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Simon Nath

The Antidote to Physician Burnout: A Nine Step Program

Martin SamuelsI have some strategies for preventing “physician burnout.” I am a little over 70 years old and am not experiencing any of the symptoms of “physician burnout.” I do not state this out of any sense of pride, but I have tried to be introspective about this so as to offer some advice as to how to avoid this problem.

My approach is fourfold. I shall begin by reviewing the definition of burnout, and, in particular, physician burnout. Much has been written about this recently, but in order to address the individual issues, it is important that we are using the same definitions.  Secondly, I shall review some facts about the reality of American medicine. Third, I shall articulate a paradox between what seems to be an epidemic of physician burnout in the context of the reality of American medicine. Finally, I will offer a nine point set of suggestions, which are meant to help to avoid the symptoms and signs of this syndrome.

Job burnout is not a new idea, and it is not specific to medicine.  It has been in the psychology/psychiatry literature for quite a long time. It may be defined as a feeling of emotional exhaustion characterized by cynicism, depersonalization and perceived ineffectiveness.

In recent years, many have argued that “burnout” is extremely prevalent; not only in society as a whole but in particular in medicine. It has been said that 50% of physicians have at least one of the three cardinal features:  exhaustion, depersonalization and inefficacy. The problem with these kinds of data is that are no adequate controls. It is probably quite common for many people, at some point or another, to experience one or more of these cardinal features. The real question is whether this is more than in a control population and whether they are persistent, rather than transient, symptoms. That information is not available. For these reasons, it is likely that the problem of “burnout” is being exaggerated. Nonetheless the problem undoubtedly does exist in an unknown proportion of physicians.

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Health Insights from the Founder of Paypal

At the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference a wide range of industries and creative artists come together to explore transformation through interactive technology. It’s not just healthcare people talking to healthcare people!

One of my favorite presentations this year was by Max Levchin, one of the founders of Paypal. He began by challenging the audience to focus on big problems, Problems That Matter. (I’m presuming the job a guy I shared an Uber with told me about—managing the social media profile of a dog—wouldn’t qualify.)

Levchin highlighted four key trends in business and technology—waves the audience could ride to catalyze meaningful change. Though I was consciously stepping outside of the healthcare track, nearly half of Levchin’s points explicitly referenced opportunities in health and healthcare, while it was easy to draw relevant lessons from the ones that didn’t. Big trends include:

1. Beneficence (AKA “doing good”). Increasingly businesses are providing value and benefit to consumers, even at the expense of higher profit margins. For example, Levchin most recently launched Affirm, a lending service focused on millennials, that specializes in transparency: clearly telling consumers how much they are being charged for financial services. While competitors typically obfuscate their fees (often unbeknownst to consumers), Affirm is in the business of doing well by doing good.

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The NFL is Not Big Tobacco: Overdiagnosis and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 3.48.30 PMAs a general rule, if you keep clobbering a body part it may, in the long run, get damaged. This is hardly rocket science. Soldiers marching long distances can get a stress fracture known as “March fracture.” The brain is no exception. Boxers can get “dementia pugilistica.” This is why we frown upon people who bang their heads against brick walls.

Footballers are at risk of brain damage, specifically a neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE was described in a football player by forensic pathologist, Bennet Omalu, who performed an autopsy on Michael Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steeler. Webster died of a heart attack but had a rapid and mysterious cognitive decline.  Webster’s brain appeared normal at first. When Omalu used a special technique, he found a protein, known as tau, in the brain.

Omalu’s discovery inspired the movie Concussion in which Will Smith plays the pathologist. The Fresh Prince plays convincingly a god-fearing, soft-spoken but brilliant physician, who is up against incredulous colleagues and the National Football League (NFL). The NFL clearly has a lot to lose from Omalu’s discovery. However, the director’s attempt to emulate The Insider, where big tobacco tailgates the scientist, fails at many levels.

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Precision Medicine’s First Test is Blue Button on FHIR

flying cadeuciiPresident Obama’s legacy for health information technology is about to see its first test at the hands of a little-known project for access to Medicare beneficiary data. The President’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) database is the big brother of Medicare’s database. Although both databases will be managed by the Government, the PMI one will also have our DNA and as many of our health records as we are willing to move there. How much control will patients have over our data in either of these databases? Federal policy on these databases will impact all of healthcare.
The test is whether either of these databases will limit one’s ability to control and use our own data.

  • Can I have free first-class network access to my own data?
  • Can I send my own data instantly to anywhere I choose?
  • Can I direct my data digitally, without paper forms?

These three questions apply equally to my Medicare data, my data in a private-sector EHR, and my PMI data. Current HIPAA law allows it but will the Government and hospitals actually implement it? The policy for the Medicare database is being implemented as Blue Button on FHIR this summer, and so-far it doesn’t look good.

If our Federal Health Architecture (FHA) will not allow us the maximum control allowed by the law, then how can we expect private-sector healthcare systems to do it? I wrote about the current HIPAA law and how it needs to be changed to make a patient’s first-class access a right, instead of an option, in a previous post.

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Congress Has a Little Drug Problem

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The Congressional committee that recently demanded Martin Shkreli’s appearance must have hoped to spotlight a smug jerk responsible for the outrageous prescription drug pricing that we’re all up against. Of course there are lots of Shkrelis running drug companies, but most are shrewder and less brash, and might not make for such good theater.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), one of the Committee’s questioners, seemed to think that his witness could move healthcare forward by disclosing the machinery of the drug sector’s excesses. “The way I see it, you could go down in history as the poster boy for greedy drug company executives or you could change the system. Yeah, you.”

Excessive treatment and cost are at the core of the entire U.S. healthcare crisis. The fact that other societies and a few innovative firms here consistently deliver equal or better quality care at dramatically lower cost betrays the idea that conventional U.S. healthcare is necessarily superior or even appropriate.

Every part of healthcare is guilty, but the pharmaceutical sector is a case in point. An open record of lobbying spending and what pharma has obtained from Congress makes clear that its contributions have worked to that sector’s economic advantage and against the interests of American patients and purchasers.

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The Paradox of Evidence-based Medicine

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While many doctors remain enamored with the promise of Big Data or hold their breath in anticipation of the next mega clinical trial, Koka skillfully puts the vagaries of medical progress in their right perspective. More often than not, Koka notes, big changes come from astute observations by little guys with small data sets.

In times past, an alert clinician would make advances using her powers of observation, her five senses (as well as the common one) and, most importantly, her clinical judgment. He would produce a case series of his experiences, and others could try to replicate the findings and judge for themselves.

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PCMH Fails Natural Experiment

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Medical Homes Fail Yet Another “Natural Experiment”

Three “natural experiments,” three failures.  Such is the fate of patient-centered medical homes (PCMH), a well-intentioned but unsuccessful innovation now kept afloat by the interaction of promoter study design sleight-of-hand with customer innumeracy.

By way of review, a natural experiment is an experiment in which the design is outside the control of investigators, yet mimics an experiment.  The first two natural experiments below involve applying the intervention across entire states. The third involves a stimulus-response experiment in one specific community.

Statewide Natural Experiments: North Carolina and Vermont

In North Carolina, a statewide Medicaid PCMH was implemented years ago and steadily expanded until most Medicaid recipients belonged to one.  There was no reduction in relevant event rates (for ambulatory care-sensitive admissions) and costs increased. While the overall Medicaid budgets were routinely exceeded and that should have caused legislators to realize that something in their PCMH was amiss, Milliman fabricated data to pretend the PCMH program was a success.  Milliman got caught making up data (and ignoring other data that quite definitively invalidated its conclusion, and changed their story 180 degrees, a tacit admission that they lied.  And shortly thereafter (at least “shortly” by the standards of state government), North Carolina announced that it is abandoning this failed experiment.

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Retail Clinics Raise Medical Spending: So What?

flying cadeuciiNew research published in Health Affairs finds that retail clinics don’t save money. Many health policy analysts had hoped that retail clinics would reduce medical spending by replacing more costly physician office visits. The article did confirm that retail clinics are less expensive than traditional physician visits for the same service. Yet retail clinic use was associated with an increase in medical spending of $14 per year by those who used them. The $14 per person-year increase was not a complete picture, however, because the study did not compare inpatient spending or prescription drug use.

The researchers looked at Aetna insurance claims for 11 low-acuity conditions to see if people were substituting cheaper retail clinic visits for more costly doctor visits. What they found was that patients tend to visit a retail clinic when they might otherwise forgo care. In other words, patients were adding visits for conditions that would have cleared up on their own rather than necessarily substituting cheaper visits for higher cost visits. Traffic at retail clinics tends to peak during off hours (evening and weekends) when physician offices are closed.

The research was reported by Kaiser Health News and also ran in MedCity News, where I found some of the comments especially interesting. One commenter asked if changing the term “utilization” to “engagement” might make a difference, as in:“clinics increase health ‘engagement’ to the tune of about $14/person.” Increasing patient engagement sounds like a positive benefit rather than the negative connotation of utilization.

As an economist, my knee jerk reaction is patients may want to visit a retail clinic when their traditional source of care is not available. They may be willing to spend a little extra in cost-sharing to take care of a medical need rather than suffer through it.

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Feeling the Bern on Universal Single-Player Healthcare

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“Elephant in the living room” is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious untruth going unaddressed. In most political platforms about healthcare and its coverage, there is a most resolutely immovable elephant in our living room. It is there with every single candidate.  But with Bernie….

You’ve just got to love Bernie Sanders.  It makes me feel like I’m 22 years old in the 1960’s and dumb as all get out about how you pay for things. But let us consider Mr. Sanders’ healthcare proposal. From his own website:

“Bernie’s plan would create a federally administered single-payer health care program.  Universal single-payer health care means comprehensive coverage for all Americans.  Bernie’s plan will cover the entire continuum of health care, from inpatient to outpatient care; preventive to emergency care; primary care to specialty care, including long-term and palliative care; vision, hearing and oral health care; mental health and substance abuse services; as well as prescription medications, medical equipment, supplies, diagnostics and treatments. Patients will be able to choose a health care provider without worrying about whether that provider is in-network and will be able to get the care they need without having to read any fine print or trying to figure out how they can afford the out-of-pocket costs…[etc.].”

Bernie sure didn’t go half way on this one. All care, whenever, wherever, however. A fundamental right with no filter. OK. So he jumped in with both feet. You’ve got to admire his elan.  But what might this mean and how can he ignore what happened in his own home state?

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Cancer and Moonshot Economics

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The Obama Administration’s cancer “moonshot” initiative, announced in January and now being debated in Congress, comes at a time of significant advances in cancer treatment and a spurt of cultural attention to the disease.

A batch of new immunotherapy drugs approved in the last few years, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo and Merck’s Keytruda, are being widely touted as breakthrough medicines—and aggressively advertised to both doctors and the public.  Jimmy Carter’s unexpected remission from melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain is attributed to Keytruda.

At the same time, a cancer memoir (When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi) tops The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.  The Death of Cancer by Dr. Vincent DeVita, a former director of the National Cancer Institute, has also garnered positive reviews and wide attention for its critical assessment of today’s cancer research establishment.

Before these two books, John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars—the touching story of two teens with cancer—was widely acclaimed and read, especially after it was made into a blockbuster movie in 2014.

The administration’s initiative comes at a significant time for me personally, too.  My brother, 70, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer 10 months ago.  Unlike Jimmy Carter, one of the new immunotherapy drugs (Opdivo) did not defeat his cancer.  He continues to fight for his life.  As with so many families, cancer has stalked ours.  My sister died of colon cancer in 2006, age 54.  My mother died of lung cancer in 1985, at 65.  Like anyone over age 60, I’ve seen friends suffer and succumb, their lives cut short.  And I’ve battled two cancers myself, melanoma (localized) and a salivary gland tumor.

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