never wake up. Further studies would need to be done to determine the extent of the damage to his brain. These changes will evolve over time becoming more stable the more time that goes on.

My recommendation would be to lessen the severity of the crash. The car hits him, he hit the windshield, breaks it and then falls to the ground. This alone could cause a femur fracture and brain injury for which he could suffer amnesia and require surgery. If it’s an epidural bleed then he gets surgery, perhaps with some swelling and therefore the medically induced coma, but wakes up in a month. The leg is set in surgery with pinning or a rod. I think just having these two things is enough for your scenario.

All the rest might prove too complicating.