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Putting Patients into “Meaningful Use”

The Health Research Institute at PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report today entitled Putting patients into “meaningful use.” It begins with the anecdote I’ve blogged about previously regarding a diagnosis by Facebook in lieu of a PHR, which some have highlighted as a great success for social media in health care.  I am much less sanguine on that front.

The PwC report, of course, has much more than that story in it; here are the key takeaways, backed up with some survey data and interviews:

  1. Engaging external constituents may postpone achievement of “meaningful use.”
  2. Patient awareness of and access to available health IT tools is low; social, expectation, and education hurdles also exist.
  3. Patient engagement in “meaningful use” is still low, despite consumer interest.
  4. “Meaningful use” has yet to explicitly call for measuring the level of patient engagement.
  5. Health systems will need to compete for consumers in the PHR market.Continue reading…

It’s Time to Tango: Impatient With Progress on Patient-Physician Partnerships

The other day I came across this photo of a couple clasping each other in a dramatic tango on the cover of an old medical journal—a special issue from 1999 that was focused entirely on doctor-patient partnerships.  The tone and subjects of the articles, letters and editorials were identical to those written today on the topic: “it’s time for the paternalism of the relationship between doctors and patients to be transformed into a partnership;” “there are benefits to this change and dangers to maintaining the status quo;” “some doctors and patients resist the change and some embrace it: why?”

Two questions struck me as I impatiently scanned the articles from 12 years ago: First, why are these articles about doctor-patient partnerships still so relevant?  And second, why did the editor choose this cover image?

I’ve been mulling over these questions for a couple days and I think answer to the second question sheds light on the first.   Here are some thoughts about the relationship between patients and doctors (and nurse practitioners and other clinicians) evoked by that image of the two elegant people dancing together:

It takes two to tangoEver seen one guy doing the tango?  Nope.  Whatever he’s doing out there on the dance floor, that’s not tango.  Without both dancers, there is no tango. The reason my doctor and I come together is our shared purpose of curing my illness or easing my pain. We bring different skills, perspectives and needs to this interaction.  When in a partnership, I describe my symptoms and recount my history. I talk about my values and priorities. I say what I am able and willing to do for myself and what I am not.  My doctor has knowledge about my disease and experience treating it in people like me; she explains risks and trade-offs of different approaches and tailors her use of drugs, devices and procedures to meet my needs and my preferences. Both of us recognize that without the active commitment of the other we can’t reach our shared goal: to help me live as well as I can for as long as I can.Continue reading…

Why Narratives Do (and Should) Matter in Bioethics

There is a fascinating recent decision from the Indian Supreme Court on the Shanbaug case, regarding a woman who has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for over 37 years. A petitioner who had written a book on Shanbaug (Pinky Viranai) argued for a withdrawal of life support. Shanbaug had no family to intervene, but hospital staff resisted, and the Court ultimately sided with them. While unflinchingly examining the dehumanizing aspects of PVS, the Court offers a remarkable affirmation of the good will of the staff who have taken care of Shanbaug:

[I]t is evident that the KEM Hospital staff right from the Dean, including the present Dean Dr. Sanjay Oak and down to the staff nurses and para-medical staff have been looking after Aruna for 38 years day and night. What they have done is simply marvelous. They feed Aruna, wash her, bathe her, cut her nails, and generally take care of her, and they have been doing this not on a few occasions but day and night, year after year. The whole country must learn the meaning of dedication and sacrifice from the KEM hospital staff. In 38 years Aruna has not developed one bed sore. It is thus obvious that the KEM hospital staff has developed an emotional bonding and attachment to Aruna Shanbaug, and in a sense they are her real family today.

After a scholarly survey of many countries and U.S. states’ laws on withdrawal of life support, the Court concludes:

A decision has to be taken to discontinue life support either by the parents or the spouse or other close relatives, or in the absence of any of them, such a decision can be taken even by a person or a body of persons acting as a next friend. It can also be taken by the doctors attending the patient. However, the decision should be taken bona fide in the best interest of the patient. . . .Continue reading…

Let Them Depend on Charity

Conservative economists writing in today’s Wall Street Journal dismiss the notion that the cost of providing medical care for the uninsured is eventually shifted onto those already insured. Citing an Urban Institute study that appeared in 2008 in Health Affairs, they claim the total cost shift is 1.7 percent at most, or $80 a year for the average plan. They also dismiss as flawed a Families USA study that found there was a significant rise in private insurance premiums to cover the cost of the uninsured.

How did the Democratic-controlled Congress that passed health care reform go wrong by accepting this premise?

Congress ignored the $40 billion to $50 billion that is spent annually by charitable organizations and federal, state and local governments to reimburse doctors and hospitals for the cost of caring for the uninsured. These payments, which amount to approximately three-fourths of the cost of such care, mitigate the extent of cost shifting and reduce the magnitude of the hidden tax on private insurance.

A few paragraphs later, they attack the health care reform law for relying on Medicaid to cover about half the uninsured who will receive coverage under the act:

Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals are so low that the program creates a cost shift of its own. In fact, a long line of academic research shows that low rates of Medicaid reimbursement translate into higher prices for the privately insured.

So patients who pay nothing or almost nothing do not shift costs because the providers — doctors and hospitals, primarily — get mostly reimbursed for that care by charities and the government. Yet discounted payments through Medicaid are made whole by cost shifting to private plans.Continue reading…

Looking for Quality in the Wrong Place

Last week I attended the first annual meeting of the Long-Term Quality Alliance and listened to Gregg Pawlson (a geriatrician and executive with NCQA) talk about quality measurement.  Right now, quality measurement does too little to drive practice towards quality care because it is based only on things that are “feasible,” or easy to measure—like what gets coded on medical bills. Pawlson observed that while feasibility must be one of the watchwords of quality measurement for now, in the near future electronic medical records should allow us to move beyond billing codes to gather real clinical data for more important quality measurement, including key care processes and outcomes.

I sure hope so. Because those who have looked beyond the dim illumination of current billing-based “quality measures” and searched in the darkness where real processes of clinical care can found have found that the situation is grave.  The ACOVE (Assessing Care of Vulnerable Elders) process, while laborious, looks at clinical care where it really happens – in offices and charts – rather than in bills and therefore has a better chance of driving meaningful quality improvement. Readers of Health AGEnda know that I am a big fan of this work, begun at RAND by outstanding clinician-researchers including Neil Wenger, David Solomon, David Reuben, and many others.  I believe that ACOVE is an example of what we need in elder care: high quality evidence about essential clinical practices that are sensibly related to real health outcomes and show how we could (often easily) do better for older people.  ACOVE is a blessing.

One of the leaders of the ACOVE program is Neil Wenger, MD, a faculty member in General Internal Medicine at UCLA and a researcher at RAND who I have cited in my posts.  However, in his talk to the Maxwell School of Public Policy at Syracuse University (another treasure I found last fall at GSA), he really outdid himself in delivering one of the most accessible (and provocative) descriptions of this research program I have ever read.  He asks, “Do We Want to Measure the Quality of Care for Vulnerable Older People?” Given the lack of attention to the ACOVE work, I understand his frustration.Continue reading…

Tall Buildings

Dreading going in there. Know what you will say.  Your pain will be a ten out of ten. When I ask, “How are you?” you will say what you always say: “Terrible.” Your face will be a twisted snarl and you’ll cut your eyes so hard at me that I almost bleed.  I’ll ask you what can I do for you and your answer won’t be reasonable.  Or at least attainable.  That’s why I dread going in there.

Your family is tired. I have decided that they are tired because the only alternative explanation to them not coming to see you or see about you or call you or call about you is that they don’t care. I don’t like that explanation so instead I have decided that they are tired.

Tired of the exhausting marathons that you keep running in circles inside of your own mind. Tired of the short-lived glimmers of normalcy that you sometimes offer only to be smacked back into the reality of your never-quiet mind.  Tired of fighting you and fighting the bureaucracy of how to get you somewhere safe with virtually zero resources.  I know they are tired. Because it’s only been less than two weeks for me. And I’m tired, too.

And so each day I stand before your door on rounds. Secretly wanting to just keep on walking. Shadow boxing in my mind to get over my tired. And over my dread. And over my anger with my hands being tied snugly behind my back and, on some days, your hands being tied snugly down in restraints for your own safety. Your mind a cacophony of voices and poisonous thoughts that win over me and my little bag of internal medicine tricks. I don’t know what to do.

And so on this day, I just start with what my Mama always taught me.

“Good morning.”


Something is different. Today, no scowl or lancinating eyes. Instead, you reach your hand out towards me. At first I look at it suspiciously, wondering if you intend to grab at me or shoo me away. I see the wrist ties near the rail of your bed from the corner of my eyes. But all you want to do is hold my hand. I am part surprised and part ashamed.

Hold my hand?

Me? I didn’t see that coming. Me? I was all business. There to just listen to your chest leaping with every thump of your dilated and failing heart, to interpret your engorged neck vein pattern, to look into your mouth, to inspect your swollen legs, and to review the orders. And in the midst of it all, to stand there taking your hand slaps and refusal to cooperate while sifting through my brain for a reasonable treatment plan marrying a terrible, end-stage medical problem to a slippery and elusive psychiatric illness.  With no money. And no family.

See? I was shadow boxing to be able to do that. Not hold your hand. You catch me off guard. I stop my busy-ness and let you hold it. I wag my finger at myself and say, tsk-tsk. Your patient is sick, Dr. Manning.

But I knew that before I came. Yet still, I felt tired. I feel your trusting palm, resting in my own. I sit beside you on the mattress and envelope it with my other hand. The room falls quiet as our feet dangle off of the edge of the bed facing the Atlanta skyline. I remember in that moment how beautiful it is. Especially from this room.



“You can see the buildings all the way across town from this window.”


“The Marriott Marquis. And behind that is Bank of America.”

I look.  “You’re right.”

“How did they make such tall buildings?”

I pause for a moment, pondering the answer to that question. I’m not exactly sure. “I think they do it with cranes and big equipment. And people who aren’t afraid of heights.” I smile and for the first time in two weeks, you smile, too.

“I’m afraid of heights.”

“You are?”

Your smile dissipates and your expression grows distant.

“I am afraid. What will become of me? I am so afraid.”

You look at me with eyes so sane that I forget all of the diagnoses that compete with believing them. Your fingers tighten around my own. I feel more ashamed for shadow-boxing and dreading seeing you.



“I’m tired.”

“I know.”

I sit in silence, rubbing your veiny and weathered hand. I’m tired, too.  We both breath in synchrony, yours more laborious from fluid, mine affected by growing emotion. I stare out of the window at The Equifax Building, the shiny cylindrical Westin Hotel, and the skycraping Georgia Pacific building.  Suddenly my eyes sting and my face feels warm. Because you are trusting me to help. I want to leap from one of those tall buildings with a single bound to save you.  But I can’t. Sometimes even when I want to, I can’t.

I’m not sure how they build those buildings. I also don’t know how to save you. My wings are tied and clipped. So are yours.

On this day, I will start by simply holding your hand. And shadow boxing to keep myself from giving up on you.

Kimberly Manning, MD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. As both a clinician and educator, she teaches pre-clinical medical students and residents and serves as residency program director for the Transitional Year Residency Program. She blogs regularly at Reflections of a Grady Doctor.

Think Medical Billing, Not “EMR First”

I have heard from our sales force (and at more than one cocktail party) that most hospitals and practices around the country are focused on Electronic Medical Records (EMR) these days and not so much on medical billing or Revenue Cycle Management (RCM) now because they want to “Do EMR first.”

But what if you are doing EMR first for revenue cycle reasons?

Isn’t the bonus money offered for “Meaningful Use” of an EMR the main driver behind the rush to implement them?  And isn’t the rush intensified by the threat of reduced Medicare rates for those who don’t “meaningfully use” health information???

Okay, so how will you get the incentive money?  My guess is that you will claim to the Feds—through the attestation process—that you are a meaningful user, right?  Claim it?  Like as in file a claim?

I don’t care if it’s MU, PQRI, BTE, or LFG for Do-Re-Mi, if you are going to be glad you moved to EMR, it’s going to be because you’re able to include clinical information in your medical billing system! If you don’t have this in mind from the get-go, you will lose LOTS and LOTS of money on your choice to do “EMR First.”Continue reading…

Medicare Is Lousy Insurance

The House budget proposal is serving as the latest piñata for Democrats who always use the exact same cudgel — “Extremist Republicans are threatening to throw America’s elderly into the streets!”

This, after these exact same Democrats cut half-a-trillion from Medicare to subsidize ObamaCare.

How do they get away with it?

Partly because Republicans have failed to tell the truth about Medicare for decades. They have enabled the Democrats to create this sacred cow because they either: (1) don’t know enough about it to articulate a different view, (2) don’t care enough about health care in general to become better informed, or (3) are so timid that they are afraid the speaking the truth will get them in trouble with the electorate.

Now their ignorance and/or timidity has come back to haunt them. Most of the elderly hold on to Medicare for dear life because there is nothing else available and they have no basis for comparison.

But the fact is that Medicare is a lousy insurance program. It would be impossible to sell a benefit structure like this on the private market.Continue reading…

Is Your Lack of “MQ” Costing You Money ?

As health reform continues to play out across state legislatures and within Washington, employers continue to wrestle with rising costs and the corrosive effects of skyrocketing medical trends. It’s clear that there is enormous variability among employers in their confidence and abilities to identify, mitigate and manage the complexities of the employer sponsored healthcare delivery system.

Many industry pricing and billing practices are opaque. Employers are not always getting good advice and often have to entrust the management and control of employee benefit plans to generalists who do not have the time, resources or ability to engage in managing a corporate expense that has eclipsed a composite average of $11,000 per covered employee.

If employer sponsored healthcare is going to survive to drive market based changes that cut fraud, waste and insist on personal health improvement, corporate decision makers must improve their Medical Quotient (MQ). While larger employers such as Safeway have begun to reap the dividends of lower costs by driving employee health improvement and employee engagement through prevention and chronic illness management, small and mid-sized businesses are increasingly getting failing scores for understanding and managing their own cost drivers.

Success in managing medical costs begins with understanding one’s own MQ and committing to improve it against a rapidly changing market that is exceeding the rate of change of many HR and financial professionals. Jack Welch once commented, “When the rate of change outside an organization exceeds the rate of change within, the end is near.” While ignorance can be bliss, it is an expensive consequence in employer sponsored healthcare. Can HR generalists and less engaged CFOs and CEOs finally grab the horns of their own population health costs and drive toward a healthier tomorrow?Continue reading…

Ryan’s Attack on IPAB

In defending his controversial proposal to turn Medicare into premium support for buying private insurance, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Meet the Press last Sunday took a potshot at the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is the key cost control component of President  Obama’s health care reform law.

Premium support would give seniors the power to choose the level of care in their plans, Ryan asserted. “The alternative to that is a rationing scheme with 15 bureaucrats the president is going to appoint next year on his panel to ration Medicare spending. We don’t think we should give the government the power to ration care to seniors.”

The House Budget Committee chairman didn’t explain why faceless bureaucrats working for insurance companies would be any different or better than their counterparts in government in choosing what should or should not be covered.  But a group of more than 100 academic and think tank health care experts  has rallied to the defense of the board,  which won’t swing into action until 2015.

Their ranks include liberal economists like Brookings scholar Henry Aaron and Harvard’s David Cutler, who was one of the architect’s of the health care reform law. But they also include former Congressional Budget Office chief Alice Rivlin, who has her own version of a premium support plan, and Harvard’s Joseph Newhouse, who has been a big booster of private insurance plans over the years.Continue reading…