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Can Big Data Save My Dad From Cancer?

My father, Foster Hill, has stage III prostate cancer.

At 69 years old, he is a quiet man who was often told in his younger days that he resembled Muhammad Ali. He immigrated in his twenties to Canada from the small Caribbean nation of Antigua to look for opportunities beyond sugar cane and the tourism trade.

My father became a chemical technician for well-known oil refineries, while staying true to his real passion in life – playing organ music. Every Sunday, as he has since I can first remember, he plays the largest church organ in Sarnia, near Lake Huron, where he lives with my mother.

Like many men of his generation, he has always been wary for the medical system. For decades he avoided the test, known as PSA, that screens for prostate cancer. In September of this year, driven by pain he could no longer ignore, he went to his doctor who discovered a rock-hard prostate gland. The diagnosis, stage III prostate cancer, means that the cancer has already begun to spread, but is still potentially treatable.

Now retired, his long hours practicing the organ are punctuated with doctor visits to receive Lupron hormone therapy. The good news? The therapy is working. For now.

We don’t know what lies ahead. The first round of Lupron therapy is often effective, but a significant number of patients later develop a resistance to the drug.

The battle against my father’s cancer has only just begun.

This is where Big Data in healthcare can become a true lifesaver. Typically, in medicine, we know only what works for the majority of patients, not what will work for an individual. However, with enough data from enough people – we are talking hundreds of thousands, and sometimes, even millions of patients – we can apply analytics to build predictive models to discover which interventions will work. For the last twelve years, it has been my job to make that happen.

As CEO and founder of GNS Healthcare, I oversee a team of mathematicians, biologists, and data scientists as they crunch and decode healthcare data to unlock the mysteries of what treatment will work for specific patients.

My father’s cancer has given these efforts a new urgency and has raised a new question: Can I use Big Data to save my father’s life?

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A Well-Armed and Regulated Citizenry, Led by Heavily-Armed Teachers in Body Armor …

Gun rights advocates are correct: a well armed principal might have reduced the death toll from the tragic elementary school shootings in Connecticut last week.

Gun carrying citizens might also have been able to take down the shooters in Aurora and Virginia Tech. To most people, after all, guns are about self-defense, not about committing crimes. As the old saying goes: “There has never been a mass shooting at a gun show.”

On the other hand, gun control advocates are correct to point out that mentally disturbed people like Adam Lanza would not be able to commit massacres if they were prevented from getting their hands on high-powered, semiautomatic weapons. They are also correct to point out that Americans have staggeringly easy access to weapons that far exceed what any sportsmanlike hunter would use during deer season.

In other words, figuring out what to do in the wake of the Connecticut massacre means recognizing the truth in both of these views. It means considering the possibility that the answer to reducing gun violence is a matter of both having more guns and less.

To understand what I mean by “both more and less,” I offer two analogies: a straightforward one about airport security, and a more unexpected one about breast cancer screening.

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The Battle for the Souls of American Doctors

We physicians like to think that we are really different from other workers.

We physicians, perhaps thinking back to that medical school application essay we all wrote, really believe that we went into this career to simply help others.  We physicians truly believe that we always put our patients first.Because we sincerely believe all of the above, we are shocked when someone like Uwe Reinhardt points out that collectively we act just like any other worker in the economy.

The classic 1986 letters between the Princeton professor Reinhardt and former New England Journal of Medicine editor Arnold Relman highlight the tension between how we think of ourselves and how we act.

Relman thinks physicians are special and he asks Reinhardt the following question:

“Do you really see no difference between physicians and hospitals on the one hand, and ‘purveyors of other goods and services,’ on the other?”

Reinhardt is ready with a long answer that should be read in its entirety.  The short answer is that doctors act like any other human beings. A portion of his answer includes the following:

“Surely you will agree that it has been one of American medicine’s more hallowed tenets that piece-rate compensation is the sine qua non of high quality medical care.  Think about this tenet, We have here a profession that openly professes that its members are unlikely to do their best unless they are rewarded in cold cash for every little ministration rendered their patients.  If an economist made that assertion, one might write it off as one more of that profession’s kooky beliefs.  But physicians are saying it.”

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Building Smarter Hospitals: The Widely Misunderstood Relationship Between Discharging Patients Too Early and the Likelihood of a 30 Day Readmission

When persons are admitted to a hospital, insurers’ payment rates are based on the diagnosis, not the number of days in the hospital (known as a “length of stay”).  As a result, once the admission is triggered, the hospital has important economic incentive to discharge the patient as quickly as possible. My physician colleagues used to refer to this as “treat, then street.”

Unfortunately, discharging patients too soon can result in readmissions.  That’s why I have agreed with others that diagnosis-based payment systems and a policy of “no pay” for readmissions were working at cross purposes. Unified bundled payment approaches like this seem to be a good start.

But that’s all theoretical.  What’s the science have to say?

Peter Kaboli and colleagues looked at the push-pull relationship between diagnosis-based payment incentives  and the likelihood of readmissions in a scientific paper just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The authors used the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital’s “Patient Treatment Files” to examine length of stay versus readmissions in 129 VA hospitals.  The sample consisted of over 4 million admissions and readmissions (defined as within 30 days and not involving another institution) from 1997 to 2010. The mean age started out at 63.8 years and increased to 65.5 years, while the proportion of persons aged 85 years or older increased from 2.5% to 8.8%. Over the years, admissions also grew more complicated with a higher rate of co-morbid conditions, such as diseases of the kidney (from 5% to 16%).

As length of stay went down, readmissions should have gone up, right?

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Now Is Not the Time to Talk About Gun Control

Yesterday was.

There are two reasons not to talk about gun control in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown atrocity, and opposition by the NRA and its adherents is neither of them.

The first is that addressing gun control right after innocents are shot might in some way seem exploitative. The second is that no imaginable degree of stringent gun control could fully exclude the possibility of an unhinged adult shooting a kindergartener.

But both of these objections are as porous as the sands of our shores battered by Hurricane Sandy. And a consideration of those shores readily reveals why.

With regard to exploitation, there was no thought of it as post-Sandy ruminations turned to how we might best prevent or at least mitigate the next such catastrophe. It was not exploitative to look around the world at strategies used to interrupt storm surges, divert floodwaters, or defend infrastructure. Those reflections continue.

Similarly, it’s not exploitative when my clinical colleagues and I speak to our patients in the aftermath of a heart attack or stroke about what it will take to prevent another one. In fact, these exchanges have a well-established designation in preventive medicine: the teachable moment.

It is opportunistic, but in a positive way: There is an opportunity to do what needs to be done. Admittedly, it’s better to talk about preventing heart disease, or the drowning of Staten Island, or of New Orleans, or the shooting of children, before ever these things happen. But the trouble tends to be: Nobody is listening then.

We are constitutionally better at crisis response than crisis prevention.

We’ll get back to the Constitution shortly.

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The Future of Medical Innovation and Commercialization

Innovation has been a driving force behind health care from the beginning, yet with the U.S. health care system in the midst of an unprecedented transformation and a focus on lowering costs, many are asking, “What will become of innovation?”

The answer to that question is also a potential solution for hospitals facing financial pressures – a solution that has the power to improve patient care as well.

A growing number of hospitals are looking to develop a new revenue stream through the commercialization of medical innovations. They’re not doing it alone.

Just as Cleveland Clinic collaborates with other health systems on cardiovascular or cancer care, Cleveland Clinic Innovations has formed a national Innovation Alliance network to collaborate on the commercialization of medical innovations.

Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the corporate venturing arm of Cleveland Clinic, has a track record of converting and commercializing medical expertise, creating 55 spin-off companies and more than 300 licensed technologies that began as doctors and researchers’ ideas. Those companies have received nearly $700 million in equity investment.

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The Only Way Out of the Health Care Wilderness

The landmark 2001 document from the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM), Crossing the Quality Chasm, should have guided us out of the healthcare cost-quality crisis. It argued that the root cause of our difficulties has been a failure to meet the needs of patients with chronic disease. We have not solved this crisis because we have almost entirely ignored the recommendations for reform found in that document.

The claim that we have the best healthcare in the world is correct only if you have an acute condition. If you are having an event, such as a heart attack, our system can provide an emergency stent — for as much as $50,000 — that will open the blocked artery, immediately relieving the pain and saving your life. We are really good at rescue medicine-crisis medicine.

But acute conditions generate enormous costs only because we have not addressed the chronic condition earlier, interrupting the disease progression that produces the acute events. Since most healthcare cost growth over the past 2 decades has been related to patients with 4 or more chronic conditions, this should be recognized as the foremost issue in healthcare reform.

In fact, the IOM charged that, despite the central role of chronic disease in most pain, disability, death, and cost, care continues to be designed around the needs of providers and institutions, and most patients with chronic conditions do not receive the care they need. A 17-year lag in implementing new scientific findings results in highly variable care.

That cardiologists favor coronary stenting over optimal medical therapy — that is, managing vascular disease using $4 drugs and recommended lifestyle changes — provides a powerful case in point.

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Ode to Mystery Blob

The bartender was a young guy who wanted to go to law school, so I leaned back in my chair and smugly pontificated about the slings and arrows of practicing the law. I can’t even tell you the dude’s name, but it gave me a superior feeling to give him advice. Having taken on a couple of high-profile cases, I’d been on local TV a bit recently, which really gave me license to lay it on thick. I was the center of my own attention, a big man, a rising star on his way to fame and fortune, the essential ingredients of American success.

As the barman poured me my second beer, though, he did a double take and asked me what happened to my eye.

I went to the bathroom and saw the red swelling above my right eyelid. Immediately I notched it up to some mountain allergy. I downed the rest of my beer and went home. The next morning I woke up and the inflammation was about the same, but had spread to my cheek. I needed to be in court that afternoon, so I borrowed my girlfriend’s base makeup to cover the splotches. Outside of wearing makeup, I felt good and strong: a winner sporting a nice tie and a snazzy pocket square.

That night I went to the gym.

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Will You Receive a Tax Credit to Help You Buy Insurance in 2014? How Much?

Beginning in 2014, millions of Americans will discover that they qualify for subsidies designed to help them purchase their own health insurance. The aid will come in the form of tax credits, and many will be surprised by how generous they are.

Not only low-income, but moderate-income families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – currently $44,680 for a single person and $92,200 for a family of four – will make the cut. Within that group, households bringing in less than 250 percent of the FPL ($27,925 for a single person, $57,625 for a family of four) also will be eligible for help with out-of-pocket costs.

If your boss offers benefits, you won’t qualify, unless …

If your employer offers health insurance you won’t be eligible for a tax credit – though there are two exceptions to this rule:

  • If your share of the premium for your employer’s coverage would exceed 9.5 percent of your income, or
  • If your boss offers a skimpy policy that pays for less than 60 percent of an average worker’s covered benefits, you will qualify for help.

If I qualify, how much will I receive?

The size of the tax credit depends on your income, your age, how many people are in your family, and where you live.

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To DNR or Not to DNR

Here is a little appreciated fact: Patients cannot order medical care; they can only accept or refuse it.

Only a doctor can order medical treatment.  In an extreme medical situation, the doctor can offer CPR, but it is the patient’s job to accept or reject.

Any patient can refuse CPR.  This refusal is known as Do Not Resuscitate or DNR, and for obvious reasons needs to be made ahead of time. The question is, when is making the decision to be DNR appropriate?

A further definition is needed.  DNR (and its colleague, Do Not Intubate, DNI) is not the same as DNT, or Do Not Treat.  A patient, at their discretion, may receive maximal medical care, including drugs, dialysis and surgery, and still be DNR.  The DNR order in that situation is simply a line that the patient will not allow the doctors to cross.  “Do everything you can to help me, but if it fails I do not want to end my life on a machine or with some gorilla pounding on my chest.”

On the other hand, a DNR can be a part of a hospice or palliative care program, so that all care is focused on comfort and not treatment.  It is even possible, in very unusual circumstances, to receive hospice care without being DNR.  A DNR order is like any medical decision, it can be changed if appropriate.  DNR is not the same as “pulling the plug.”

How aggressive to be in receiving medical care is a personal decision.  In order to make certain that our individual desires are followed it is critical that, as much as possible, these decisions be made ahead of time.  This avoids panic, confusion, and guilt.  In that spirit, let us review a few cases.

Ben is a 54-year-old gentleman with lung cancer, which has spread to bones and liver and is growing despite the third chemotherapy.  His doctors inform him that a fourth chemotherapy has a 5% chance of helping him and a 20% chance of killing him.  He wants to try the chemo.  His physician says, “OK Ben, we will order the chemo but if things fall apart and your body starts to fail and we cannot fix it, do you want to be put on a machine?”  Do you think Ben should make himself DNR?

Ben made himself DNR.  He survived the chemo, but the cancer progressed and he died one month later.

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