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I’m a Doctor. And This Stuff Even Confuses Me!!!

Extremely irate on the East Coast writes:

I’m a doctor. I have an MBA from a prestigious business school. I understand medical billing. Here’s a story for you that sums it all up.

After many years as an independent, my OBGYN recently joined a large physician group affiliated with a nationally known academic medical center.

(I’ll keep the name of the institution out of this since I like my OBGYN and several of my friends work at the medical center.)

Late last year I had a minor procedure at the academic medical center. My OBGYN handled the surgery. Everything went smoothly.

When the bill came I was charged a reasonable $600. This year I had to have a repeat of the same procedure. My OBGYN again performed the procedure. Same outcome. Same nurses. Same specialist. Same room. When my bill came in the mail I got the shock of my life. The total was four times as much as it had been a year earlier!!!! I had no idea.

My OBGYN’s office told me there is nothing they can do. Prices are set by the new academic medical center supergroup. As far as I can tell, the only thing that has changed is the sign over my doctor’s door.

What recourse do I have? What consumer protections does the ACA contain designed to prevent this kind of behavior?

I’m a doctor. I understand the issues involved. If I’m confused, how is the average consumer supposed to deal with this? This is extremely bad.

Lost in the health care maze? Having trouble with your health Insurance? Confused about your treatment options? Email your questions to THCB’s editors. We’ll run the good ones as posts.

Wal-Mart Could Transform Care–But Does It Want To?

“Why is Wal-Mart speaking at a health care summit?” the company’s vice president for health and wellness, Marcus Osborne, rhetorically offered up at a conference back in January.

“Wal-Mart’s in retail, we’re not in health care.”

But as analysts, researchers, and other experts who spoke with me. took care to point out, Wal-Mart is in health care, and getting further entrenched by the year. In the past six months alone, Wal-Mart launched a major contracting initiative with half-a-dozen major hospitals, and dropped hints — since retracted — that the company is exploring new services like a health insurance exchange.

Notably, Osborne teased a broader health care strategy for Wal-Mart that would include “full primary care services over the next five to seven years,” in a Q&A at that January conference captured by the Orlando Business Journal.

Wal-Mart has since denied Osborne’s comments — the second time in about 18 months that the company has had to walk back stories about its planned primary care services — and Osborne subsequently stopped talking to the press. (Wal-Mart declined to comment, and Osborne did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
But Osborne’s remarks from that January conference, and his other archived speeches, are still readily accessible. And they paint a vivid picture of a company that’s not just a potential market-mover and disruptive innovator, but an organization that could do a lot to positively reform health care.

Background: Wal-Mart’s Growing Role in U.S. Health Care System

In many ways, this isn’t a new story. Back in 2007, Princeton University’s Uwe Reinhardt suggested to NPR that Wal-Mart could be “taking aim at the entire health care system” by expanding its new discount drug program.

“I think it’s a really fascinating way to come out of the corner and really slug the system,” Reinhardt said at the time. “At the moment, the body blows don’t hurt. But they add up. I’m watching this with great fascination, and expect more from them.”

And in subsequent years, Wal-Mart did grow its health care footprint, from launching retail clinics based within its stores to advocating for national health reform. Considering its history — as recently as 2005, Wal-Mart had little involvement in the health care market and was being pilloried for skimping on its own employees’ benefits — it’s been a significant turnaround for the firm, and has positioned Wal-Mart as one of the leading disruptive innovators in health care.Continue reading…

Thank You, Angelina

Dear Ms. Jolie,

Thank you for your bravery and leadership in the battle against breast cancer. In a small way, through my patients, I understand the challenge and pain it took not only to undergo prophylactic mastectomies, because you carry the BRCA1 cancer gene, but also to reveal this deeply personal part of your life to the world (NYT, 5/14/13; My Medical Choice). You had no obligation to open your soul; your selfless act leaves those of us that treat the dread disease, in awe.

Your action will save more lives than all the patients I could help, even if I were to practice oncology for hundreds of years. By opening up the conversation, by educating and by boldly stating that beauty, strength and health are possible, even when radical choices are made, you open up life saving opportunities for many. Mastectomies may not be the answer for all women, but the very idea that cancer can be prevented, instead of simply waiting in fear, is earth shattering.

Women and men will now better understand the genetic risks for cancer, be exposed to the different options which are available in the prevention of cancer and know that it is possible, whatever path is taken, to continue with full lives. You have made it easier for patients, their families and physicians to have vital discussions.

The announcement of your surgery coincides with a critical legal battle, the deliberations of the United States Supreme Court regarding BRCA genetic testing. You have put pressure on the Court to find against Myriad Genetics Corporation in the company’s attempt to protect their expensive monopoly of the breast cancer genetic assay. Thus, the Court will have the opportunity to reduce the cost of testing, which as you note, can run thousands of dollars per patient.

Your action changes the war against breast cancer. You have prevented the suffering of thousands and given them the opportunity to go on with life and be part of what is truly important, families and communities.

Thank you for your remarkable sacrifice.

Humbly,

James C. Salwitz, MD

James C. Salwitz, MD is a Medical Oncologist in private practice for 25 years, and a Clinical Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He frequently lectures at the Medical School and in the community on topics related to cancer care, Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Dr. Salwitz blogs at Sunrise Rounds in order to help provide an understanding of cancer.

Did Angelina Do the Wrong Thing?

A woman’s mother dies at age 56. A blood test is done. The woman finds out she has a genetic pre-disposition to cancer. She takes what action she thinks she needs to take. A familiar story repeated over and over again every day. I’ve met many women who have made this choice. While not “normal”, it is a familiar situation. These women’s difficult choices go unheralded. But not Angelina. She has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it.

I am of two minds about Ms. Jolie’s announcement. Unlike double mastectomies for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which isn’t necessarily a cancer and can be treated with a lumpectomy, BRCA1 gene mutations can’t be treated any other way. Unless I hear differently from my breast surgeon friends, I’d say she probably did the right thing. Her decision to talk about it is probably encouraging to women who have or will have to make that choice. It raises awareness of the gene mutation. It puts breast cancer on the front page of the New York Times. Again.

Here’s my problem: double mastectomy is not a benign procedure. Ms. Jolie seems to have had a remarkably easy time of it. Yes, she says she was right back to her normal life soon after, but since Jolie’s life is not normal that’s hard to generalize. The truth is there is significant pain involved, a long period of waiting while the tissue expanders do their work, then there’s further procedures for the implants, which can develop capsules around them, or rupture, or get infected. If Angelina had chosen breast reconstructive surgery there would be the risk of the flap losing blood flow, multiple drains, overnight stays in recovery rooms or ICUs, and many many surgeries for revision, nipple creation, etc. And the results are not always beautiful. I understand that it is not Ms. Jolie’s role to scare people, but to encourage them. I would just warn against falsely rosy expectations.

I am not trying to discourage double mastectomy. Sometimes it is necessary. I do think that people who have extraordinary access to public attention must pay extraordinary attention to what they say. I wish Angelina all the best for a complete, and beautiful, recovery.

Shirie Leng, MD is a practicing anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She blogs regularly at medicine for real.

Into the Extrapolation Machine

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) recently released a study that showed that 42% of Americans are unaware that Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) remains the “law of the land.” News like this seems to us, to act as a Rorschach test on how observers feel about the law. Considering 50% of Americans can’t identify New York on a map we tend not to read too much into these polls. However, according to the logic of extrapolation, since we know that the ACA remains law, we are in the elite 58% (it’s about time we made it into the elite of something).

In almost parallel to the KFF news, the New England Journal of Medicine published a follow-up study of the “Oregon experiment.” For those who haven’t been following closely, the study found that previously uninsured people who were enrolled in Medicaid did not see an improvement in clinical measures when compared to those who remained uninsured. The study did seem to show a reduction in the amount of financial distress for the insured however.

Another contentious study, another Rorschach test (example, example). The problem we see with the polarity of views is that both sides seem to be cranking up the extrapolation machine and use single studies/data points to draw broad conclusions to gin up opinions about ACA’s success or lack thereof. In light of the fact that for most practical matters ACA doesn’t really get going until 2014, use of the extrapolation noise generator approach smacks of a lack of analytical rigor in our view. We will know soon enough how the program is doing… exchanges start enrolling on 10/1.

As investors, we should state upfront that we tend to give more weight to financial returns than what the philosopher-kings might call the political context. So what caught our eye in the Oregon study was that Medicaid recipients had higher healthcare utilization rates (and associated costs) than the uninsured. The connection between gaining insured status and healthcare utilization should not come as a surprise since there is a very extensive literature elucidating this connection.

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The ACO Failure Hypothesis: Likely But Not Inevitable

We recently participated in a program at Columbia Business School’s Healthcare Program on whether ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations) will fail. For those of you that don’t know, ACOs are one of the structures promulgated by PPACA (aka Obamacare) designed to encourage better cost control and quality improvement in the healthcare system.

The current zeitgeist among the commentariat is that ACOs will fail (examples: here and here). We think the reason for the one-sided nature of the question is that those of us who lived through the healthcare upheaval in the early and mid “90s” saw first hand the failure of PHOs, PPMs and IDNs (and all of the other acronyms now relegated to the dustbin of history). When ACOs are touted as a saving grace for the system, you can almost hear the collective groan of the industry veterans.

Ever the contrarian, however, we took the side of the debate that said ACOs will NOT fail. The premise of our argument was that since we already have a good idea of why the structure will fail, we can, a priori, fix the shortcomings, and though likely, ACO failure is not inevitable.

There is an extensive list of why list of why ACOs will fail. We put them into four general buckets.

Infrastructure: The system has mis-allocated resources so we have too many of some things and not enough of others leading to inefficiencies.

Technological/telecommunication: For a number reasons the healthcare system has not adopted technology as fast as other industries.

Cultural: Providers are habituated to fee-for-service payment mechanisms and patients aren’t likely to change their own healthcare behaviors.

Inertia: The well known system problems (e.g. asymmetry of information, the Pareto nature of patient demand, unexplained variation of care, counterproductive incentives) have been around forever and are difficult to overcome.

Because we spend most of our time identifying private healthcare companies with investment potential, we often get a view into what is happening in the entrepreneurial space under the punditry radar.

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Why You Probably Have a Lot Less to Fear From the Latest Superbug Than You Think

Infectious disease is the most hyperbolic of all medical fields, at least when the media gets ahold of such.

Right now we are to fear a new avian influenza virus. Previously there was another avian influenza strain whose outbreak threatened the world and of course SARS and, more distantly, the ebola virus and the threat of bioterrorism. And on the periphery, as these acute threats come and go, is the persistent threat of super bugs; bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. Sometimes all antibiotics.

I remember my pharmacology professor in medical school claiming that within our practice lives we would reach the useful end of antibiotics. A claim, literally, that physicians would no longer have any use for antibiotics by the time I reached the end of my career.

Scary stuff but evidence that such outrageousness sells pharmacology in a classroom as much as it does magazines on a news stand. Time magazine a post called “The End of Antibiotics?” referencing a Guardian article along the same lines. This followed a similar 2009 scare article in Time.

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Is Patient Engagement the Solution…or a Healthcare Urban Legend?

The following statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) never fails to shock: the 133-million adults – or “nearly 1 in 2” — with chronic disease account for 75% of spending.   Engaging those high utilizers, the story continues, will help bring healthcare spending under control.

This storyline is a classic healthcare urban legend.  Essentially nothing in that paragraph makes sense as a matter of policy, or even arithmetic.

Yes, the CDC got their arithmetic wrong.  133-million Americans comprise about 60% of adults, not “nearly 1 in 2.”   Second, their definition of “chronic disease” specifically includes stroke, which is a medical event, not a chronic disease, and cancer, many of which would not fit that definition either.    (Sloppy editing and arithmetic is a CDC trademark.  They also observe that ”almost 1 in 5 youth…has a BMI in or above the 95th percentile” on their growth chart, which of course is mathematically impossible as written.)

Third, speaking of definitions, how are they defining “chronic disease” so broadly that 60% of us have at least one?   Are they counting tooth decay?  Dandruff?  Ring around the collar?

Corrected or Not, The Statistic Itself Makes No Sense

The statistic is intended to demonstrate that a concentration of costs among people with out-of-control chronic disease but actually shows the opposite.  It shows a diffusion of costs, not a concentration.   60% of adults accounting for 75% of spending – or even the incorrect 50% of adults accounting for 75% of spending — is about as far from a 20-80 rule as one can get.    Basically costs are not concentrated in ongoing day-to-day chronic disease.

Second, that 75% covers all expenses of that 60%, not just being out of control and needing to go to the hospital, which seems to be the underlying assumption behind the flurry of activity designed to engage these people and control their conditions.  Quite the contrary: in many conditions (rare diseases, high blood pressure and asthma come to mind) preventive drugs already overwhelm medical events as a expense category.  In a typical commercial or even TANF Medicaid population, only about 10% of hospitalizations are for the five “common chronics” of asthma, diabetes (and its complications), CAD, COPD and heart failure.    (In Medicare this percentage and absolute number are much higher – that is indeed a population where control of chronic disease matters.)

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Designing the Doctor of the Future

At the turn of the 20th century, we built a healthcare system on responding to acute, curative, episodic issues. This system saw the eradication of many diseases and the advent of vaccinations and new treatments. The model was truly developed to be a “sickcare system,” which was what we needed at the time, and saw huge successes.

Fast forward 100 years and Americans are sicker than ever — but with different illnesses. What’s more, there is finally a national consensus that our healthcare system is broken. With increasingly tragic consequences, the reactionary medical paradigm has not provided the preventive care or chronic illness management that our culture needs. Healthcare spending currently consumes 17 percent of our GDP and without a radical shift in thinking, this number may grow even higher.

Sadly, patients are not the only ones suffering. The status quo is breeding a morale crisis among our nation’s doctors. If you asked one of the many thousands of medical students who are just beginning their fall semester why they chose medicine, many of them would give you confused, anxious responses about the field they are entering. This does not bode well for the health of future generations.

Last Spring, we met at TEDMED, an annual “grand gathering” in Washington, DC where forward thinkers from all sectors explore the promise of technology and the potential of human achievement as it pertains to health and medicine. Here, we presented our respective positions. One of us, Ali, argued that new technologies will actively change our health behavior. Another, Sunny, argued that we needed systems thinking in public health, focusing on the causes of the causes. Yet another, Jacob, argued for stopping the “imaginectomies” and fostering creativity in medical training by rethinking selection criteria and curricula for entrance to medical school.

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Who Are These Guys? Why the PCORI Picks Matter a Lot More Than You Probably Realize.

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute has just appointed four new advisory panels that will help guide hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants. Unfortunately, while PCORI released the new advisers’ names, it neglected to tell the public who the advisory panel members really are.

Let me explain. PCORI says its advisory panels “will be instrumental in helping us refine and prioritize research questions, provide needed scientific and technical expertise [and] offer input on other issues relevant to our mission.” Panel members represent specific stakeholder groups mandated by Congress and are appointed for one year, but they can re-up for another term.

That kind of influence invites attention, and more than 1,000 individuals applied for 82 available spots. Three of the panels correspond to topics that are PCORI national priorities for research: addressing disparities; assessment of prevention, diagnosis and treatment options; and improving healthcare systems. The fourth addresses patient engagement.

So who did PCORI pick? Well, people like Charlotte Collins of Elkridge, MD, representing “patients, caregivers and patient advocates” on the patient engagement panel. That’s the sum total of identifying information given on Ms. Collins and other panel members; there is no educational or professional information at all.Continue reading…

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