Michael Millenson

Betsy Lehman

Twenty years ago this month, the Boston Globe disclosed that health columnist Betsy Lehman, a 39-year-old mother of two, had been killed by a drug overdose during treatment for breast cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Center. In laying out a grim trail of preventable mistakes at a renowned institution, the Globe prompted local soul searching and a new focus on patient safety nationally.

Although I didn’t know Betsy personally, we were about the same age, had two kids about the same ages and were in the same profession. (I, too, was a health care journalist.) That’s why I was particularly disappointed by a recent conference celebrating the reopening of the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction. It was heavy on statistics and poll results; e.g., one in four Massachusetts adults say they’ve seen an error in their own care or the care of someone close to them.

While it’s true that Boston is the epicenter of thinking, writing and speaking about patient safety, words do not always translate into deeds.

Continue reading “The “Business Case” For Patient Safety”

flying cadeuciiA few years ago, I was upgraded to First Class on a flight from California back to Chicago. Not long after I settled in, a tall, muscular man easily four inches taller than me walked up to my aisle seat in the first row and prepared to sit by the window.

I envisioned him spending hours hemmed in by the bulkhead and offered to switch places. We began to talk, and soon he shared that his seatmates often hesitate to engage him in conversation. Women and even some men will turn or stiffen in their seats in order to send a clear body-language message.

That’s what happens when you’re a large, physically imposing black guy. People make assumptions. When it comes to patient engagement, we often make assumptions, too.

We minimize the influence of race, gender and ethnicity, or we confuse it with socio-economic status. We assume that “people like us” have communication preferences like us. We downplay the doctor-patient relationship and overemphasize technology.

Race and Ethnicity Matter

In truth, race and ethnicity matter as much in medicine as in the rest of the society. For example, whites, African-Americans and Latinos share the same expectations of their physicians, a study in Health Services Research found, but “patients from different racial and ethnic groups report differing experiences…when using well-validated measurement tools.” Translation: the perception reflects reality.

Continue reading “Race, Ethnicity and Patient Engagement”


I was reading a medical home advocacy group’s upbeat approach to a recent JAMA study that had found scant benefit in the concept when, suddenly, we tumbled into Alice in Wonderland territory.

The press release from the leadership of the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative (PCPCC) started out reasonably enough. The three-year study of medical practices had concluded that the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) contributed little to better quality of care, lower cost and reduced utilization. This was an “important contribution,” said the PCPCC, because it showed “refinement” of the concept that was still necessary.

That was just the set up, though, to this challenge from Marci Nielsen, chief executive officer of the group. “It is fair,” said Nielsen, “to question whether these pilot practices (studied) had yet transformed to be true medical homes.”

Where might one find these true medical homes? The answer turns out to be as elusive as a white rabbit. Formal recognition as a medical home via accreditation “can help serve as an important roadmap for practices to transform.” However, accreditation as a PCMH “is not necessarily synonymous with being one.” Conversely, you can be a “true PCMH” without having received any recognition at all!

But maybe the true medical home does not yet exist, since, “the evidence base” for the model “is still being developed.”

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty scornfully informs Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” And so we learn that a true medical home means just what the PCPCC says it does.

It’s confusing. If the truly transformational medical home lies in the future, why does the PCPCC chide the JAMA researchers in this “otherwise well-conducted study” for failing to “reference the recent PCPCC annual report which analyzed 13 peer-reviewed and 7 industry studies and found cost savings and utilization reductions in over 60 percent of the evaluations”?

Continue reading “The Medical Home’s Humpty Dumpty Defense”

The reason that Republicans shut down the federal government, it turns out, was to “restore patient-centered healthcare in America.”

Huh?

As the lead author of a policy paper entitled, “Will the Affordable Care Act Move Patient-Centeredness to Center Stage?” I admit to a certain guilty thrill when I read this precise demand coming as the climax of a letter sent by 80 hard-right representatives to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). You don’t get much more “center stage” than shutting off the federal money spigot, which is what the letter – discussed in a recent article in The New Yorker – threatened unless the ACA was defunded.

Having said that, patient-centeredness was a truly odd choice to occupy a central role in the conservative casus belli that ended up disrupting the entire U.S. economy until the right wing finally caved.

To begin with, the term is a minor piece of jargon likely to draw blank stares from pretty much the entire American public. Even for us health policy mavens, the GOP letter linking James Madison on the redress of grievances to defunding Obamacare to a “restoration” of patient-centeredness required major mental gymnastics.

Then there’s the unintentional linguistic irony. The term “patient-centered medicine” originated after World War II with a psychoanalyst who urged physicians to relate to patients as people with physical and psychological needs, not just a bundle of symptoms. “Patient-centered care” further defined itself as exploring “patients’ needs and concerns as patients themselves define them,” according to a book by the Picker/Commonwealth Program for Patient-Centered Care, which coined the term in 1987. Patient-centered care was adopted as a “goal” by the Institute of Medicine, which added its own definition, in 2001.

But here’s where the irony kicks in. Obamacare opponents assert that the ACA undermines the traditional doctor-patient relationship – although I suspect that being able to pay your doctor because you have health insurance actually improves it quite a bit.

Yet in calling for “patient-centered healthcare” instead of the more common “patient-centered care” or even patient-centered medicine, conservatives unwittingly abandoned doctor-patient language in favor of business-speak.

Continue reading “GOP’s Oddest Obamacare Rejection: “Patient-Centered Healthcare””

Forget for a moment the familiar scenes of action and outraged reaction that are playing out in our long-running national debate over how best to provide access to health care for every American. Instead, ask one simple question: what happens in the doctor’s office or hospital once access is achieved.

I set out to write a book addressing that question almost twenty years ago. I thought myself well qualified: I’d written about health care for a decade for the Chicago Tribune while receiving various awards and other recognition. But it didn’t take long for a painful realization to set in of how naïve I really was.

Digging through hundreds of studies, articles and other first-hand sources stretching back for decades, I was stunned to discover that repeated evidence of unsafe, ineffective, wasteful and downright random care had had no effect whatsoever on how doctors treated patients. Literally none. Moreover, the few professionals who understood this truth couldn’t talk about it in public without endangering their careers or engendering vitriol from peers.

Fortunately, I had no academic or clinical career to imperil. In the conclusion to Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age, I gave vent to anger and indignation. I wrote:

From ulcers to urinary tract infections, tonsils to organ transplants, back pain to breast cancer, asthma to arteriosclerosis, the evidence is irrefutable. Tens of thousands of patients have died or been injured year after year because readily available information was not used ­– and is not being used today – to guide their care. If one counts the lives lost to preventable medical mistakes, the toll reaches the hundreds of thousands.

The only barrier to saving these lives is the willingness of doctors and hospital administrators to change.

Demanding Medical Excellence came out in October, 1997. What progress has been made since then, and where we have fallen short? I address that question in a short article, “The Long Wait for Medical Excellence,” in the October, 2013 issue of Health Affairs. The purpose of this blog entry is to recap some of what’s said there (for you non-subscribers) and to add a few impolite observations that don’t jibe with the rules of a peer-reviewed journal.

Continue reading “Still Demanding Medical Excellence”

Welcome, students, to our special combined 9th grade math and civics class. Today, we’re going to look at the “Cadillac tax” in the Affordable Care Act.

Yes, Mitt, you have a question already? No, no, “Cadillac tax” is just an expression. No one is going to tax your family’s cars, Mitt, I promise.

Paul, you also have a question? I’m sorry, Paul, but if you had done the reading, you would know that the “Affordable Care Act” and “Obamacare” are the same thing. And yes, it is still the law, as I must have told you and your friends 40 times. Now can we get on with the class?

As those of you who did do the reading know, most American workers get their health insurance through their employer. The company, in turn, is allowed to deduct the cost of that insurance from its taxes. If the insurance for workers is very generous, it can encourage people to use too much medical care. This not only drives up costs, but we all pay for it a second time through the tax code. The Affordable Care Act addresses that problem by placing an excise tax on rich benefit plans starting in 2018, which is informally known as the “Cadillac tax.”

Economists of all viewpoints generally agree that an open-ended tax deduction for health insurance encourages overconsumption. What do we call that kind of agreement? Michelle?

No, Michelle, I’m afraid, “liberal conspiracy” is not the answer I was looking for. “Bipartisan consensus” was the correct response.

Rand, you seem quite agitated. Yes? “Government intervention in markets is never the right answer.” OK. Well, Rand, let’s talk about that another time and move on from civics to the mathematics part of today’s lesson. We’ll start with a word problem from the New York Times.

The Times quoted a study from a health policy journal as saying that 75 percent of health plans could be affected by the Cadillac tax over the next decade. That’s a big number, isn’t it?  And the tax itself is 40 percent – another big number. No wonder the story was on the first page of the Business section.

But here are a few other numbers from the same study: just 16 percent of plans are likely be affected by the tax when it starts in 2018 ­– a much smaller number. And the “next decade” the study is talking about starts in 2018. What the study actually says is that by 2029 the tax could reduce benefits for affected plans by 3.1 percent. That’s an even smaller number and even further away.

Class, why would the New York Times emphasize the biggest numbers they could find?

Continue reading “The 9th Grade Class Does Obamacare Math (Can Journalists Do the Same?)”

Stealthily, AHRQ has acquired a new head, but the ax still hovers over it.

Very quietly, researcher Richard Kronick, PhD was named by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be the new director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). He joins an organization that remains squarely on the House GOP’s chopping block and with few friends strong enough to ward off the blow.

Last fall, when a House appropriations subcommittee voted to eliminate all AHRQ funding, I wrote that the agency’s execution went almost unnoticed: it didn’t even rate a separate mention in the committee’s lengthy press release.

Back then, the House GOP’s big target was Big Bird, a/k/a funding for public broadcasting. Since then, the rampaging Republican right-wing has decided it won’t approve subsidies to farmers unless it can also slash food stamps to the poor and that undocumented immigrants are mostly a law-and-order problem, not a human one. That these positions contradict views held by many conservative Republican senators, governors and party leaders has had little to no effect.

Enter Kronick, after a months-long search to replace Dr. Carolyn Clancy, who’d held the top AHRQ post since February, 2003. Oddly, the announcement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wasn’t posted on the HHS website or even the AHRQ one. Searching Kronick’s name simply turned up press releases from his current position as deputy assistant secretary for health policy. According to MedPage Today, the naming of Kronick was made “in the department’s daily electronic afternoon newsletter.”

Why? My guess: politics.

Clancy was known for good relations with policymakers of both parties; she was upgraded from “acting director” to permanent status during the George W. Bush administration. Her predecessor, Dr. John Eisenberg, enjoyed a similar bipartisan rapport. Of course, that was before conservatism gave way to crusaders. Kronick, by contrast, has a background almost tailor-made to tick off Tea Partyers.

Continue reading “In a Quiet Move, Washington Replaces the Head of AHRQ. Is It Too Late to Save the Agency?”

If you wanted to know what doctors thought about money and medical practice, including plumber envy, you’d read American Medical News(AMN). That’s the biweekly newspaper the American Medical Association just announced it’s shutting down.

Unlike JAMA, in which doctors appear as white-coated scientists, AMN focused on practical and political issues, not least of which was the bottom line. For outsiders, that’s provided a fascinating window into the House of Medicine.

Take, for instance, the sensitive topic of plumber envy. A 1955 AMA report I discovered during research on a book I wrote some years ago lamented physicians’ “consistent preoccupation with their economic insecurity,” including envious comparisons to “what plumbers make for house calls.”

Flash forward to 1967. Thanks to most patients now enjoying private or public health insurance, doctors’ incomes have improved substantially. The pages of AMN include advertisements for Cadillacs and convention hotels (Miami Beach is “Vacationland USA”). However, one man’s income is another man’s expenses, and complaints about rising medical costs have surged. When AFL-CIO president George Meany joins the chorus of carping, an AMN headline asks, “How about plumbing?”

If today’s doctors have finally piped down about plumbers ­– an electronic search of AMN archives back to 2004 produced no plumbing references – it may be because the average plumber earned about $51,830 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the average general internist earned $183,170. Meanwhile, the AMN ads for cars ­were long ago replaced by ads for drugs, where influencing a doctor’s choice can drive millions or billions in revenue.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of rising medical costs and its causes has been a persistent theme in AMN since its launch in 1958. (For my book research, I pored through its indexes and old issues.) While AMN ran articles with titles like, “Medicine Called ‘Best Bargain Ever,’” the AMA leadership knew health cost unhappiness was not a psychosomatic disorder.

Continue reading “What the Death of American Medical News Says About the Future of American Medicine”

True to his proudly claimed Chicago newspaperman roots, famed movie critic Roger Ebert remained a writer literally up until the moment he died.

“A lot of people have asked me how could Roger have [posted] that column one day and then die the next? Well, he didn’t know he was going to die the next day, and we didn’t expect him to. We expected him to have more time. We were going to go to home hospice. We thought we would take him home, let him enjoy that time, and let him get stabilized. I’ve got to tell you: I really thought he was just tired and that he was going to get better.”

“I want people to know that Roger was still vibrant right up to the end,” his wife, Chaz, told Ebert’s friend, TimeOut Chicago columnist Robert Feder, before an April 7 memorial service. “He was lucid – completely lucid – writing notes right up to before the moment of death,” she said. Only later did it occur to Chaz that Roger had begun signing his initials and dating many of the notes he wrote at the end. “Now I wish I had saved them all,” she said.

It was as if a man who had refused for years to be defined by illness refused to be defined even by death. Ebert spoke openly of being a recovering alcoholic (he stopped drinking in 1979), and when cancer cost him part of his lower jaw in 2006, cruelly taking away his ability to either talk or eat, he did not hide, wrote colleague Neil Steinberg in the Sun-Times, Ebert’s home newspaper. Instead, he forged “what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness” written “with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.”

Ebert, wrote Roger Simon in tribute, was “a newspaperman’s newspaperman.” As a former Chicago newspaperman myself (at that other paper, across the street), I’m sure Roger Ebert continued to write even after his death.

It’s just that he hasn’t found a way, yet, to send out his copy.

As a long-time reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Michael L. Millenson learned the famous fact-checking fanaticism credo of Chicago journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” He is currently president of Health Quality Advisors LLC of Highland Park, IL.

The recent news that thousands of seniors with cancer are being denied treatment with expensive chemotherapy drugs as a result of sequestration-mandated budget cuts raises the question of whether other patients are being equally harmed, but less visibly.

A careful study of the impact of past federal budget cutting suggests a troubling answer. That study, in a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper published in 2011 and revised last year, established an eerily direct link between slashing hospital reimbursement and whether Medicare patients with a heart attack live or die.

Using data from California hospitals, researchers Vivian Y. Wu of the University of California and Yu-Chu Shen of the Naval Postgraduate School examined mortality rates for heart attack patients following the Medicare payment cuts resulting from the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997. The impact of the BBA was not as sudden or clear as the current situation, where Medicare’s two percent across-the-board cut on April 1 instantly transformed some expensive chemotherapy drugs into money losers, but it was significant and long-lasting.

The researchers examined hospitals claims data for a three-year period before the BBA, a three-year period when the BBA first took effect and, finally, a six-year period after budget cuts had either permanently changed care or failed to do so. They also tried to adjust for the severity of illness of the heart attack patients – the condition is formally known as acute myocardial infarction (AMI) – and other factors.

In the end, the researchers were able to trace a clear path from Congressional budget decisions to the patient’s bedside. Payment reductions triggered by the BBA , Wu and Shen concluded, led to “worse Medicare AMI patient outcomes, and more importantly, that the adverse effect only became measurable several years after the policy took place.”

They even quantified the effect: every thousand dollars of Medicare revenue loss from the BBA translated to a six to eight percent increase in mortality rates from heart attack. Continue reading “Why Medicare Cuts Will Quietly Kill Seniors”

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