Physicians

Marx und Engels Alexsander Platz Berlin

On September 28, 1864, exactly 150 years ago this weekend, the first meeting of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was convened at St. Martin’s Hall, London.  Among the attendees was a relatively obscure German journalist by the name of Karl Marx.  Though Marx did not speak during the meeting, he soon began playing a crucial role in the life of the organization, in part because he was assigned the task of drafting its founding documents.

The work of the IWA and Marx is increasingly relevant to the practice of medicine today, largely because of the rapidly shrinking percentage of US physicians who own their own practices.  This moves physicians into the category of what Marx and his associates called, “working people.”  According to data from the American Medical Association, in 1983 76% of physicians were self-employed, a number that had fallen in 2012 to 53%.  And the trend is accelerating.  It is estimated that in 2014, 3 in 4 newly hired physicians will go to work for hospitals and health systems.

To put this change in Marx’s terms, the rapid fall in physician self-employment means that a shrinking percentage of physicians own what he called the means of production.  In his view, this alienates workers – in this case physicians – from other physicians, themselves, the work they do, and from patients.  Whether we agree with Marx on every point, his writings on this topic provides a provocative perspective from which to survey the changing landscape of contemporary medicine.

Continue reading “Have Doctors Joined the Working Class?”

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Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 2.28.53 PMNot accustomed to visiting hospital executive suites, I took my seat in the waiting room somewhat warily.

Seated across from me was a handsome man in a well-tailored three-piece suit, whose thoroughly professional appearance made me – in my rumpled white coat, sheaves of dog-eared paper bulging from both pockets – feel out of place.

Within a minute, an administrative secretary came out and escorted him into one of the offices. Exhausted from a long call shift and lulled by the quiet, I started to doze off. Soon roused by the sound of my own snoring, I started and looked about.

That was when I spotted the document on an adjacent chair. Its title immediately caught my eye: “How to Discourage a Doctor.”

Continue reading “How To Discourage a Doctor”

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John Haughom MD whiteWhen I write or speak about healthcare transformation, I am often asked why I do not criticize more. Criticize health system leadership. Criticize governmental policies. Criticize burdensome regulations. It’s a long list. Why avoid criticism? The answer is simple. Discerning emerging solutions is much more productive and fun.

We are living during a very interesting period in the history of health care. No doubt, it is a time of great transition. We are passing from one time to another. Transition periods are important, yet they are hard to define because it’s difficult to determine exactly when they start and when they end. To understand the transition healthcare is now experiencing, we must do our best to understand what is on either side of it.

The traditional approach to delivering care has served us well and accomplished great things over the past century. Yet, it is also being overwhelmed by complexity and producing inconsistent quality, unacceptable levels of harm, too much waste and spiraling costs.

The traditional method of delivering care is struggling and another is emerging to take its place. Because the traditional approach has served us well and accomplished great things, we want to believe that the present state will continue forever. Because conditions have changed, this will not happen. We are in need of a new approach. An approach that carries the best of the past forward, yet also addresses present day challenges. It just might be that on the other side of this current transition is potentially a time unmatched by any other in the history of healthcare. Thanks to visionary clinical leaders at institutions across the country, there is growing evidence this is not only possible; it is likely.

Who does the future belong to? If we look closely at other transition periods in history, two groups of people are apparent. The first are what we recognize as critics. They are people whose response to the need for change is criticism. Critics always exist, but in a time of transition they tend to multiply. What do they criticize? They criticize the new, they criticize the change, they criticize the change for being unnecessary or too fast, or they criticize the change for being too slow. They criticize anything and everything. Critics are abundant. The question we should consider is, “Will criticism solve problems?” Typically, it does not.  While constructive criticism has its place, it alone is not likely to accomplish much especially when the world is yearning for innovative solutions.

Continue reading “It is Time for Clinicians to Engage: Let’s Criticize Less and Dare Greatly More”

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flying cadeuciiEverywhere we turn these days it seems “Big Data” is being touted as a solution for physicians and physician groups who want to participate in Accountable Care Organizations, (ACOs) and/or accountable care-like contracts with payers.

We disagree, and think the accumulated experience about what works and what doesn’t work for care management suggests that a “Small Data” approach might be good enough for many medical groups, while being more immediately implementable and a lot less costly. We’re not convinced, in other words, that the problem for ACOs is a scarcity of data or second rate analytics. Rather, the problem is that we are not taking advantage of, and using more intelligently, the data and analytics already in place, or nearly in place.

For those of you who are interested in the concept of Big Data, Steve Lohr recently wrote a good overview in his column in the New York Times, in which he said:

“Big Data is a shorthand label that typically means applying the tools of artificial intelligence, like machine learning, to vast new troves of data beyond that captured in standard databases. The new data sources include Web-browsing data trails, social network communications, sensor data and surveillance data.”

Applied to health care and ACOs, the proponents of Big Data suggest that some version of IBM’s now-famous Watson, teamed up with arrays of sensors and a very large clinical data repository containing virtually every known fact about all of the patients seen by the medical group, is a needed investment. Of course, many of these data are not currently available in structured, that is computable, format. So one of the costly requirements that Big Data may impose on us results from the need to convert large amounts of unstructured or poorly structured data to structured data. But when that is accomplished, so advocates tell us, Big Data is not only good for quality care, but is “absolutely essential” for attaining the cost efficiency needed by doctors and nurses to have a positive and money-making experience with accountable care shared-savings, gain-share, or risk contracts.

Continue reading “The Power of Small”

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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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FROM THE VAULT

The Power of Small Why Doctors Shouldn't Be Healers Big Data in Healthcare. Good or Evil? Depends on the Dollars. California's Proposition 46 Narrow Networking
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