Costs of Care
He winced in a way that made me feel his discomfort. It wasn’t overly dramatic; it was a response of a man trying to put on a brave face and hide his pain, but – as I gently laid my hands on his belly – failing against his best efforts. This man had real abdominal pain, the kind that is impossible not to immediately empathize with. I got concerned.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked, while my mind began to immediately tick through a differential diagnosis.
“Well it probably started a year ago, but got really bad about four months ago,” this otherwise healthy-appearing, thirty-something-year-old man said.
We were in a small curtained-off area in the hectic Emergency Department at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). I started to wonder what in the world would possibly cause somebody to wait many months with severe abdominal pain and rectal bleeding before coming to see a doctor.
I asked a few more questions, verifying that he was indeed having bright red blood with his bowel movements, had lost at least 10-pounds over the last few months and has dealt with nausea and debilitating abdominal pain ever since the end of last year.
Continue reading “Side Effects May Include Financial Ruin”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, Uncategorized
Tagged: cost awareness, Costs, Crohn’s Disease, medical bills, personal bankruptcy, UCSF Cost Awareness conference
May 9, 2012
Who doesn’t love a Top 10 list? Creating them is an art form. So when it was formally proposed by Dr. Brody in 2010 in the NEJM that each specialty create their own “Top 5 list” of unnecessary care, it seemed like a straightforward – if not downright provocative – suggestion.
“The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit,” he wrote.
And yet, thus far the only groups that have seemed to have taken him up on the suggestion have been the primary care specialties of Internal Medicine, Family Medicine and Pediatrics – notably amongst the least compensated fields in health care.
This is a great start, but c’mon guys, where are the rest of you? Dr. Brody wrote you a “prescription.” We have a term for your behavior: “noncompliance.”
Not to say that there hasn’t been some progress. The ABIM Foundation has indeed put together an impressive list of organizations participating in their “Choosing Wisely” campaign. They also have begun to be instrumental in funding projects towards this goal. Costs of Care has highlighted far-reaching areas of non-value-based care, including a recent thoughtful essay about robotic surgery. We must now consolidate on these small gains and move this forward across all specialties in medicine.
Continue reading “The Letterman Approach to Cost Awareness”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, Uncategorized
Tagged: ABIM, Checklists, Choosing Wisely, cost awareness, Costs, UCSF
Apr 6, 2012
Peggy was in her early 70s and suffered from a terrible lung disease known as pulmonary hypertension. Her case was so bad that she had a pump infusing a medicine under her skin 24 hours a day to keep the blood supply to her lungs open. Once started, this medicine, treprostinil, was known to improve life in those with pulmonary hypertension. Unfortunately, like all continuous infusion medicines of this type, it has the unfortunate side effect of sudden death if stopped for more than 4 hours. Starting it was a difficult choice for Peggy and her expert team of physicians, but her disease had progressed to a point where it was the right decision. As you can imagine, this drug was mighty expensive. We would only find out how expensive later.
On the day that I met Peggy, she was being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) not for her pulmonary hypertension, but because she had a bleed in her stomach, which caused her to swallow blood/stomach contents into her already damaged lungs. Once stabilized, our first challenge was to ensure that she continued on the treprostinil. It took a little magic from pharmacy and the drug’s manufacturer, but we were able to get everything together and Peggy was no worse for the wear.
A few days later Peggy was improving, breathing tube out and awake and back to herself. Due to the special nursing needs with treprostinil, Peggy was required to be in the Cardiac Care Unit (CCU), a special type of (ICU), despite her progress. Even though Peggy managed this medicine at home by herself, hospital policy prevented her from transitioning out of the ICU to the general medical floor, at a fraction of the cost. Conceding that point, the decision was made to try and transition Peggy directly to Rehab. But her progress was stalled for one simple reason: treprostinil.
Continue reading “The Unfortunate Side Effect of Death”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Cost-conscious, Costs, Physicians, Pulmonary Hypertension, Treprostinil
Feb 16, 2012
As a third year medical student, I spent one afternoon each week at a health clinic at a community hospital affiliated with my medical school. This health clinic was focused on primary care for patients with HIV, and many of our patients were poor, homeless, immigrants, or uninsured. Many were also living with their diagnosis in secrecy and had to hide their medications and medical bills from family members.
One of my patients, who I will call Clara, was a 65 year old Haitian immigrant who diabetes, heart failure, and depression, along with HIV. Due to her medical conditions, she was unable to work. She had two grown children, but they did not live nearby and did not know about her medical problems, especially her HIV. Her husband, unfortunately, was very ill and lived in a nursing home. Clara somehow managed on her own, but her lack of insurance, poor medical literacy, and limited English proficiency made it difficult for her to stay healthy, and she was constantly coming to clinic for help.
At one visit, Clara seemed unusually tired and revealed that she had been feeling short of breath at home. In my mind, this raised many questions—Could this be a heart attack? Worsening heart failure? A blood clot in her lungs? Pneumonia?
Continue reading “Treating Heart Failure on a $100 Budget”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, THCB
Tagged: Costs, ER
Jan 30, 2012
It all started while out to dinner with a couple of my fellow Brigham/Massachusetts General Hospital OB/Gyn residents. We were discussing our favorite old TV shows and one fellow resident’s love of The Price Is Right with Bob Barker. After talking about the game show, a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “Why can’t we play The Price is Right with hospital charges to our patients?”
With further discussion we realized that none of us knew the hospital charge, or the cost to our patients for routine workups we routinely order in our gynecology clinic. We really had no idea.
After asking around, I realized that I was not alone in my lack of knowledge, or the idea to play The Price is Right with hospital charges. A couple of years prior the Massachusetts General Hospital Internal Medicine residents had played a similar game with the goal to create awareness of the costs associated with routine workups.
Continue reading “Teaching Residents about Costs: The Price is Right”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, Physicians, THCB
Tagged: Costs, hospital charges, medical residents
Jan 3, 2012
What if everyday purchases were priced and consumed like healthcare services?
These days you’d have to try hard not to know the price of a product or service before you buy it. So imagine booking an airline ticket with zero knowledge of the cost, only to return home to a bunch of outstanding bills for the trip. One statement may cover the seat rental and fuel used. Another bill may itemize each time the flight attendant handed out drinks. A few weeks later a bill for the pilot’s flying time may roll in. Can you imagine the resulting confusion, stress and angst?
I know it sounds absurd but this is the nightmare patients face every time they use the healthcare system. And it isn’t uncommon for these confusing medical bills to spiral out of control. Last year, the Commonwealth Fund (a non-profit healthcare research group) reported that 20% of US adults had medical debt or faced problems paying medical bills and only 58% of Americans felt confident they would be able to afford the care they needed.
So what options do consumers have when faced with the reality of paying for their healthcare?
Continue reading “Crowd-sourcing Medical Bills”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, Pharma, THCB
Tagged: Comparable cost, Costs, Crowdsourcing, EOB, Health cost knowledge, Katie Vahle
Nov 5, 2011
I can’t think of a single industry that is more inherently personal—more emotional than health care.
Everyone has a story of how the health care system has impacted their lives. My family’s experience with the healthcare system had both positive and negative results. Thankfully, my brother survived a brain tumor as a young child and my father’s heart disease was treated early enough to prevent a heart attack. However, the bills for these procedures were astonishing. Perhaps even more shocking was the complete inability of doctors and insurance companies to give an accurate estimate of what the procedures would cost. There was no more clarity with routine follow-up procedures like MRIs and stress tests. On any given day, a doctor may order the same test several times, so how does uncertainty exist about how much it costs? And if doctors don’t know the cost, how are patients supposed to be informed consumers of health care?
Many insured patients don’t worry about how much a procedure costs—frankly, with third-party payers, they often don’t have to. In fact, if you are sick and diagnostic tests are covered, you might push for your doctor to administer all potentially beneficial services. However, at some point the over-utilization of services at unclear prices results in detrimental care that is ultimately more costly than helpful. In some cases, particularly for patients with high deductibles or loop holes in their insurance plans, these costs may even cause significant financial harm.
Continue reading “A Student’s Summer Reflections on Price Transparency”
Filed Under: Costs of Care
Tagged: Costs, Jeffrey Herman
Aug 23, 2011
I would like to share a story about my son’s recent surgery that, while only one simple case, reveals the foundational problem with the U.S. health care system.
I write this story as a father of a 12 year old boy who has cerebral palsy. Jack is fortunate to be healthy and active with minor medical needs. As he has grown he experienced some issues with contractures in his right lower leg which recently required a minor 2 hour outpatient surgical procedure. That is where our saga begins.
When Jack’s surgery was scheduled I started the time consuming process of getting price estimates from the surgeon, anesthesiologist and the facility since we have a high deductible insurance plan. The physician fees were straight forward and relatively easy to obtain, not so with the facility. Jack’s surgery was scheduled at the local hospital’s outpatient surgical facility. I called the hospital to request a price for the surgery and they said they couldn’t really tell me. They offered to send the procedure codes to an external reviewer who would provide a general idea of the anticipated charges. Three days later the answer came back at $37,000. I reiterated that I had high deductible insurance and needed to know the actual price they would bill me after an insurance adjustment to the network fee schedule.
Continue reading “Dropping the Price of Surgery”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Costs, Hospital service pricing, Jeffrey Rice
Aug 9, 2011
Joe is a guy that never really cared about his health. He is overweight, according to any objective standard, and always attributes this to “bigger muscles” (it isn’t). He dutifully comes in once a year, but admittedly only because of his wife’s insistence. She worries about his lack of exercise, his growing abdominal midsection (“muscle”) and the fact that all he does on weekends is sleep. There is a strong history of heart disease in his family—his father was only a few years older than Joe, when he collapsed at the dinner table and died. Joe always turns down repeated offers for the flu vaccine with the response, “I never get sick,” and shows little interest in his lab results, even though his blood sugar and office blood pressure are always high (“I get nervous at the doctor’s office”) and his “bad” cholesterol has never been even close to normal.
At his last appointment, Joe forcefully slapped a stack of papers on the exam table and seemed agitated. “We had a health screening at work last week,” he explained, “My numbers are out of whack and I need your help.” I wasn’t surprised at the numbers, but his seemingly new interest in his own health had me intrigued until he explained. “I get $50.00 off my health premiums, if my blood pressures are normal and $150.00 for having a physical,” he said. Mystery solved—money supplied by his employer was motivating Joe to get healthy. Continue reading “Unintended Consequences”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Medical Home, primary care, Quality
Jul 20, 2011
My patient needed to be delivered. She had just developed eclampsia, a potentially fatal disease that afflicts women in the second half of pregnancy. She had suffered a seizure and dangerously high blood pressure, and was at risk for far worse, including a stroke. No one knows why this condition arises, but delivery sure clears it up in a hurry.
So we gave medication to start labor, and the nurses placed a fetal heart monitor.
Worn like a belt, but higher on the abdomen, the ultrasound monitor would play a crucial role in the hours to come. It prints a read-out strip of the baby’s heart rate, and the pattern would guide us in determining whether the delivery would be natural or through cesarean section.
As I suspected, the baby’s heart-rate strip showed worrisome changes soon after labor began, and I knew it would get worse as labor progressed. We would fight through the night to have a natural delivery. But ultimately that single heart-rate test, which is surprisingly unreliable, would be a key factor in whether my patient would get a C-section or not.
Continue reading “My Patient Needed to Be Delivered”
Filed Under: Costs of Care, THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Alexander Friedman, Costs, Eclampsia, Fetal heart monitoring, Pregnancy
Jul 18, 2011