NEW @ THCB PRESS: Surviving Workplace Wellness. Spring 2014. Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. e-book edition. # LIGHTHOUSE Healthcare. Illuminated.

OP-ED

PAMWe all know “that patient” – the one we may dismissively label “noncompliant.”

The person with diabetes whose HA1C is consistently above normal limits – the one who swears, when confronted with the numbers (yet again) he’ll start eating right and using his insulin as prescribed.

And yet, month after month, the lab work tells a different story. We watch in helpless frustration as patients like these spiral downward, developing complication after complication.

I thought about “that patient” as I read a recent Wall Street Journal article describing Dr. Judith Hibbard’s Patient Activation Measure (PAM), which she and her colleagues at the University of Oregon developed some years ago.

First, let me say I greatly admire the research and work of Dr. Hibbard and her team; I believe that the PAM is a wonderful tool and a step forward in better understanding patients.

While the article, and Dr. Hibbard, argue that the use of the tool can better target the needs of patients – and I agree – I can’t help but worry that the entire premise that patients need to be “activated” misses a point.

Patients are people before they are patients.

We know that when people are sick, they are still part of their broader world of family, friends and finances. We also know that their social, spiritual and psychological selves are every bit as important, and as important to their “cure” as their activation as a patient.

I suspect that Dr. Hibbard would agree with me and even argue that the PAM reflects all of these factors.

PAM is accurately diagnosing the end state – how all these factors impact the patient and the patient’s ability to be involved in his or her own care.

I worry, however, that the PAM may be oversold by healthcare administrators who put it in place as a way of trying to address all the factors that affect patient activation.

Continue reading “Diagnosis Is Not Therapy”

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flying cadeuciiThe American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), sometimes called the Stimulus Actwas an $831 billion economic stimulus package enacted by the 111th Congress in February 2009 and signed into law on February 17, 2009 by the President.

It included $22 billion as incentives to encourage adoption of certified electronic medical records in hospitals and medical practices. The rationale behind the policy directive was clear: system-wide implementation of electronic medical records enables improvement in diagnostics and treatment coordination, fewer errors, and better coordination of patient care by teams of providers.

Almost immediately, the medical community cried foul.

Their primary beef: the cost to implement these new systems would not be recovered by the incentives.

Similarly, physicians pushed back on the conversion of the U.S. coding system from ICD-9 to ICD-10. They did not question the need for the upgrade: the increase from 19,000 to 68,000 codes is necessary to more accurately capture all relevant clinical aspects of a patient’s condition and align our data gathering with 20 other developed systems of the world where ICD-10 is already used.

That health insurers, medical groups, hospitals and others must use the same coding system that reflects advances in how we diagnose and treat seems a no brainer. But some physicians pushed back due to costs and disruption in their practices.

Last week, physicians won a battle: the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) announced it was delaying the deadline for implementation of ICD-10 for a year, to October 1, 2015.

Continue reading “Health Information Technology: Sorry, There’s No Turning Back!”

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flying cadeuciiI recently read a blog by Dr. Danielle Ofri in the New York Times “Well” blog about how as a physician she learned to respect the patient’s wishes even when they contradict her professional inclinations. It’s called Doctor Priorities vs Patient Priorities.”

She writes that the patient is looking through a “wide-angle lens” that takes in the whole of his life while the doctor’s lens is “narrowly focused on the disease that pose[s] the gravest and most immediate risk”. She saw her challenge as entering into dialogue with her patient in order better to understand the wider perspective of his whole life and to work with him to find the most acceptable way to deal with his disease.

If only Dr. Ofri were an oncologist. If only she were my oncologist. My last appointment with my onco, Dr. G, was a disaster. Not only have I not been back to her, I have not gone to any oncologist since then. Part of that is because I don’t want any treatment at this time; that’s still true.

But if I am going to be very honest, and I try to be that always, it is also because of that disastrous appointment with Dr. G.

First of all, she would not respect my decision not to have any more chemo and refused to order any scans unless I would a priori agree to chemo if she decided it was indicated. She also mocked me. It took a long time for me to tell that second bit. In fact, from that day in August 2013 until just recently—seven months!—I only told one or two other people about what happened.

The evening of that last appointment, Dr. G called me at home to continue the argument. I found myself apologizing for causing her distress. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous, but that is how I react to being bullied. Borrowing the words of a friend who really gets it, I apologize to others for their hurtful behavior and then I internalize it. I haven’t talked about Dr. G mocking me because I feel ashamed.

Continue reading “Whose Cancer Is It, Anyway?”

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flying cadeuciiCMS released new data, shrouded thus far in needless secrecy: how much it pays individual physicians.

Unlike the Shroud of Turin, no one will question its authenticity. But authenticity doesn’t guarantee the data won’t intrigue, confuse, anger, perplex, confound and burn a few innocents at the stakes. That is before we conclude that more research is needed, or more colloquially stated, we still don’t have a clue.

Medicare bounty hunters, the modern day witch finders, are licking their lips for their share of the looted spoils. Academic researchers will be dissecting both wings of the bell-shaped curve of variation in payment to set the next battle between good and evil. But all eyes (pun intended) are upon Florida; specifically one particular provider.

The provider, an ophthalmologist, (you can look up the name) billed CMS for $21 million.

CMS paid ophthalmologists $ 5.6 billion. That’s more than the GDP of Burundi. CMS paid over a billion dollars for treatment of macular degeneration with Lucentis (Genentech).

Take a deep breath now. The treatment of one organ in over 65 year old American citizens is equal to the GDP of one African nation. Gini would have turned beetroot with embarrassment.

Diabolical? Scandalous? Shocking? Surprising?

None of the above, actually. If you think about it.

As we age, and age we do thanks to our lives being constantly “saved” by prevention, regulation and cures, arteries harden, brain atrophies and bones thin. And eyesight falters. Lens fog. Macula degenerates, reducing central vision making it difficult to read.

As we age, we consume more medical services. Yes, take that as an economic truism. And no, I’m not applying for membership of the Death Panel.

Here’s the thing. It’s nice to be able to see when you’re 75. It’s also nice to see when 85, and damn essential when 90.

Otherwise you might trip over the walking stick, fracture the neck of the femur, develop a clot in the deep veins, then a clot in the pulmonary arteries, then a raging pneumonia in ICU, followed by septic shock and a cardiac arrest. Then perhaps you may rest in peace. But not before a few interns have fractured half a dozen ribs during a well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided cardiopulmonary resuscitation that family members lobbied for to assuage their guilt for never visiting you in your nursing home.

Continue reading “It’s Raining Cataracts, Hallelujah”

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A recent ProPublica expose co-published with the Boston Globe typifies a growing gotcha genre of health journalism that portrays doctors as the enemy in a struggle for honesty and openness in medicine.

These reports make unfounded leaps in their efforts to subject doctors to levels of skepticism once reserved for politicians and lawyers. They’re going to end up doing patients a disservice.

For this particular hunting expedition ProPublica set its sights on Dr. Yoav Golan, an infectious diseases specialist caring for patients at Tufts Medical Center in Boston who also works with pharmaceutical companies developing antibiotics.

But in its zeal to argue how physicians like Golan are corrupting medicine through their industry partnerships, ProPublica went to press without an iota of evidence Golan is corrupt.

A close look at Golan’s impressive career suggests quite the contrary and raises questions about ProPublica’s claim to objectivity.

Yoav Golan is a remarkably bad choice for anyone who hopes to use him as a poster boy of pharma-physician malfeasance.

As Tufts said in a statement in response to the ProPublica story, Golan enjoys international respect in the infectious diseases community and has assisted the development of “two important antibiotics, including the first antibiotic developed in the past 25 years to treat the growing threat of deadly C. difficile.”

(Disclosure: I held an academic appointment at Tufts for one year when I was practicing in Boston, but in another department and I never met Golan before this story.)

That antibiotic, fidaxomicin, is pricey, and you’d think an industry shill would liberally advise its use. Yet Golan and his team advised a Tufts committee setting internal standards for its use that the hospital should heavily restrict the drug. “We were very active in making sure it’s not used in pathways where it’s not cost effective,” Golan told me.

Continue reading “Going after the Wrong Doctors”

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The problem of pain, from the viewpoint of British novelist and theologian C. S. Lewis, is how to reconcile the reality of suffering with belief in a just and benevolent God.

The American physician’s problem with pain is less cosmic and more concrete. For physicians today in nearly every specialty, the problem of pain is how to treat it responsibly, stay on the good side of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and still score high marks in patient satisfaction surveys.

If a physician recommends conservative treatment measures for pain–such as ibuprofen and physical therapy–the patient may be unhappy with the treatment plan. If the physician prescribes controlled drugs too readily, he or she may come under fire for irresponsible prescription practices that addict patients to powerful pain medications such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

Consider this recent article in The New Republic:Drug Dealers Aren’t to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are.” The writer, Graeme Wood, faults his dentist for prescribing hydrocodone to relieve pain after his wisdom tooth extraction.

As further evidence of her misdeeds, he says, first she “knocked me out with propofol–the same drug that killed Michael Jackson.” Wood uses his experience–which sounds as though it went smoothly, controlled his pain, and fixed his problem–to bolster his argument that doctors indiscriminately hand out pain medications and are entirely to blame for patient addiction.

But what happens to doctors who try not to prescribe narcotics for every complaint of pain, or antibiotics for every viral upper respiratory infection? They’re likely to run afoul of patient satisfaction surveys. Many hospitals and clinics now send a satisfaction questionnaire to every patient who sees a doctor, visits an emergency room, or is admitted to a hospital.

The results are often referred to as Press Ganey scores, named for the company that is the leading purveyor of patient satisfaction surveys. Today these scores wield alarming power over physician incentive pay, promotion, and contract renewal.

Now hospital payments are at risk too.

Continue reading “The Problem of Pain: When Best Medical Advice Doesn’t Equal Patient Satisfaction”

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Politics is about expectations.

The Obama administration blew the doors off Obamacare’s enrollment expectations this week and scored big political points.

But in doing so, they may have set Obamacare’s expectations going forward at a level that can only undermine their credibility and that of the new health law.

What happens when the real number––the number of people who actually completed their enrollment––comes in far below the seven million?

What happens when the hard data shows that most of these seven million were people who had coverage before?

What happens when it becomes clear that the Obamacare insurance exchanges are making hardly a dent in the number of those uninsured?

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the non-profit Rand Corporation estimated that two-thirds of the first six million people to enroll in Obamacare were previously insured––only two million were previously uninsured.

If all of the one million people who signed up in the last week were previously uninsured, that would mean that only three million previously uninsured people have purchased coverage in the government-run exchanges.

Rand also estimated that about nine million people have enrolled directly with the insurance companies, bypassing the government-run exchanges. But Rand also reported that the vast majority of those were previously insured.

If 20% do not pay, as has been the case since Obamacare launched, then the real Obamacare exchange enrollment number is about 5.7 million.

Continue reading “7.1 Million. Will the Obama Administration Regret Today’s Announcement?”

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In December, I defended the term death panel.  Specifically, I demonstrated that we already have, and for over 50 years have had, quite a number of tribunals that act as death panels.

For example, at least daily, UNOS denies potentially life-saving organ transplant requests. While the term “death panel” has a pejorative connotation, the essential concept and function is necessary. Particularly in situations of strict scarcity, life and death decisions must be made. They are made. And they will continue to be made.

So, the relevant question is not whether to “have” death panels. Instead, the relevant question is whether we want to openly “acknowledge” our death panels. I am reminded of a famous scene from the 1992 film, A Few Good Men. You will recall that the story revolves around the court martial of two Marines charged with the murder of a fellow Marine. The defendants had administered a “Code Red,” an unofficial punishment, against a fellow member of their unit who was not sufficiently squared away to meet the Corps’ standards.

In the film’s most famous scene, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) cross examines Col. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) about the Code Red. Lt. Kaffee says, “I want the truth!” Jessup responds:

You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. . . . I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.

You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives!

You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall.

Col. Jessup’s point is that Code Reds are an invaluable part of close infantry training. But since they are “grotesque,” they are officially discouraged (even prohibited).

Is this the path that we should take with death panels? Since we find them grotesque, should we deny both their necessity and their existence? The argument has been compellingly made. In their 1978 book, Tragic Choices, Guido Calabresi and Phillip Bobbitt argued that the difficult but necessary life-and-death choices entailed in rationing can only be made by hiding them from public scrutiny.

In contrast, others call for open acknowledgement of death panels. For example, in a recent interview with Rolling Stones, Bill Gates rightly observed that we must deny even effective and life-saving medical technology to some people. “The idea that there aren’t trade-offs is an outrageous thing. Most countries know that there are trade-offs, but here, we manage to have the notion that there aren’t any. So that’s unfortunate, to not have people think, ‘Hey, there are finite resources here.’”

Gates is right. Calabresi and Bobbitt are wrong. The disadvantages of a “hide and deny” approach are substantial. First, it makes it more difficult to have our death panels operate in an open and transparent manner. This increases the risk of bias and corruption. Second, it means that they may not operate according to sufficiently deliberated principles. Third, a hide and deny approach means that death panels may not operate in a consistent and uniform manner from region to region. In short, hiding and denying death panels forecloses and delays much needed public discourse over how we want out death panels to operate.

Death panels, while tragic, save lives. And their existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to many, saves lives. We don’t want the truth, because deep down in places we don’t talk about at parties, we want death panels.

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As a physician, I know the challenge of helping patients determine which health care options might work best for them given their personal situation and preferences.

Too often they — and their clinicians — must make choices about preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases and health conditions without adequate information. The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) was created to help solve this problem — to help patients and those who care for them make better-informed health decisions.

Established by Congress through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as an independent research institute, PCORI is designed to answer real-world questions about what works best for patients based on their particular circumstances and concerns. We do this primarily by funding comparative clinical effectiveness research (CER), studies that compare multiple care options.

But more research by itself won’t improve clinical decision-making. Patients and those who care for them must be able to easily find relevant evidence they can trust. That’s why our mandate is not just to fund high-quality CER and evidence synthesis but to share the results in ways that are meaningful to patients, clinicians and others.

We’re also charged with improving the methods used in conducting those studies and enhancing our nation’s capacity to do such research.

We will be evaluated ultimately on whether the research we fund can change clinical practice and help reduce the variations and disparities that stand between patients and better outcomes. We’re confident that the work we’re funding brings us and the audiences we serve closer to that goal.

Recently, some questions have been raised in health policy circles about our holistic approach to PCORI’s work. That view holds that direct comparisons of health care options — especially those involving high-priced interventions — should be the dominant if not sole focus of PCORI’s research funding approach as a path to limiting the use of expensive, less-effective options.

We agree that discovering new knowledge on how therapies compare with one another is a critical mandate of PCORI and is essential to improving the quality and effectiveness of care.  However, ensuring that patients and those who care for them have timely access to and can use this knowledge, so that they can effectively apply it to improve their decisions, is also very important.

Continue reading “How PCORI’s Research Will Answer the Real World Questions Patients Are Asking”

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Robert McNutt and Nortin  Hadler respond to med student Karan Chhabra’s  original post,  ”Actually, High Tech Imaging Can Be High Value Medicine” and the resulting discussion thread.

Thank you for your comments. First, we are happy you are so interested in medical practice and how to do it better. Please do not think for one second that our comments are critical of you.

However, since you persist in thinking that money matters, that you have the right to think that way during your care of a patient, and that economic principles help patients, let’s look again at this issue you have raised.

Nearly 20 years ago, Hadler published his first “Four Laws of Therapeutic Dynamics” (JOEM 1997; 39:295-8):

1) .    The Death Rate is One per Person

2) .    Never Poke a Skunk

3) .   There has Never been a Quack without a Theory

4) .   Institutions Die; People Live

Now we present, for the first time ever, the econometric corollaries, the McNutt-Hadler Credo for Value-laden Medical Decision Making:

1) Don’t think of money; think of what the money buys. No patient should be offered a pig-in-a-poke.

2) Don’t think for one moment that medical pricing is rational, let alone market driven. Medical pricing is designed to serve the greed of stakeholders, greed that seems to know no ethical boundaries. Caveat emptor is no match for “common practice” The only way the “consumer” stands a chance is if there are physicians committed to explaining the basis for clinical decisions in an unbiased, transparent, and ethical fashion.

3) If it doesn’t benefit the patient, we don’t care if they give it away – don’t prescribe or order it. (For example, no stable in-patient should have any of the following tests: amylase or lipase; any test for iron deficiency other than the ferritin; CRP, BNP, MRI after a CT of the head, or any chronic care medicine like a statin, iron tablet, heart healthy diet in a cancer patient, vitamin, a blood pressure medicine that costs more than the cheapest alternative, a non-generic medicine that is available in generic form, enteric coated aspirin, or bone scans in women looking for osteoporosis)

Continue reading “McNutt-Hadler Credo for Value-Laden Medical Decision Making”

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