Categories

Category: THCB

A Growing Chorus on the RUC

Yesterday on Kaiser Health News, Barbara Levy MD, the Chair of the AMA’s Relative Value Scale Update Committee (or RUC), published a glowing defense of the RUC’s activities. Her article extols the work of the 29 physician volunteers who, “at no cost to taxpayers…generously volunteer their time,” “supported by advisers and staff from more than 100 national medical specialty societies and health care professional organizations.” She fails to mention that the physicians’ and organizations’ efforts to craft the RUC’s recommendations have direct financial benefit to the physicians, specialty societies and health care professional organizations whose representatives dominate the RUC proceedings.

She points to the openness and transparency of the RUC’s proceedings, noting that “the general public is able to comment on individual procedures, and processes are in place to ensure that input from all stakeholders is considered by CMS. Finally, the AMA ensures transparency of the process, making the data and rationale for each RUC recommendation publicly available.” This, from an immensely influential Committee that refuses to share the identities of its members except by their societal affiliation, that keeps its proceedings private, and that can not be observed except by an invitation from the Chair. If anything, the RUC’s goings-on have been secretive and opaque. Go into any health care professional audience and ask, as I have, for a show of hands of people who know what the RUC is. It has been virtually unknown except in wonkiest circles.

Dr. Levy also points out that, in Medicare’s budget-neutral environment, hard decisions have to be made, and that in 2006, $4 billion – a little more than  one percent of that year’s Medicare allocation – was transferred to primary care. The clear implication is that this came at the expense of specialists. But she conveniently ignores the vast majority of coding valuations that have increased specialty income while strangling primary care. (More comprehensive background on the RUC, including articles by the AMA that describe the RUC’s perspective in detail, may be found here.)

Dr. Levy’s article presumably responded to a growing chorus of recent voices that have detailed the RUC’s disastrous impact on American health care, beginning most recently last October with a Wall Street Journal expose by Anna Mathews and Tom McGinty, and an explanation in the New York Times by Princeton health care economist Uwe Reinhardt. With David Kibbe MD, I wrote about this topic on Kaiser Health News in January, calling on the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) to abandon the RUC. Then Paul Fischer MD joined in with his Family Physician’s Manifesto. All this work built on the foundation of many health care professionals – John Goodson, MD; Robert Berenson, MD; Thomas Bodenheimer, MD; Roy Poses, MD to name a few – who have carefully documented the biases and excesses that have been wrought by the RUC’s shadowy process.Continue reading…

The Neverending Story

We’re hearing a lot about the use of electronic medical records (EMR) in medicine. The government is all for it—providing financial incentives for those with EMRs and disincentives for those still relying on paper charts to make their way through the world. Most health professionals, especially new physicians in training, simply can’t imagine a world without an EMR at their fingertips.

The ability to electronically capture discrete bits of data on each patient allows us to categorize, tally, and build unbelievably beautiful charts and graphs.

These systems also uncover deficiencies in patient care; with the push of a button, we know whose blood pressure or blood sugar is out of control, or how many patients weigh too much for their height. Clinicians click-through as many templates as possible in order for the system to capture these professional nuggets of information. Nuggets worth their weight in gold to researchers and pharmaceutical companies, eager to market their next blockbuster drug to physicians whose patients just happen to fit their marketing profile.

The trouble is when you’ve seen one template–built patient medical record, you’ve seen them all. These systems do such a great job of capturing discrete bits of data that patients become just that—only discrete bits of data.The essence of who they are, their story, becomes lost in attempts at efficiency.

What interests me about each patient is their story: what’s happening in their life that brings them stress or joy. Are they wanting medication for their cough, or really just needing assurance they don’t have lung cancer. Each visit brings a new chapter, a peeling of the onion allowing me to see the various layers of their personality over time. This is more important than almost any other discrete piece of data we could fit into a template. It takes time and effort to build an electronic medical record that speaks for the patient; time that is often in short supply for busy clinicians.Continue reading…

Life Saving Errors

DennisGraceHeadshot1

On March 28, 1979 the Three-Mile Island Unit-2 nuclear power plant experienced a feed system failure which prevented the steam generators from removing heat from the plant. The reactor automatically shutdown but, without the feed system to cool the primary, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. In order to prevent that pressure from becoming excessive, a relief valve opened. The valve should have re-closed once the pressure dropped by a small amount, but it didn’t. The only indication available in the control room showed the valve in the closed position, but that indication was erroneous, representing only that the signal to close the valve (pressure below a set value) had been sent to the valve. Nothing in the system verified the actual valve position. This stuck-open valve caused the pressure to continue to decrease in the system (and ultimately provided a path for spewing thousands of curies of radioactive material into the atmosphere), but the false shut indication prevented the operators from taking actions to mitigate their severe loss of coolant accident.

The primary relief valve design had a history of sticking. That same valve had been involved in at least nine other minor incidents prior to the TMI incident. Most notably, eighteen months before TMI, a similar incident had occurred in another nuclear plant involving a loss of feed and rising temperatures shutting down the plant. In that incident, the plant was just starting up after a maintenance shutdown, so the power level and temperature of the system were not as dangerously high as at Three-Mile Island.

Continue reading…

The Incredible and Wasteful Complexity of the US Healthcare System

During the health care reform debate, we wrote that most people’s attitudes to it were “confused, conflicted, clueless and cranky.”  A major reason was that the American health care “system” is fiendishly complicated and few people really understand it.   As a result hardly anyone knows much about what is actually in the reform bill (but that does not prevent them from having strong opinions about it).    Sadly, the reforms, whatever their merits, will make the system even more complicated, the administration more Byzantine and the regulatory burden more onerous.

System complexity.

The American healthcare system is already by far the most complex and bureaucratic in the world.  We were once asked to spend ninety minutes explaining American health care to a group of foreign health care executives.  Ninety minutes?  We probably needed a few weeks.  Most other countries have relatively simple systems, whether insurance coverage is provided by a government plan or by private insurance or some combination of these.  But in the United States insurance coverage, for those who have it, may be provided by Medicare Parts A, B, C, and D, 50 different state Medicaid programs (or MediCal in California), Medicare Advantage, Medigap plans, the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, the Women, Infants and Children Program, the Veterans Administration, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the military, the hundreds of thousands of employer-provided plans and their insurance companies, or by the individual insurance market.  This insurance may be paid for by the federal or state governments, by employers, labor unions or individuals.  Some employers’ plans cover retirees, others do not. The result is that the system is pluralistic, mysterious, capricious and impossible for most patients and providers to understand.

Administrative complexity

The administrative complexity is amplified by the multiplicity of insurance plans.  About half of all Americans with private health insurance are covered by self-insured plans, each with its own plan design.  Employers customize their plan documents, led by consultants who make a good living designing their plans and tailoring their contracts. As one prominent consultant told us recently, if all the self-insured plan documents were piled on a table they would not just exceed the 2,700 pages of Obamacare, they would probably reach the moon. For the rest of the commercially insured population, health plans may be traditional indemnity plans, Preferred Provider Organizations or Health Maintenance Organizations.

The coverage provided by different plans varies dramatically.  They may or may not include large or small deductibles, co-pays or co-insurance.  Beneficiaries may pay a large, small or no part of their health insurance premiums.  Some plans cover dependent family members and children, others do not.  The Medicare Part D pharmaceutical benefit plan involves a “doughnut hole,” which will disappear as health reforms are implemented.  Surveys have found that few people fully understand their own insurance plans let alone the bigger picture.  While health reform takes some steps toward standardization of insurance offerings and improving transparency, overall it is likely to increase complexity.Continue reading…

Is That Thorazine in the Baby’s Bottle?

One of the most disturbing trends in mental health today is the increasing use of powerful antipsychotic medication to treat behavioral problems in children, even very young children. According to a 2009 report by the Food and Drug Administration, there are 500,000 children in the United States being administered regular doses of antipsychotics. Medicaid data shows public health monies spent on antipsychotic drugs for children exceeding $30 million in New Jersey and topping $90 million in Texas. It is a trend that has built relentlessly for the past ten years and continues unabated.

I find the use of these drugs on children to be appalling almost beyond words. Having worked as a mental health professional for many years, I am well acquainted with these medications. This class of drugs, sometimes referred to as neuroleptics, are major tranquilizers and are primarily used and intended for controlling hallucinations and delusions in cases of psychosis and schizophrenia. For an adult with severe schizophrenia, these medications may be a glimmer of hope, but it is always a difficult risk-benefit analysis because there are potentially severe side effects and reactions. Permanent neurological damage can occur in the form of tardive dyskenisia, and sudden death can occur from a reaction called neuroleptic malignancy syndrome. With newer forms of antipsychotics, these type of side effects are less frequent and less severe, but continue to be a risk depending on the reaction of the individual’s body. However, newer, “atypical,” antipsychotics present new dangers to the patient, metabolic changes that result in a dramatic increase in the instances and severity of diabetes and heart disease. The result is that adults on antipsychotic medications have a life span that is 20 years shorter then the average person.Continue reading…

No One Cares About Your Health (or No One is Willing to Pay For It)!

Of course that is not true, but it seems like that sometimes, doesn’t it?  If you are working to promulgate a solution that promotes health in the context of our current healthcare system, there is no end to the challenges you will face.  Lets think a bit about the various actors, why they should care and why they do not.

I’ll start off with you. No one should care more about your health than you.  But as the behavioral economists remind us, we are not rational beings.  We are more likely to focus on tangible things in the moment rather than long-term uncertain benefits. So we persist in participating in unhealthy behaviors that provide short-term pleasure and lead to downstream sickness.  In addition, we’ve been addled into believing that once we are diagnosed, we are victims and that we can abdicate all responsibility for our care. (see 5-17-2010, Are Individual’s with Chronic Illness More Passive?).  This insidious combination makes it hard to hold ourselves accountable for our own health.  Most times, we’d rather blame the environment, or bad luck, and ask if we can take a convenient pill to make it better.

Next, how about your loved ones?  They are the best targets. In most cases our loved ones (the more current phrase is ‘social network’) can and do affect our health (See Nicholas Christakis’ book Connected and related articles).  It has, however, been challenging to get loved ones to open their wallet to pay for service offerings that improve your health.  In my experience, this is most often because of the same mentality that makes you a passive victim once you get sick.  We feel that society owes a victim.  We all feel like we’ve paid into various insurance programs – public and private – and that they should be the ones to pay for health-related services, particularly in the setting of chronic illness.  So your loved ones do care, but they have been trained not to open their wallet to support your care.  I can think of a dozen or so business plans I’ve seen over the years where the service to support a chronically ill individual was to be paid for by the “sandwich generation.” There is an appeal to this on the surface, but I haven’t seen one of those businesses scale yet.Continue reading…

Nurse Staffing, Patient Mortality, And a Lady Named Louise

How many nurses does it take to care for a hospitalized patient? No, that’s not a bad version of a light bulb joke; it’s a serious question, with thousands of lives and billions of dollars resting on the answer. Several studies (such as here and here) published over the last decade have shown that having more nurses per patient is associated with fewer complications and lower mortality. It makes sense.

Yet these studies have been criticized on several grounds. First, they examined staffing levels for hospitals as a whole, not at the level of individual units. Secondly, they compared well-staffed hospitals against poorly staffed ones, raising the possibility that staffing levels were a mere marker for other aspects of quality such as leadership commitment or funding. Finally, they based their findings on average patient load, failing to take into account patient turnover.

Last week’s NEJM contains the best study to date on this crucial issue. It examined nearly 200,000 admissions to 43 units in a “high quality hospital.” While the authors don’t name the hospital, they do tell us that the institution is a US News top rated medical center, has achieved nursing “Magnet” status, and, during the study period, had a mortality rate nearly 40 percent below that predicted for its case-mix. In other words, it was no laggard.

As one could guess from its pedigree and outcomes, the hospital’s approach to nurse staffing was not stingy. Of 176,000 nursing shifts during the study period, only 16 percent were significantly below the established target (the targets are presumably based on patient volume and acuity, but are not well described in the paper). The authors found that patients who experienced a single understaffed shift had a 2 percent higher mortality rate than ones who didn’t. Each additional understaffed shift carried a similar, and additive, risk. This means that the one-in-three patients who experienced three such shifts during their hospital stay had a 6 percent higher mortality than the few patients who didn’t experience any. If the FDA discovered that a new medication was associated with a 2 percent excess mortality rate, you can bet that the agency would withdraw it from the market faster than you could say “Sidney Wolfe.”

The effects of high patient turnover were even more striking. Exposure to a shift with unusually high turnover (7 percent of all shifts met this definition) was associated with a 4 percent increased odds of death. Apparently, patient turnover – admissions, discharges, and transfers – is to hospital units and nurses as takeoffs and landings are to airplanes and flight crews: a single 5-hour flight (one takeoff/landing) is far less stressful, and much safer, than five hour-long flights (5 takeoffs/landings).Continue reading…

Sermo teams with J&J

One of the big stories at the Health 2.0 Conference in San Diego is that Sermo is partnering with Janssen Global Services (part of J&J) to create tools for doctors to help them move their patients through the health care system. It’s the first time Sermo has explicitly both added a mobile app and moved into the transactional end of its physician community members’ businesses. Sermo’s figured out that a significant portion of their referrals never result in an actual appointment. So they’re going to be working with Jannsen to help close that loop, and we can assume that there’ll be a series of physician and consumer-aimed services to come from the partnership. Sermo says to expect the first product by end of spring. While new entrants like Doximity are aiming at the same market, Sermo’s marketing reach and J&J’s muscle makes them a formidable competitor.

And if you’re at the Health 2.0 Conference in San Diego, Dan Palestrant, Sermo’s CEO will be making an appearance to explain a tad more!

Who Owns Patient Data?

Walgreens is being sued by customers who are not happy that their prescription information – even though it has been de-identified – is being sold by Walgreens to data-mining companies.

The data privacy and security concerns surrounding the transfer of de-identified data are significant.  To “de-identify” what is otherwise protected health information under HIPAA, some outfits will simply strip data of 18 types of identifiers listed in federal regulations.  However, the relevant regulation (45 CFR 164.514(b)(2)(ii)) also provides that this only works if “the covered entity does not have actual knowledge that the information could be used alone or in combination with other information to identify an individual who is a subject of the information.” Thus, the problem with this approach is that, these days, nobody can disclaim knowledge of the fact that information de-identified by removing this cookbook list of 18 identifiers may be re-identified by cross-matching data with other publicly-available data sources. There are a number of reported instances of this sort of thing happening. The bottom line is that our collective technical prowess has outstripped the regulatory safe harbor.

Is this the basis of the lawsuit brought against Walgreens?  An objection to trafficking in health information that should remain private?  No.  The plaintiff group of customers is suing to share in the profits realized by Walgreens from trading in the de-identified data.Continue reading…

What’s The Worst Case Scenario In Japan Nuke Crisis?

This from John Beddington, the United Kingdom’s chief science advisor at its Tokyo embassy:

Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario.  If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”.  But what does that actually mean?  What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials … that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen.  In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion.  You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air.  Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area.  It’s not serious for elsewhere even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres.  If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of  Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down do we have a problem?  The answer is unequivocally no.   Absolutely no issue.  The problems are within 30 km of the reactor.  And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet.  It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time.  But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres.   And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation.  The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from.  That’s not going to be the case here.  So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health.

Merrill Goozner has been writing about economics and health care for many years. The former chief economics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Merrill has written for a long list of publications including the New York Times, The American Prospect and The Washington Post. His most recent book, “The $800 Million Dollar Pill – The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs ” (University of California Press, 2004) has won acclaim from critics for its treatment of the issues facing the health care system and the pharmaceutical industry in particular. You can read more pieces by Merrill at GoozNews, where this post first appeared.

Registration

Forgotten Password?