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Richard Gunderman

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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Chicago Cubs fans of a certain vintage will never forget broadcaster Harry Carey’s signature line, “Holy cow!”  Some have speculated that the exclamation may have originated in Hinduism, one of the world’s major religions, whose adherents worldwide number approximately one billion.  Hindus regard cows as maternal, caring figures, symbols of selfless giving in the form of milk, curds, butter, and other important products.

One of the most important figures in the faith, Krishna, is said to have been a cowherd, and one of his names, Govinda, means protector of cows.  In short, cows are sacred to Hindus, and their slaughter is banned in virtually all Indian states.

Medicine, too, has its sacred cows, which are well known to physicians, nurses, and patients visited by medical teams on their hospital rounds.  In this case, the cow is not an animal but a machine.  In particular, it is the computer on wheels, or COW, a contraption that usually consists of a laptop computer mounted on a height-adjustable pole with a rolling base.  It is used to enter, store and retrieve medical information, including patients’ diagnoses, vital signs, medications, and laboratory results, as well as to record new orders.

As the team moves from room to room and floor to floor, the COW is pushed right along. The COW is often treated with a degree of deference seemingly bordering on reverence.  For one thing, people in hallways and patients’ rooms are constantly making way for the COW.  As an expensive and essential piece of equipment, it is handled gingerly.  Often only the senior member of the medical team or his or her lieutenant touches the COW.

Others know that they have said something important when they see the chief keyboarding the information into the COW.  Sometimes it plays an almost oracular role. When questions arise to which no one knows the answer, such as the date of a patient’s admission or the time course of a fever, they often consult the COW. Just as cows wandering the streets of Indian cities often obstruct traffic, so healthcare’s COWS can and often do get in the way of good medicine. Continue reading “Should We Sacrifice Medicine’s Sacred COW?”

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The dangers of texting while driving recently received renewed attention thanks to a public service video produced by German film director Werner Herzog.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver distraction results in approximately 3,000 deaths per year, as well as an additional 400,000 injuries.  Experts have estimated that the risk of a crash may increase by more than 20 times when texting, exceeding the risk associated with intoxication.

Texting while driving is just one example of a larger phenomenon of our age, often referred to as multitasking.  The term was coined by IBM engineers in the 1960s to refer to the ability of a microprocessor to perform multiple tasks at once.  Today the term is more often applied to human beings attempting to do more than one thing, such as simultaneously watching television and folding laundry, or answering emails while talking on the phone.  Many health professionals pride themselves on their multitasking.

In fact, however, the term multitasking is a bit of a misnomer, even in the domain of computing.  At least where one microprocessor is concerned, a computer does not so much multitask as it switches back and forth between tasks at such a high rate of speed that it appears to be doing multiple things at once.  Only more recently, with the advent of multicore processing, has it become possible for computers genuinely to multitask.

The same thing applies to human beings.  Health professionals and others who think they are multitasking are typically switching back and forth between different tasks over short periods of time.  And in most cases, multitaskers are not able to perform any of the activities in which they are engaged as well as they could if they concentrated on them one at a time.  It takes time and effort to re-focus on each task at hand, and this tends to degrade the effectiveness and efficiency of each.

To be sure, multitasking is not impossible.  In one sense, simply remaining alive requires us to multitask all the time.  Our hearts are continuously pumping, lungs exchanging gases, kidneys filtering the blood, immune system fighting infections, and all the while we are also digesting our last meal.  Add to this the ceaseless multitasking of the brain, which is monitoring the environment and maintaining our posture while simultaneously walking and chewing gum, and the complexity multiples.

Continue reading “The Perils of Multitasking”

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Before undergoing many health care interventions, patients are asked to give their informed consent.  In most cases, it represents a mere formality.  The patient has come to the healthcare facility for the express purpose of undergoing the test or treatment, and after a quick explanation, the patient signs the consent form.  But not always – sometimes patients elect not to go through with it.

I know a woman in her late 70s, a highly accomplished health professional with a long and remarkably distinguished record of career achievement, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  Her physician advised a complete diagnostic workup to determine how far the disease has spread, to be followed by courses of radiation and chemotherapy.  A vast and sophisticated medical armamentarium, unprecedented in the history of medicine, stands at the ready to take the full measure of her disease and then beat it back.

Yet after her oncologist carefully explained the benefits, risks, and alternatives to the recommended course, she declined to proceed further.  Instead of launching into an arduous medical regimen, she has chosen to focus the remainder of her time and attention elsewhere, on matters outside of medicine.  Why?

On hearing such a story, some of my medical colleagues question the patient’s soundness of mind.  Could she be depressed?  Might she be in the early stages of dementia?  Could she have simply failed to grasp the full gravity of her situation?  To them, the failure to take advantage of the wonders of modern medicine smacks of irrationality.  The solution?  Her physicians need to sit her down again and explain the situation more clearly.  Should this fail to elicit her consent, perhaps a psychiatry consult would be in order.

Yet to those who know her, these explanations are unsatisfactory.  We cannot attribute her decision to a lack of intelligence or sophistication about healthcare.  She has spent her entire career in the field, and helped to care for countless patients with life-threatening conditions, many of whom eventually died.  She knows what the care of such patients looks and feels like from firsthand experience.  She understands the risks of declining further treatment at least as well as many of the health professionals caring for her.

Continue reading “Informed Refusal”

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Good for Healthcare?

Sarah Jones was an anomaly in contemporary healthcare.  Despite shifting alliances between physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies, she had been under the care of the same physician for over 20 years.  Over this time, patient and physician had gotten to know each other well and had developed a fine relationship.  Mrs. Jones had always assumed that, should she ever need to be admitted to the hospital, this relationship would pay big dividends, ensuring that her medical decision making would be based on long acquaintance and strong mutual understanding.

When the dreaded day came that she finally needed inpatient care, however, her hopes were dashed.  Her physician explained to her that he no longer sees hospitalized patients.  Instead she would be under the care of a team of physicians known as hospitalists.  When she arrived, the hospitalist on duty introduced herself and told her that she would be the physician responsible for her care, while colleagues would be responsible during off hours.  Unlike her regular physician, who would have been on hand only once or perhaps twice per day, the hospitalists would always be in house and ready to address her needs.

Mrs. Jones was surprised and disappointed to discover that her primary physician would not be involved in her hospital care.  She had always assumed that she would be able to rely on their longstanding relationship for counsel and support.  She imagined that if she were facing some really important decision, such as whether or not to proceed with a risky operation or how to manage her own end-of-life care, it would make a huge difference to know that she could count on a physician she knew well.  Instead her hospital-based physician was a complete stranger.

Mrs. Jones’ experience is far from unique.  In the past 15 years or so, medicine has seen the birth of hospitalists, a new breed of physicians who care only for hospitalized patients.  There are now over 30,000 hospitalists in the US.  From a patient’s point of view, such physicians offer a number of advantages.  In many hospitals, a specialist in hospital medicine is always on duty, day or night.  Moreover, because such physicians work only in the hospital, they are often more familiar with the hospital’s standard procedures, information systems, and personnel.

It is not difficult to see why hospital medicine might be so attractive to young physicians.  For one thing, it provides them with a high degree of control over their working hours.  They come on and off shift at regular times, and do not bear patient care responsibilities outside these hours.  In addition, they are usually employed by the hospital, which means that they do not need to attend to a host of practice management issues that self-employed physicians confront.  They can also focus on acute-care, in-hospital medicine, avoiding the challenges associated with long-term care of chronic-disease patients.

Some non-hospitalist physicians also find the rise of hospital medicine attractive. They do not need to travel to one or more hospitals each day to see patients, which takes considerable time and generates little revenue.  They do not need to work so hard at staying abreast of changes in hospital procedures and technologies, which often vary from institution to institution, as do requirements for acquiring and maintaining hospital medical staff privileges.  And finally, they can focus their energies on outpatient care, avoiding the more acutely life-threatening and complex situations associated with hospitalization.

Continue reading “The Rise of the Hospitalists”

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