Physicians

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 6.30.35 PMThroughout history, physicians have treated patients for conditions that generations of their professional successors later deemed figments of their (the physicians’) imaginations.  The list is long, but in just the last 100 years, it has included such disorders as female hysteria, homosexuality, moral insanity, neurasthenia, and vapors, among many others.  The consequences of such diagnoses were not trivial, and in some cases, patients were stigmatized, ostracized, subjected involuntarily to a variety of noxious treatments, and even incarcerated because of them.  Yet we now believe that each of these conditions was a fiction, and they are absent from today’s textbooks.

Something similar may be afoot in the profession of medicine today.  The affliction is known as conflict of interest, and medicine is thought to be suffering a pandemic of it.  In fact, its proponents argue that no physician is safe.  Its symptoms among researchers are a tendency to conduct investigations and publish results that are biased, and among clinicians, to prescribe tests and therapies that their patients do not really need.  The underlying cause of the condition is thought to be financial inducements from industry, which lead these gullible physicians and scientists to betray their personal and professional integrity without even knowing it.

For example, industry funding of research might lead physician-scientists to bias their results in ways that line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers.  Likewise, the presence of industry representatives in offices and hospitals might lead physicians to write inappropriate prescriptions for industry-promoted drugs.  If physicians are presented with a gift such as a pen, a notepad, a book, or a free meal from an industry representative, they might be more inclined to use that company’s products in their practice.  The implication?  Physicians are insufficiently self-aware and trustworthy to put patients’ interests above their own.

Continue reading “How Conflict of Interest Became a Health Care Urban Legend”

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Craig GarthwaiteOn Wednesday June 4, the Kellogg School of Management hosted its annual MacEachern Symposium. A packed auditorium listened to an impassioned discussion about The Future of the Physician. Presidential adviser Ezekiel Emanuel and AMA President Ardis Hoven were among the speakers. While Emanuel was optimistic about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on hospital-physician integration and the resulting potential for cost savings and quality improvements, Hoven was concerned about the impact of the business of healthcare on the medical profession. In this blog, we offer our perspective on the evolving role of the physician.

The hit television series Marcus Welby, MD last aired in 1976. Dr. Welby was the physician of every baby boomer’s dreams, whose patients always felt cared for and always got better. By the end of the century, Dr. Welby had been replaced by Dr. House, an MD cum Sherlock Holmes with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and an opiate addiction. While his bedside manner is decidedly not Welbyesque, Dr. House still embodied the basic premise of the all-knowing and dedicated provider that solves problems with little concerns for costs or standard practice.

But in the real world, physicians are evolving along a different—and we argue—better path. The 20th century physician was self-employed, championed the interests of patients, and had complete control over the medical system. But this system had at least two primary problems: (1) ever escalating costs and (2) dramatic variations in physician practice patterns with little connection to outcomes. We shudder to think how much Dr. House spent on his patients. This system is no longer sustainable.

Enter the 21st century physician, who is increasingly an employee of a large provider organization that scrutinizes every medical decision based on both cost and quality. We may all be better off for this transformation – the question is will we accept it? If past is prologue, we fear that American public is still not ready.

Continue reading “The Future of the Physician”

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Jack Cochran

“As a PCP, I’ve seen the morale in my area, and I see a major crisis coming if the complaints are ignored.”

“I’ve lived in the hell that is American health care…”

A devoted physician wrote these words in reaction to a recent blog post we wrote. And he is clearly not alone.

In our new book The Doctor Crisis, we report on the widespread unhappiness, frustration, dissatisfaction, and anger of so many American physicians.

We believe this crisis is real and growing; that it is an impediment to providing the care the American people need; that dealing with the doctor crisis is fundamentally patient-centered; and that the crisis has not been recognized for the fundamental threat it poses.

Our recent feature on The Health Care Blog elicited some powerful reaction:

Rob: ”In a certain sense, individual doctors ARE victims of a system that rewards over-consumption, ridiculous documentation, attention to codes over people, and bureaucracy over partnership…”

Jeff: “Can validate what Rob has said. I’ve spent the last three years listening to physicians about the possible alternative futures for their profession, and the overwhelming desire was exactly as Rob said- an overwhelming impulse to flee…”

Some commentators wrote that doctors shouldn’t complain because they earn a lot of money, drive fancy cars and own nice homes. But that theme – accurate in many cases but certainly not all — gets us nowhere.

We think the rubber meets the road with this warning from Dr. Rob, ”…As a PCP, I’ve seen the morale in my area, and I see a major crisis coming if the complaints are ignored.”

Is Dr. Rob overstating it? We don’t think so. In fact, we think he has it exactly right. How can our system function properly if the level of job satisfaction among doctors continues to spiral downward?

Harris Interactive research describes the profession as “a minefield’’ where physicians feel burned out and “under assault on all fronts.’’ Has such extreme language ever been used to characterize the medical profession? Have doctors ever faced a time as turbulent as this?

Doctors are certainly not blameless as both Brian and Rob noted in their comments:

Brian: “…I’m concerned that you have framed your argument as though physicians are victims of the system rather than partial drivers of its characteristics …”

Rob: “…physicians as a group have been complicit in building this system, and so should bear a lot of the blame…”

So what needs to be done?

A crucial first step is for health care stakeholders to recognize and acknowledge the existence of the crisis. Doing so will get the doctor crisis on the national health care agenda. Unfortunately, the matter is  not currently a priority for many, if not most, provider organizations. That needs to change.

Continue reading “Lost in the Health Care System?”

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Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.36.41 AMA basic principle of health care is that everyone strongly favors transparency – for everyone but themselves.

“Sunshine is the strongest disinfectant” is the oft-used expression that supports putting information out in the open for all to see. That said, every stakeholder in health care gets a bit nervous about exposing their own data.

They are quick to cite the potential downsides – that patients will not be able to understand the limitations of the information, that risk adjustment will be inadequate to explain why their performance looks below average, that they may actually be below average.

No one gets as nervous about public reporting as my health care provider colleagues. We worry that everyone else may game the system, cherry-pick patients, or that we might lose patients if the data look less than perfect. It’s safe to say that number of physicians who hate the idea of public reporting is greater than the number who support it.

All of which makes it that much more fascinating that some provider organizations have recently begun putting all their patient experience data – including every patient comment about every doctor – on their Find-A-Doctor web sites. “Every” actually does mean every – the good, bad, and ugly (after removal of those that might violate patient confidentiality). And they are tied directly to the physician who delivered their care.

Why would they do this? The initial response from some commentators was that they were trying to “out-Yelp Yelp” – that is, control the information that was appearing about them on the Web. In truth, the initial idea was less about controlling information than providing more of it.

Rather than living with on-line comments generated by a small subset of patients motivated by who-knows-what to write in, organizations like the University of Utah decided that they would survey all patients electronically, and post all their comments.

And they would take the chance that more data would provide a better sense of the truth.

The University of Utah health care system was the first in the country to go down this road, and they were rewarded for their creativity and courage with a very pleasant surprise. The result over the last few years has been astounding improvement in their patients’ experience with their physicians.

Continue reading “Really? Online Reviews Could Help Fix Medicine”

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asco 2014 entranceThe American Society of Clinical Oncology recently made public nearly all of the abstracts — more than 5,000 pieces of research — that were selected for the ASCO annual meeting, which kicked off in Chicago on the last day of May.

Sifting through those 5,000 abstracts would be an almost inhuman task: each abstract contains 2,000 characters. That’s 10 million characters of information about oncology created by experts that’s now available for the public to parse.

But as remarkable as the ASCO abstract drop is, that research is not the only overwhelming trove of communication on cancer created by doctors. One ASCO abstract (based on research by me and W2O colleagues Greg Matthews and Kayla Rodriguez) tells story of how, over the course of 2013, U.S. doctors tweeted about cancer 82,383 times. At 140 characters a tweet, that’s nearly 12 million characters.

We know there were 82,383 tweets because we counted them. Using our MDigitalLife database, which matches Twitter handles with verified profiles from the government’s physician database, we scanned all tweets by doctors for mentions of dozens of keywords associated with cancer over the course of calendar year 2013.

Continue reading “What Twitter Tells Us about the War on Cancer”

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Locum Tenens market leaders

In a policy environment where quality measures and patient satisfaction ratings are becoming the basis for reimbursement rates, one wonders how VMS software is getting traction. Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures, and the challenge of filling employment gaps is driving interest in impersonal digital match services? Rural hospitals are desperate to recruit quality candidates, and with a severe physician shortage looming, warm bodies are becoming an acceptable solution to staffing needs.

As distasteful as the thought of computer-matching physicians to hospitals may be, the real problems of VMS systems only become apparent with experience. After discussing user experience with several hospital system employees and reading various blogs and online debates here’s what I discovered:

1. Garbage In, Garbage Out. The people who input physician data (including their certifications, medical malpractice histories, and licensing data) have no incentive to insure accuracy of information. Head hunter agencies are paid when the physicians/nurses they enter into the database are matched to a hospital.

To make sure that their providers get first dibs, they may leave out information, misrepresent availability, and in extreme cases, even falsify certification statuses. These errors are often caught during the hospital credentialing process, which results in many hours of wasted time on the part of internal credentialing personnel, and delays in filling the position. In other cases, the errors are not caught during credentialing and legal problems ensue when impaired providers are hired accidentally.

Continue reading “Vendor Management Systems and the Commoditization of Physicians and Nurses”

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Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 3.19.04 PM

“Patient noncompliance.” I wasn’t very familiar with this term until I started my clinical rotations. But after just the first week, I started noticing that health care providers throw this phrase around all time.

We particularly like using it as an excuse. Why did this diabetic patient require a foot amputation? Why does this patient come in monthly with congestive heart failure exacerbation? Why did this patient suffer a stroke? It’s often simply attributed to patient noncompliance.

What bothers me the most about this phrase, though, is how it’s often stated with such disdain. We act as if it’s incomprehensible that someone would ignore our evidence-based recommendations. If the patient would only bother to listen, he or she would get better. If we were patients, we would be compliant.

But that’s simply not true. We are no different from our patients. We practice our own form of noncompliance. It’s called guideline non-adherence.

Despite the fact that many guidelines are created after systematic reviews and meta-analyses – processes we would never have time to go through ourselves – we, like our own patients, are often noncompliant.

Research on guideline adherence has been around since guidelines started becoming prominent in the early 1990s. Despite the many studies and interventions to improve guideline adherence, the rates of guideline adherence still remain dismally low.

I find this particularly disconcerting. Despite my own interest in research, it makes me question the value of research. Why do we spend millions of dollars to find a better intervention that does not change how most providers deliver health care?

Continue reading “Why the Phrase “Noncompliant Patient” Bothers Me, And Should Probably Bother You Too ..”

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flying cadeuciiThe Institute of Medicine in 2010 famously recommended that nurses should be encouraged to practice “to the full extent of their education and training.”Often, you’ll hear people advocate that every healthcare worker should “practice at the top of their license”.

What this concept is supposed to mean, I think, is that anyone with clinical skills should use them effectively and not spend time on tasks that can be done by someone with fewer skills, presumably at lower cost.

So I would like to know, please, when I’ll get to practice at the top of my license?

As a physician who specializes in anesthesiology at a big-city medical center, I take care of critically ill patients all the time.

Yet I spend a lot of time performing tasks that could be done by someone with far less training.

Though I’m no industrial engineer, I did an informal “workflow analysis” on my activities the other morning before my first patient entered the operating room to have surgery.

I arrived in the operating room at 6:45 a.m., which is not what most people would consider a civilized hour, but I had a lot to do before we could begin surgery at 7:15.

First, I looked around for a suction canister, attached it to the anesthesia machine, and hooked up suction tubing. This is a very important piece of equipment, as it may be necessary to suction secretions from a patient’s airway. It should take only moments to set up a functioning suction canister, but if one isn’t available in the operating room, you have to leave the room and scrounge for it elsewhere in a storage cabinet or case cart.

This isn’t an activity that requires an MD degree. An eight-year-old child could do it competently after being shown once.

Continue reading “Scope of Practice: Playing at the Top of My License?”

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Paul Revere
Writing in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Dr. Daniel F. Craviotto Jr. an orthopedist, made a plea to physicians to declare independence from third parties and emancipate themselves from servitude to payers, mandates and electronic health records (EHR).

As rants go, this was a first class rant. But its effect was that of a Charles de Gaulle’s whisper to Vichy France rather than a Churchillian oratory at the finest hour.

The article went viral (it has been tweeted nearly 3000 times), though with little virulence. And it is not WSJ’s paywall to blame.

The author might have assumed that most the healthcare community in general and physicians in particular wish to be free from regulations. I have serious doubts that this assumption is correct in the aggregate. The relationship between regulators and physicians is more complex and symbiotic than it first appears.

Some physicians believe in bureaucracy. Rationalism will march us out of our healthcare wilderness. This belief in scientific managerialism, faith in technocracy, is the new theism. The rationale of the new theists is that regulations fail not because they are inherently useless but because there are so few of them, and even fewer that are actually smart.

Like the first religions started with polytheism, the new believers want more agencies, more alphabet soups, more gods.

Continue reading “Doctor Paul Revere Fails to Light the Fire”

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flying cadeuciiA study by Stanford researchers in the current issue of Health Affairs is likely to intensify growing tension between health insurers and hospitals.

At issue: the impact of physician-hospital consolidation, or vertical integration as some academics prefer to call the trend.

The researchers analyzed 2 million claims submitted to insurers by hospitals from 2001 to 2007, evaluating the impact on hospital prices, volumes (admissions), and spending for privately insured, non-elderly patients. Using data from Truven Analytics MarketScan.

They constructed county-level indices of prices, volumes, and spending and adjusted for enrollees’ age and sex. “We measured hospital-physician integration using information from the American Hospital Association on the types of relationships hospitals have with physicians.”

What they found is not surprising: vertical integration involving physician-hospital consolidation results in better care and higher costs. They found hospital prices increased 2%-3% each time physician-employing hospitals’ market share increased by one standard deviation. And overall spending on services at the hospitals that employed physicians increased while the utilization of services (volume) at those hospitals didn’t change.

They  concluded the following:

“We found that an increase in the market share of hospitals with the tightest vertically integrated relationship with physicians—ownership of physician practices—was associated with higher hospital prices and spending.

We found that an increase in contractual integration reduced the frequency of hospital admissions, but this effect was relatively small. Taken together, our results provide a mixed, although somewhat negative, picture of vertical integration from the perspective of the privately insured.”

What’s the significance of the study?

1-Hospitals and physicians will bolster their position that vertical integration is necessary to improved outcomes. The shift from volume to value via accountable care organizations, bundled payments, medical homes, and value based purchasing require closer collaboration between physicians and hospitals.

“Clinical integration” is central to each, and payers– Medicare and private insurers– are promoting these risk-based contracting efforts energetically while cutting reimbursement rates for services aggressively. So the provider position is this: ‘We get better results. We built what you said you wanted.

It’s costly to make the change, especially while since Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover our costs, demand is soaring and our bad debt from the uninsured increasing. You told us to build it, but you don’t want to cover our costs.’

Continue reading “A Closer Look at Physician-Hospital Alignment”

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Contributing Editor

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