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Physicians

I recently spoke to a quality measures development organization and it got me thinking — what makes a good doctor, and how do we measure it?

In thinking about this, I reflected on how far we have come on quality measurement.  A decade or so ago, many physicians didn’t think the quality of their care could be measured and any attempt to do so was “bean counting” folly at best or destructive and dangerous at worse.  Yet, in the last decade, we have seen a sea change.

We have developed hundreds of quality measures and physicians are grumblingly accepting that quality measurement is here to stay.  But the unease with quality measurement has not gone away and here’s why.  If you ask “quality experts” what good care looks like for a patient with diabetes, they might apply the following criteria:  good hemoglobin A1C control, regular checking of cholesterol, effective LDL control, smoking cessation counseling, and use of an ACE Inhibitor or ARB in subsets of patients with diabetes.

Yet, when I think about great clinicians that I know – do I ask myself who achieves the best hemoglobin A1C control? No. Those measures – all evidence-based, all closely tied to better patient outcomes –don’t really feel like they measure the quality of the physician.

So where’s the disconnect?  What does make a good doctor?  Unsure, I asked Twitter:

good doctor twitter

Over 200 answers came rolling in.
Continue reading “What Makes a Good Doctor? And Can We Measure It?”

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In the United States, a tangled web of federal and state regulations controls physician licensing.  Although federal standards govern medical training and testing, each state has its own licensing board, and doctors must procure a license for every state in which they practice medicine (with some limited exceptions for physicians from bordering states, for consultations, and during emergencies).

This bifurcated system makes it difficult for physicians to care for patients in other states, and in particular impedes the practice of telemedicine. The status quo creates excessive administrative burdens and like contributes to worse health outcomes, higher costs, and reduced access to health care.

We believe that, short of the federal government implementing a single national licensing scheme, states should adopt mutual recognition agreements in which they honor each other’s physician licenses.  To encourage states to adopt such a system, we suggest that the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) create an Innovation Model to pilot the use of telemedicine to provide access to underserved communities by offering funding to states that sign mutual recognition agreements.

The Current System And Its Drawbacks

State licensure of physicians has been widespread in the United States since the late nineteenth century.  Licensure laws were ostensibly enacted to protect the public from medical incompetence and to control the unrestrained entry into the practice of medicine that existed during the Civil War.  However, it no longer makes sense to require a separate medical license for each state.

Today, medical standards are evidence-based, and guidelines for medical training are set nationally through the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Graduate Medical Education standards, and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.  All U.S. physicians must pass either the United States Medical Licensure Examinations or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.

Although the basic standards for initial physician licensure are uniform across states, states impose a patchwork of requirements for acquiring and maintaining licenses. These requirements are varied and burdensome and deter doctors from obtaining the licenses required to practice across state lines.

Continue reading “Doctors Without State Borders: Practicing Across State Lines”

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Hospitals are busily merging with other hospitals and buying up groups of doctors. They claim that size brings efficiency and the opportunity to deliver more “value-based” care — and fewer unnecessary services.

They argue that they have to get bigger to cut waste. What’s the evidence that bigger hospitals offer better value? Not a lot.

If you think of value as some combination of needed services delivered for the right price, large hospitals are no better than small hospitals on both counts.

The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care and other sources have shown time and again that some of the biggest and best-known U.S. hospitals are no less guilty of subjecting patients to useless tests and marginal treatments.

Larger hospitals are also very good at raising prices. In 2010, an analysis for the Massachusetts attorney general found no correlation between price and quality of care.

study published recently in Health Affairs offered similar results for the rest of the country: On average, higher-priced hospitals are bigger, but offer no better quality of care.

Continue reading “Bigger Hospitals Mean Bigger Hospitals with Higher Prices. Not Better Care.”

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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”

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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”

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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?”

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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?”

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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”

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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”

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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”

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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










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