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Why Everything We Are Doing in Health Policy May Be Completely Wrong …

A relatively obscure paper (gated) published in an academic journal the other day was completely ignored by the mainstream media. Yet if the study findings hold and if they apply to a broad array of health services, it appears that the orthodox approach to getting health services to poor people is as wrong as it can be.

At first glance, the study appears to focus on a rather narrow set of issues. Although most states try to limit Medicaid expenses by restricting patients to a one-month supply of drugs, North Carolina for a period of time allowed patients to have a three-month supply. Then the state reduced the allowable one-stop supply from 100 days of medication to 34 days and at the same raised the copayment on some drugs from $1 to $3. Think of the first change as raising the time price of care (the number of required pharmacy visits tripled) and the second as raising the money price of care (which also tripled).

The result: A tripling of the time price of care led to a much greater reduction in needed drugs obtained by chronically ill patients than a tripling of the money price, all other things remaining equal.

This study pertained to certain drugs and certain medical conditions. But suppose the findings are more general. Suppose that for most poor people and most health care, time is a bigger deterrent than money. What then?

If that idea doesn’t immediately knock your socks off, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the dominant thinking in health policy for the past 60 years.

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Letting Go Of Employer-Based Health Insurance

Other than the egg-laying exercise surrounding the ACO regulations, 2011 was a quiet year among Washington health policy experts until June 6 when McKinsey released the results ofa survey of employer plans under the Affordable Care Act. The McKinsey study found that roughly 30 percent of employers were considering dropping their employee insurance coverage and encouraging their employees to receive federally subsidized health insurance through the Exchanges created in the Affordable Care Act. This compared to low- to mid-single digit estimated drop rates based upon economic modeling by the Urban InstituteLewin and, importantly, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

To judge by the storm of angry political reaction, you would have thought that McKinsey had advocated mass psychedelic drug use. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) sent McKinsey a letter demanding that the firm disclose its methods and questioning its motives. There followed a flurry of hostile press coverage of the study, echoed in the progressive blogosphere. Horrified, McKinsey released its study methodology, survey instrument, and tabulations of responses.

Why such a sharp reaction? If McKinsey turns out to be right about employer intentions, the cost estimates of the federal subsidies for individuals to purchase coverage through the Exchanges (roughly $777 billion from 2012 to 2021 according to CBO’s March, 2011 analysis) are far too low, making the program even more vulnerable to Republican efforts to cancel it. And if a third of employers drop coverage, President Obama’s pledge that “if you like your health insurance coverage, you can keep it” won’t look so great either.

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Why Medicare Is the Solution — Not the Problem

Not only is Social Security on the chopping block in order to respond to Republican extortion. So is Medicare.

But Medicare isn’t the nation’s budgetary problems. It’s the solution. The real problem is the soaring costs of health care that lie beneath Medicare. They’re costs all of us are bearing in the form of soaring premiums, co-payments, and deductibles.

Medicare offers a means of reducing these costs — if Washington would let it.

Let me explain.

Americans spend more on health care per person than any other advanced nation and get less for our money. Yearly public and private healthcare spending is $7,538 per person. That’s almost two and a half times the average of other advanced nations.

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Why Let IPAB Control Health Care?

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once said that Congress needed to pass the new health care law so the American people can find out what’s in it. Many have since taken her up on that — and they do not like what they see in Obamacare. Seniors on Medicare are particularly alarmed by the new Independent Payment Advisory Board, which could severely restrict their access to treatments and medications.

The advisory board would change Medicare forever. This group of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats has now been given the power to restrict access to health care for our seniors. They can do so through price controls on medical services that would become law without a vote in Congress.

This board, included in Obamacare, was bad enough to begin with, but now President Barack Obama wants to strengthen it further. After two years of wasteful spending, he sees the new board as the key to reducing Washington’s budget deficit. Instead of reforming our entitlement programs responsibly, he wants to appoint 15 “experts” to balance the budget on the backs of our seniors.

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Errors of Omission

I am a rural Family Physician who has been in solo practice for more than 22 years.  I am neither a technophobe nor an information technology Luddite.  I have been using electronic prescribing for over 6 years and am in the market for an EHR that is net-based, scalable, interoperable and linked to a nationwide patient database.

While I wait, over the years I am seeing more and more patient care that is less co-ordinated and even thwarted by the very health information technology (HIT) that is supposed to increase efficiency. In my opinion, this is leading to decreased information transfer that is wasting precious time and putting patients at risk with errors of omission.

I will give anecdotal and real examples of HIT run amok that I suspect are more common than generally appreciated.  Alarmed by the lack of awareness of the potential frequency of these errors, I am writing this hoping that the blogosphere can somehow counter the momentum of an all-powerful HIT cerebrosphere.

1.     e-Prescribing (ERX): While mandated alerts about potential drug interactions in this software is often life-saving, it can also be life impairing.  There are two reasons for this:  1) at point of care, the warnings are just too darn sensitive and I’m being conditioned to ignore 90 percent of them.  I am afraid that this will cause me to click the “ignore” pop-up at the wrong time.  For instance, doxycycline and Dilantin have an interaction and a prescription of one in the presence in the other always prompts a warning.  When I researched this, I found the plasma concentration of doxycycline is decreased by a clinically negligible amount.   2) at the pharmacy window, the warnings can override physician judgment. A colleague of mine described to me how he prescribed a fluoroquinolone antibiotic to a patient on Coumadin and, aware that there was an interaction,  ordered the appropriate follow up testing and dosage modifications.  The pharmacist not only refused to fill the prescription,  they also did not notify him.  Instead, he asked the patient to call the doctor.  Two days later the patient was admitted to an ICU with life-threatening sepsis.  In both cases, needed prescriptions were omitted.

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Most Americans Don’t Yet Perceive the Benefits of EHRs

Consider all the stakeholders with something to gain by moving from paper health records to digital electronic records. Who do you think would gain the most from EHRs, and who the least? A survey from Xerox finds that the among all the groups American adults say have the least to gain through EHRs is, the most common response is…patients.

29% of people aren’t really sure who’s to gain from moving to EHRs.

To better understand Americans’ views on electronic health records (EHRs), Xerox polled 2720 adults 18 and over in May 2011.

The topline finding is that 83% of people have concerns about digital medical records.  The most concerning issue is that “my” personal health information could be hacked, cited by two-thirds of people. The second most common concern is that  digital medical record files could be lost, damaged or corrupted (noted by 54%)  and that personal health information could be misused (52%). Another worry is that a power outage or computer problem could prevent providers from accessing health information, cited by 52% of people surveyed.

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When Will UPMC Explain the Whole Story?

The UPMC kidney transplant story continues to develop.  This was the one where a doctor and nurse were disciplined in a matter that clearly reflected some systemic problems, more than personnel problems regarding those two people.

Now UPI reports:

A report by a federal agency on a kidney transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center suggests more problems than the hospital has acknowledged.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said its investigation found the nephrologist should have been aware the kidney donor was infected with hepatitis C, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Tuesday. The hospital has suspended the lead surgeon and the transplant coordinator.

The CMS report said the test results were available for two months in the donor’s medical record. But none of the doctors and nurses apparently reviewed the record, and the kidney was transplanted into a man who was not infected with the virus.

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The Pervasive Sins of Doctors and Others

The essence of professionalism is to be constantly striving to take better care of our patients. “The aspiration to do better, coupled with commitment and a sense of personal responsibility will drive knowledge seeking” and empathy and compassion for those who are our patients.

And yet we know that during medical school students become less compassionate and less altruistic; the largest drops in empathy have been documented between the beginning and the end of the first year and between the beginning and end of the third year of education.

And we also know that there have been recent revelations of numerous occasions where practicing physicians have failed to live up to the ideal. The Wall Street Journal documented spine surgeons who did large numbers of spine surgery and received large payments from a medical device manufacturer. Pro Publica has shown that faculty at prestigious medical schools have failed to comply with university conflict of interest policies. A Maryland cardiologist has had his medical license revoked and his hospital had to pay back Medicare millions of dollars because of allegedly inserting stents in patients who did not need them.

How can we support our fellow physicians and medical students so that we all strive to become the best caregivers we can possibly be? Is the problem with living up to the ideal a specific problem within medicine or is it a more general problem of human nature and the current cultural environment?

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Required Reading for Medical Students, Interns, and Residents

I have had the privilege of working at an organization which is actively improving the lives of its members and also was mentioned by the President as a model for the nation.  Over the past few years, I have also demonstrated to first year medical students what 21st century primary care should look and feel like – a fully comprehensive medical record, secure email to patients, support from specialists, and assistance from chronic conditions staff.

But as my students know, there are also some suggested reading assignments.  I’m not talking about Harrison’s or other more traditional textbooks related to medical education.  If the United States is to have a viable and functioning health care system, then it will need every single physician to be engaged and involved.  I’m not just helping train the next group of doctors (and hopefully primary care doctors), but the next generation of physician leaders.

Here are the books listed in order of recommended reading, from easiest to most difficult.  Combined these books offer an understanding the complexity of the problem, the importance of language in diagnosing a patient, the mindset that we can do better, and the solution to fixing the health care system.

Which additional books or articles do you think current and future doctors should know?Continue reading…

Am I A Socialist?

Am I a socialist? I don’t think so, but I did inch in that direction during the four days I spent in northern Norway last week, visiting the local hospital in Bodø and speaking to about 20 of the nation’s hospital CEOs. Here’s what I learned.

First, a word on visiting northern Norway – above the Arctic Circle – in summertime.

I’d rank experiencing the midnight sun (your wristwatch says midnight, but the sky looks more like late afternoon) as among the most awe-inspiring things I’ve seen in my travels, up there with Xian’s terra cotta warriors, Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Masada at sunrise, and the 8th hole at Pebble Beach. And the people are a delight – unpretentious, outdoorsy types who were far less reserved than I’d been led to expect. It is well worth a visit.

But the medical piece was what fascinated me – particularly as it reflected the country’s broader societal values. Norway is a wealthy country, owing both to the miracle of oil reserves and to an industrious and well-educated population. Belying the notion that capitalism is the only way to achieve prosperity, the country is unabashedly socialist. Although the tax rate is high (about 50 percent for top earners), this level of taxation is an accepted part of life, the subject of absolutely no political debate. When the economy dipped a couple of years ago – a mere blip by world standards – it was a given that the government would pump in money to rebuild roads and improve the infrastructure.

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