Within Normal Limits: Navigating Medical Risks

40 Episodes

By: COPIC, Eric Zacharias MD

Within Normal Limits provides physicians and medical professionals with unfiltered insights that focus on pitfalls to avoid in medicine and best practices to improve patient care. Hosted by Eric Zacharias, MD, an internal medicine doctor and physician risk manager with COPIC, a leading medical liability insurance company, this podcast centers around open conversations between physicians and medical experts. Each episode dives into topics including practical guidance, detailed analysis, current issues, and case study reviews. Within Normal Limits is an opportunity to learn from others’ experience and gain knowledge that may help you be a better medical provider and deliver the be...

A Conversation on Risk in Urology, Including the Pandemic’s Impact on Patient Care

The guest for this episode is Stephen Siegel, MD, a urologist in a multi-specialty group and a medical school classmate of our host. The former classmates discuss the impact of COVID-19 on surgical intervention, delay of diagnosis, and routine screening. They also discuss general risk areas in urology, including transitions of care, telehealth, and risks associated with PSA-level management across a patient’s lifetime.


Legal Disclaimer: 

Information provided in this podcast should not be relied upon for personal, medical, legal, or financial decisions and you should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice that...

Fulfilling Opioid Education Training Requirements

This episode features Dr. Alan Lembitz, Chief Medical Officer for COPIC, and focuses on uncertainty around federal and state opioid education requirements for medical providers. The conversation examines common questions from “what do I need to do to fulfill my licensure requirements?” to “how do I prove that I am in compliance with these requirements?” Dr. Lembitz also looks at details with the new DEA requirement of eight hours of training around substance use disorders, concerns if providers don’t fulfill these requirements, and highlights of COPIC resources that are available to help meet these requirements.



Physician Health Programs—Caring for Caregivers

This episode’s guest is Scott Humphreys, MD, forensic psychologist and medical director of the Colorado Physician Health Program (CPHP). This nonprofit independent peer assistance program provides licensed professionals with confidential, individualized evaluation and treatment referrals for health problems such as psychiatric illness and substance abuse. Dr. Humphreys discusses the stigma associated with physicians transitioning into the role of patient and the approach CPHP takes to ensure they can ultimately have a healthy practice and healthy life. 


Disclaimer: Information provided in this podcast should not be relied upon for personal, medical, legal, or financial decisions and...

Dealing with Potentially Violent Patients

Dr. Michael Victoroff, a family medicine physician and COPIC consultant with expertise in clinical informatics, is our guest for this episode that focuses on situations where patients may become violent. The discussion examines emotional states in patients, such as frustration or unhappiness, that can escalate into physical conflict and why we have seen a substantial increase in these types of encounters. Dr. Victoroff talks about de-escalation and conflict management skills, our innate flight-or-fight reactions, and the importance of appropriate training for the health care setting. In addition, the conversation explores ethical and legal considerations along with the moral dilemma...

What I Wished I Knew When I Started Out in Medicine

In this episode, Dr. Jeffrey Varnell, a former surgeon and risk management consultant, reflects back on things physicians wished they would have learned during their medical residencies and when they first started their practice. In particular, he talks about effectively utilizing professional review, onboarding and managing expectations around a practice’s policies and procedures (from billing to EHRs), the importance of peer support and mentorship, and the benefits of creating a “toolkit” to help new physicians integrate into the practice setting. 


Show email: wnlpodcast@copic.com

Educating Providers About Health Care Disparities and Patients with Disabilities

The episode’s guest is Chanda Hinton, the founder and executive director of the Chanda Plan Foundation, who also helps run the Chanda Center for Health, an organization that helps people living with long-term disabilities through integrative health care. The discussion focuses on looking at health care through a lens of disability and disparity, and how medical providers can help address this. Chanda talks about her organization’s belief that “people living with long-term physical disabilities have the right to create their own healthcare path, live independently, and be active members in community” and the various ways they support this ide...

COPIC Medical Foundation Grant Recipient: Children’s Health Fund

This episode is part of a special series that focuses on organizations that received grant funding from the COPIC Medical Foundation for initiatives that address the issue of reducing fragmentation across care settings. Dr. Zacharias welcomes Arturo Brito, MD, MPH, the President and CEO of Children’s Health Fund. Dr. Brito highlights how the grant was used to support the review, update, and dissemination of the successful Referral Management Initiative to incorporate new technologies that enhance care coordination procedures for pediatric populations living in under-resourced communities. They talk about health equity, innovation with mobile clinic programs, concern over COVID-19’s lo...

COPIC Medical Foundation Grant Recipient: Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation

This episode is part of a special series that focuses on organizations that received grant funding from the COPIC Medical Foundation for initiatives that address the issue of reducing fragmentation across care settings. Dr. Zacharias welcomes two guests from the Children’s Hospital Colorado: Jennifer Disabato, a pediatric nurse practitioner, and William Anderson, MD, an Associate Program Director. Ms. Disabati and Dr. Anderson highlight how the grant was used to support the ImPACT Navigation Hub—a centralized resource hub to coordinate the transition of young adult patients with pediatric onset conditions to adult care. They talk about some of the...

COPIC Medical Foundation Grant Recipient: Mile High Health Alliance

This episode is part of a special series that focuses on organizations that received grant funding from the COPIC Medical Foundation for initiatives that address the issue of reducing fragmentation across care settings. Dr. Zacharias welcomes two guests from the Mile High Health Alliance: Dede de Percin, Executive Director, and Vicente Cardona, Program Manager. Dede and Vicente highlight how the grant was used to support the “Orange Flag” Project—an initiative that uses historic, predictive, and real-time data to inform emergency department personnel of a patient’s high utilization of emergency services to aid in care coordination. They talk about ap...

COPIC Medical Foundation Grant Recipient: Children’s National

This episode is part of a special series that focuses on organizations that received grant funding from the COPIC Medical Foundation for initiatives that address the issue of reducing fragmentation across care settings. Dr. Zacharias welcomes Olivia Soutullo, a psychologist and Director of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Services at Children’s National (Washington, D.C.). Olivia highlights how grant funding from the Foundation was used to support a program aimed at improving coordination of pediatric mental care after psychiatric hospitalization. She talks about some of the key challenges faced in these situations, the importance of connecting with the families involved an...

Treating Family, Friends, and Staff

Dr. Dennis Boyle, a COPIC physician consultant and rheumatologist, is the guest on this episode which looks at the issue of treating friends, family, and staff as patients. The discussion looks at the ethical, legal, and other considerations in these types of situations using some case studies and highlighting the American Medical Association’s guidance. In particular, there is the issue of how your professional judgement may be impacted when you have a close, personal relationship with a patient. Dr. Boyle also highlights other concerns that include confidentiality, sensitive examinations, and dealing with the urge to provide medical advice to...

The Ongoing Challenge of Chest Pain in Patients

This episode examines patients who present with chest pain and how this can run the full spectrum of being a minor irritation to a more serious condition that requires immediate attention. Dr. Zacharias draws upon his experience in internal medicine to talk about using clinical judgment to work through an assessment. He delves into using a differential diagnosis approach, addressing emergency situations, and evaluating considerations based on a patient’s medical history. In addition, Dr. Zacharias looks at how mental health conditions can influence chest pain and tests to rule in (and rule out) certain conditions.



Navigating Conversations with Patients About Guns

Due to recent active shooter situations and a renewed focus on the safety of health care providers, COPIC is re-releasing this past episode. Some providers may draw a strict boundary about discussing guns with their patients (or not think about it). But research has shown there are situations when access to firearms is a potential risk factor and raising this issue can be not only appropriate but necessary. Dr. Michael Victoroff, who is a firearms safety expert, addresses some scenarios associated with guns that can arise in the clinical setting. These range from imminent danger (e.g., suicide risk...

Helping Kids Cope with Anxieties Around Medical Care and Pain Management

This episode’s guest is Jody Thomas, PhD, Founder/Chief Executive Officer of The Meg Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower families with the pain management strategies, skills, and support they need to prevent and reduce pain. The discussion examines how “fear of needles” and health care avoidance can develop in early childhood, and what strategies can be implemented—by parents and medical providers—to prevent negative associations with medical care. Thomas highlights some best practices for pain management with children, such as over-the-counter numbing creams and comforting techniques, and talks about resources they have developed in partnershi...

Diagnosing Stevens-Johnson Syndrome

Our guest for this episode is Dr. Dan Rosenquist, a family medicine physician in Nebraska and risk manager for COPIC. The focus is on Stevens-Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrolysis, which are commonly caused by medications or infections and typically present as skin reactions. Dr. Rosenquist walks through the causes and symptoms to be aware of, the role of certain medications in this condition, and discussing the issue with patients. The conversation also touches on having a high index of suspicion, particularly early in its presentation, as the findings may be subtle or confused with more common conditions.


A Return to Discussing Spinal Epidural Abscess

Dr. Zacharias reexamines the issues that lead to spinal epidural abscess, a rare condition that can result in severe adverse outcomes and allegations of negligent care. We start with a clear definition of spinal epidural abscess, why it occurs, and some notable contributing factors. From there, Dr. Zacharias examines risk factors with patients and some suggestions on being highly vigilant about certain signs that should increase your index of suspicion. He also walks through some examples of symptoms that patients commonly present with as well as key considerations when evaluating and treating patients with these symptoms.


A Discussion with Dr. MeiLan Han—A Leading Pulmonologist and Author

This special episode features Dr. MeiLan Han, a Professor of Medicine and Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan and author of the book Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health. Dr. Han shares her perspective on the impact of COVID-related respiratory issues and how this emphasized the importance of healthy lungs and the vital role they play. She talks about her background in pulmonary care and why her desire to better educate patients (and other physicians) on lung health led to writing Breathing Lessons. The discussion also touches on research data insights, me...

Can You Really “Clear a Patient for Surgery”?

This episode features Dr. Jeff Varnell, a surgeon and COPIC physician risk manager, who offers some insight about the phrase of “clearing a patient for surgery,” and how this has evolved over time. The discussion starts on the idea of evaluating patients prior to surgery with a focus on maximizing their condition and ability to get through surgery safely, and how this informs the post-surgery recovery plan. Dr. Varnell then talks about preoperative screening processes, from nutritional screening to pain management, and the importance of using a team/systematic approach to improve outcomes and reduce risk. 



Managing Patients Who Bring in Wearable Device Data

Dr. Zacharias tackles the subject of managing patients who come armed with data from wearable devices (e.g., Fitbits, Apple Watches) believing that this information is valuable for their medical care. He uses the case study of a patient who is a trail runner and has concerns about elevated heart rates (as indicated by device data) and how this may connect with a family history of early heart disease. In responding to this type of situation, Dr. Zacharias highlights the importance of differentiating consumer-grade devices from approved medical diagnostic devices, explains how the data may inform a careful evaluation...

Using Ketamine to Treat Depression

This episode’s guest is Dr. Will Van Derveer, a recognized leader in integrative psychiatry, who shares his insight about using ketamine to treat depression and the different schools of thought about how it should be used. He provides some background about the origins of ketamine use in medicine and research studies that demonstrated positive results for patients with depression. The discussion touches on the concerns with ketamine (diversion and addiction), the duration of benefit, “rule outs” to consider, and the influence of Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, on the renewed interest in psychedelics as therapeu...

Preventing Surgical Fires and Injuries Related to Electrical Surgical Units

Dr. Rebecca Vogel, a general surgeon and COPIC board member, is the guest for this episode that explores key areas of risk management associated with certain surgical injuries. Dr. Vogel talks about her involvement with surgical residency programs and integrating a focus on “maintaining your passion and humanism” throughout your career in medicine. Using a case study about a surgical fire, we look at key factors that contribute to these types of incidents—from the risk of a laser igniting oxygen to miscommunication between a surgeon and an anesthesiologist. Dr. Vogel then highlights the importance of “putting the patient first,”...

Reducing the Risk of Bile Duct Injuries During Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy Procedures

Dr. Sue Sgambati, COPIC’s Medical Director and a colorectal surgeon, returns to the podcast to discuss risks and guidelines associated with laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Dr. Sgambati talks about the background behind utilizing this approach and how a reduced recovery time led to improved patient and provider satisfaction. However, one of the concerns that has emerged is the risk of bile duct injuries (BDIs). Dr. Sgambati focuses on guidelines developed from a multi-society consensus that identify optimal strategies for the prevention of BDIs. In particular, she highlights five key guidelines to consider, provides some real-life context from her experience as a...

The Delicate Process of Terminating a Patient

Dr. Zacharias is joined by Dr. Sue Sgambati, COPIC’s Medical Director, to discuss situations where a physician is thinking about terminating a patient from their practice. Common issues that we see include multiple missed appointments, rude behavior, or non-compliance with medication. The conversation focuses on considerations from a physician’s perspective (disclaimer: consult an attorney for legal advice in these situations) starting with a thoughtful analysis of “why do you want to terminate a patient? what is the core issue?” We look at assessing the timing of a termination, how to draft a formal letter that is brief and obje...

Getting to the Heart of Health Care: Perspectives from an Esteemed Cardiologist

This episode’s guest is Dr. Nelson Trujillo, a cardiologist out of Boulder, Colorado, who also has a background in biomedical engineering and nuclear medicine. Dr. Trujillo shares his personal journey, the influence of prominent mentors, why he gravitated toward the prevention of cardiovascular disease, and the notable paradigm shifts he has observed during his career. He shares some insights about “triple rule out,” diagnosing acute coronary syndrome, and considerations when evaluating major risk factors. Dr. Trujillo also talks about prevention and intervention strategies—from adopting a Mediterranean diet to the threshold between benefits and risks with exercise, and the ongo...

Handling Unsolicited Diagnostic Tests

This episode focuses on the issue of what medical practices should do when they receive clinical information (often test results) about an individual who is not a recognized patient, or which did not originate from an order or request from the practice. This situation increases as patients have more options to self-refer for tests, and more ways to deliver results to providers. Examples include health fair reports, results of self-authorized tests, or records from external providers. Such information, once received, can present an information management dilemma and potential liability exposure. We walk through considerations such as evaluating if there...

Forum Panel Discussion: A Candid Conversation on the Risks We See and What You Need to Know

Taped live at the annual Patient Safety & Risk Management Forum, this episode features a panel discussion with Dr. Zacharias, Dr. Alan Lembitz, COPIC’s Chief Medical Officer, and Dr. Sue Sgambati, COPIC’s Medical Director. Using a series of real case studies, the panel highlights key patient safety and risk management principles based on where we consistently see medical liability issues. The cases cover topics such as “normalized deviance” that occurs with system workarounds; empowering medical staff to voice concerns; common diagnostic errors associated with heads, hearts, bellies, bugs, and cancer; the importance of checking vital signs; subtle symptoms that can...

When a Patient Disagrees with Your Care Recommendations: Using Informed Refusal as a Tool

Dr. Alan Lembitz, COPIC’s Chief Medical Officer, joins us to talk about managing situations where patients make decisions about their care that you don’t believe is in their best interest. Using a case study review, we analyze a scenario that illustrates the importance of using an informed refusal form to document a patient’s choice that goes against your recommended care. This presents a challenge in balancing the concerns of protecting your patient while protecting yourself from a medical liability lawsuit. In addition, we look at factors such as patient competency, reasons why patients may refuse care (includ...

Special Episode: Requirements for Nebraska Physicians Who Prescribe Opioids/Controlled Substances

This episode focuses on Nebraska legislation that outlines rules for prescribing and continuing education around opioids and controlled substances. The legislation was passed in 2018, but its implementation was delayed because of COVID. However, these requirements are now in effect starting in October 2021. Among the requirements are that prescribers must obtain 3.0 hours of CME regarding prescribing opioids on a biennial basis (0.5 hours of which MUST cover Nebraska’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program or PDMP). Dr. Zacharias outlines the details of meeting these requirements, including accessing a half-hour PDMP training video on the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ website and...

Talking with Patients Who Are Hesitant About the Vaccine

It’s an issue that many physicians are facing and something that continues to be a focus in public discourse—people who don’t want to take the COVID vaccine. The conversations providers are having on this topic can be emotionally charged, full of confusion and disinformation, and difficult to navigate. This episode’s guest, Dr. Dennis Boyle, is an expert on communication and shares some insight on how to approach these situations such as the idea of “developing a therapeutic alliance” as a framing point, inquisitive inquiries, and seeking first to understand why a patient is hesitant. In addition, th...

Medication Errors: The Potential Side Effects and Risks of Prescribing

Dr. Dennis Boyle, COPIC physician risk manager, joins the podcast again to talk with Dr. Zacharias about ongoing issues we see with medication errors. These include drug-to-drug interactions, medications that are most prevalent in medical liability lawsuits (antibiotics, pain medicine, and anticoagulants), and awareness about black box warnings. Dr. Boyle walks through some case studies to illustrate why errors occur and highlights steps physicians can take to proactively address these situations. The conversation also covers the importance of documenting your thought process when prescribing, the use of “read backs,” the “five rights” of medication use (right patient, right drug, right ti...

Nonverbal Communication: How Your Body Talks and What Patients Hear

Dr. Zacharias is joined by Dr. Dennis Boyle, a COPIC physician risk manager, to talk about key elements of nonverbal communication that occur during physician-patient interactions such as touch, facial expressions, posture as well as the speed and tone of your voice. Dr. Boyle talks about nonverbal cues in both how we sent messages to patients and how “micro expressions” from patients can provide valuable insight into how our messages are being received and the patient’s state of mind. He also mentions the “golden minute” of when you first encounter a patient and have an opportunity to form a connecti...

A Conversation with the Colorado Medical Society’s President—Dr. Sami Diab

In this episode, we are proud to have Dr. Sami Diab, the president of the Colorado Medical Society (CMS). Dr. Diab describes his journey into medicine, from growing up in Syria to finding his calling as an oncologist to joining the leadership team at CMS. He talks about how his medical background is applied in his current role when dealing with public policy and state legislative issues, and how he approaches his work by thinking about the ways broader decisions may impact medical providers, patients, and the overall health care system. Other topics on his mind include managing the...

With Power Comes Responsibility—Ethical and Legal Issues That Physicians Face

Dr. Michael Victoroff joins the podcast again to talk about administrative or conduct issues that can create legal concerns for physicians. Many of these relate to the authority a medical license grants and the power of a physician’s signature (i.e., prescribing medications, signing off on medical charts, etc.). Dr. Victoroff makes the distinction between willful misconduct and inadvertent actions that can lead to accusations of billing fraud, disciplinary proceedings, and governmental investigations. He also highlights common situations where these issues occur such as supervising other medical staff, serving as a medical director, or providing patient coverage for ot...

Considerations with Opioids and Pain Management—A Surgeon’s Perspective

Dr. Sue Sgambati, COPIC’s medical director and a colorectal surgeon, joins Dr. Zacharias to talk about her personal experience in balancing the professional responsibility to treat pain with concerns over opioid addiction. Dr. Sgambati reviews the historical background of key factors that contributed to the overprescribing of opioids and what she saw and learned in her own practice. She then talks about the value of using tools such as a state’s prescription drug monitoring program, opioid risk assessment tools, and guidelines published by organizations such as the CDC. Dr. Sgambati also addresses alternatives to opioids that are bein...

Telehealth: The Evolving World of Remote Care

Dr. Zacharias welcomes Dr. Michael Victoroff, a COPIC consultant and health information technology expert, to talk about the increased use of telehealth driven by COVID-19 and how this has become a more permanent shift in health care. They discuss the applicable regulations and practical guidelines that are defining the telehealth environment and what physicians should know to effectively navigate these interactions. Dr. Victoroff shares his thoughts about how the perspectives of providers, patients, and regulatory agencies have changed, the importance of reimbursement, and why “telehealth is one of the best things to happen to medicine.” In addition, he highlights cons...

Cultivating a Culture of Safety

Dr. Benjamin Keidan, Boulder Community Health's Chief Medical Officer, joins us to share his thoughts on how to implement and reinforce a culture of safety. Dr. Keidan talks about his personal journey and how an MBA gave him a better understanding of the financial, human resources, and legal perspectives that impact health care. He highlights the importance of creating a system that values collaboration among all medical team members and a shared commitment to clearly defined patient safety goals. The conversation then focuses on the benefits of shifting away from a culture of blame to one that encourages reporting...

An Inside Look at How the Colorado Medical Board Responds to Complaints

Dr. Zacharias is joined by Dr. Dennis Boyle, a COPIC physician risk manager, and Dr. Donald J. Lefkowits, the current president of the Colorado Medical Board. Dr. Lefkowits talks about his journey from working in emergency medicine to becoming part of the Board’s leadership. He then walks through the types of complaints the Board receives and how they manage the process of addressing these. This includes recommendations for physicians who receive complaints, from using an attorney to help draft a response (a no-cost service available with COPIC’s coverage) to using a factual, non-emotional tone in your response to a...

COVID-19 and Its Potential Impact on Medical Liability Issues

Dr. Zacharias welcomes Dr. Alan Lembitz, COPIC’s chief medical officer, to talk about what we are seeing in terms of the medical liability issues that may come in the wake of COVID-19. Dr. Lembitz highlights what initial claims data and trends is telling us, and how, due to the “long-tail” of incident reporting, the full impact of COVID-19 will take some time to emerge and understand. The discussion also looks at public perception of the challenges medical providers faced during the pandemic, concerns over patients with non-COVID-19 conditions that held off on treatment because of fears of the virus...

Using Simulation Technology to Teach the Next Generation of Medical Professionals

In this episode, we look at medical education with two representatives from Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC)—Lisa James, Executive Director of PPCC’s Foundation, and Amber Lippincott, Associate Dean of Nursing. Their discussion explores health care trends that are influencing student programs in nursing and other allied health professional fields. In particular, they highlight simulation technology to teach students evidence-based practices, and the benefits of using an advanced birthing simulation mannequins funded by a grant from the COPIC Medical Foundation. This allows students to develop essential clinical skills and practice labor/delivery scenarios in an environment that allows them...

Colorectal Cancer Screenings: A Shift in Guidelines

Dr. Sue Sgambati, a colorectal surgeon and COPIC’s medical director, discusses the recent recommendation from the U.S Preventive Services Task Force that colorectal cancer screening routinely begin at age 45, instead of age 50. This recommendation is in response to the sharp rise in the number of colorectal cancers in young adults. Dr. Sgambati draws upon her own experience to talk about considerations when evaluating symptoms and whether or not to include a colonoscopy as part of a workup. She also highlights her perspective on colonoscopies versus additional tests for patients that can identify signs of cancer based on st...