Dr. David Shulkin once gave me this advice, “stop whining and complaining and lead with solutions.” To the many frustrated physicians in this country, this critique is a fair one. I took his words to heart.
Let me start by saying my husband served 20 years in the United States Army and is a proud Veteran. I think our veterans deserve better than Dr. David Shulkin. His ousting as VA Secretary by President Trump this past week is akin to “leading with solutions” from my perspective.
Dr. Shulkin appears to have engaged in considerable double-speak throughout his 13-month tenure in Trump’s Cabinet. In his New York Times op-ed, he wrote, “I will continue to speak out against those who seek to harm the V.A. by putting their personal agendas in front of the well-being of our veterans.”
When it comes to personal agendas, there are few who are as laser focused as this man. Initially endorsing campaign pledges by Trump committing to increased accountability at the VA, his European trip—for which taxpayers paid $122,334—involved more sightseeing and shopping with his wife than “official” government activities. When the Washington Post first reported this story, Shulkin assured the public “nothing inappropriate” took place.
A New Era of Amazon Healthcare Should Take a Cue From Germany to Provide Support for Medical Malpractice Victims
Amazon, JP Morgan Chase, and Berkshire Hathaway recently announced plans to form a joint non-profit enterprise aimed at providing affordable, high-quality, transparent healthcare to hundreds of thousands of their U.S. employees. Although a healthcare venture departs from their prior expertise, the companies’ combined wealth, resources, and history of market innovation provide hope that this new alliance can reshape the delivery and cost of healthcare in the U.S. As Amazon and company attempt to tackle America’s healthcare problems with a new delivery model, there is also potential for them to support patients who encounter another critical problem in America’s healthcare system – the problem of medical errors.
Johns Hopkins estimates that 250,000 deaths in the United States are caused each year by preventable medical errors. Eliminating medical errors is admittedly difficult. It requires interdisciplinary collaboration, unlikely political alliances, and changing the longstanding “culture of silence” in healthcare. In contrast, supporting patients who are damaged by medical errors, which can have a larger positive effect on the healthcare system, can be easily achieved. And it doesn’t even require innovation. Germany has implemented a model for patient support that can be adopted in the United States.
In Germany, patients who suspect medical errors have a legal right to assistance from their healthcare insurers. This support can include assistance obtaining medical records, the examination and evaluation of documents submitted by patients, helping patients find an attorney or support groups, and providing patients with a free expert medical assessment. In addition, German public healthcare insurers, which insure 90% of the country’s population, are required to fund the Unabhängige Patientenberatung Deutschland(Independent Patient Counseling Germany – UPD). UPD is established pursuant to German federal law and provides patients with free expert medical and legal consultations. At UPD, patients who suspect that they were injured by a treatment error can receive a free online, telephone, or personal consultation from experts to help them understand their legal rights.
This week MyFitnessPal announced that it had suffered a massive security breach which exposed or compromised 150 million MyFitnessPal accounts. Data that is affected included usernames, email addresses and hashed passwords. Luckily for those affected, the company claims that the affected data did not include government-issued identifiers or payment card data.
In some good news for MyFitnessPal users, the stolen passwords were encrypted. However, Under Armour continues to be vague about which percentage of the stolen data was protected by bcrypt, a secure algorithm employing key stretching, and what used SHA-1, a legacy hashing algorithm no longer considered to be “any good”.
That such data breaches occur should no longer be a surprise to anyone particularly given other high-profiles breaches involving companies such as Equifax, Yahoo and Target. However, what is surprising in this case is that cybersecurity experts are beginning to commend Under Amour for their “prompt response to the data breach after its discovery and their public announcement alerting users to the danger”.
Such praise for simply engaging in what most consumers would consider obvious moral behavior may shock many Americans. After all, isn’t it intuitive and legally responsible of companies that suffer data breaches to engage in proactive disclosure?
In late January the Trump administration proposed a Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) regulation that would legally protect any health care worker who refuses to provide care directly or indirectly to any individual by claiming a religious, moral or conscientious objection. While the federal government has for decades protected freedoms of conscience and religious exercise, the proposed would vastly expand these protections. No longer would these protections be applied to a very limited number of medical procedures. Think: abortion. Now, for example, a pediatrician could to provide care for a lesbian couple’s newborn or an emergency room nurse could refuse to provide a terminally ill patient palliative sedation.
Criticism of the proposed rule was immediate. Opponents contend if finalized the proposed would allow providers to ignore a patient’s medical needs including emergency needs that in some instances cause the patient further harm. It would undermine a healthcare entity’s effectiveness and patient safety responsibilities and would legally allow a provider to violate both their professional code of ethics and the patient’s civil and human rights. Critics argue the rule constitutes, in sum, an insidious form of bigotry. It would weaponize discrimination particularly against LGBTQs. It would, for example, roll back the Obama administration’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) anti-sex discrimination provision that protected gender identity. These, not insubstantial, criticisms aside there appears to have been little discussion of the proposed’s underlying rationale. What is the Christian theological basis, if any, for legally protecting religious exercise in denying health care?
“It’s a terrible way to die” The oncology fellow told me bluntly as we walked to the room. “There is nothing okay about this.”
Knocking on the open door, we entered his room. The blinds were raised to reveal a stunning view of the area surrounding the VA hospital, and light poured in.
Our patient reclined in bed, his eyes closed although he was not asleep. He opened his eyes at the sound of our entrance, and the eyes seemed to bulge, too large for his shrunken face with wasted muscles. A plastic tube, taped to the bridge of his nose, entered his nostril and disappeared. The other end of the tubing led to a canister filled with dark green liquid that had been suctioned from his gastrointestinal tract. Despite this invasion, his stomach remained distended, protuberant compared with his otherwise frail frame.
The man had an aggressive colon cancer. The tumor in his colon had grown so large that the hollow of his bowel had closed off, allowing no food to pass through. With nowhere else to go, the contents of his bowel backed up, puffing out his stomach and causing terrible nausea and vomiting. Even worse, the tumor invaded outwards too, anchoring tendrils into the surrounding tissue so that there was no longer any hope of removing the tumor surgically. “Palliative” chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumor would be offered, but it had no chance of curing his disease. The oncologist’s note summarized the situation: “Prognosis is extremely poor.”
It was a good learning case, a late presentation of a disease increasingly diagnosed at early stages by screening colonoscopies. This patient had not undergone screening, which might have diagnosed the cancer while there was still time for a cure. As an African American, this patient was more likely to develop this cancer than Caucasian patients his age.
In 1980, industry healthcare planners imagined a system where the centerpiece was a hospital in every community and a complement of physicians. Demand forecasting was fairly straightforward: based on the population’s growth and age, the need was 4 beds per thousand and 140 docs per 100,000, give or take a few.
In 1996, the Dartmouth Center for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences published the Dartmouth Atlas on Health Care quantifying variability in the intensity of services provided Medicare enrollees in each U.S. zip code. They defined 306 hospital referral regions (HRRs) that remain today as the basis for regulation of our healthcare system.
In the same timeframe (1980-2000), the ratio of doctors per 100,000 doubled as the number of medical schools increased from 75 to 126 leading health planners (Graduate Medical Education National Advisory Council) to predict a surplus of 70,000. Meanwhile, demand for hospital beds edged down slightly to 3.5/1000—the result of managed care efforts in certain parts of the country.
Today, we operate 2.4 beds per thousand and have 265 physicians per 100,000. But the bigger story is the widespread variability in the volume, costs and quality of care across our communities. Across the 306 HRRs, bed supply ranges almost 250%; physician supply even more and costs as much as 400%.
Pharmaceuticals play a major role in today’s population health era – they can prevent and cure disease, improve or maintain wellness and slow progression of existing conditions. Yet, their promise can also be a curse if high prices limit patient access and bankrupt the healthcare providers and insurers bearing significant financial risk for patient care.
The proactive new leadership at the FDA is promoting competitive markets by combatting the abuse of well-intentioned programs and market share monopolies. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has ramped up the FDA’s efforts to prevent drug manufacturers from “gaming the system” in a number of ways.
Accelerating generic approvals and creating transparency to stimulate competition
For the first time, the FDA made publicly available a list of off-patent, off-exclusivity branded drugs without generic competition. Using the list, Premier immediately identified a number of critical drugs for patient care and has been working with manufacturers to participate in the FDA’s new expedited review process. Additionally, Congress recently enacted legislation creating an expedited review process for generic drug applications when there are fewer than three manufacturers in the market for a given drug product. We strongly support and helped to champion these efforts, and are hopeful that the FDA will use this new authority to foster competition and curb price spikes and shortages in generic drugs where only a few players dominate.
Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) allow individuals to use pre-tax dollars to pay for high deductibles and other uncovered medical expenses. Currently, individuals are ineligible for tax-advantaged HSA contributions if they have “other” coverage in addition to a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP.) Expanding HSAs to fund out-of-pocket expenses for routine healthcare places control directly in the hands of patients, a move that could bring down health expenditures. Large corporations are wrestling for control to direct where patients spend their hard-earned money.
A group of lawmakers recently introduced the “bipartisan” Health Savings Account Improvement Act of 2018 (H.R. 5138). This bill allegedly “expands” HSA coverage to allow use at “retail-based” (think CVS/Target) or “employer-owned” clinics (think Amazon) without losing eligibility to make tax-advantaged contributions to their HSAs. Increasing the flexibility of HSAs is a laudable goal yet, this legislation herds Americans like sheep into Minute Clinics for the benefit of corporate shareholders.
This bill should not become law. If HR 5138 passes, retail and employer-based clinics will become profit centers. Alternative legislation, known as the Primary Care Enhancement Act (H.R. 365), amends the definition of “qualified medical expenses” to include fees paid to physicians as part of a “primary care service arrangement.” This common-sense legislation flounders in Congress every year.
It starts with the CEO. Studies confirm that the single most important determinant of successful workplace wellbeing programs is the active, passionate, and persistent involvement of the CEO.
The CEO is taken very seriously. When the CEO wants something, people notice. When the CEO is passionate about something, it gets elevated to extreme importance. The sort of paradigm and cultural change needed to create a culture of employee wellbeing simply cannot occur without the full, passionate, focused, and persistent involvement of the CEO. I was a CEO, and one has to have been one to understand the full implications of CEOship. It IS different. This is not elitism. It’s fact.
While I was CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI, I made my singular focus ethics and integrity. Why? Because my predecessor became top-of-the-fold news, and our organization quickly gained a reputation for unethical behavior. We had to change that, and I made ethics and integrity part of every speech, virtually every piece of written material I sent to employees, a part of fully half of my weekly newsletters to employees, etc. And over time, it worked. No cutting corners; full compliance; a strong reporting system, etc. And we became recognized, rather quickly, for having ethics “in our DNA.”
I wish I had brought the same passion to the wellbeing of my employees. I didn’t, and now part of my mission in life is correct that by inspiring CEOs, Boards, and C-Suites to do just that.
A somewhat cynical CEO might ask: “Why is this my responsibility?” Or, “Why can’t employees just do what they should be doing?” Or, “Am I also supposed to cure world hunger and take on the responsibility for employees’ happiness?” “Where does it end?”
These are understandable questions. The short answers are, yes, this is your responsibility for many reasons, the chief of which is that it is a strategic imperative for operational success. It’s also the right thing ethically and morally. And no, employees often need help, and the workplace is the best venue to give and receive such help.
Artificial Intelligence is at peak buzzword: it elicits either the euphoria of a technological paradise with anthropomorphic robots to tidy up after us, or fears of hostile machines breaking the human spirit in a world without hope. Both are fiction.
The Artificial Intelligences of our reality are those of Machine Learning and Deep Learning. Let’s make it simple: both are AI – but not the AI of fiction. Instead, these are limited intelligences capable of only the task they are created for: “weak” or “narrow” AI. Machine Learning is essentially applied Statistics, excellently explained in Hastie and Tibshirani’s Introduction to Statistical Learning. Machine Learning is a more mature field, with more practitioners, and a deeper body of evidence and experience.
Deep Learning is a different animal – a hybrid of Computer Science and Statistics, using networks defined in computer code. Deep Learning isn’t entirely new – Yann LeCun’s 1998 LeNet network was used for optically recognizing 10% of US checks. But the compute power necessary for other image recognition tasks would require an additional decade. Sensationalism by overly optimistic press releases co-exists with establishment inertia and claims of “black box” opacity. For the non-practitioner, it is very difficult to know what to believe, with confusion the rule.