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cindywilliams

The Fine Line Between Shared and Manipulated Medical Decisions

Spend some time with the Society for Medical Decision Making, and “shared decisions” starts to seem less a clinical ideal and more an offshoot of picking a monthly cell phone plan. The fine line between “motivating” and “manipulating” behavior (albeit sometimes unintentionally) starts to blur.

At the group’s recent annual meeting in Chicago, the differing sensibilities of medical and marketplace ethics were in plain view on a panel entitled (with a nod to the Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein behavioral economics best-seller), “From a Nudge to a Shove: How Big a Role for Shared Decision Making?”

Peter Ubel, a physician and a professor of marketing and public policy at Duke University, told how some free-market theorists have defined away, “overweight.” Since people know what causes them to put on pounds, goes this reasoning, the weight they are must be the weight they rationally decided to be. (Shades of Dr. Pangloss!)

Unfortunately, eating decisions are not purely rational. Eat in a large group, said Ubel, and lingering at lunch could boost your calorie count by 25 percent. Choose the large plate at the buffet table over the small one and bump up calories another 25 percent. Our brains even seek out the bad: give us two identical crackers, but label one as having a more “unhealthy fat,” and we’ll consistently pick it over the healthier-labeled cracker in a taste test.

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Crowd-sourcing Medical Bills

What if everyday purchases were priced and consumed like healthcare services?

These days you’d have to try hard not to know the price of a product or service before you buy it. So imagine booking an airline ticket with zero knowledge of the cost, only to return home to a bunch of outstanding bills for the trip. One statement may cover the seat rental and fuel used. Another bill may itemize each time the flight attendant handed out drinks. A few weeks later a bill for the pilot’s flying time may roll in. Can you imagine the resulting confusion, stress and angst?

I know it sounds absurd but this is the nightmare patients face every time they use the healthcare system. And it isn’t uncommon for these confusing medical bills to spiral out of control. Last year, the Commonwealth Fund (a non-profit healthcare research group) reported that 20% of US adults had medical debt or faced problems paying medical bills and only 58% of Americans felt confident they would be able to afford the care they needed.

So what options do consumers have when faced with the reality of paying for their healthcare?

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Getting the Patient’s POV

One major challenge for the new Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is to make good on its stated mission to improve health care by producing evidence “that comes from research guided by patients, caregivers and the broader health care community.”

In order to “guide” that research, patients will offer their time and their experience to serve on various panels alongside scientists and other stakeholders, many of whom have competing agendas. This means that representing the patient perspective in research governance, priority-setting, design, execution and dissemination is not a good task for the shy or the ill-prepared.  Not only do you have to have reflected on your own experience as a patient, but you have to have a good sense of how much you can generalize from that experience. This is, after all, not about you. It is about us – all of us patients.

Sometimes this means gathering information from others who have a similar diagnosis and who have been treated with similar approaches. What was getting chemotherapy for breast cancer like for you?

Sometimes it means learning about how people with different kinds of heart conditions or kinds of cancer experience their diagnoses and treatments or health care in general. What happened when you were discharged from the hospital?

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CMS’ Opportunity: A Lawsuit Offers A Chance To Reform Physician Payment

By mid-November, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) must respond to the legal complaint filed in a Maryland federal court by six Augusta, Georgia family physicians.

These doctors are not asking for money, but for relief from the negative effects brought about by CMS’ twenty year reliance on the American Medical Association’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) for valuing doctors’ work. They are asking CMS to enforce the Federal Advisory Committee Act(FACA), which requires that regulatory agencies shield themselves from undue special interest influence. In the process, they are asking CMS to rethink Medicare’s approach to physician payment, with a mind toward recognizing and valuing primary care’s ability to treat the whole patient within a larger system of care. They are asking CMS to develop payment policy that supports the needs of patients over those of professional groups.

In a sense, the suit reflects the larger concerns of America’s increasing unrest: a general frustration with a system rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many, privatizing profits while socializing losses. It calls into question an incentive structure that has resulted in half or more of all health spending providing no utility and translating to exorbitant cost but debatable value. In other words, the case is accompanied by a sense that the system, as it is currently constituted, is failing the American people.

Any simple examination of medical services payment reveals the systematic under-valuing of primary care services relative to procedural services, the direct result of the RUC’s valuation process. For example, in an earlier Health Affairs Blog post we compared a 99214 moderately complex established office visit with a routine cataract extraction and intraocular lens implant. The first has all of medicine as it’s palette. The second is a highly refined, low risk, repetitive procedure that is valued, on an hourly basis, at 12.5 times the first.

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More Explanation of the Explanation of Benefits (EOB)

A few weeks ago I parsed an Explanation of Benefits (EOB) I received from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts after a visit to Sports & Physical Therapy Associates, an excellent physical therapy center with 14 locations in Greater Boston. The post (What does an Explanation of Benefits (EOB) actually explain?) generated a number of comments and questions on the Health Business Blog itself and when it was cross-posted at KevinMD. In particular:

  • What would a cash paying patient be asked to pay?
  • How is the $225 in “charges” derived? Is it determined by Medicare?
  • Does the provider lose money on the Blue Cross contracted rate?

I’m not a billing expert so I sent an email to Sports & PT to ask them to respond directly. I was impressed with their informative and thorough response, which I am posting here with their permission.

Mr. Williams,

We would be happy to provide you with some insight into how insurance claims are processed.  Please find your questions with the corresponding answers below.

When a patient first comes to our clinics, we provide them our Policy Disclosure document.  I think you will find it valuable in understanding the relationship between patient and provider, patient and insurance carrier, and lastly, provider and insurance carrier.  Here is the first paragraph:

“Sports and Physical Therapy Associates (SPTA) is pleased to participate in your health care and we look forward to establishing a lasting relationship as your physical therapy provider. As part of this relationship, we wish to establish our expectations of your financial responsibility as outlined in our Financial Policy. Letting you know in advance of our Financial Policy allows for a good flow of communication and enables us to better satisfy you. Your medical insurance is a contract between you and your insurance company; we are not a party to that contract. We can often help with providing information about your benefits, but you are primarily responsible for knowing what type of coverage you have and for any charges that you have incurred as a patient with us. Please review and sign the following Financial Policy prior to your first visit.”

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Are Health Apps the Cure for Anything That Ails You?

With about 9,000 consumer health apps currently available in the iTunes store, it seems like almost all smart phone users can download their way to better health these days.

The store offers a mindboggling array of creative apps, including ones that calculate calories burned during exercise, create soundtracks to help people fall asleep, and display pictures that can elicit memories from Alzheimer’s patients. If the store doesn’t offer something for what ails you now, it probably will soon. The selections will proliferate within the next year, with an additional 4,000 consumer apps expected by next summer, industry experts say.

But all this innovation creates a bewildering set of problems. It’s hard to figure out what apps are available, let alone which work best. Health apps may have the potential to dramatically improve people’s lives, but those based on misleading or bogus information can cause serious harm.

“Apple isn’t testing apps for their scientific validity,” said Dan Cohen, a social worker who has reviewed apps for their effectiveness.

Given the stakes, it’s no surprise that the government is starting to regulate these smart phone applications. Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission brought its first cases against the makers of two health apps. Each claimed to cure acne with colored lights emitted from cell phones.

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Dr. Watson I Presume

Little over a month ago, IBM and WellPoint announced an agreement wherein WellPoint will deploy IBM’s latest and greatest super computer and artificial intelligence mega-mind Watson. Watson’s claim to fame was its ability to beat the human Jeopardy champions much like Big Blue beat reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Since that Jeopardy match, IBM has been quite vocal about its desire to apply Watson in the medical arena, we’ve been buried in press releases and briefings, but the WellPoint announcement is the first one of any real consequence. Having interviewed both IBM and WellPoint, following is our review and assessment.

Background:
Watson is a relatively new form of artificial intelligence, based to some extent on neural networks. What is unique about Watson is that it has been developed (trained) to understand the nuances of language. It is a question & answer system that uses among other techniques, natural language processing, to extract meaning out of unstructured data. In developing Watson for the Jeopardy challenge, one of the key design parameters was for Watson to answer a question in under three seconds – plenty fast enough in a diagnosis/treatment decision scenario. This is a key reason why Watson may have enormous utility in the healthcare sector where so much data is unstructured, the pace of change is so high and the ability to chose the optimum treatment patient plan for a given diagnosis is less than ideal today.

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Why Doctors Don’t Like Electronic Health Records


Why are doctors so slow in implementing electronic health records (EHRs)?

The government has been trying to get doctors to use these systems for some time, but many physicians remain skeptical. In 2004, the Bush administration issued an executive order calling for a universal “interoperable health information” infrastructure and electronic health records for all Americans within 10 years.

And yet, in 2011, only a fraction of doctors use electronic patient records.

In an effort to change that, the Obama economic stimulus plan promised $27 billion in subsidies for health IT, including payments to doctors of $44,000 to $64,000 over five years if only they would use EHRs. The health IT industry has gathered at this multibillion-dollar trough, but it hasn’t had much more luck getting physicians to change their ways.

What is wrong with doctors that they cannot be persuaded to adopt these wondrous information systems? Everybody knows, after all, that the Internet and mobile apps, powered by Microsoft, Google, and Apple and spread by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the iPhone and iPod, will improve care and cut costs by connecting everybody in real time and empowering health-care consumers.

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Why Do You Care Whether I’m Insured?

If you care a great deal, I’ll give you an account number you can use to make a deposit.

[Note to Self: Send this Alert to the folks at Commonwealth. Also to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. CC Uwe Reinhardt as well. You never know what they might do. They certainly talk about this topic a lot.]

While you’re thinking about the initial question, here are a few follow-up questions:

Do you care whether I have life insurance?

What about disability insurance?

Homeowner’s insurance?

Auto casualty?

Auto liability?

What about retirement insurance? (A pension or savings plan.)

Do you care whether I keep my money at an FDIC-insured institution?

Or whether I bought an extended warranty on my car?

Or whether I bought travel insurance before taking my scuba diving trip to Palau?  (It pays off if you get sick and can’t go.)

I’m sure there are busybodies who would like to run everyone else’s life. But society as a whole has taken a more rational approach. We basically don’t care whether people insure to protect their own assets (at least we don’t care enough to make them do so). But we do care about events that could create external costs for other people.

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Who Should Pay for EHRs?

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Candidate Obama promised an EHR for every American by 2014. The goal was to improve quality of care, reduce disparities and contain costs of health care. When the HITECH act became law in 2009, physicians found themselves under increased pressure to purchase an EHR. Many took action, went out and bought an EHR for their practice, and these are now well positioned to collect the financial incentives put forward by the HITECH act. Many more did not. EHRs are by and large a complex and expensive proposition and the HITECH incentives are not covering the average cost of purchasing and maintaining an EHR. In survey after survey, physicians consistently rank cost associated with EHRs as their top concern when considering transition from paper charts to electronic medical records. This is a bit disconcerting, since physicians have no problem buying other expensive tools and paying for human resources in their practices. How are EHRs any different?

There are three primary stakeholders in health care: those who receive care, those who provide care and those who manage the financial aspects of health care, and no, we are not getting into the quintessential argument of whether there should be only two primary stakeholders. There are several secondary stakeholders as well: those who manufacture medical goods, those who provide ancillary services and those engaged in medical research.

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