By ROB LAMBERTS, MD
My older brother is also a doctor, but not a PCP like me. He’s a specialist: a limnologist. If you have problems with blue-green algae in your lake, he’s the man to see. Limnology is the study of lakes, and fittingly, Bill works in the “Land of a Thousand Lakes” as a professor in fresh-water ecology.
I’m not sure he’s thinking of switching over to direct-care limnology. I’ve been afraid to bring it up.
We do have a lot in common in our professions, as we both see a mindless assault on the things we are trying to save (patients for me, lakes for Bill). My frustration with our health care system is matched by his anger toward those who deny global warming and the harm humans are causing on our world.
Just as he can get my blood pressure up by asking if his child will get autism from the immunizations, I simply have to suggest this week’s cold weather as proof against global warming to raise his systolic pressure.
So it was notable when I heard a rant against an unexpected target: “You know the Gaia hypothesis?” he asked. ”They think the world is a ‘living organism’ that works toward a ‘balance’ to maintain life. They believe that humans act against nature, and so are responsible for everything that’s wrong with ‘mother earth.’”
“It’s total bullshit,” he went on to explain, not waiting to hear if I knew what he was talking about. ”Do you know that when trees appeared on the earth, they caused a mass extinction (called the Permian Extinction)! Trees! There’s no mystical ‘balance of nature;’ it’s always in a constant state of flux, of imbalance.”
Let me make this clear: Bill is not saying that it’s OK that we are harming the earth, nor is he trying to absolve us of our responsibility for what we are doing. His beef was with the notion that there is some kind of ‘balance’ of nature, when the evidence clearly points to the contrary. The result of this belief is that that there is somehow an imputed moral goodness from this ‘balance’ (resulting in the idea of ‘mother earth’), and a subsequent implied immorality to any assault on our mother’s sacred ‘balance’.
This has come to mind as I have had significant changes to my thinking about giving good care my patients, especially as it applies to the area of “wellness”. Since leaving my old practice, which was immersed in a world of ICD (problem) codes and CPT (procedure) codes, I have shifted my thinking away from a medical world where every problem demands a solution. I have moved my thinking away from reacting to every thing that is going on at the moment, and toward the bigger picture. I am focusing less on problems and more on risk. I am focusing less on solutions, and more on responsibility.
Continue reading “The Purpose-Driven Doctor”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB
Tagged: Gaian Medicine, Problem-based Medicine, Reward, risk, Rob Lamberts
Nov 30, 2013
There is an old joke. What’s a radiologist’s favorite plant? The hedge.
Radiologists are famous for equivocating, or hedging.
“Pneumonia can’t be excluded, clinically correlate”. Or “probably a nutrient canal but a fracture can’t be excluded with absolute certainty, correlate with point tenderness”.
Disclaiming is satisfying neither for the radiologist nor the referring physician. It confuses rather than clarifies. So one wonders why legislators have decided to codify this singularly unclinical practice in the Breast Density Law.
The law requires radiologists to inform women that they have dense breasts on mammograms. So far so good.
The law then mandates that radiologists tell women with dense breast that they may still harbor a cancer and that further tests may be necessary.
You may quibble whether this disclaimer is an invitation or commandment for more tests, or just shared decision-making, the healthcare equivalent of consumer choice.
But it’s hard to see why any woman would forego supplementary tests such as breast ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging and 3 D mammogram, or all three, when their anxiety level is driven off the scale.
What piece of incontrovertible evidence inspired this law, you ask?
Perhaps a multi-center trial run over 10-15 years that randomized women with dense breasts to (a) mammograms plus additional screening and (b) screening mammograms alone, show that additional screening saves lives, not just find lots of small inconsequential cancers.
No. The law was instigated by a heart-rending anecdote, which avalanched into the “breast density awareness” movement, cloaked by an element of scientific plausibility: women with dense breasts may have a higher incidence of cancer; a conjecture of considerable controversy.
Wasn’t the Affordable Care Act (ACA) supposed to usher an era of rational policy-making, guided by p values, statistics not anecdotes?
Continue reading “Radiologist: Thou Shalt Disclaim by Law”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB
Tagged: Breast cancer, Breast Density Bill, prevention, Radiology, Saurabh Jha, Screening
Nov 23, 2013
State health exchanges are facing many challenges in the recent scramble to enroll their residents in the healthcare marketplace. Among the numerous obstacles, including online systemic glitches (Washington state botched the tax-credit calculation while Maryland’s appears to be having just general technical incompetence) and complete lack of knowledge (according to a recent Gallup poll, 71% of uninsured Americans have no clue what the exchanges are), a critical challenge is the quick generation of a new healthcare workforce, namely enrollment counselors and navigators.
According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, enrollment navigators are supposed to help people enroll, whether through online or paper applications, determine individual eligibility for various subsidies and assistance programs, and generally educate the public regarding the new health exchanges. Certified application counselors differ slightly from navigators, taking a less involved role in the process, but still serving as assistants to people who need help completing their application.
However, in many states, including Florida (1 navigator per 100,000 uninsured citizens as of October 1st), Georgia (only 4 people were certified to be counselors when the exchanges went live) and California (official numbers will be released on November 14th, but current estimates suggest less than 20% of future counselors are fully certified yet), there is a huge workforce shortage which is both reducing the rate of enrollment and contributing to people’s doubts about the Affordable Care Act in general.
Part of the problem is that many states, for several months now, have purposely made it more difficult for people to become certified enrollment employees; Ohio and Missouri are widely cited as two of those. They have also instituted regulations on what information counselors can and cannot give patients and have tried to implement large fines, such as in Tennessee, which luckily ruled to temporarily restrain these penalties, for those who may unknowingly breach part of the contract.
As a medical student hoping to be more involved in influencing patient care, but unable to do so at a clinical level just yet, the opportunity to serve as an enrollment counselor or navigator is more than timely.
In my home state of California, training and certification to become a Certified Enrollment Counselor is not easy, but it’s doable. The process involves 20 hours of in-person courses, a number of online modules, and a background check. However, the cost of training is compensated—$58 per completed application, to be exact.
Continue reading “Could Med Students Help Win the Enrollment War?”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Enrollment, Med Students, state exchanges
Nov 13, 2013
We have become aware of several instances of precipitous and, in our view, egregious and unjustified closures of on-going clinical trials in which a substantial number of patients were already participating in investigational efforts, some involving biopsies for research purposes.
These closures raise serious ethical issues for the research community. We will discuss those issues and some possible changes in how trials are conducted to address the problem. It is our premise that closing on-going clinical trials without scientific, efficacy, or safety justification is an abhorrent affront to all participants in clinical research as well as a fundamental betrayal of the trust that motivates patient participants to enroll in clinical trials.
Cancer patients who accept the risk of an investigational drug are true partners in bringing new agents to market. They hope they will benefit but, regardless of personal benefit/response, they hope the researchers will learn something to help other patients. Patients participate in clinical research for multiple reasons but, particularly in the case of agreeing to undergo mandatory research biopsies, do so because the research has the potential to improve the care, treatment approach, and standards for cancer patients.
They engage in a relationship with researchers based on their trust in the integrity of the researchers and the system within which the researchers work. Any cavalier approach to the commitment patients make to research is indefensible and particularly reprehensible when participants undergo internal organ biopsies.
Violating the trust of these patients also violates the trust the patients place in the investigators, undermining patient confidence in and availability for research. That trust and any violation of it are deepened when the researcher is also a given patient’s treating oncologist.
It is with good reason that human beings who enroll in clinical trials are called participants, not subjects. A participant is one who takes part in something—an active, volitional partner or colleague. A subject is one, mouse or human, who is under the power or authority and at the incontestable will of another or others. That difference between a participant and a subject is significant and germane to this discussion of when and why it is or is not appropriate to close a clinical trial.
Continue reading “When Is Closing an Ongoing Clinical Trial a Betrayal of Participants?”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB
Tagged: Breact Cancer, Clinical Trials, Cynthia Chauhan, Ethics, Mary Lou Smith
Nov 11, 2013
There were two high-profile apologies in the news this week — by the Leader of the Free World and by a Man Who Makes Yoga Pants.
Neither was well executed and neither was well received.
Let’s start with President Obama, who offered his belated apology on the rollout of the federal health exchange at the heart of the Affordable Care Act. After more than five weeks of shifting stories, blame and timelines, the president sat down with Chuck Todd to say “I’m sorry” for repeatedly saying some variation of, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it. Period.”
“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” he told NBC News. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”
Critics quickly and loudly objected to the president’s use of passive voice — and the fact that he claimed people found themselves with cancelled plans “based on assurances they got from me.” They pointed out that it wasn’t the assurances that cancelled the plans; it was the way Obama’s administration wrote the regulations that required insurance companies to cancel the plans.
In short, Obama didn’t own the cause of the pain. He only apologized for the “assurances” (which, by almost all accounts, are better known as “lies”).
Now, the Man Who Makes Yoga Pants.
Lululemon founder Chip Wilson got in hot water for blaming women’s bodies for well-publicized problems with his company’s yoga clothes, including see-through pants and pilling:
“Even our small sizes would fit an extra large, it’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there … over a period of time, and how much they use it,” he said.
This, of course, led to a predictable backlash — particularly on the company’s Facebook page, where women shared their views of the company and Wilson’s basically saying “You’re too fat to wear our clothes.”
Continue reading “The Art Of The Apology: What Not To Say When Things Go Wrong”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB
Tagged: Health Insurance Exchanges, The ACA, Tony Jewell
Nov 10, 2013
A few weeks ago, I went for the first time to Stanford’s Medicine X conference. It’s billed as a conference that brings a “broad, academic approach to understanding emerging technologies with the potential to improve health and advance the practice of medicine.”
Well, I went, I saw, and I even briefly presented (in a workshop on using patient-generated data).
And I am now writing to tell you about the most important innovations that I learned about at Medicine X (MedX).
They were not the new digital health technologies, even though we heard about many interesting new tools, systems, and apps at the conference, and I do believe that leveraging technology will result in remarkable changes in healthcare.
Nor were they related to social media, ehealth, or telehealth, even though all of these are rapidly growing and evolving, and will surely play important roles in the healthcare landscape of the future.
No. The most remarkable innovations at MedX related to the conference itself, which was unlike any other academic conference I’ve been to. Specifically, the most important innovations were:
- Patients present to tell their stories, both on stage and in more casual conversational settings such as meals.
- Patient participation in brainstorming healthcare solutions and in presenting new technologies. MedX also has an ePatient Advisors group to help with the overall conference planning.
These innovations, along with frequent use of storytelling techniques, video, and music, packed a powerful punch. It all kept me feeling engaged and inspired during the event, and left me wishing that more academic conferences were like this.
These innovations point the way to much better academic conferences. Here’s why:
The power of patient presence
I wasn’t surprised to see lots of patients at Medicine X, because I knew that the conference has an e-patient scholars program, and that many patients would be presenting. I also knew that the director of MedX, Dr. Larry Chu, is a member of the Society of Participatory Medicine. (Disclosure: I’ve been a member of SPM since last December.)
I was, on the other hand, surprised by how powerful it was to have patients on stage telling their stories.
How could it make such a difference? I am, after all, a practicing physician who spends a lot of time thinking about the healthcare experience of older adults and their caregivers.
But it did make a difference. I found myself feeling more empathetic, and focused on the patient and family perspective. And I felt more inspired to do better as a physician and as a healthcare problem-solver.
In short, having patients tell their stories helped me engage with the conference presentations in a more attentive and meaningful way.
Now, some will surely be tempted to wave this off as a gauzy touchy-feely experience that is peculiar to the fruit-cakes of the Bay Area; a nice conference touch that isn’t materially important to the purpose of an academic conference.
Continue reading “* Patients Not Included”
Filed Under: Physicians, Tech, THCB
Tagged: digital health, e-patients, Leslie Kernisan, patient engagement, Patients, Stanford Medicine X, Tech
Oct 25, 2013
The dull whir of the computer running in the background seemed to have gotten louder as the patient fell quiet. She was a young woman, a primary-care patient of mine, seeking a referral to yet another gastroenterologist. Her abdominal pain had already been checked out by two of the city’s most renowned gastroenterologists with invasive testing, CAT scans and endoscopic procedures.
But she wasn’t satisfied with her diagnosis — irritable bowel syndrome — or the recommended treatment and wanted a third opinion. I tried to reason with her but failed to convince her otherwise. Even when I acquiesced and gave her the referral, she walked out visibly unhappy. I sat there listening to the whirring, feeling disappointed.
Physicians love being liked. They also love doing their jobs well. With other incentives, such as monetary returns, dwindling, the elation we get from satisfying a patient as well as providing them good care is what still makes being a doctor special. But is keeping patients satisfied and delivering high-quality care the same thing? And more important, can patients tell if they are getting good care?
Policymakers certainly think so. In fact, under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid hospital reimbursements are now being tied to patient satisfaction numbers.
But the association between patient satisfaction and the quality of care is far from straightforward, and its validity as a measure of quality is unclear.
In fact, a study published in April and conducted by surgeons at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine showed that patient satisfaction was not related to the quality of surgical care. And a 2006 study found that patients’ perception of their care had no relationship to the actual technical quality of care they received. Furthermore, a 2012 UC Davis study found that patients with higher satisfaction scores are likely to have more physician visits, longer hospital stays and higher mortality. All this data may indicate that patients are equating more care with better care.
Although patients and their physicians generally have similar goals, that is not always the case. As a resident, who is not paid on a per-service basis, I have no incentive to order extra testing or additional procedures for my patients if they’re not warranted. But one study found that physicians who are paid on a fee-for-service basis and therefore have an incentive to deliver services — needed or not — are more likely to deliver these services (such as an MRI for routine back pain).
On top of that, as another study found, they also are more liked by their patients. It is no wonder then that the number of patients with back pain, one of the most common reasons for physician visits, are increasingly being overmanaged with MRIs and narcotic pain medications.
Continue reading “In Medicine, More May Not Be Better”
Filed Under: Physicians
Tagged: Haider Javed Warraich, Outcomes, Overtreatment, Patients, Physicians, practice of medicine, Quality
Oct 23, 2013
I have felt from the start that this practice model is far better than the one I had in my former life, including:
- Better experience for the doctor
- Better experience for the patient
- Better care quality
- Savings for the patient and for the system.
The last one on the list is the hardest to prove, and I am potentially getting someone to gather concrete numbers for patients who followed me from my old practice to see if their overall health expenditures are down from before I started this practice. This will take time, however, and I am not sure the sample size is large enough to account for the normal variations (either in my favor or against).
Yet some anecdotes from the recent past suggest the answer, giving evidence of significant savings, both financial and life quality, that my patients and their payors get. This is an important case to be made to both the patients (who want to know if their $30-60/month is worth it) and payors (who could financially benefit from promoting this practice model). I realize that this does not constitute a proof of concept, but it is not without meaning.
PATIENT 1. MEDICARE. AGE: 90+
Pt had a head injury and came to my office wondering if they should go to the ER. I assessed the mental status did an exam, determining that this was not necessary. Set up imaging study that day (CT without contrast) which came back negative.
In my old office, the nurse who answered the message would have immediately suggested going to the ER, not checking with me on this.
Cost: CT without contrast as outpatient – cash price $300, not sure about negotiated price.
Savings: Avoided ER with head injury work-up. Cost: ? (More than $300 by far).
Continue reading “The Doctor Returns Bearing Data.”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB
Tagged: direct primary care, practice management, Rob Lamberts
Oct 22, 2013
In a single generation, the evidentiary basis for the practice of medicine has grown from a dream to a massif. No longer need physicians rely solely on experience and opinion in formulating diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to the care of the patient.
However, for any given clinical challenge, the available science is never flawless, monolithic or comprehensive, nor is it likely to be durable in the face of newer studies.
The international medical community has mounted two approaches to sorting the wheat from the chaff: One targets the doctor in convening committees to formulate guidelines for patient care. The other targets the patient for evaluating options, so-called informed medical decision making. Both approaches are now sizable undertakings clothed in organizational imprimaturs and girded by self-promotion.
But they are largely parallel undertakings with work products that can cause considerable cognitive dissonance on the part of the patient and the physician. In a recent article in the British Medical Journal  the Guideline Development Group convened by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) summarized the thinking behind the guidance it was offering regarding the management of STEMI. This is an object lesson in such cognitive dissonance.
Continue reading “The End of the Era of Coronary Angioplasty”
Filed Under: OP-ED, Physicians, THCB
Tagged: cardiology, doctor/ patient relationship, informed medical decision making, NICE, Nortin Hadler, Patients, PCI, STEMI, stents
Oct 13, 2013
He seemed a bit grumpy when he came into the office. I am used to the picture: male in his early to mid-forties, with wife by his side leading him into the office to “finally get taken care of” by the doctor. Usually the woman has a disgusted expression on her face as he looks like a boy forced to spend his afternoon in a fabric store with his mother. My office is the last place he wants to be.
He let himself down on the couch across from my desk with a wince, belying the back pain that brought him here. He looks around at my office, which is not only a place he didn’t expect to be, but not what he expects a doctor’s office to look like. First there’s the sofa he is sitting on, which is where my patients spend most of their time during their visits. Then there is my guitar just behind me. He and his wife comment on how their daughter would love the fact that I have a guitar, as she is into acoustic guitar music. Then there’s me, wearing jeans and an untucked button-up shirt, sitting back in my chair and chatting like an ordinary person. He seems intrigued.
He owns a business, which is a service type business like mine. Like me, he and his wife choose to do things differently, charging less for folks who can’t afford it. I chat with him about the stress and strain of owning and running a small business, pointing out how his choice is similar to mine.
He had actually suggested coming to me after he had seen me on television, but obviously had initial doubts as to the accuracy of the report. Spin happens. But as we talk, there is much to find in common, and he warms up. His shoulders relax, he sits back on the couch, and forgets he’s in the doctor’s office.
Continue reading “Target Demographic”
Filed Under: Physicians
Tagged: direct primary care, doctor/ patient relationship, Patient-centered care, Patients, practice management, primary care, Rob Lamberts, Small Business
Oct 11, 2013