NEW @ THCB PRESS: Surviving Workplace Wellness. Spring 2014. Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. e-book edition. # LIGHTHOUSE Healthcare. Illuminated.

Physicians

Here is a sweeping generalization: When doctors write for the lay public they tend towards tiresome self-flagellation.

Samuel Shem’s House of God is an exception; a refreshing read.

Perhaps he wrote for physicians so he wrote with such open face honesty.

In today’s politically correct world, Shem would have been castigated as an ageist for his brilliant acronym, GOMER (Get out of My Emergency Room), for peri-ninety year olds with advanced dementia who are skirting that narrow zone between St. Peter’s Gate and fractured ribs post-CPR.

Time for a pronouncement for medical students: There are two things you must do before starting your internship. Pass your USMLEs and read House of God.

I have read Shem’s classic twice. I remember the Rules of House of God more reliably than I recall the names of the carpal bones.

My first read was a few days in to my internship in elderly care medicine. The hospital was a rickety establishment in Britain’s National Health Service, not quite the Best Medical School that Shem described. But I seemed to share the same clinical experiences as Roy Basch, Shem’s Gomer-phobic protagonist.

There was a deluge of Gomers on New Year’s Eve; the old practice of granny dumping. I had to justify admission by finding nitrates in their urine for suspected urinary tract infection (grandson attending New Year’s bash still does not have an ICD code), or the vaguest T wave changes on EKG (unstable angina is a useful bet in a 90 year old).

If medical taxonomy could not be clinically justified there was always “acopia.”

Shem was remarkably prescient.

Take rule 13:
“The delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible.”  This was before statins reached their zenith of irrelevance; before physicians were inserting stents through rock hard femoral arteries to give patients an aggregate of two extra hours of survival.

Basch’s elderly patients would do the best precisely because his caring was the least aggressive. He would occasionally forget to prepare them with laxatives for a barium enema, saving them from dehydration and its cascade.

If Shem realized in the seventies that nothing was more futile than an investigation leading to a futile treatment, God knows what he would have written today.

Continue reading “Ode to the Fat Man”

Share on Twitter

In light of Thursday’s bicameral, bipartisan release of a Medicare physician payment policy to permanently replace the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula – an achievement to be celebrated in its own right – some are seeing momentum toward passage of such a deal before the current doc fix  expires on March 31.

But the scope of what the committees issued Thursday represents as much of a step back as a step forward, at least relative to their aspirations and timeline for accomplishing them.

Once the appointment of Senator Baucus to be Ambassador to China was announced, the committees agreed to make it “as far as they could” toward a comprehensive SGR replacement policy prior to his confirmation, including identifying offsets to pay for the $125-150 billion (over 10 years) bill. For those who missed it, Senator Baucus was confirmed on Thursday.

Only in the past week did the key committees acknowledge that achieving agreement on offsets by this deadline was unattainable, but finalization of the so-called “extenders,” a hodge podge of Medicare payment plus-ups and other polices perennially included with the doc fix, was still the goal.

(Recall that the Senate Finance Committee passed an SGR replacement bill with extenders in December, but their House counterparts have yet to do so.)

In negotiations on that extenders element, House Republican leads reportedly would not agree to include beneficiary-oriented policies, such as funding for outreach to Medicare enrollees regarding low-income subsidy programs and for Family-to-Family Health Information Centers.

While some Democrats involved in the talks may have been inclined to make this concession, others sharply objected, scuttling a deal on this front and demonstrating the difficulty of compromise on this relatively non-controversial topic.

Furthermore, and has always been the assumption, identifying offsets for the package continues to be an exponentially heavier lift than any other aspect of the process. On that front, the key camps have outlined their broad parameters for what they might accept.

House Republican leads desire and likely require meaningful cuts to ACA-related spending as well as a substantial balance of Medicare beneficiary-impacting cuts, such as those relating to premiums and coinsurance.

Continue reading “Don’t Be Fooled, Prospects for Long-Term SGR Fix Still Dim”

Share on Twitter

The goal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” is to make affordable, quality health care coverage available to more Americans. But how many physicians will America need to satisfy this new demand?

The debate over doctor supply rages on with very little conclusive evidence to prove one case or the other.

Those experts who see a shortage point to America’s aging population – and their growing medical needs – as evidence of a looming dearth in doctors. Many suggest this shortage already exists, particularly in rural and inner city areas. And still others note America maintains a lower ratio of physicians compared to its European counterparts.

This combination of factors led the American Association of Medical Colleges to project a physician shortage of more than 90,000 by 2020.

On the other side of the argument are health policy experts who believe the answer isn’t in ratcheting up the nation’s physician count. It’s in eliminating unnecessary care while improving overall productivity.

The solution, they say, exists in the shift away from fee-for-service solo practices to more group practices, away from manually kept medical records to electronic medical records (EMR), and away from avoidable office visits to increased virtual visits through mobile and video technologies. Meanwhile, they note physicians could further increase productivity by using both licensed and unlicensed staff, as well as encouraging patient self-care where appropriate.

The Doctor Divide: Global And Domestic Insights

Among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 30th in total medical graduates and 20th in practicing physicians per 1,000 people.

Despite these pedestrian totals, there is one area where the U.S. dominates. It ranks first in the proportion of specialists to generalists – and there’s not a close second.

These figures don’t resolve the debate on America’s need for physicians but they do reveal an important rift in the ratio of U.S. specialists to primary care practitioners.

Continue reading “Too Many American Physicians Or Too Few?”

Share on Twitter

Large coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act have reignited concerns about physician shortages. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) continues to forecast large shortfalls (130,000 by 2025) and has pushed for additional Medicare funding of residency slots as a key solution.

These shortage estimates result from models that forecast future supply of, and demand for, physicians – largely based on past trends and current practice. While useful exercises, they do not necessarily imply that intervening to boost physician supply would be worth the investment. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Most physician shortage forecast models assume insurance coverage expansions under the ACA will generate large increases in demand for physicians. The standard underlying assumption is that each newly insured individual will roughly double their demand for care upon becoming insured (based on the observation that the uninsured currently use about half as much care). However, the best studies of this – those using randomized trials or observed behavior following health insurance changes – tend to find increases closer to one-third rather than a doubling.

2. A recent article in Health Affairs found that the growing use of telehealth technologies, such as virtual office visits and diagnoses, could reduce demand for physicians by 25% or more.

3. New models of care, such as the patient-centered medical home and the nurse-managed health center, appear to provide equally effective primary care but with fewer physicians. If these models, fostered by the ACA, continue to grow, they could reduce predicted physician shortages by half.

Continue reading “Is There Really a Physician Shortage?”

Share on Twitter

Any confusion over the recent news of cholesterol guidelines in the U.S. is perfectly understandable. On the one hand, the guidelines suggest that nearly half the population should use statins to stave off heart attacks and strokes. On the other, use of the drugs is not with potential side effects and, to many, will offer no substantive benefits. The controversy highlights a problem mired in an outdated way of thinking about health care and the doctor-patient relationship.

Guidelines came about after generations of physicians wanted to bring something more than “opinion and experience” to the patient’s bedside. In the late 1960s legislation for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was amended to call for a demonstration of efficacy and an assessment of benefits and risk as prerequisite to the licensing of any pharmaceutical. Modern clinical science resulted, first slowly and now with an avalanche of clinical trials, each pouring forth outcome data galore.

The Burden of Clinical Data

Clinicians are expected to stay current with this wealth of information. The modern medical curriculum instructs all budding physicians on how to evaluate the quality and the clinical relevance of all such contributions to the body of clinical science. Because some (or perhaps many) find this exercise overwhelming, there are organizations—many academic and some without any discernible relationships with purveyors that could pose a conflict of interest—that attempt to bundle the information in a fashion that might be relevant to particular physicians or physicians in particular specialties. Some of this bundling is quite systematic, some quite helter-skelter.

Occasionally there is a contribution to the literature that offers an unequivocal advantage for a particular patient group. More often, the bundlers are faced with a heterogeneous literature that often demonstrates little, if any, efficacy. Faced with these circumstances, biostatistics has offered up many a method to impute more value to the literature than is apparent at first blush. The result is that all this bundling adds to an enormous and ever-expanding secondary literature.

What is the clinician to do?

Continue reading “How Clinical Guidelines Can Fail Both Doctors and Patients”

Share on Twitter


America might never agree on how much doctors deserve to earn. But there ought to be much less debate on the immense debt today’s medical students incur on the way to becoming doctors.

Few people are more aware of the stress of medical student debt than med students themselves, and there’s evidence that it affects our specialty and practice decisions later on down the line.

Enter this tweetchat. What began as a typical med student complaint about their debt load evolved into a provocative discussion about the underlying factors and potential solutions to the debt problem.

We’ve incorporated some notes explaining perhaps unfamiliar concepts, but otherwise this is the unvarnished product of a few med students procrastinating on a Sunday night.

Allan Joseph (AJ): The easiest way to tell if med-student debt is becoming an acute problem is if the demand for medical-school spots (easily measured by the number of applicants) is declining relative to the supply. That’s just not happening. In fact, the opposite is.

Continue reading “The Real Problem With Med Student Debt”

Share on Twitter

When Michael injured his knee, he did what any responsible person would do.  He was not incapacitated, and though the knee was painful and swollen, he could get around pretty well on it.  So he waited a few days to see if it would get better.  When it didn’t, he saw his primary care physician, who examined it and quite reasonably referred him to an orthopedic surgeon.  The orthopedic surgeon considered ordering an MRI of the knee but worried that insurance would not cover a substantial portion of the $1,500 price tag, so he suggested a less expensive alternative: a six-week course of physical therapy that would cost only $600 – a quite responsible course of action.

At the end of this period of time, Michael was still experiencing pain and intermittent swelling.  The orthopedic surgeon made another quite responsible decision and ordered the MRI exam, which showed a torn meniscus.  The orthopedic surgeon could have recommended arthroscopic surgery, which would have earned him a handsome fee and generated revenue for his physician-owned surgery center.  Instead he again acted quite responsibly, advising Michael that the surgery would actually increase the pain and swelling for a time and probably not improve his long-term outcome.  Based on this advice, Michael declined surgery.

Though everyone in this case proceeded responsibly, the ultimate outcome was inefficient and costly.  Many factors contributed, but perhaps the most important was the fact that Michael’s physician outlined choices based on an inaccurate understanding of the costs associated with his recommendations.  The orthopedic surgeon thought that the cost of six weeks of physical therapy was 60% less than the MRI.  In fact, however, the actual payment for the MRI from the insurance company would be only $300, not the “retail” price of $1,500.  What appeared to be the less expensive option was actually twice as expensive, and it delayed definitive diagnosis by six weeks.

This story is emblematic of a larger problem in contemporary healthcare.  No one – not the patients, the physicians, the hospitals, or the payers – really understands in a thorough way the true costs of their decisions.  After receiving care, patients routinely receive by mail multi-page “explanations of benefits” that show huge differences between list prices and actual payments.  Most find it baffling to try to determine who is paying how much for what.  Physician practices and hospitals get calls every day from panicked patients who believe that they are being billed for exorbitant costs, when in fact most or all of the charges will be paid by insurance at a huge discount.

Continue reading “The Black Box at the Center of Health Economics”

Share on Twitter

Whether having meals with physician-relatives, attending a professional society meeting, or walking the halls of a hospital, I find that a common issue on physicians’ minds during our discussions is the American Board of Medical Specialties’ (ABMS) Board Certification process – and particularly our program for maintaining certification known as Maintenance of Certification (MOC).

Questions range from “I know you’re old enough to have grandmother status – do YOU do MOC?” (Yes) to “How can I fit this into my already insanely busy life?” Comments range from appreciation for some aspect of the program to frustration with one of the program components.

As the relatively new leader of ABMS, I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues pertaining to Board Certification and MOC. I hope this post will generate thoughtful dialogue that will result in continuing improvements to the certification process developed by ABMS and our 24 Member Boards. That, in turn, will help us render MOC more relevant and meaningful to participating physicians and will assist them in their efforts to provide quality patient care and improve our health care system.

For many years there were few, if any, requirements for maintaining ABMS Board Certification.  Physicians took an exam after graduating from their residencies and thereafter had no further obligations for testing or evaluation. However, over time the error of this approach became obvious. Medical science continuously changes, and the pace of that change has accelerated.

Continue reading “Why Maintenance of Certification Will Make You a Better Doctor”

Share on Twitter

We continue to see progress in improving the nation’s health care system, and a key tool to helping achieve that goal is the increased use of electronic health records by the nation’s doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers. These electronic tools serve as the infrastructure to implementing reforms that improve care – many of which are part of the Affordable Care Act.

Doctors and hospitals are using these tools to reduce mistakes and hospital readmissions, provide patients with more information that enable them to stay healthy, and allow for rewarding health care providers for delivering quality, not quantity, of care.

The adoption of those tools is reflected today in a release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics which provides a view of the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Program and indicates the program is healthy and growing steadily.

The 2013 data from the annual National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey are encouraging:

  • Nearly 80% of office-based physicians used some type of electronic health record system, an increase of 60 percentage points since 2001 and nearly double the percent in 2008 (42%), the year before the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health Act passed as part of the Recovery Act in 2009.
  • About half of office-based physicians surveyed said they use a system that qualifies as a “basic system,” up from just 11% in 2006.
  • Almost 70% of office-based physicians noted their intent to participate in the EHR incentive program.

Figure 1. Percentage of office-based physicians with EHR systems: United States, 2001-2013

The report also noted that 13% of physicians who responded said they both intended to participate in the incentive program and had a system that could support 14 of the Meaningful Use Stage 2 “core set of objectives,” ahead of target dates. This survey was performed in early 2013 – before 2014 certified products were even available.

Continue reading “Survey Says: EHR Incentive Program Is on Track”

Share on Twitter

In a previous blog we demonstrated how guidelines can compromise the care of individual patients when designed to serve the health care system.

Why should treating physicians defer to guideline committees at all, we asked? For decades medical students have been taught to read and understand information from published papers.

We are all trained in critical appraisal and can keep up with the clinically meaningful literature, the literature that is relevant and accurate enough to present to patients. Just because there are nearly 20,000 biomedical journals does not mean that any, let alone all are replete with meaningful information. We can discern the valuable from the not valuable; why do we need others to tell us?

In fact, we even argued in our last post that patients can and should judge the value of medical information. After all, they face the consequences of misinterpreting the likelihoods of benefit and of harm associated with various options for care.

No one remembers the numbers that describe the chances for benefit and harm or ask more questions about the veracity of information than a patient who must choose. The smartest information managers we have ever encountered are our patients; when informed, they quickly determine the validity of the information and apply their personal values to the estimations of the chances for benefit and harm.

Patient Empowerment

Take the example of a patient who recently entered into a therapeutic dialogue with one of us, RAM. This was not the traditional clinical interview. This patient had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was scheduled for an approach to treatment that the diagnosing physician had offered as the most sensible. However, the decision did not rest easily.

The appointment with RAM was scheduled because the patient sought a dialogue that might offer a chance to reflect on the rationale for the approach he was about to initiate. Two hours into the dialogue, the patient, a 40ish year old African-American man accompanied by his wife, were mulling over the marginal benefits and harms of the options for treating an early stage prostate cancer.

The wife asked how many African-Americans were in the study under discussion. “None”. The husband perked up and then asked, “How many people in the study was my age?” “None”. They then asked if the difference in benefit was a certain, fixed amount? “No, it varies over this range.” – examining the descriptive statistics.

They then asked when the study was started and did it pertain to the present day. “It started over 15 years ago” and the stage of disease of the men in the study was generally more aggressive than in this particular case.

Continue reading “Fee for Service vs. Fee for Serving”

Share on Twitter

MASTHEAD


Matthew Holt
Founder & Publisher

John Irvine
Executive Editor

Jonathan Halvorson
Editor

Alex Epstein
Director of Digital Media

Munia Mitra, MD
Chief Medical Officer

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

Maithri Vangala
Associate Editor

Michael Millenson
Contributing Editor










About Us | Media Guide | E-mail | 415.562.7957 | Support THCB
© THCB 2005-2013
WRITE FOR US

We're looking for bloggers. Send us your posts.

If you've had a recent experience with the U.S. health care system, either for good or bad, that you want the world to know about, tell us.

Have a good health care story you think we should know about? Send story ideas and tips to editor@thehealthcareblog.com.

ADVERTISE

Want to reach an insider audience of healthcare insiders and industry observers? THCB reaches 500,000 movers and shakers. Find out about advertising options here.

Questions on reprints, permissions and syndication to ad_sales@thehealthcareblog.com.

THCB CLASSIFIEDS

Reach a super targeted healthcare audience with your text ad. Target physicians, health plan execs, health IT and other groups with your message.
ad_sales@thehealthcareblog.com
WORK FOR US

Interested in the intersection of healthcare, technology and business? We're looking for talented interns to work in our San Francisco offices. Get in touch.

Wordpress guru? We're looking for a part time web-developer to help take THCB to the next level. Drop us a line.

BLOGROLL

If you'd like to be considered for our Blogroll, drop us an email and we'll take a look. While you're at it, why not add us to yours?

SUPPORT
Let us know about a glitch or a technical problem.

Report spam or abuse here.

Sign up for the THCB Reader here.
Log in - Powered by WordPress.