Will machines be able to tell when patients are about to die?

A few years ago, on a warm sunny afternoon, my 90-year-old father-in-law was sweeping his patio when he suddenly felt weak and dizzy. Falling to his knees, he crawled inside his condo and onto the couch. He was shaking but not confused when my wife, Susan, came over minutes later, since we lived just a block away. She texted me at work, where I was just finishing my clinic, and asked me to come over.

When I got there, he was weak and couldn’t stand up on his own, and it was unclear what had caused this spell. A rudimentary neuro exam didn’t show anything: his speech and vision were fine; muscle and sensory functions were all OK save for some muscle trembling. A smartphone cardiogram and echo were both normal. Even though I knew it wouldn’t go over too well, I suggested we take him to the emergency room to find out what the problem was.

John, a Purple Heart–decorated World War II vet, had never been sick. Only in recent months had he developed some mild high blood pressure, for which his internist had prescribed chlorthalidone, a weak diuretic. Otherwise, his only medicine over the years was a preventive baby aspirin every day. With some convincing he agreed to be seen, so along with his wife and mine, we drove over to the local ER. The doctor there thought he might have had some kind of stroke, but a head CT didn’t show any abnormality. But then the bloodwork came back and showed, surprisingly, a critically low potassium level of 1.9 mEq/L—one of the lowest I’ve seen. It didn’t seem that the diuretic alone, which can cause less extreme reduction in potassium, could be the culprit. Nevertheless, John was admitted overnight just to get his potassium level restored by intravenous and oral supplement. ..Read More..

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