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flying cadeuciiThe answer to the doctor shortage isn’t more doctors

Yesterday, the New York Time’s Editorial Board published a piece on the shortage of physicians in the United States and what’s needed for healthcare workforce redesign.

It’s a good, concise piece about the common thinking around the gap between the needs of our growing patient population and the number of doctors available to deliver the care they need. As as an example, the article refers to a recent statement by the Association of American Medical Colleges whose models predict a shortage of 90,000 doctors in the U.S. by 2020. In Canada, the story is sometimes different where physician unemployment is growing due to inadequate infrastructure and poor workforce planning.

While I do agree that ensuring access to care is important, to think that the solution is simply more doctors comes from framing the question incorrectly.

The question shouldn’t be “how many doctors do we need for a growing population?”. Rather, the question should be “how do we care for a growing population in a cost-effective way?”

When you reframe the problem in this manner, it’s  easy to see that simply churning out more doctors isn’t the answer. In fact, with the direction healthcare is heading, those numbers are likely overestimates.

The major problem with workforce planning models is that they assume healthcare delivery of the future looks very much like healthcare delivery of the present. That the future will continue to be, in many ways, very doctor-centric.

It won’t.

Continue reading “The Answer To the Doctor Shortage Isn’t More Doctors”

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Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 5.59.22 PMThere is a growing group of articulate and engaged patients committed to getting access to all their medical information in order to be better positioned to work collaboratively with their clinical teams. Published studies like the OpenNotes project have consistently shown significant benefits and a lack of serious problems. Health care systems are slow to change and just beginning to understand both the need and value to this more transparent and collaborative approach.

My institution, for example, is not ready (or even interested) in anything approaching opening chart notes to patients. In fact, although our secure portal will be launched in the near future, there was some resistance to making even problem lists, medication lists, lab and x-rays available through the portal.

That need not prevent individuals from contributing to change. A few years ago I began providing every patient with a copy of their office visit note as they left the office after their visit. The intent was for us to do the assessment and plan collaboratively and make sure they have a copy of our (collaborative) plan.  Patients have been very appreciative, and use it to share the assessment and plan with family and consultants, and as a reference. A few bring it back at the next visit with notes on it about what they did and what happened.

To the objectors who say that one cannot be honest in a note if the patient is going to see it, I say: balderdash. (Actually, what I say is much stronger…)  For one thing (the smaller point) the patient is already allowed to see it if they but ask.  More importantly, this argument depends entirely on the principle that the clinician knows best and needs to keep secrets in the interest of the patient. What I have experienced is a variation on the advice I got many years ago regarding relationships: if it’s important, then it’s important enough to be open about and deal with. If you aren’t willing to deal with it openly, you are not allowed to save it up and spring it on your partner (patient) later.

Continue reading “An Open Note to Open Notes Objectors”

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flying cadeuciiAs a result of the determined efforts by Massachusett’s politicians, businesses, health insurance companies, hospitals, individual physicians and the Massachusetts Medical Society, nearly 100% of patients in Massachusetts now have health insurance. This is something all the healthcare players in Massachusetts can be proud of, and “universal insurance” enjoys broad public support here in Massachusetts

In an attempt to improve healthcare quality and reduce cost, Massachusetts is moving away from the “fee-for-service” system and replacing it with “physician groups” which contract with insurance companies. Most of these contracts include financial incentive/disincentive clauses about “quality” and “cost.” As a result, in Massachusetts, it is now almost impossible for a solo practitioner to obtain a contract directly with one of the state’s largest insurance companies. Almost all contracts are mediated through a local physician organization, such as an IPA, PHO or ACO.

As a result, health insurance companies now have much greater influence over the Massachusetts healthcare industry. These large insurance companies define the terms of the contract and can tell the small or medium-sized hospitals/physician contracting group their contract is a “take it or leave it” proposition. Needless to say, it is impossible for any small or medium-sized hospital/physician contracting group to refuse to accept the insurance contract when their financial viability is predicated on having access to the insurance company’s patient panel.

Originally Certified EMRs and Meaningful Use policies were created so as to provide the financially incentive to encourage primary care physicians to adopt electronic medical record programs and then use these electronic medical record programs according to specified “meaningful use” mandates. It was the hope that the appropriate use of EMRs would improve the quality or reduce the cost of healthcare. Since the program’s introduction, Meaningful Use has been expanded to almost every medical specialty and subspecialty, regardless of the appropriateness/relevance.

There has now been a fair amount of data accumulated regarding the effectiveness of electronic medical record programs. Unfortunately, most of the published data is not high quality and the majority of clinical trials are now being funded by the EMR industry. As we have seen with clinical trial sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, only an irrational person would accept the results of a vendor sponsored EMR trial on face value.

Recently, The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (HHS)  asked the RAND corporation to review all EMR data. RAND created the “Health Information Technology: An Updated Systematic Review with a Focus on Meaningful Use Functionalities

Continue reading “The Misuse of Meaningful Use, Part II”

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davidshaywitzAt his yearly CEO summit, noted VC Vinod Khoslaspoke with Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page (file under “King, Good To Be The”).

Towards the end of a wide-ranging conversation that encompassed driverless cars, flying wind turbines, and high-altitude balloons providing internet access, Khosla began to ask about health.

Specifically, Khosla wondered whether they could “imagine Google becoming a health company? Maybe a larger business than the search business or the media business?”

Their response, surprisingly, was basically, “no.”  While glucose-sensing contact lenses might be “very cool,” in the words of Larry Page, Brin notes that,

“Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in. It’s just not necessarily how I want to spend my time. Even though we do have some health projects, and we’ll be doing that to a certain extent. But I think the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.”

Adds Page,

“We have Calico, obviously, we did that with Art Levinson, which is pretty independent effort. Focuses on health and longevity. I’m really excited about that. I am really excited about the possibility of data also, to improve health. But that’s– I think what Sergey’s saying, it’s so heavily regulated. It’s a difficult area. I can give you an example. Imagine you had the ability to search people’s medical records in the U.S.. Any medical researcher can do it. Maybe they have the names removed. Maybe when the medical researcher searches your data, you get to see which researcher searched it and why. I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year. Just that. That’s almost impossible to do because of HIPAA. I do worry that we regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end.”

Khosla then asked a question about a use case involving one of my favorite portfolio companies of his, Ginger.io, related to the monitoring of a patient’s psychiatric state.

Responded Page, “I was talking to them about that last night. It was cool.”

That pretty much captures Brin and Page’s view of healthcare – fun to work on a few “cool” projects, but beyond that, the regulatory challenges are just too great to warrant serious investment.

Continue reading “Google Co-Founders: “Thanks, But No Thanks””

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flying cadeuciiAn organization’s “business model” means: How does it make a living? What revenue streams sustain it? How it does that makes all the difference in the world.

Saturday, Natasha Singer wrote in the New York Times about health plans and healthcare providers using “big data,” including your shopping patterns, car ownership and Internet usage, to segment their markets.

The beginning of the article featured the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) using “predictive health analytics” to target people who would benefit the most from intervention so that they would not need expensive emergency services and surgery. The later part of the article mentioned organizations that used big data to find their best customers among the worried well and get them in for more tests and procedures. The article quoted experts fretting that this would just lead to more unnecessary and unhelpful care just to fatten the providers’ bottom lines.

The article missed the real news here: Why is one organization (UPMC) using big data so that people end up using fewer expensive healthcare resources, while others use it to get people to use more healthcare, even if they don’t really need it?

Because they are paid differently. They have different business models.

UPMC is an integrated system with its own insurance arm covering 2.4 million people. As a system it has largely found a way out of the fee-for-service model. It has a healthier bottom line if its customers are healthier and so need fewer acute and emergency services. The other organizations are fee-for-service. Getting people in for more tests and biopsies is a revenue stream. For UPMC it would just be a cost.

The evil here is not using predictive modeling to segment the market. The evil here is the fee-for-service system that rewards waste and profiteering in medicine.

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Bob Wachter

The following is an excerpt from the preface of my new book, which  is tentatively titled: “Disrupted: Hope, Hype and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s New Age.”  Author’s note and request to THCB readers.

If you’re a 24-year-old who does not plan on getting sick for the next couple of decades, this is probably not the book blog post for you.

By the time you need our healthcare system, it will be wired in ways we can’t imagine today. By then, computers will have transformed healthcare – as they already have retail, publishing, photography, and travel – leaving it better, safer, and maybe even cheaper. Most of the kinks, perhaps other than what our society will do with boatloads of unemployed dermatologists, radiologists, and hospital administrators, will have been ironed out. I hope to live to see this day myself. It’ll be, as my kids say, hecka cool.

But for the rest of us – both those who need our medical system today and those who currently work in it – the path to computerization will be strewn with landmines, large and small. The challenges are everywhere. Medicine, our most intimately human profession, is being dehumanized by the entry of the computer into the exam room. While computers are preventing many medical errors, they are also causing new kinds of mistakes, some of them whoppers. Sensors and monitors are throwing off mountains of data, often leading to more cacophony than clarity. Patients are now in the loop – many get to see their laboratory and pathology results before their doctor does; some are even reading their doctor’s notes – yet are woefully unprepared to handle their hard-fought empowerment.

In short, while someday the computerization of medicine will undoubtedly be that long-awaited “disruptive innovation,” today it’s often just plain disruptive: of the doctor-patient relationship, clinicians’ professional interactions and workflow, and the way we measure and try to improve things. I’d never heard the term “unanticipated consequences” in my professional world until a few years ago, and now we use it all the time, since we – yes, even the insiders – are constantly astonished by the speed with which things are changing and the unpredictability of the results.

Before we go any further, it’s important that you understand that I am all for the computerization of healthcare. I bought my first Mac in 1984, back when one inserted and ejected floppy disks so often (“Insert Excel Disk 2”) that the machine felt more like an infuriating toaster than a sparkling harbinger of a new era. Today, I can’t live without my MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone, Facetime, Twitter, OpenTable, and Evernote. I even blog and tweet. In other words, I am a typical, electronically overendowed American.

And healthcare needs to be disrupted. Despite being staffed with (mostly) well trained and committed doctors and nurses, our system delivers evidence-based care about half the time, kills a jumbo jet’s worth of patients each day from medical mistakes, and is bankrupting the country. Patients and policymakers are no longer willing to tolerate the status quo, and they’re right.

Continue reading “Disrupted: How Computerization Is Changing the Practice of Medicine In Surprising Ways”

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Tom Frieden CDCIn July, CDC will roll out a new way every hospital in the country can track and control drug resistant bacteria.CDC already operates the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), with more than 12,000 health care facilities participating.  Now we are implementing a breakthrough program that will take control of drug resistance to the next level – the Antibiotic Use and Resistance (AUR) reporting module.  The module is fully automated, capturing antibiotic prescriptions and drug susceptibility test results electronically.

With this module, we’ll be able to create the first antibiotic prescribing index. This index will help benchmark antibiotic use across health care facilities for the first time, allowing facilities to compare their data with similar facilities. It will help facilities and local and state health departments as well as CDC to  identify hot spots within a city or a region.

We’ll be able to answer the questions: Which facilities are prescribing more antibiotics? How many types of resistant bacteria and fungi are they seeing? Do prescribing practices predict the number of resistant infections and outbreaks a facility will face?  Ultimately with this information, we’ll be able to both improve prescribing practices and identify and stop outbreaks in a way we have never done before.

This will help deploy supportive and evidence-based interventions at each facility as well as at regional levels to help stop spread among various facilities.

The need for a comprehensive system to collect local, regional, and national data on antibiotic resistance is more critical than ever. The system now exists, and we need quick and widespread uptake.

Rapid and full implementation of this system is supported through the proposed increase of $14 million contained in CDC’s 2015 budget request to Congress.

With the requested funding increase in future years, CDC would look to develop web-based tools and provider apps so physicians will gain access to facility- and community-specific data via NHSN on the most effective empiric antibiotic for the patient in front of them. For example, a physician in a burn unit treating a patient with a possible staph infection will know what antibiotics that particular microbe is likely susceptible TO and which ones are likely to be most effective.

Instead of broad-spectrum antibiotics being the default choice, as is often the case now, doctors will see recommendations for targeted narrow-spectrum antibiotics that are more likely to be effective and less likely to lead to potentially deadly infections such as C. difficile.

Continue reading “Where Are The Hot Spots For Antibiotic Resistance?”

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Ashish JhaAdverse events – when bad things happen to patients because of what we as medical professionals do – are a leading cause of suffering and death in the U.S. and globally.  Indeed, as I have written before, patient safety is a major issue in American healthcare, and one that has gotten far too little attention. Tens of thousands of Americans die needlessly because of preventable infections, medication errors, surgical mishaps, and so forth.  As I wrote previously, according to Office of Inspector General (OIG), when an older American walks into a hospital, he or she has about a 1 in 4 chance of suffering some sort of injury during their stay.  Many of these are debilitating, life-threatening, or even fatal.  Things are not much better for younger Americans.

Given the magnitude of the problem, many of us have decried the surprising lack of attention and focus on this issue from policymakers.  Well, things are changing – and while some of that change is good, some of it worries me.  Congress, as part of the Affordable Care Act, required Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to penalize hospitals that had high rates of “HACs” – Hospital Acquired Conditions.  CMS has done the best it can, putting together a combination of infections (as identified through clinical surveillance and reported to the CDC) and other complications (as identified through the Patient Safety Indicators, or PSIs).  PSIs are useful – they use algorithms to identify complications coded in the billing data that hospitals send to CMS.  However, there are three potential problems with PSIs:  hospitals vary in how hard they look for complications, they vary in how diligently they code complications, and finally, although PSIs are risk-adjusted, their risk-adjustment is not very good — and sicker patients generally have more complications.

So, HACs are imperfect – but the bottom line is, every metric is imperfect.  Are HACs particularly imperfect?  Are the problems with HACs worse than with other measures?  I think we have some reason to be concerned.

Continue reading “Penalizing Hospitals For Being Unsafe”

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farzad_mostashariToday, I’m launching a new company, called Aledade.

Aledade partners with independent primary care physicians to make it easy and inexpensive for them to form and join Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) in which doctors are paid to deliver the best care, not the most care.

This is good for patients who will find that their trusted primary care doctors are more available and better informed than ever before. It’s good for doctors who want to practice the best medicine possible, the way they always wanted to. It’s good for businesses and health plans looking for healthcare partners that deliver the highest possible value and outcomes. And it’s good for the country as higher quality, lower cost care will help lessen the strain on our budget and our economy.

The world of start-ups may not be the usual path for those leaving a senior federal post, but it’s the right decision.

For me, Health IT was never the “ends,” but a “means” to better health and better care, and I continue to believe that better data and technology is the key to a successful transformation of health care. And it is why the attempts to do so now can succeed, where they have failed before.

Empowering doctors on the frontlines of medicine with cutting edge technology that helps them understand and improve the health of all their patients- that is the mission of our new company, and one that has animated my entire career.  Continue reading “Launching Aledade”

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Jaan SidorovFor more than a decade, a running joke among electronic health (EHR) record skeptics has been that its clunky “decision support” functions, defined as the on-screen provision of clinical knowledge and patient information that helps physicians enhance patient care , is condemned to always remain an innovation of the future.  Yet, while published studies like this continue to fuel doubt about the prime-time readiness of this EHR-based technology, a growing body of clinical research suggests that the science is getting better.  Jonathan Cohn, writing in The Atlantic, points out that IBM’s Watson has achieved enough of a level of sophistication to warrant clinical trials at prestigious institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

Unfortunately, there is an under-recognized threat to EHR-based decision support: the dysfunctional U.S. tort system.

The experience of Google’s “driverless car” may be instructive. According to National Public Radio, years of testing is putting this technology within reach of consumers.  Thanks to the prospect of fewer accidents, better transportation options for the disabled, reduced traffic congestion and lower hydrocarbon consumption, some states have responded by attempting to support this promising technology with “enabling legislation.”

Unfortunately, the legislation in some state jurisdictions is being hindered by the prospect of complicated lawsuits.  As physicians know all too well, when a single mishap lands in court, adroit attorneys can use the legal doctrine of joint and several liability  to tap multiple deep pockets to increase the potential size of the award. In the case of driverless cars – in which the owner is more of a passenger than a driver – the accidents that are bound to happen could metastasize upstream from the owner and tie up the driverless automobile manufacturers and all of their business partners in time-consuming and expensive litigation.

Ditto the EHR’s decision support technology. Even with Watson’s intelligence, medicine will remain imperfect and allegations of medical mistakes will be inevitable. When lawsuits arise, the defendant medical providers will likely argue that their judgment was clouded by the very technology that otherwise helped them better serve their other patients. Personal injury lawyers are unlikely to let that theory of liability go unused. Tapping the same kind of lucrative joint-and-several legal theories that have served them so well in decades of standard malpractice litigation, they’ll undoubtedly be happy to name the EHR manufacturer and all of its decision-support business partners in these lawsuits.

Continue reading “Coming To a Decision On Decision-Support Technology”

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