Good Things in Medicine: A Shocking Development

Sit down.

Really, sit down.  Trust me, please.  You are going to be shocked with the news I am going to give you and I don’t want any contusions, closed head injuries, street riots, or revolutions taking place in South American countries on my conscience.

Are you sitting?   OK, here it goes:

Medicare got something right.

Pretty crazy, right?  I am not sure if it was an accident, like the infinite monkeys typing on a keyboard producing the works of Shakespeare (they’d write all of the Harlequin romance novels too, by the way).  They had to eventually do something right, something that really benefits people, makes my life better, and potentially cuts cost.  The thing they got right?  The Medicare preventive exam.

Up to a year ago, the only way I would ever get paid to see a Medicare patient was when they had a problem.  If a person came in with the desire to keep from being sick, we would have to get a waiver signed and charge them full price.  So at those visits we would fish for any problems to justify it as a disease-management visit or one for acute care.  This meant that any prevention that I did perform on my Medicare patients had to be done on the side during problem-oriented visits.  So the motivation to do prevention was dependent on the nature of the doc; if they are OCD, didn’t care about getting home on time, or less concerned about getting paid, patients got better care, otherwise it was hit or miss.

Plus, the chart itself was often neglected.  Any time a doctor took to make the chart accurate was time away from other patients or time away from home.  This sounds petty, but it takes a large effort to keep things updated, and with the low reimbursement of primary care, only those things that were grossly inaccurate got corrected in most patients’ records.  I was never given the time to make sure the records were accurate.

In January of 2011 this all changed (at least for Medicare patients).  The Medicare Preventive Care Visit came into effect, paying well for keeping people well.  The visit follows a specific structure (and arduous documentation, of course), and making the proper templates on our EMR and getting them to put out a suitable handout at the end of the visit took a lot of effort.  But the effort paid off; my patients are very happy with these visits and I am able to do some things I have never had time for.  The end result is this:

  • The patients are given their problem, medication, and allergy lists prior to the visit and correct them for us.
  • We can compile the names of other physicians they are visiting and make sure they are accurate.
  • We do a functional assessment on people, identifying those at risk for falls or those in bad home environments.
  • We screen for depression.
  • I get to discuss advance directives with people (living will and health power of attorney).  This is probably the biggest change, as I rarely had the chance to talk about this before (and felt very guilty about it).  In the past year I have talked to hundreds of people about this, and have probably saved a whole lot of trouble down the line because of it.
  • I check when their last screening tests (colonoscopy, mammogram, bone density) and get a copy of them when they aren’t in my records (which is distressingly common).  I order tests that are due and discuss with the patient when the next screening test is due.
  • More of my patients are getting pneumonia shots (pneumovax), and many more are getting the option to get the shingles vaccine (Zostavax).
  • In the end, the patient gets a handout (see below) that gives a road map of their care: what was done in the past and when, what was done today, and when things are due in the future.  In short, the patient suddenly knows where they stand regarding their health, something that was not common prior to this.
  • I am actually being paid well enough for these visits to motivate me to schedule them on as many patients as possible.  Certainly, the improvement to the chart itself and to the overall care of the patient is also motivation, but it’s nice to be paid for doing good from time to time.

There are (of course) some negatives, including:

  • The document created in the chart is enormously wordy and not really useful on its own.  Again, since we are paid for documentation, we get exactly that: lots and lots of words to justify our pay.  This isn’t too hard if you own a gibberish generator.
  • Some of the local GYN groups are billing for a Medicare preventive visit (although I seriously doubt they are meeting the cumbersome documentation guidelines), so some of our patients’ bills are not paid for.  We do our best to filter patients who may be in this situation, but some still get through.  I cringe at the thought of these GYN’s charts being audited.
  • Some patients try to get a disease management visit rolled into the preventive visits.  They don’t understand at first why I can’t talk much about their diabetes on this visit, but when they get the finished product they are almost always satisfied.

Here is the 1st page of the handout given to the patient:

It’s not bad.  There are still some bugs being worked out, but it is very satisfying to have time to make sure the records are right and to have a significant percentage of my patients with up-to-date preventive care.  This is very much like the GPS device I mentioned in an earlier post.

I am a little anxious about posting this, as it may encourage the government to double the number of monkeys on typewriters (i.e. bureaucrats) and so negate any good that comes of this.  Anyhow, some of the monkeys are already busy running for president.  But for now, I say something I rarely get to say:

Thank you, Medicare.

You may resume standing.

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 this post first appeared. For some strange reason, he is often stopped by strangers on the street who mistake him for former Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz and ask “Hey, are you John Smoltz?” He is not John Smoltz. He is not a former major league baseball player.  He is a primary care physician.

7 replies »

  1. The government should choose neither. They should not have neither the money nor the power to engage in such direct benefits. That is what must go.

    I like my patients, too. But I like my children more, and they do not need to be paying off big healthcare debts runup by this loser government just to get reelected.

  2. Entitlement and dependency should be the new slogans for America. Shame so many physicians buy the repeated false message of “hey, I lived past 65, what’s in it for me!?”

    Does anyone really think about the consequences of a sizeable percentage of Americans being older than 70 years old and expecting a minority population under 30 just catering to the elderly without consequence?

    Brokaw was right, the generation born before 1940 really were the last great generation. Maybe a repeat Depression period might restore some order and sanity to this culture.

  3. Not totally true. You can bill a level 3 problem-oriented visit (99213) along with the code for the wellness visit. This works for many, but not all of the Medicare plans.

    It’s not that there’s not a lot of room for improvement, though.

  4. Rob –

    When I asked my PCP about the annual preventive care visit under Medicare a couple of months ago, he noted that one negative is that if he finds something wrong, even if he could address it on the spot, he can’t get paid to do it as part of that visit so he needs to schedule me to come back for a follow-up visit. That doesn’t make much sense to me. This assumes what he needs to do is something other than give me a prescription or a specialist referral. So, I guess Medicare still has room for improvement in this area.

  5. Bobby G: Most of the documentation could be off-loaded and the prevention would not necessarily require a visit. I would gladly do it that way if there was a business case for it.

    MD: If the government has to choose between treating disease and preventing it, I see no reason they should not choose the latter. That’s like saying the government should not pay for birth control but gladly would pay for pregnancies/abortions/etc. I am a PCP, which means I would rather prevent disease than treat it. I like my patients and don’t want them to get sick.

  6. Nothing different that wanting the government to pay for birth control. If seniors want to live well they should pay for it. I bet you want the government to pay for prevention for all patients. I did not take you for a single payor advocate.