OP-ED

OP-ED

Op-Ed: The Payoff from Preventative Healthcare: How disease screening saves lives and money

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To understand and effectively navigate the current healthcare debate, every U.S. CEO must now be a healthcare leader.

From the health, well being and productivity of employees and their families to the impact on a company’s bottom line, healthcare is a major business concern for everyone. Five consecutive years of double-digit health insurance premium increases have hit the business community hard.

If we don’t identify new efficiencies in the way we administer employee-based healthcare programs, the negative impact of these costs on businesses will only grow. Healthcare spending currently accounts for 18 percent of U.S. economic output. It could reach 34 percent by 2040, according to a June 2, 2009 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, if the current rate of cost growth continues.

The Need for a Level Playing Field for Physician Pay

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Everyone in medicine knows that some physicians are overpaid for the services they provide and some are underpaid. The list of specialties in each category is no secret, though we don’t talk about it much.  It’s part of the same ethic that teaches us not to criticize another doctor’s care.

But the sad fact is that in medicine, money is tied to prestige, power, public credibility, and medical student interest.  If we don’t deal with this problem, medicine will continue to fall hopelessly into the “haves” and the “have nots,” that is, those who “own” lucrativeCPTcodes and those who don’t. So the question is how did this inequity come to be and how can it be remedied?

History shows that physician pay rarely follows value, but rather aligns with power.  When I was a medical student, heart caths were new and were the domain of invasive radiologists. But it wasn’t long before the cardiology socialites took on the radiologists and successfully claimed heart imaging as their own.  Power and wealth followed.

About the same time, neurologists were trying to win control of brain imaging, but they lost the political battle to radiologists. Think how different neurology’s image and influence would be today if neurologists owned all those CT and MRI scans! Instead, they are stuck in work that is time-consuming, patient-centered, cognitively complex, and are forced to make a living on payments from EEGs and EMGs.

A Culture of Overtreatment

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flying cadeuciiThe Dallas/Fort Worth Healthcare Daily ran a fascinating excerpt from the Steve Jacob’s book So Long, Marcus Welby, M.D.* The excerpt contained some very interesting assertions and statistics. For example:

  • Consultant PwC, relying on that Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, estimated that malpractice insurance and defensive medicine accounted for 10 percent of total health-care costs. A 2010 Health Affairs article more conservatively pegged those costs at 2.4 percent of healthcare spending.
  • In a 2010 survey, U.S. orthopedic surgeons bluntly admitted that about 30 percent of tests and referrals were medically unnecessary and done to reduce physician vulnerability to lawsuits.
  • A 2011 analysis by the American Medical Association found that the average amount to defend a lawsuit in 2010 was $47,158, compared with $28,981 in 2001. The average cost to pay a medical liability claim—whether it was a settlement, jury award or some other disposition—was $331,947, compared with $297,682 in 2001.
  • Doctors spend significant time fighting lawsuits, regardless of outcome. The average litigated claim lingered for 25 months. Doctors spent 20 months defending cases that were ultimately dismissed, while claims going to trial took 39 months. Doctors who were victorious in court spent an average of 44 months in litigation.
  • A study in The New England Journal of Medicine estimated that by age 65 about 75 percent of physicians in low-risk specialties have been the target of at least one lawsuit, compared with about 99 percent of those in high-risk specialties.
  • According to Brian Atchinson, president of the Physician Insurers Association of America (PIAA), 70 percent of legal claims do not result in payments to patients, and physician defendants prevail 80 percent of time in claims resolved by verdict.

The Oregon Experiment Revisited

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It has been a couple of weeks since the landmark Oregon Experiment paper came out, and the buzz around it has subsided.  So what now?  First, with passage of time, I think it is worth reflecting on what worked in Oregon.  Second, we should take a step back, and recognize that what Oregon really exposed is that health insurance is a small part of a much bigger story about health in general.  This bigger story is one we can’t continue to ignore.

So let’s talk quickly about what worked in Oregon.  Health insurance, when properly framed as insurance (i.e. protection against high, unpredictable costs) works because it protects people from financial catastrophe.  The notion that Americans go bankrupt because they get cancer is awful and inexcusable, and it should not happen. We are a better, more generous country than that.  We should ensure that everyone has access to insurance that protects against financial catastrophe.  Whether we want the government (i.e. Medicaid, Medicare) or private companies to administer that insurance is a debate worth having.  Insurance works for cars and homes, and the Oregon experiment makes it clear that insurance works in healthcare.  No surprise.

The far more interesting lesson from Oregon is that we should not oversell the value of health insurance to improving people’s health.  While health insurance improves access to healthcare services (modestly), its impact on health is surprisingly and disappointingly small.  There are two reasons why this is the case.  The first is that not having insurance doesn’t actually mean not having any access to healthcare.  We care for the uninsured and provide people life-saving treatments when they need it, irrespective of their ability to pay.  Sure – we then stick them with crazy bills and bankrupt them – but we generally do enough to help them stay alive.  Yes, there’s plenty of evidence that the uninsured forego needed healthcare services and the consequences of being uninsured are not just financial.  They have health consequences as well.  But, claims like 50,000 Americans die each year because of a lack of health insurance? The data from Oregon should make us a little more skeptical about claims like that.

So what really matters?  Right now, we are pouring $2.8 trillion into healthcare services while failing to deliver the basics.  To borrow a well-known phrase, our healthcare system is perfectly designed to produce the outcomes we get – and here’s what we get: mediocre care and lousy outcomes at high prices.  Great.

The Facebook Model for Socialized Health Care

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Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 5.06.17 PMAs government involvement in U.S. health care deepens—through the Affordable Care Act, Meaningful Use, and the continued revisions and expansions of Medicaid and Medicare—the politically electric watchword is “socialism.”

Online, of course, social media is not a latent communist threat, but rather the most popular destination for internet users around the world.

People, whether out of fear for being left behind, or simply tickled by the ease with which they can publicize their lives, have been sharing every element of their public (and very often, their private) lives with ever-increasing zeal. Pictures, videos, by-the-minute commentary and updates, idle musings, blogs—the means by which people broadcast themselves are as numerous and diverse as sites on the web itself.

Even as the public decries government spying programs and panics at the news of the latest massive data-breach, the daily traffic to sites like Facebook and Twitter—especially through mobile devices—not only stays high, but continues to grow. These sites are designed around users volunteering personal information, from work and education information, to preferences in music, movies, politics, and even romantic partners.

So why not health data?

Training Day

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Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 7.20.19 PMDr. Samuels’ day-long training experience is unfortunate, but it’s only the opening chords of a much longer symphony of time commitments required by electronic medical records (EHRs).  Many studies document the extra time that EHRs impose on doctors and patients. Research in U.S. hospitals and medical offices suggest that these systems can add a half-hour or much more time to a day. A study by McDonald et al (2013 JAMA Internal Medicine) found EHRs added 48 minutes/day to ambulatory physicians, and Hill et al found that in a large  community hospital emergency room 43% of all physician time was spent entering data into the EHR. This almost doubled the time spent caring for patients, and tripled the time needed to interpret tests and records. (Annals of Emergency Medicine, 2014).

Some of that extra time is spent with clunky interfaces and  hide-n-go seeking for information that should be immediately available, such as arbitrary or unexpected  presentations of data, e.g., having to find a patient’s history by clicking on her current room number, or lab reports that may be arranged by chronology, by reverse chronology, by the lab company, by the organ system, by who ordered them, or by some informal heading, such as “blood work” or “tests” or “labs.”  Then there’s the constant box clicking (or what clinicians call “clickarrhea”).  EHRs also send thousands of usually irrelevant alerts that desensitize doctors to legitimate clinical recommendations.

All American Physicians Should Be Members of the AMA

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All American physicians should be members of the American Medical Association (AMA). And, while they are at it, they should also be members of their county, state, and principal specialty societies.

Why? Because they are the only games in town, and both security and safety are top Maslow imperatives.

The only real political power any physician has is the individual power of persuasion and participation (or not) and the power of a group.

American physicians, if united, would have huge clout, speaking with one voice. American physicians, divided as now, speak with hundreds of thousands of individual voices, a cacophony of futility.

As The Bard saith in Macbeth “… tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

If you are an American physician and you don’t like what the AMA has done and is doing, if you are not a member, shut your mouth, you have no right to complain.

Do You Believe Doctors Are Systems, My Friends?

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In the current issue of The New Yorker, surgeon Atul Gawande provocatively suggests that medicine needs to become more like The Cheesecake Factory – more standardized, better quality control, with a touch of room for slight customization and innovation.

The basic premise, of course, isn’t new, and seems closely aligned with what I’ve heard articulated from a range of policy experts (such as Arnold Milstein) and management experts (such as Clayton Christensen, specifically in his book The Innovator’s Prescription).

The core of the argument is this: the traditional idea that your doctor is an expert who knows what’s best for you is likely wrong, and is both dangerous and costly.  Instead, for most conditions, there are a clear set of guidelines, perhaps even algorithms, that should guide care, and by not following these pathways, patients are subjected to what amounts to arbitrary, whimsical care that in many cases is unnecessary and sometimes even harmful – and often with the best of intentions.

According to this view, the goal of medicine should be to standardize where possible, to the point where something like 90% of all care can be managed by algorithms – ideally, according to many, not requiring a physician’s involvement at all (most care would be administered by lower-cost providers).  A small number of physicians still would be required for the difficult cases – and to develop new algorithms.

After the Navy Yard Shooting: A Call to Action On Mental Illness

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The Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C. has once again confronted us with the issues of guns and mental illness, but what we really should address is the inadequacy of mental health care in the United States. Since 2009 there have been 21 mass shootings and the perpetrators in over half of these were suffering from or suspected to have a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. (The other killers with no signs of mental illness were ideological zealots, disgruntled employees and disaffected loners.)

After each incident there is a great hue and cry, and calls for action but no substantive action is taken. Our reflexive approach has repeatedly failed to provide care in a timely fashion to individuals in need. As a country, we continue to ignore the growing public health need for greater access and a more proactive approach to mental health care. It is time that we say enough is enough and do something to prevent future tragedies.

When you strip away the hype and politics, the causal factors in these horrific incidents are clear and solvable. Yet we’ve lacked the social and political will to fashion and apply the solution.

The plain truth of the matter is that we do not provide adequate services to the 26% of the U.S. population with mental illness. The scope of and access to mental health services available to most people are limited and fragmented. Moreover, insurance coverage is all too often lacking and discriminatory. Consequently, we do not provide the level and quality of care of which physicians and health care providers are capable. It is the equivalent of knowing that a woman has breast cancer but not offering the indicated treatment options of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The result is that many people go untreated or inadequately treated.

The GOP’s Health Policy Cynics

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The health care community is discovering to its shock and dismay that it’s not simply traditional Republican conservatives who have taken control of the House of Representatives, it’s a new group of cynics.

Conservatives, like liberals, have a more-or-less coherent set of ideas. They use political power to push preferred policies, whether related to health care, housing or a hundred other possible issues. William F. Buckley Jr., one of the fathers of modern American conservatism, “had a way of … making conservatism a holistic view of life not narrowed to the playing fields of ideology alone,” as one admirer put it.

Although cynics may claim conservative credentials, their view of government is really nothing more than a quarrel about its cost. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s immortal phrase, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The contrast between the two viewpoints was on stark display at two recent marquée meetings, AcademyHealth’s yearly policy conference and the sprawling Health Information and Management Systems Society — HIMSS — Health IT Conference and Exhibition.

AcademyHealth’s “Running of the Wonks” (my term, not theirs) is a magnet for researchers and policy mavens who are inured by long experience to most political rhetoric. Yet at the general session featuring a bipartisan dialogue among congressional staffers, the harsh rhetoric from the GOP participants stunned the crowd. The new federal health law, it seemed, was evil incarnate, and the rhetoric of “repeal and replace” was wielded with a fundamentalist zeal.