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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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Adverse Event Reports Since 2004. Source: OpenFDA

On June 3rd, the FDA launched OpenFDA, in an attempt to take large internal datasets and make them more accessible and usable by the developer and business community.

OpenFDA is delivered in a search-based API that should enable software developers to more easily build applications based on adverse event data from the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS) dataset for the period 1/1/2004 to 6/30/3013. The FDA has announced plans to add device and food adverse events data to the framework, along with structured product labeling and recall data (update: drug and device recall data was added on July 16).

The launch was heralded with the sort of buzz and hoopla usually reserved for a major product launch from a Silicon Valley startup. We have held off on any analysis and opinion until now to give our team the needed time to look through the system thoroughly.

Now, I readily admit, I am biased. As a data geek with 15+ years working on Big Data problems, I really want to love OpenFDA.  It is, after all, a major step forward both in terms of technology, but more importantly, philosophy from an agency that hasn’t exactly been a shining example of either in recent years.

In an ideal world, OpenFDA could usher in a world of new and improved tools and products that would improve patient safety and adherence, increase physician awareness of drug safety dangers, assist healthcare decision makers who are driving prescribing behavior with better decision support, and lower the overall cost of care by reducing avoidable side effects.

But we don’t live in an ideal world.

So, here are my thoughts on the Good, Bad, and Ugly of OpenFDA:

The Good:

OpenFDA is a seal of approval over the use of FAERS data in multiple settings. This is the first time that FDA has confirmed what we have believed all along – that these data are valuable and should be used in multiple venues to improve patient safety. It has long seemed ridiculous that the FDA spends millions of dollars to collect these data, uses it for their own internal safety signaling and review processes, but then deters others in the healthcare community from deploying these same data in new and innovative ways.

OpenFDA gives the long awaited ‘all-clear’ to harness the power of these data to improve care throughout the healthcare system.   We’re excited to see how this evolves in the product space – especially at the patient level – in the months and years ahead.

The Bad:

As with any new launch, once the excitement dies down, the true capabilities and limitations of the system are revealed. After careful review we’ve discovered several major concerns, two of the big ones are detailed below:

Continue reading “OpenFDA – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

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Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 6.09.38 AMThere’s a growing view in U.S. healthcare circles that the industry is on the cusp of remarkable – perhaps even revolutionary – transformation. At a recent summit sponsored by the Altarum Institute’s Center for Sustainable Health Spending, speaker after speaker returned to the theme that we are slowly but surely moving from a volume-based system (paying for stuff) to a value-based model (paying for results).

The health sector is moving toward the traditional economic principles of other industries.  Revenues flow to businesses that are high quality, efficient and knowledgeable about customer desires. In other words, high performers reap the financial rewards, not those that are simply doing more. We at PwC describe this future state as the New Health Economy.

Several stars have aligned to make this shift possible. Cost pressures have turned attention to getting our money’s worth in healthcare. Technological advances such as cloud storage, mobile devices and data analytics provide the tools to deliver the right care to the right patient at the right time. And consumers today have both the freedom and responsibility that come with making more decisions and spending their own money.

What was striking at the Altarum summit was the widespread agreement on where American healthcare is headed. Speakers referenced the rise of myriad alternative payment programs, including overall spending growth limits in Massachusetts, site agnostic payments for specialty care such as oncology and provider bonuses tied to patient satisfaction.

Continue reading “The Next Health Economy”

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Among the American public and even some policymakers, it has become conventional wisdom that poverty, a dearth of supermarkets, reduced leisure time, and insufficient exercise are key forces behind the U.S. obesity epidemic.

Conventional wisdom is an unreliable guide, however, and in this case, much of it is wrong: The epidemic actually coincides with a falling share of income spent on food, wider availability of fruits and vegetables, increased leisure time, and more exercise among the general population.

Of course, there are differences between individuals, but we need to explain the change in obesity over time, not why people differ. Some differences in body mass index (BMI) are associated with genetic makeup. But genes haven’t changed in the past 50 years, so differences between individuals don’t explain trends.

Data from a new analysis of this issue indicates that the same argument applies to other characteristics, such as geography. Southern hospitality’s heavy food hasn’t caused the obesity epidemic any more than an active Colorado lifestyle has prevented it. There are differences at a given point in time, but the trend is the same, as shown in the figure below.

Percentage of Population with a BMI Over 25 in California, Colorado, and Mississippi

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SOURCE: Calculations based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; smooth trend adjusted for 2010 demographics.

Increases in obesity have also been surprisingly similar by level of education and by racial/ethnic group, as the following figures show.

Increase in Average BMI Nationwide, by Highest Education Level Achieved

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SOURCE: Calculations based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; smooth trend adjusted for 2010 demographics. Continue reading “What’s Behind the Obesity Epidemic? Easily Accessible Food, and Lots of It”

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flying cadeuciiAccording to Ben Franklin, John Adams, or someone else (I could not find a reliable source), “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”  This bodes well for clinical care software because the number of complaints about current EHR systems grows louder each day.  We know the problems: poor usability, lack of workflow support, reporting difficulties, decreased productivity, to name a few.  How can these problems be turned into opportunities?

Obviously, solving these problems by designing better software offers an opportunity for software sales; however, I think there is more to it than that.  Current EHR products grew out of a particular mindset and way of thinking about software and sales, and that mindset, I believe, has a lot to do with the problems EHR users voice.

When computers were new, they were sold primarily to businesses.  The advent of the PC turned computers into consumer products.   However, software and computer sales to businesses continued as they always had, which I think contributes to the issues small independent practices have with selection and implementation.   Here is an example of what I mean.    I have been buying software since I bought my first computer.   This was always a straightforward process: find the software, pay for it, done.     I remember my bewilderment while at UAB when I wanted to buy statistical software that had data mining algorithms.   Since I was at the university, I was told I had to buy it through the university sales channel.   I wanted a single copy.  I could never find a salesman who would give me a price or tell me how to buy a single copy.   I called the local, regional, and finally the national sales office.  After a few weeks, I gave up.  I never got the software, or even a price. What I did get were repeated promises that a sales rep would call.

Continue reading “Clinical Care Systems for Small Practices: A Market Opportunity”

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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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Jessie Optimized
When I heard that Jessie Gruman had died, that her powerful voice on behalf of patients had been stilled and gone silent years too soon, I thought of Phillipe Petite, the high-wire artist who famously tread a cable strung between the two World Trade Center buildings back in 1974.

Jessie’s balancing act did not take place on so visible a stage, but her death-defying dance equally amazed those who knew, worked with, respected and loved her.

On the one side, she was persistently pulled down by cancer. There was Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1973 when she was just 20, setting the stage for repercussions of treatment that would dog her ever after: cervical cancer eight years later; colon cancer in 2004; and a diagnosis of stomach cancer in 2011 that returned after a too-brief hiatus. There was also pericarditis, a dangerous heart condition.

Counterbalancing that burden was the uplift of a woman whose “bouts” with cancer shaped, but never defined her. She was a social psychologist who was an early part of work on the chronic care model; the founder of a policy and research center dedicated to empowering patients in health care and in health; a prolific writer and author of a landmark book on what to do with a diagnosis of serious disease; and for many, a personal inspiration.

On the morning of July 14, Jessie finally fell off the tightrope, as we all must eventually do, dying at home. She was 60 years old.

You can’t really understand the outpouring of affection, appreciation and aching loss Jessie inspired just by browsing her impressive bio. She was sharp and funny, with wry asides directed at any pretension exhibited by allies or adversaries alike.

However, Jessie did far more than dish and dis. She was a superlative builder; of an organization, yes, but more importantly, of a body of work that prompted government policymakers and uncounted health care organizations to pay greater attention to the unmet needs of patients. She also reached out directly to fellow patients to help. In all these activities, she married intellectual rigor and careful attention to evidence – techie trendiness, for example, did not impress her ­– with emotional honesty. Jessie spoke what often goes unspoken, candidly acknowledging how horribly scary and alone it feels to be seriously ill.

As she wrote in her book, AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You – or Someone You Love –a Devastating Diagnosis:

Every time I have received bad health news, I have felt like a healthy person who has been accidentally drop-kicked into a foreign country: I don’t know the language, the culture is unfamiliar, I have no idea what is expected of me, I have no map and I desperately want to find my way home.

Jessie told one interviewer: “I want people to know how to take care of themselves and pay attention to the urgency of their situation even when their heart is broken.” Later, she repeated that theme in an article for Health Affairs that called for policies to support patients and their families in their time of distress. Continue reading “Jessie Gruman: Tribute to a Tightrope Walker”

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flying cadeuciiThere’s a lot of talk about quality metrics, pay for performance, value-based care and penalties for poor outcomes.

In this regard, it’s useful to ask a basic question. What is quality? Or an even simpler question, who is the better physician?

Let’s consider two fictional radiologists: Dr. Singh and Dr. Jha.

Dr. Singh is a fast reader. Her turn-around time for reports averages 15 minutes. Her reports are brief with a paucity of differential diagnoses. The language in her reports is decisive and her reports contain very few disclaimers. She has a high specificity meaning that when she flags pathology it is very likely to be present.

The problem is her sensitivity. She is known to miss subtle features of pathology.

There’s another problem. Sometimes when reading her reports one isn’t reassured that she has looked at every organ. For example, her report of a CAT scan of the abdomen once stated that “there is no appendicitis. Normal CT.” The referring physician called her wondering if she had looked at the pancreas, since he was really worried about pancreatitis not appendicitis. Dr. Singh had, but had not bothered to enlist all normal organs in the report.

Dr. Jha is not as fast a reader as Dr. Singh. His turn-around time for reports averages 45 minutes. His reports are long and verbose. He meticulously lists all organs. For example, when reporting a CAT of the abdomen of a male, he routinely mentions that “there is no gross abnormalities in the seminal vesicles and prostate,” regardless of whether pathology is suspected or absence of pathology in those organs is of clinical relevance.

He presents long list of possibilities, explaining why he thinks a diagnosis is or is not. He rarely comes down on a specific diagnosis.

Dr. Jha almost never misses pathology. He picks up tiny lung cancers, subtle thyroid cancers and tiny bleeds in the brain. He has a very high sensitivity. This means that when he calls a study normal, and he very rarely does, you can be certain that the study is normal.

The problem with Dr. Jha is specificity. He often raises false alarms such as “questionable pneumonia,” “possible early appendicitis” and “subtle high density in the brain, small punctate hemorrhage not entirely excluded.”

In fact, his colleagues have jokingly named a scan that he recommends as “The Jha Scan Redemption.” These almost always turn out to be normal.

Which radiologist is of higher quality, Dr. Singh or Dr. Jha?

Continue reading “Who Is the Better Radiologist?”

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My life changed dramatically 18 months ago when I started my new practice.  The biggest change personally was a dramatic drop in my income as I built a new business using a model that is fairly new.  That’s a tough thing to do with four kids, three of whom were in college last fall.  OK, that’s a stupid thing to do, but my stupidity has already been well-established.

Yet even if the income stayed identical to what I earned before the switch, the change in my professional life would have been nearly as dramatic.

  • I am no longer focused only on patients in my office.
  • I am no longer focused on ICD and CPT codes.
  • Saving patients money has become one of my top priorities.
  • I feel like my patients trust me more, and see me as an ally.
  • Patients accept my recommendations for less care (avoiding unnecessary testing and unnecessary medications) much easier.
  • I focus far more on preventing problems or keeping them small.
  • I laugh with my patients far more.
  • I no longer feel like a Zombie at the end of the day (and I no longer eat brains)

Continue reading “Doctors vs. Zombies”

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flying cadeuciiLast year, we soundly criticized the American Heart Association (AHA) on this blog for its proposal to lower the thresholds for treating cholesterol and getting larger numbers of Americans to swallow statins. We also exposed wellness vendor StayWell, for its mathematically impossible claims of success in British Petroleum’s wellness program. Proving that great minds aren’t the only ones that think alike, StayWell and the AHA have now joined forces.  Specifically, the AHA invited the CEO of StayWell, Paul Terry, Ph.D., to help write its workplace wellness policy statement, sort of like Enron inviting Bernie Madoff to help design its financial plan. You don’t learn of this fox-in-the-henhouse conflict of interest unless you read the table on the penultimate page of text.

Naturally, Mr. Terry parlayed this windfall to StayWell’s advantage. The statement: “currently available studies indicate that employers can achieve a positive ROI through wellness” is footnoted to two studies authored by:  Paul Terry, along with other Staywell executives.  One wonders how a StayWell executive writing policy for the AHA based partly on StayWell’s own articles passes the AHA’s own test of “making every effort to avoid actual or potential conflicts of interest that may arise as a result of an outside relationship.”

How did this conflict of interest get by the peer reviewers? Look at the list of peer reviewers. Prominent among them is Ron Goetzel. Readers of THCB may recall Mr. Goetzel not just from his central role in the Penn State debacle, but also from the ”The Strange Case of the C. Everett Koop Award,” in which it was documented that his committee gave the ironically named award to a sponsor of the award (without disclosing that conflict), even though that sponsor had admitted lying about saving the lives of 514 cancer victims, who, as luck would have it, didn’t have cancer. (The sponsor, Health Fitness Corporation, a division of the equally ironically named Trustmark, has won the Koop award several times, thus proving the cost-effectiveness of their sponsorship.)

If this litany were not enough to dismiss the policy statement forthwith, there is small matter of the actual policy itself, a full employment act for wellness vendors and cardiologists alike, advocating more screening of more employees more often, while ignoring more self-evident facts than Sergeant Schultz. Specifically, they cherry-picked the available literature, continuing to cite the old “Harvard study” whose lead author has now walked it back three times. Except that they didn’t call it the “old Harvard study,” but rather a “recent [italics ours] meta-analysis,” despite the fact it was submitted for publication in 2009, and the average year of the analyses in the study was 2004.  Some studies began in the 1990s and were able to use sleight-of-hand to “show savings” despite presumably — in accordance with the conventional wisdom of the era — getting people to eat more carbohydrates and less fat.  No wonder Soeren Mattke of RAND Corporation dismissed the Harvard data as archaic in his interview with CoHealth radio in February 2014.

Continue reading “Circulation: The Nineties Called. They Want Their Wellness Policy Back”

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