- Maintain a broader range of differential diagnoses before ruling in or out something more concrete.
- Attend dermatology lectures as part of primary care’s continuing medical education courses.
- Review a good basic dermatology atlas from time to time.
- Learn to correctly describe lesions to a dermatologist by phone.
- Don’t assume that groin rashes are all fungal.
- Don’t mistakenly associate a drug-related reaction with a medication given one to two days before the onset of a rash.
- Consider involving a dermatologist to help manage open skin lesions, particularly if you’re unsure of the cause.
- Prescribe an adequate quantity of topical corticosteroids for the duration of treatment.
- Beware of painful or blistering rashes, especially if they involve the mucosa of the mouth, eyes, or genitals.
- Watch out for zoster, widespread herpes, pemphigus, and pemphigoid.
- Pay attention to itching in the wrists, genital region, and web spaces of fingers and toes.
- Be mindful of the rapid onset of purpuric lesions on the skin.
- Avoid consults for improving rashes and seborrheic keratosis, as well as nonurgent outpatient issues, such as psoriasis, rosacea, or a history of skin cancer.
- Don’t prescribe combined betamethasone/clotrimazole, also known as Lotrisone, for chronic scaly hands, feet, or groin.
- Encourage patients to follow up with a dermatologist on an outpatient basis.
Dermatologic diseases tend to receive little attention at most U.S. medical schools—typically only several days of lectures or a few weeks of clinical exposure.
“Not surprisingly, many general practitioners may feel unprepared to address hospitalized patients with challenging dermatologic findings,” says R. Samuel Hopkins, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and assistant residency program director at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
Few studies have examined the quality of inpatient dermatologic care. One study, a retrospective chart review at a Midwestern university hospital, found that the primary ward team submitted an accurate dermatologic diagnosis in only 23.9% of cases. Meanwhile, consultation with a dermatologist led to a change or addition to treatment in 77% of patients (Dermatol Online J. 2010;16(2):12).
“Given that medical schools may not be able to dedicate more time to managing dermatologic conditions, the burden of education may fall on post-graduate programs and continuing medical education to fill this gap,” Dr. Hopkins says. To further complicate matters, “it is difficult in many hospitals to obtain a dermatology consult on an inpatient, reflecting the limited access hospitalists often have to dermatologists.”
The most frequently encountered dermatologic conditions in the hospital setting are drug eruptions and skin infections. Dermatitis is the most misdiagnosed condition by nondermatologists in hospitals, says Russell Vinik, MD, co-director of the hospitalist group at the University of Utah Health Care in Salt Lake City.
The majority of skin issues don’t require a dermatologist’s input, but some do. “Clearly, there’s also the rash that we just don’t know what it is,” Dr. Vinik says. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the safe side and call the specialist.
Here’s how to assess whether to manage a dermatologic case yourself, or how to involve a dermatologist for appropriate diagnosis and treatment. In general, Dr. Hopkins says, “Whether one can handle a case on their own or not is a case-by-case decision by the hospitalist based on their comfort with their diagnosis and management.”
Maintain a broader range of differential diagnoses before ruling in or out something more concrete.
“Very often, patients with skin diseases are given a specific diagnosis without consideration of mimickers,” says Daniela Kroshinsky, MD, MPH, assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
“Cellulitis is a great example. People will come in with hot, red skin and be diagnosed with and treated for cellulitis but really have stasis dermatitis, Lyme [disease], gout, et cetera,” says Dr. Kroshinsky, who also is director of pediatric dermatology and director of inpatient dermatology, education, and research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The clinical picture of warm, red, tender skin can fit many conditions but is most often called cellulitis by nondermatologists,” she explains. “It’s not clear why, but I would suspect this is because cellulitis is one of the few dermatologic conditions taught in medical school, while the mimickers get less attention.”
Attend dermatology lectures as part of primary care’s continuing medical education courses.
This would increase your knowledge of skin conditions affecting hospitalized patients, Dr. Kroshinsky says. If there is a dermatologic consultant for your hospital, work closely with this specialist until you feel comfortable making diagnoses and incorporating treatment plans.
Similarly, if you are a resident who is interested in a career in hospital medicine, consider doing a rotation in dermatology.
Review a good basic dermatology atlas from time to time.
This keeps your mind open to differential diagnoses for a given situation that you may encounter in the hospital setting. A more comprehensive book or online reference can be helpful to peruse after seeing a patient with a particular rash, Dr. Kroshinsky says.
Learn to correctly describe lesions to a dermatologist by phone.
When a specialist isn’t available on site, the phone communication is vital to the specialist. This includes familiarizing yourself with some of the more life-threatening dermatologic problems, such as drug-induced hypersensitivity reactions. It will be easier to recognize when an urgent dermatologic consultation is required. Sometimes this is necessary when a patient doesn’t respond to treatment for a reasonable and presumed diagnosis—when one condition seems to mimic the symptoms of another, says Lindy Fox, MD, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the University of California at San Francisco and director of its hospital dermatology consultation service.
Don’t assume that groin rashes are all fungal.
In fact, there is a very large differential diagnosis for intertriginous eruptions, Dr. Fox says. Perform a KOH test (potassium hydroxide) and fungal cultures on intertriginous eruptions. If no fungus is identified or the patient is not responding appropriately to therapy, call for a dermatologic consultation.
Don’t mistakenly associate a drug-related reaction with a medication given one to two days before the onset of a rash.
It is typically seven to 10 days post-exposure that a drug eruption develops, Dr. Fox says. He suggests making a drug chart to highlight dates of medication administration. This helps pinpoint the most likely culprit based on timing and the probability that a certain drug may induce cutaneous eruptions. Correct identification of the type of drug eruption (e.g. simple drug eruption vs. hypersensitivity vs. potentially deadly Stevens-Johnson syndrome) is important.
Consider involving a dermatologist to help manage open skin lesions, particularly if you’re unsure of the cause.
There are many different causes of skin ulcers. Trauma, infections, and even malignancies can present as open wounds. Leg ulcers may be due to venous stasis, but they also can be caused by arterial insufficiency, vasculitis, and other conditions. A dermatologist might opt to perform a skin biopsy to help diagnose the lesion.
“Wound-care nurses can be very helpful in managing skin lesions, but they do not always have the experience needed to correctly diagnose the underlying problem,” says Kathryn Schwarzenberger, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. “If you’re thinking of calling the wound-care nurse, think of calling the dermatologist first.”
Prescribe an adequate quantity of topical corticosteroids for the duration of treatment.
“It’s really important to provide enough medicine,” Dr. Schwarzenberger says. Typically, a patient will receive a small tube, apply the contents, and find that “it’s enough medicine to cover their body once. This doesn’t work if you intended to have the patient apply it all over for two weeks.”
It takes, on average, 30 g of a topical medication to cover the body once. With topical steroids, prescribing an insufficient quantity “dooms your therapy to failure.”
Allergic reactions from these medications are rare, and some insurance companies charge the same regardless of the size. Prescribing a small amount initially might incur an additional expense for the patient.
Beware of painful or blistering rashes, especially if they involve the mucosa of the mouth, eyes, or genitals.
“These symptoms can be associated with potentially deadly toxic epidermal necrolysis,” says Daniel Aires, MD, JD, director of the division of dermatology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City, Kan. “Consult dermatology immediately. The sooner treatment is begun, the better the odds of survival.”
If a rash involves the eye, call an ophthalmologist and a dermatologist. “Eyes are more likely than skin to develop chronic complications after resolution of an acute condition,” he says.
For a rash involving primarily the mouth, call an otolaryngologist, a dentist, or both, as well as a dermatologist. These specialists are more skilled in visualizing and treating oral conditions.
Watch out for zoster, widespread herpes, pemphigus, and pemphigoid.
These blistering conditions require urgent diagnosis and treatment, so a dermatologist’s expertise is needed quickly, Dr. Aires says. Even without the presence of blisters, a single region of the skin or “dermatome” gives pause for concern.
“This could be a sign of zoster, which is especially dangerous in immunosuppressed or otherwise debilitated patients,” he cautions. “Either perform a culture and begin treatment, or consult dermatology, or do both.”
Pay attention to itching in the wrists, genital region, and web spaces of fingers and toes.
This may be due to scabies infestation. “Scabies can spread rapidly throughout a hospital ward,” Dr. Aires says. What to do: Scrape for scabies, consider a trial of topical treatment, and consult a dermatologist if you’re unsure.
Be mindful of the rapid onset of purpuric lesionscon the skin.
They warrant suspicion of such conditions as vasculitis, hypercoaguable states, and disseminated angiotropic infections, says Dr. Hopkins of Oregon Health & Science University. “The shape and size of purpuric skin lesions help determine the etiology. A few characteristic examples include papular purpura and retiform purpura. Papular purpura [raised purpuric papules] may suggest vasculitis. Purpura that forms net-like patches is called retiform purpura and suggests a vaso-occlusive process, such as from a hypercoaguable state, embolic phenomena, or calciphylaxis.”
13 Avoid consults for improving rashes and seborrheic keratosis, as well as nonurgent outpatient issues, such as psoriasis, rosacea, or a history of skin cancer. These conditions “are more easily addressed in a clinic, as opposed to in a hospital, where the patient is lying in a bed feeling ill with IV tubes in place,” Dr. Aires says. “It also reflects respect for the dermatologist’s time. Inpatient dermatology can be pretty busy, so it’s preferable to consult primarily for urgent skin issues.” Consultations can be costly, too, and most patients would rather avoid additional medical bills.
Don’t prescribe combined betamethasone/clotrimazole, also known as Lotrisone, for chronic scaly hands, feet, or groin.
Although it is not harmful, “it is not usually a great choice for typical ‘dermatophyte’ fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot and ‘jock itch,’” Dr. Aires says. “Over-the-counter Lamisil is better, particularly following daily use of 10-minute soaks in 50-50 vinegar-water. Even for yeast infections, miconazole is better than clotrimazole.”
As for betamethasone, this “component is way too strong for the groin area and can cause atrophy or worse,” he says.
—Daniela Kroshinsky, MD, MPH, director of inpatient dermatology, education, and research, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
Encourage patients to follow up with a dermatologist on an outpatient basis.
By heeding this advice, patients are less likely to return to the ED for skin conditions that can be managed in an office, says Kirsten Flynn, MD, a dermatologist at Banner Health Center in Sun City West, Ariz. Inpatient admissions by dermatologists have been decreasing over the years. Most patients with skin diseases or cutaneous manifestations of systemic illnesses are admitted to hospitals by other physicians.
“Many dermatologists are happy to fit in urgent consults in their clinics. Drug eruptions are by far the most common consultation request,” says Dr. Flynn, who notes that high-dose IV steroids can cause complications, such as gastrointestinal bleeding, bowel perforation, opportunistic infections, and exacerbation of underlying diseases. “In most cases, removing the offending agent and providing supportive care is the best option.”
Susan Kreimer is a freelance writer in New York.