Dear Ms. Jolie,
Thank you for your bravery and leadership in the battle against breast cancer. In a small way, through my patients, I understand the challenge and pain it took not only to undergo prophylactic mastectomies, because you carry the BRCA1 cancer gene, but also to reveal this deeply personal part of your life to the world (NYT, 5/14/13; My Medical Choice). You had no obligation to open your soul; your selfless act leaves those of us that treat the dread disease, in awe.
Your action will save more lives than all the patients I could help, even if I were to practice oncology for hundreds of years. By opening up the conversation, by educating and by boldly stating that beauty, strength and health are possible, even when radical choices are made, you open up life saving opportunities for many. Mastectomies may not be the answer for all women, but the very idea that cancer can be prevented, instead of simply waiting in fear, is earth shattering.
Women and men will now better understand the genetic risks for cancer, be exposed to the different options which are available in the prevention of cancer and know that it is possible, whatever path is taken, to continue with full lives. You have made it easier for patients, their families and physicians to have vital discussions.
The announcement of your surgery coincides with a critical legal battle, the deliberations of the United States Supreme Court regarding BRCA genetic testing. You have put pressure on the Court to find against Myriad Genetics Corporation in the company’s attempt to protect their expensive monopoly of the breast cancer genetic assay. Thus, the Court will have the opportunity to reduce the cost of testing, which as you note, can run thousands of dollars per patient.
Your action changes the war against breast cancer. You have prevented the suffering of thousands and given them the opportunity to go on with life and be part of what is truly important, families and communities.
Thank you for your remarkable sacrifice.
James C. Salwitz, MD
James C. Salwitz, MD is a Medical Oncologist in private practice for 25 years, and a Clinical Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He frequently lectures at the Medical School and in the community on topics related to cancer care, Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Dr. Salwitz blogs at Sunrise Rounds in order to help provide an understanding of cancer.
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Angelina Jolie, BRCA1, Breast cancer, Cancer, James Salwitz, Screening
May 14, 2013
A woman’s mother dies at age 56. A blood test is done. The woman finds out she has a genetic pre-disposition to cancer. She takes what action she thinks she needs to take. A familiar story repeated over and over again every day. I’ve met many women who have made this choice. While not “normal”, it is a familiar situation. These women’s difficult choices go unheralded. But not Angelina. She has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it.
I am of two minds about Ms. Jolie’s announcement. Unlike double mastectomies for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which isn’t necessarily a cancer and can be treated with a lumpectomy, BRCA1 gene mutations can’t be treated any other way. Unless I hear differently from my breast surgeon friends, I’d say she probably did the right thing. Her decision to talk about it is probably encouraging to women who have or will have to make that choice. It raises awareness of the gene mutation. It puts breast cancer on the front page of the New York Times. Again.
Here’s my problem: double mastectomy is not a benign procedure. Ms. Jolie seems to have had a remarkably easy time of it. Yes, she says she was right back to her normal life soon after, but since Jolie’s life is not normal that’s hard to generalize. The truth is there is significant pain involved, a long period of waiting while the tissue expanders do their work, then there’s further procedures for the implants, which can develop capsules around them, or rupture, or get infected. If Angelina had chosen breast reconstructive surgery there would be the risk of the flap losing blood flow, multiple drains, overnight stays in recovery rooms or ICUs, and many many surgeries for revision, nipple creation, etc. And the results are not always beautiful. I understand that it is not Ms. Jolie’s role to scare people, but to encourage them. I would just warn against falsely rosy expectations.
I am not trying to discourage double mastectomy. Sometimes it is necessary. I do think that people who have extraordinary access to public attention must pay extraordinary attention to what they say. I wish Angelina all the best for a complete, and beautiful, recovery.
Shirie Leng, MD is a practicing anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She blogs regularly at medicine for real.
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Angelina Jolie, Breast cancer, Cancer, prevention, Screening, Shirie Leng
May 14, 2013
There was a hole in the wall of our bathroom that was a painful reminder of a bad encounter with a plumber. Yes, that hole has been there about a year, and it has been on my to-d0 list for the duration, daring me to show if I inherited any of the fix-it genes I got from my father. Why not hire someone to come fix it? I also got (as I mentioned in my last post) dutch genes, which scream at me whenever I reach for my wallet. So this hole was giving me shame in surround-sound.
I attempted to fix it the hole last year, even going to the degree of asking for a router table for my birthday. Since there was previously no way to get to this all-important access to the shower fixture without cutting through the sheetrock, I decided I would take a board, cut it larger than the hole, then use the router to make a rabbet cut so the panel would fit snuggly. Up until then, I thought a rabbet cut was a surgery to keep the family pet population under control, but my vocabulary was suddenly expanded to include words like rabbet, roundover, chamfer, dado and round nose. Unfortunately, my success only came in the realm of vocabulary, as I was not able to successfully master the rabbet cut without making the wood become a classic example of the early american gouge woodworking style.
I am not sure why, but something inside me told me today was the day to give this another shot, and to my shock (and that of my family), I was successful!
This home project is actually a late comer to the DIY party I’ve been holding for the past few months.
- Don’t like your practice? Build your own from scratch!
- Don’t like the health care system, build a new one!
My latest DIY venture is in an area I swore I’d not go: I’m building my own record system.
Continue reading “The DIY Electronic Medical Record”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: EHR, practice management, primary care, Rob Lamberts
May 13, 2013
The recent Medicare report on variation in hospital “prices” is not exactly news. In fact, I wonder why anyone (including the NY Times and NPR) covered it, let alone make it a lead story.
As you probably know, Medicare reported that hospital charges for specific treatments, such as joint replacement surgery, greatly vary from one hospital to another. (This includes charges for all services during the hospitalization, including room charges, drugs, tests, therapy visits, etc.) Everyone in the healthcare business knows that charges do not equal the actual prices paid to hospitals, no more than automobile sticker prices equal the prices that car buyers actually pay. Except that for the past thirty years, the gap for hospitals greatly exceeds (in percentage terms) the gap for cars. This is not just a nonstory, it is an old nonstory.
So reporters tried to give it a new spin. One angle concerns the uninsured, who may have to pay full charges. I will write about this in a future blog. Another angle is that by publishing these charges, Medicare will encourage patients to shop around. That is the subject of this blog.
I suppose it is okay to tell patients that the amount they might have to pay out of their own pockets may vary from one hospital to the next. But the published charge data is useless for computing out of pocket payments; in fact, it may be worse than useless. As even the NY Times noted, insured patients make copayments based on prices that their insurers negotiate with hospitals. These prices are essentially uncorrelated with charges. So a patient who visits a hospital with low charges may well make higher out-of-pocket payments than a patient who visits a high charge hospital. It is a crap shoot.
Continue reading “The Rest of the Story About Hospital Pricing”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, bitter pill, CMS, Costs, David Dranove, Hospitals, Pharma, Price controls, Transparency
May 9, 2013
A trio of groundbreaking publications on healthcare came out this April. They are my required reading list for CEOs. First is a study published in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Eappen and colleagues (including among them Atul Gawande). The study found infections occurred in 5 percent of all surgeries in an unnamed southern hospital system. For U.S. hospitals, this is not an unusual rate of error — even though it is about 100 times higher than what most manufacturing plants would tolerate. No automaker would stay in business if 5 percent of their cars had a potentially fatal mechanical flaw.
If that’s not bad enough, the second finding is where we enter the realm of the absurd: according to the study, purchasers paid the hospital to make these errors. Medicare paid a bonus of more than $3000 for each one of the infections; Medicaid got a relative “bargain,” paying only $900 per infection. But the real chumps were the commercial purchasers (CEOs, that’s you). Employers and other purchasers paid $39,000 for each infection, twelve times as much as your government paid through Medicare. Most companies could create a good job with $39,000, but instead they paid a hospital for the privilege of infecting an employee. How many good jobs haven’t been created so businesses can pay for this waste?
Most employers are far more hard-nosed about managing their purchase of, say, office supplies than they are in purchasing health care — even though, unlike healthcare, paperclips never killed anyone and no stapler can singlehandedly sap a company’s quarterly profit margin. Yet, according to the Catalyst for Payment Reform, only about 11 percent of dollars purchasers paid to healthcare providers are tied in any way to quality. The results reflect this neglect of fundamental business principles for purchasing: Quality and safety problems remain rampant and unabated in health care, while employer health costs have doubled in a decade. Continue reading “How to Avoid Being a Chump For CEOs”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: British Medical Journal, CEOs, Hospitals, JAMA, Leah Binder, Obesity, Quality, Safety, Wellness programs
May 9, 2013
“Any system of care that depends on the personal knowledge and analytic capabilities of physicians cannot be trusted.”
Finally, I’ve come across a really spot-on analysis of what ails healthcare, and some proposals that have serious potential to improve healthcare for people like my patients. Come to think of it, implementing these proposals would surely improve care for all patients.
The analysis, and the proposed fixes, are detailed by Dr. Lawrence Weed and his son Lincoln Weed, in their book “Medicine in Denial.” (The quote above is from this book.)
The book is a little long, but for those who are interested in leveraging technology to make healthcare more consistent and more patient-centered, I’d say it’s a must-read and must-discuss. (I’m a bit surprised that this book doesn’t seem to have many reviews, and that Dr. Weed’s ideas are not more often cited by those advocating for digital health and patient empowerment.) In particular, the Weeds’ book provides:
- An excellent description and analysis of two huge fundamental problems in healthcare. One is the way we persist in relying on fallible physician minds to manage the process of evaluating, diagnosing, and managing medical problems. The other is our lack of standards for consistently documenting and organizing information related to our evaluation and management of patients. Both lead to idiosyncratic, disorganized healthcare that generally serves patients poorly, especially those who are medically complex or have multiple chronic conditions.
- A proposed method of using computers and technology to consistently connect patient data to medical knowledge, leading to better diagnosis and medical management.
Continue reading “Medicine in Denial”
Filed Under: OP-ED, Tech, THCB
Tagged: Book Review, digital health, Lawrence Weed, Leslie Kernisan, Lincoln Weed, Medicine in Denial, patient empowerment, Physicians
May 4, 2013
Much has already been written about the Oregon Medicaid study that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine. Unfortunately, the vast majority is reflex, rather than reflection. The study seems to serve as a Rorschach test of sorts, confirming people’s biases about whether Medicaid is “good” or “bad”. The proponents of Medicaid point to all the ways in which Medicaid seems to help those who were enrolled – and the critics point to all the ways in which it didn’t. But, if we take a step back to read the study carefully and think about what it teaches us, there is a lot to learn.
Here is a brief, and inadequate, summary (you should really read the study): In 2008, Oregon used a lottery system to give a set of uninsured people access to Medicaid. This essentially gave Kate Baicker and her colleagues a natural experiment to study the effects of being on Medicaid. Those who won the lottery and gained access were compared to a control group who participated in the lottery but weren’t selected. Opportunities to conduct such an experiment are rare and represent the gold standard for studying the effect of anything (e.g. Medicaid) on anything (like health outcomes). Two years after enrollment, Baicker and colleagues examined what happened to people who got Medicaid versus those who remained uninsured. There are six main findings from the study. Compared to people who did not receive Medicaid coverage:
- People with Medicaid used more healthcare services – more doctor visits, more medications and even a few more ER visits and hospitalizations, though these last two were not statistically significant.
- People with Medicaid were more likely to get lots of tests – some of them probably good (cholesterol screening, Pap smears, mammograms) and some of them, probably bad (PSA tests).
- People with Medicaid, therefore, not surprisingly, spent more money on healthcare overall.
Continue reading “Misunderstanding Oregon”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, health care access, Medicaid, NEJM study, Oregon Medicaid Experiment, Outcomes, Quality
May 2, 2013
The most important study in American health policy in decades, the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, published two-year results Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. If you’re reading up on the topic, get ready for bombastic claims and scorching heat as opposed to illuminating light. The quick read leads to an easy Drudge headline – “MEDICAID DOESN’T MAKE PEOPLE HEALTHIER: OBAMACARE WILL FAIL!” – but a fuller reading of the evidence provides a more optimistic, and honest, take.
In 2008, Oregon had 90,000 individuals who wanted to enroll in its Medicaid program, but the funding to enroll only a fraction. So it decided to use the opportunity to create an unparalleled experiment: the first Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) – the gold standard research methodology that is able to isolate the causal effect of an intervention – in Medicaid history. It endeavored to show nothing less than the actual, causal effect that Medicaid has on its population, a first in the field.
This study, in other words, is a big, big deal.
Two years of data are in, and the results are mixed. First up, the disappointing: Medicaid coverage.
Continue reading “Evidence That Health Does Not Equal Healthcare? Early Results From the Oregon Experiment Are In”
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Costs, Mike Miesen, NEJM study, Obamacare, Oregon Medicaid Experiment, Outcomes, prevention
May 2, 2013
The war over the Affordable Care Act may be over, but one battle shows no signs of waning.
The fight over Section 2713 of the Public Health Services Act under ACA’s Section 101 — better known as the health law’s regulation on preventive services — centers on contraception.
The benefit essentially calls for health plans to cover birth control and other services with no additional cost-sharing for enrollees.
But critics quickly seized on the administration’s initial proposal in 2011, which carved out an exception for “religious employers” — such as churches — but not for “religiously affiliated” employers — such as Catholic hospitals. As a result, HHS delayed implementation for religiously affiliated employers by a year but still required them to comply with the mandate.
In February, the White House released another accommodation for religiously affiliated employers. Yet rather than lay the issue to rest, the administration’s proposed amendments drew more than 400,000 comments — the most comments on any government regulation tracked by the Sunlight Foundation.
It’s just the latest salvo in an ongoing controversy. Opponents have filed more than 60 legal challenges against the benefit. Some have called it a “war on religion.”
While the sheer volume is astounding, there’s little mystery behind the root cause.
The contraception benefit touches on a half-dozen pressure points: Politics. Religion. Sex. Federal mandates. Federal entitlements.
“Our health care system is the dumping ground for all of our worst, unresolved arguments as a society,” J.D. Kleinke writes at The Health Care Blog. And the changes at the heart of Obamacare “spark every remaining culture war,” he adds.
And a mandate related to birth control is especially fraught.
Continue reading “Obamacare’s Birth Control Mandate: The Most Controversial Legislation Ever?”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Birth Control mandate, Contraception, Dan Diamond, prevention, Public Health Services Act
May 2, 2013
The Sound Bite:
Increased longevity costs will bankrupt medicare.
Fact or Fiction?
This is partly fact, partly fiction. Medicare entitlement begins when a person ages in at 65, however just because beneficiaries are living longer does not necessarily mean higher Medicare costs.
The customary formulation of this myth is that Medicare is doomed by its own success in keeping its beneficiaries alive. Not only will the ranks of the program’s beneficiaries increase as the vaunted baby boom generation reaches the statutory age of eligibility, but because people are staying alive longer, Medicare’s costs will explode. The first part of this contention is indisputably true: entitlement to Medicare occurs when a person reaches age sixty-five, and the baby boom generation that is generally calibrated as starting in 1946 has arrived at that threshold. As a result, additional Medicare beneficiaries enter that program every day, and because the baby boom generation dwarfs any preceding age cohort, it is highly likely that more beneficiaries will be added to the program than are lost as older beneficiaries pass away. Consequently, the number of Medicare beneficiaries will inexorably increase over the next decade or so. Ceteris paribus, more beneficiaries mean higher aggregate costs.
The second part of the contention, however, is myth. Just because today’s Medicare beneficiaries live longer than did their predecessors does not necessarily translate into higher costs for the Medicare program. The source of this apparently counterintuitive proposition is the panoply of programmatic limitations that Medicare imposes on its coverages, regarding the myth that Medicare pays for long-term care. More specifically, beneficiaries who live longer typically do incur higher cumulative health care costs over their post-sixty-five lifetimes, but many of those costs are not borne by the Medicare program. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the following graph from an important analysis that appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine:
FIGURE 1: Cumulative Health Care Expenditures From the Age of 65 Years Until Death, According to the Type of Health Service and the Age of Death
Continue reading “Fact Check:Will Increased Longevity Bring Down Medicare?”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Costs, Long Term Care, Medicare, Richard Kaplan, Seniors
May 1, 2013