Bob Wachter

Bob Wachter

I’m just back from the annual meeting of the Society of Hospital Medicine and, as usual, I was blown away. I’ve not seen a medical society meeting that is remotely like it.
As Win Whitcomb, who co-founded SHM, wrote to me, the meeting is “a mix of love, deep sense of purpose, community, mission, changing-the world, and just plain sizzle,” and I completely agree. I was also amazed by the size: having hosted the first hospitalist meeting in 1997, with about 100 people, seeing an audience of 3,600 fill a Las Vegas mega-ballroom was just plain awesome.

This enthusiasm did not equal smugness. Folks know that change is the order of the day, and with it will come upheaval and some unpleasantness. But the general attitude I sensed at the meeting was that change is likelier to be good for patients – and for the specialty – than bad. Whether this will ultimately be true is up in the air, but the mindset is awfully energizing to be around.

Here, in no particular order, is my take on a few of the issues that generated hallway buzz during the SHM meeting.

The Closing of Hospitals

While much is uncertain in the era of health reform, the number of hospitals is clearly going to shrink, perhaps by a lot. A healthcare system that tolerated the inefficiency of having two mediocre 125-bed hospitals in adjacent towns will no longer do so: one 200-bed hospital will be left standing when the dust settles.

If that.

The betting is that 10-20% of hospital bed capacity will be taken out of the system in the next few years. It could be even more, depending on the answers to several questions. Will electronic monitoring and telemedicine allow increasing numbers of sick patients to be cared for at home or in sub-acute settings?

Will payments for non-hospital care (home care, SNFs) be enough to expand their capacity to care for acutely ill patients?

Will ACOs, bundling, and other similar interventions truly flourish? Will a shift to population health and a new focus on wellness make a dent in the prevalence of chronic disease?

These are just some of the known unknowns.

Continue reading “SuperDocs and Quality Talks: Notes from the Annual Meeting of the Society of Hospital Medicine”

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A few weeks ago, a middle-aged man decided to tweet about his mother’s illness from her bedside. The tweets went viral and became the subject of a national conversation. The man, of course, was NPR anchorman Scott Simon, and his reflections about his mother’s illness and ultimate death are poignant, insightful, and well worth your time.

Those same days, and unaware of Simon’s real-time reports, I also found myself caring for my hospitalized mother, and I made the same decision – to tweet from the bedside. (As with Simon’s mom, mine didn’t quite understand what Twitter is, but trusted her son that this was a good thing to do.) Being with my mother during a four-day inpatient stay offered a window into how things actually work at my own hospital, where I’ve practiced for three decades, and into the worlds of hospital care and patient safety, my professional passions. In this blog, I’ll take advantage of the absence of a 140-character limit to explore some of the lessons I learned.

First a little background. My mother is a delightful 77-year-old woman who lives with my 83-year-old father in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been generally healthy through her life. Two years ago, a lung nodule being followed on serial CT scans was diagnosed as cancer, and she underwent a right lower lobectomy, which left her mildly short of breath but with a reasonably good prognosis. In her left lower lung is another small nodule; it too is now is being followed with serial scans. While that remaining nodule may yet prove cancerous, it does not light up on PET scan nor has it grown in a year. So we’re continuing to track it, with crossed fingers.

Unfortunately, after a challenging recovery from her lung surgery, about a year ago Mom developed a small bowel obstruction (SBO). For those of you who aren’t clinical, this is one of life’s most painful events: the bowel, blocked, begins to swell as its contents back up, eventually leading to intractable nausea and vomiting, and excruciating pain. Bowel obstruction is rare in a “virgin” abdomen – the vast majority of cases result from scar tissue (“adhesions”) that formed after prior surgery. In my mother’s case, of course, we worried that the SBO was a result of metastatic lung cancer, but the investigation showed only scar tissue, probably from a hysterectomy done decades earlier.

Continue reading “#MomInHospital”

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There are tens of thousands of policies in Medicare’s policy manual, which makes for stiff competition for the “Most Maddening” award. But my vote goes to the policy around “observation status,” which is crazy-making for patients, administrators, and physicians.

“Obs status” began life as Medicare’s way of characterizing those patients who needed a little more time after their ED stay to sort out whether they truly needed admission. In many hospitals, “obs units” sprung up to care for such patients – a few beds in a room adjacent to the ED where the patients could get another nebulizer treatment or bag of saline to see if they might be able to go home. Giving the hospital a full DRG payment for an inpatient admission seemed wrong, and yet these patients really weren’t outpatients either. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS’s) original definition of obs status spoke to the specific needs of these just-a-few-more-hours patients: a “well-defined set of specific, clinically appropriate services,” usually lasting less than 24 hours. Only in “rare and exceptional cases,” they continued, should it last more than 48 hours.

A recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine, written by a team from the University of Wisconsin, vividly illustrates how far the policy has veered from its sensible origins. Chronicling all admissions over an 18-month period, Ann Sheehy and colleagues found that observation status was anything but rare, well defined, or brief. Fully one in ten hospital stays were characterized as observation. The mean length of these stays was 33 hours; 17 percent of them were for more than 48 hours. And “well defined?” Not with 1,141 distinct observation codes.

To underscore just how arbitrary the rules regarding observation are, an investigation by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released today found that “obs patients” and “inpatients” were clinically indistinguishable. Their major difference: which hospital they happened to be admitted to.

Continue reading “Medicare’s Observation Status-and Why Attempts to Make Things Better May Make Them Worse”

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Yesterday was my last day as chair of the ABIM, and the end of my eight-year tenure on the Board. In this blog – a bookend to the one I wrote at the start of the year, which went near-viral – I’ll describe some of our accomplishments this year and a few of the challenges that I leave my talented successors to grapple with.

I had two very tangible tasks to accomplish during my chairmanship. First, after a decade-long tenure as CEO and President of ABIM, Chris Cassel announced her intention to step down. (Chris is now CEO of the National Quality Forum, which is increasingly crucial in a world looking for robust measures of quality, safety, and value.) After an extensive search, we selected Richard Baron to become ABIM’s new CEO, and Rich began earlier this month. Rich is one of the most impressive people I’ve met in healthcare, and a perfect choice to lead ABIM into the future. As someone who practiced general internal medicine for nearly three decades in a mid-sized Philadelphia office, he is a “doctor’s doctor.”

He is intimately familiar with the work of the Board, having served on the boards of both ABIM and the ABIM Foundation for over a decade (including a year as ABIM chair). He also has extensive policy experience, most recently as director for Seamless Care Models for the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), where he was responsible for putting meat on the bones of concepts like the “Medical Home” and “Accountable Care Organization.” Rich is wickedly smart, a superb communicator, and a great listener with impeccable values and an unerring ethical compass. He’ll be splendid.

The second area may be a bit more Inside Baseball, but will ultimately be just as important. A couple of years ago, we began a process to redesign the ABIM’s governance. Our 28-person board was both too large and had too much on its plate for effective decision making. In work that was superbly led by then-chair Catherine Lucey, assisted by a crack committee, staff and governance expert Jamie Orlikoff, we decided to transform our governance structure. As of tomorrow, the ABIM board shrinks to 15 members – chosen for their experiences and competencies rather than because they represent a given medical subspecialty – and a new group, the ABIM Council, is formed. Continue reading “A Time of Change at the American Board of Internal Medicine”

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I sometimes explain to medical students that they are entering a profession being transformed, like coal to diamonds, under the pressure of a new mandate. “The world is going to push us, relentlessly and without mercy, to deliver the highest quality, safest, most satisfying care at the lowest cost,” I’ll say gravely, trying to get their attention.

“What exactly were you trying to do before?” some have asked, in that wonderful way that smart students blend naiveté with blinding insight.

It is pretty amazing that healthcare has been insulated from the business pressures that everybody from Yahoo! to my father’s garment business have experienced since the days of Adam Smith. We experienced a bit of this pressure in the mid-1990s, when pundits declared healthcare inflation “unsustainable” (sound familiar?) and we invented managed care to slay it. We know how that story ended – the public and professional backlash against HMOs defanged the managed care tiger to the point that it could barely produce a “meow.” The backlash was followed by a 15-year run during which efforts to slash healthcare costs have been remarkably meager.

That run has ended.

Luckily, while we’ve been let off the hook on cost-reduction, we’ve not been given a free pass on improvement. Beginning with the Institute of Medicine reports on safety (2000) and quality (2001), we have been under growing pressure to improve the numerator of the value equation: patient safety, quality of care, and patient satisfaction. Particularly for those of us who work in hospitals, we now feel this pressure from many angles: from accreditors (more vigorous and unannounced Joint Commission inspections, residency duty hour limits), transparency (Medicare’s Hospital Compare), comparative measurement (HealthGrades, Leapfrog, Consumer Reports and many other hospital rankings), and, most recently, payment policies (no pay for “never events,” penalties for readmissions, value-based purchasing, and “Meaningful Use” standards for IT).

These initiatives have created an increasingly robust business case to improve. Hospitals everywhere have responded with new resources, committees, ways of analyzing data, educational programs, computer systems, and more.

Continue reading “How UCSF Is Solving the Quality, Cost and Value Equation”

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Everybody hates curbside consults – the informal, “Hey, Joe, how would you treat asymptomatic pyuria in my 80-year-old nursing home patient?”-type questions that dominate those Doctor’s Lounge conversations that aren’t about sports, Wall Street, or ObamaCare. Consultants hate being asked clinical questions out of context; they know that they may give incorrect advice if the underlying facts and assumptions aren’t right (the old garbage in, garbage out phenomenon). They also don’t enjoy giving away their time and intellectual capital for free. Risk managers hate curbside consults because they sometimes figure into the pathogenesis of a lawsuit, such as when a hospitalist or ER doctor acts after receiving (non-documented) curbside guidance and things go sideways.

There is some evidence to support this antipathy. A recent study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine examined 47 curbside consultations by hospitalists, in which formal consults by different hospitalists (unaware of the details of the curbside encounter) were performed soon thereafter. Conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Colorado, the study found that the information given to the curbside consultant was incomplete or inaccurate roughly half the time, and that management advice offered via the two forms of consultation differed 60 percent of the time. (In those cases in which the consultant was given inaccurate or incomplete information, the advice differed more than 90 percent of the time!) This is not the first warning about the dangers of such consults (see also here and here), and it won’t be the last.

Continue reading “A Call For a New Model For Generalist-Specialist Information Exchange”

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In the past, neither hospitals nor practicing physicians were accustomed to being measured and judged. Aside from periodic inspections by the Joint Commission (for which they had years of notice and on which failures were rare), hospitals did not publicly report their quality data, and payment was based on volume, not performance.

Physicians endured an orgy of judgment during their formative years – in high school, college, medical school, and in residency and fellowship. But then it stopped, or at least it used to. At the tender age of 29 and having passed “the boards,” I remember the feeling of relief knowing that my professional work would never again be subject to the judgment of others.

In the past few years, all of that has changed, as society has found our healthcare “product” wanting and determined that the best way to spark improvement is to measure us, to report the measures publicly, and to pay differentially based on these measures. The strategy is sound, even if the measures are often not.

Continue reading “Measuring the Quality of Hospitals and Doctors: When Is Good Good Enough?”

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I’m well aware that a good fraction of the people in this country – let’s call them Rush fans – spend their lives furious at the New York Times. I am not one of them. I love the Grey Lady; it would be high on my list of things to bring to a desert island. But every now and then, the paper screws up, and it did so in a big way in its recent piece on the federal program to promote healthcare information technology (HIT).

Let’s stipulate that the Federal government’s $20 billion incentive program (called “HITECH”), designed to drive the adoption of electronic health records, is not perfect. Medicare’s “Meaningful Use” rules – the standards that hospitals’ and clinics’ EHRs must meet to qualify for bonus payments – have been criticized as both too soft and too restrictive. (You know the rules are probably about right when the critiques come from both directions.) Interoperability remains a Holy Grail. And everybody appreciates that today’s healthcare information technology (HIT) systems remain clunky and relatively user-unfriendly. Even Epic, the Golden Child among electronic medical record systems, has been characterized as the “Cream of the Crap.”

Continue reading “The HIT Job”

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These should be the best of times for the patient safety movement. After all, it was concerns over medical mistakes that launched the transformation of our delivery and payment models, from one focused on volume to one that rewards performance. The new system (currently a work-in-progress) promises to put skin in the patient safety game as never before.

Yet I’ve never been more worried about the safety movement than I am today. My fear is that we will look back on the years between 2000 and 2012 as the Golden Era of Patient Safety, which would be okay if we’d fixed all the problems. But we have not.

A little history will help illuminate my concerns. The modern patient safety movement began with the December 1999 publication of the IOM report on medical errors, which famously documented 44,000-98,000 deaths per year in the U.S. from medical mistakes, the equivalent of a large airplane crash each day. (To illustrate the contrast, we just passed the four-year mark since the last death in a U.S. commercial airline accident.) The IOM report sparked dozens of initiatives designed to improve safety: changes in accreditation standards, new educational requirements, public reporting, promotion of healthcare information technology, and more. It also spawned parallel movements focused on improving quality and patient experience.

As I walk around UCSF Medical Center today, I see an organization transformed by this new focus on improvement. In the patient safety arena, we deeply dissect 2-3 cases per month using a technique called Root Cause Analysis that I first heard about in 1999. The results of these analyses fuel “system changes” – also a foreign concept to clinicians until recently. We document and deliver care via a state-of-the-art computerized system. Our students and residents learn about QI and safety, and most complete a meaningful improvement project during their training. We no longer receive two years’ notice of a Joint Commission accreditation visit; we receive 20 minutes’ notice. While the national evidence of improvement is mixed, our experience at UCSF reassures me: we’ve seen lower infection rates, fewer falls, fewer medication errors, fewer readmissions, better-trained clinicians, and better systems. In short, we have an organization that is much better at getting better than it was a decade ago. Continue reading “Is the Patient Safety Movement in Critical Condition?”

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The debate over pay for performance in healthcare gets progressively more interesting, and confusing. And, with Medicare’s recent launch of its value-based purchasing and readmission penalty programs, the debate is no longer theoretical.

Just in the past several months, we’ve seen studies showing that pay for performance works, and others showing that it doesn’t. We’ve heard from some theorists who describe P4P as sapping intrinsic motivation and doing violence to professionalism, and others who feel that its effects are as natural and predictable as water running downhill. Some commentators beg us to stop it, while others denounce P4P’s current incarnations as too wimpy to work and recommend they be turbo-charged.

If we weren’t talking about the central policy question of a field as important as healthcare, we could call this a draw and move on. But the stakes are too high, so it’s worth taking a moment to review what we know.

In the U.S., the main test of P4P has been Medicare’s Hospital Quality Incentive Demonstration (HQID) program. A recent analysis of this program, which offered relatively small performance-based bonuses to a sample of 252 hospitals in the large Premier network, found that, after 6 years, hospitals in the intervention group had no better outcomes than those (3363 hospitals) in the control arm. Prior papers from the HQID demonstrated mild improvements in adherence to some process measures, but – as in a disconcerting number of studies – this did not translate into meaningful improvements in hard outcomes such as mortality.

Continue reading “Pay for Performance in Healthcare: Do We Need Less, More, or Different?”

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