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practice of medicine

flying cadeuciiWould allowing patients to read their mental health notes provide more benefits than risks?

In a recent article in JAMA  my colleagues and I argue that it would.  While transparent  medical records are gaining favor in primary care settings throughout the country through the OpenNotes initiative, there has been reluctance to allow patients to see what their treaters say about their mental health issues. While this reluctance is understandable and deserves careful consideration, we suggest that several benefits could result from patients reading their mental health notes.

First of all, accuracy would be enhanced  by allowing patients to cross-check what their clinicians say about their symptoms, medication doses, and so forth. Second, allowing patients to review assessments and treatment decisions privately might help to promote a richer dialogue between patient and clinician. Third, patients might learn that their clinician sees them more as a complete person, rather than as a collection of symptoms.

Many patients silently fear that their treater  “will think I’m crazy/whining/lazy/boring”; seeing in print that the treater does not see them  that way—and in fact recognizes and documents their strengths—can be an enormous relief and might therefore enhance the therapeutic alliance.

Clinicians have their own worries about transparent mental health notes that must be considered. Will patients feel objectified by the medical language commonly used in documentation? Will they break off treatment if they don’t like what they read? Will too much time be spent wrangling over details of what has been documented? Will vulnerable patients be psychologically harmed by reading their notes? Although our article briefly addresses these issues, only a trial of transparent mental health notes will provide the data needed to assess them.

Such a trial has just begun at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Culminating many months of careful planning by my colleagues in the ambulatory psychiatry clinic, the Social Work department, as well as the OpenNotes team, we began a pilot project of transparent notes in our psychiatry clinic on March 1. So far almost all clinicians have chosen to participate in the project, and have identified 10% of their caseloads to be included. It’s too early to gauge results yet, but we hope to more fully evaluate the effects of making mental health notes fully transparent to our patients.

Michael W. Kahn, MD is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Medical Faculty Physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). 

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Is this a good time to be a physician? Absolutely! In fact, I believe there has never been a better time to practice medicine. I hold this belief despite the barrage of negative comments and predictions from doomsayers remarking on the sorry state of health care in its current state.

Before I tell you why I’m so optimistic, I’d like to acknowledge one fact: practicing medicine is more complex and difficult than ever, however, this fact doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm. There is no doubt that over the past two decades a great many changes in the health care environment have consumed doctors’ time, distracted us from our core task of providing care, and impacted our incomes.

Meanwhile, patients’ expectations of the health care industry and of their physicians are changing. An increasing number of people want more involvement in their own health care and want to partner with their physician. So it is not hard to understand how practicing medicine can feel more challenging than ever.

For example: results from a national survey reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 indicated that US physicians suffer from more burnout than other American workers.

Burnout, in this report, was defined by “loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment”; 45.8% of responding physicians had at least 1 of these symptoms.

So why am I so optimistic?

Because when I read these survey results, and others like them, bureaucracy and complexity are often cited as the reasons why physicians are unhappy. Not patient care.

While these factors (bureaucracy and complexity) can momentarily take physicians away from their passion of practicing medicine, it is the passion of a physician, precisely, that fuels my optimism for the state of health care today.

Continue reading “Actually, It’s a Great Time to Be a Doctor”

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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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Once-upon-a-time, when a patient said they were taking a vitamin, most doctors would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “well, I guess its OK, it couldn’t hurt.”   There was little research to judge the affect of vitamin supplements, so there was no reason to take a stand.  That is no longer true.

Now we have published data on many vitamins and we can say that for most people they do not work.  More importantly, there is increasing research that says manufactured, chemically synthesized nutriment compounds in a pill, can be deadly.

For this reason, I am likely to ask my patients if they are taking a vitamin and, if so, which fabricated additive and how much.  Therefore, I asked Bill, while he was in the office receiving chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease, what alternative therapies he was using.

When he informed me that he swallowed a multivitamin (MVI), large doses of Vitamins C and E, as well as a B complex preparation, I advised him to stop.

To my astonishment he responded, “Well, you only want me to do that because you make a lot of money on chemotherapy, and vitamins might put you out of business.”

Bill’s response, he lack of trust in my advice, disturbs me at several levels.  He fails to understand and does not wish to learn the present state of science regarding nutrition. In addition, there is a major problem regarding his perception of my motivations and therefore the veracity of my guidance.

Let us be clear; in the absence of malnutrition, malabsorption and a few uncommon medical conditions, there is absolutely no reason to take a multivitamin.  They do not prevent or fix anything.  Originally developed for starving populations and hungry soldiers during the Second World War, they have no place in a society with access to a broad range of foods.

More importantly, there is increasing data that people taking a multivitamin may become less healthy.

Continue reading “That Vitamin There Could Kill You”

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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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The Porsche Citroen 911Our clinic is now a Certified Patient-Centered Medical Home. The whole process leading up to this reminds me of one of my favorite subjects – buying cars. Specifically, buying cars based on technical specifications in color brochures. It takes real, on-the-road experience to know if a car is right for you.

When I moved to this country in 1981, I bought a 1980 Chevrolet Citation. Back in Sweden I had owned a Volvo wagon, but secretly admired the front-wheel-drive SAAB 900. Once in America, I figured I’d buy American. My wife’s relatives sent me car brochures to help me prepare for my choice of car.

The Citation sounded like America’s answer to the SAAB: a front-wheel-drive car with a powerful engine, quirky interior and a hatchback design. A car magazine at that time ran a comparison test between the Citation, the SAAB 900 and one of the German sports sedans, and the Citation almost won. I pretty much walked onto a used car lot and bought a silver Citation with red vinyl seats.

What does this have to do with PCMH certification?

Well, I bought a Citation based on a checklist of features that on paper made it look comparable to a SAAB. Once I owned it, I noticed the cracks between the door panels, the uneven paint and the awkward positioning of the controls, some of which felt like they could break if I wasn’t careful.

Not long afterward, I found myself hitting the front bumper on the pavement in sharp turns; I heard the rear shock absorbers snoring on dirt roads; I watched the dashboard dry out and crack in the temperate Maine summer weather, and I realized with the first frost that my car did’t have a rear defroster, and it never seemed to warm up in the winter.

Continue reading “PCMH Certification and Designing the Perfect Car”

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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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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”

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Thank you.

Thank you, my patients for all you have done for me.  Thank you for the encouragement and support. Thank you for believing in me enough to join me in this crazy new way to do health care. Thank you for giving me the honor of being the one you call “my doctor.”

Your trust motivates me to work harder to justify that faith in me – a faith I often don’t have and, one I certainly wouldn’t have without you.  I hope and pray this holiday season is a blessing to you. May you find peace in this time of year so often without peace.

May you also have a happy and healthy new year. May you stay out of the ER, away from the hospital and, yes, away from doctors. May you have no need for lab tests, procedures, x-rays and medications (and if you must have medications may they be very cheap.)

If, however, you do get sick, remember that I am here to help you get well, feel better or avoid getting any worse. And if I cannot do any of these, I will still be there to stand by your side through the hard times, and to offer whatever comfort I can give. Doing these things is what it means to me when you call me “my doctor.”  It is why that is such an honor.

Again, thank you for all you do for me. God bless you.

Dr. Rob

Rob Lamberts, MD, is a primary care physician practicing somewhere in the southeastern United States. He blogs regularly at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind),where an earlier version of this post first appeared.

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The dull whir of the computer running in the background seemed to have gotten louder as the patient fell quiet. She was a young woman, a primary-care patient of mine, seeking a referral to yet another gastroenterologist. Her abdominal pain had already been checked out by two of the city’s most renowned gastroenterologists with invasive testing, CAT scans and endoscopic procedures.

But she wasn’t satisfied with her diagnosis — irritable bowel syndrome — or the recommended treatment and wanted a third opinion. I tried to reason with her but failed to convince her otherwise. Even when I acquiesced and gave her the referral, she walked out visibly unhappy. I sat there listening to the whirring, feeling disappointed.

Physicians love being liked. They also love doing their jobs well. With other incentives, such as monetary returns, dwindling, the elation we get from satisfying a patient as well as providing them good care is what still makes being a doctor special. But is keeping patients satisfied and delivering high-quality care the same thing? And more important, can patients tell if they are getting good care?

Policymakers certainly think so. In fact, under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid hospital reimbursements are now being tied to patient satisfaction numbers.

But the association between patient satisfaction and the quality of care is far from straightforward, and its validity as a measure of quality is unclear.

In fact, a study published in April and conducted by surgeons at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine showed that patient satisfaction was not related to the quality of surgical care. And a 2006 study found that patients’ perception of their care had no relationship to the actual technical quality of care they received. Furthermore, a 2012 UC Davis study found that patients with higher satisfaction scores are likely to have more physician visits, longer hospital stays and higher mortality. All this data may indicate that patients are equating more care with better care.

Although patients and their physicians generally have similar goals, that is not always the case. As a resident, who is not paid on a per-service basis, I have no incentive to order extra testing or additional procedures for my patients if they’re not warranted. But one study found that physicians who are paid on a fee-for-service basis and therefore have an incentive to deliver services — needed or not — are more likely to deliver these services (such as an MRI for routine back pain).

On top of that, as another study found, they also are more liked by their patients. It is no wonder then that the number of patients with back pain, one of the most common reasons for physician visits, are increasingly being overmanaged with MRIs and narcotic pain medications.

Continue reading “In Medicine, More May Not Be Better”

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