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Category: Health Policy

USMLE Step 1 During COVID-19: A Fog of Uncertainty

Marcus Wiggins
Puneet Kaur
Pranav Puri

By PRANAV PURI, PUNEET KAUR, and MARCUS WIGGINS, MBA

As current medical students, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic represents the most significant healthcare crisis of our lifetimes. COVID-19 has upended nearly every element of healthcare in the United States, including medical education. The pandemic has exposed shortcomings in healthcare delivery ranging from the care of nursing home residents to the lack of interoperable health data. However, the pandemic has also exposed shortcomings in the residency match process.

Consider the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1. A 2018 survey of residency program directors cited USMLE Step 1 scores as the most important factor in selecting candidates to interview. Moreover, program directors frequently apply numerical Step 1 score cutoffs to screen applicants for interviews. As such, there are marked variations in mean Step 1 scores across clinical specialties. For example, in 2018, US medical graduates who matched into neurosurgery had a mean Step 1 scores of 245, while those matching into neurology had a mean Step 1 score of 231.

One would assume that, at a minimum, Step 1 scores are a standardized, objective measure to statistically distinguish applicants. Unfortunately, this does not hold true. In its score interpretation guidelines, the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) provides Step 1’s standard error of difference (SED) as an index to determine whether the difference between two scores is statistically meaningful.  The NBME reports a SED of 8 for Step 1. Assuming Step 1 scores are normally distributed, the 95% confidence interval of a Step 1 score can thus be estimated as the score plus or minus 1.96 times the standard error (Figure 1). For example, consider Student A who is interested in pursuing neurosurgery and scores 231. The 95% confidence interval of this score would span from 215 to 247. Now consider Student B who is also interested in neurosurgery and scores 245. The 95% interval of this score would span from 229 to 261. The confidence intervals of these two scores clearly overlap, and therefore, there is no statistically significant difference between Student A and Student B’s exam performance. If these exam scores represented the results of a clinical trial, we would describe the results as null and dismiss the difference in scores as mere chance.

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Omada Health’s Acquisition of Physera: Sean Duffy & Dan Rubinstein on ‘The Deal’ & What’s Next

By JESSICA DaMASSA, WTF HEALTH

Omada Health put to use part of their recent $57M funding round to acquire Physera, a musculoskeletal care company that uses telehealth and digital interventions to deliver ‘virtual physical therapy’ to those suffering from back, knee, and neck pain. How does the acquisition fit into Omada’s growth strategy? WTF Health’s Jessica DaMassa chats with both Omada Health’s CEO, Sean Duffy, and Dan Rubinstein, CEO of Physera, about the acquisition, the IPO buzz that continues to swirl around Omada, and whether or not the opportunity that COVID-19 has created for digital care will be lasting as we move forward.

Three Things I Hope Health Care Won’t Recover From

By RANDY CARPENTER

The loss of lives and livelihoods from COVID-19 are almost too much to comprehend. And yet, slowly, conversations are emerging about the positives percolating from the pandemic.

It’s human nature to want to look for the positives in even the worst of situations, and I’ve noticed that in both my personal and my professional circles of late, people are talking about the things they hope we don’t lose when things go back to “normal.” 

Chief among them, especially in my healthcare technology circles, is a level of humanity that our previously faster-paced lives, ways and organizations had perhaps too often and too easily dismissed. The humans on the frontline of care delivery, for example. The effects of social isolation on healthy people, much less those who are sick. The struggle and juggle of modern work-life balance. Inequalities in healthcare access and delivery.

We’ve long talked about technology’s ability to make some of these things easier, to close some of these gaps, but now we know just how possible they are when people, politics and policy unite in the face of a pandemic. We now know just how quickly even the largest and slowest-moving of health systems can change course and even course correct.

Until now, it’s been far easier to talk about the promise of technology, telemedicine and remote workforce scenarios than it was to actually deploy them. Because before, to deploy such solutions also meant loss; loss of control, loss of normalcy, loss of humanity. Until now.

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Managing Surgical Wait Times in the Intra-COVID-19 World

Finding the Right Prioritization Model

By JUSTIN SPECTOR

Restrictions on elective surgical volume in hospitals across the United States are causing a dilemma heretofore unseen in the American healthcare system. Surgeons across services have large and growing backlogs of elective surgeries in an environment where operating room (OR) capacity is restricted due to availability of inpatient beds, personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing, and many other constraints. Fortunately, the U.S. is not the first country to experience and deal with this situation; for many countries, this is the normal state of medicine.

By combining the accumulated experience of health systems around the world with cutting-edge technologies, it is possible to make this crisis manageable for perioperative leadership and, potentially, to improve upon the preexisting models for managing OR time.

The first step in creating an equitable system that can garner widespread buy-in is to agree upon a method for categorizing cases into priority levels. Choosing a system with strong academic backing will help to reduce the influence of intra-hospital politics from derailing the process before it can begin.

Why Cases Should Be Prioritized

If your hospital has a mix of surgeons who perform highly time-sensitive cases — cases where patient quality of life is substantially impacted — as well as cases with minor health or quality of life outcomes, it is important to make sure there will be enough capacity to get the higher urgency cases done within a reasonable amount of time. This allows cases in the backlog to be balanced against new cases that are yet to be scheduled and will help to optimize the flow of patients through the OR.

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Contact Tracing: 10 Unique Challenges of COVID-19

Deven McGraw
Eric Perakslis
Vince Kuraitis

By VINCE KURAITIS, ERIC PERAKSLIS, and DEVEN McGRAW

This piece is part of the series “The Health Data Goldilocks Dilemma: Sharing? Privacy? Both?” which explores whether it’s possible to advance interoperability while maintaining privacy. Check out other pieces in the series here.

A worldwide dialog about COVID-19 contact tracing is underway. Even under the best of circumstances, the contact tracing process can be difficult, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and invasive — requiring rigorous, methodical execution and follow-up.

COVID-19 throws curve balls at the already difficult process of contact tracing. In this post we will provide some basic background on contact tracing and will list and describe 10 challenges that make contact tracing of COVID-19 exceptionally difficult. The 10 unique challenges are:

1) COVID-19 is Highly Contagious and Deadly

2) Contact Tracing is Becoming Politicized

3) We Lack Scientific Understanding of COVID-19

4) Presymptomatic Patients Can Spread COVID-19

5) Asymptomatic Patients Can Spread COVID-19

6) Contact Tracing is Dependent on Availability of Testing

7) Contact Tracing is Dependent on New, Extensive Funding

8) Contact Tracing is Dependent on an “Army of Tracers” and Massive Support for Patients

9 ) The Role of Technology is Unclear — Is it Critical Support or a Distraction?

10) The U.S. Response Has Been Fragmented and Inconsistent

The thrust of this post is about traditional boots-on-the-ground contact tracing conducted by public health agencies. We will touch on a few aspects of digital contact tracing (e.g., smartphone apps), but we’ll go into much more depth on digital contact tracing in future posts.

How does contact tracing relate to the theme of this series — The Health Data Goldilocks Dilemma? It’s about obtaining the right amount and types of information — not too much, not too little. Not too much data so that privacy rights or civil liberties are infringed, or that contact tracers are overwhelmed with useless data; not too little data so that public health agencies aren’t handcuffed in protecting our safety in tracing COVID-19 cases.

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A Missed Opportunity for Universal Healthcare

Connie Chan
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and CONNIE CHAN

The United States is known for healthcare spending accounting for a large portion of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) without yielding the corresponding health returns. According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), healthcare spending made up 17.7% ($3.6 trillion) of the GDP in the U.S. in 2018 – yet, poor health outcomes, including overall mortality, remain higher compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. According to The Lancet, enacting a single-payer UHC system would likely result in $450 billion in savings in national healthcare and save more than 68,000 lives.

Figure 1. Mortality rate in the US versus other OECD countries.

The expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) was not the first attempt the United States government made to increase the number of people with health insurance. In 1945, the Truman administration introduced a Universal Health Care (UHC) plan. Many Americans with insurance insecurity, most notably Black Americans and poor white Americans, would benefit from this healthcare plan. During this time, health insurance was only guaranteed for those with certain jobs, many of which Blacks and poor white Americans were unable to secure at the time, which resulted in them having to pay out-of-pocket for any wanted healthcare services. This reality pushed Truman to propose UHC within the United States because it would allow “all people and communities [to] use the promotive, preventative, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need of sufficient quality…, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”

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Defund Health Care!

By KIM BELLARD

In the wake of the protests related to George Floyd’s death, there have been many calls to “defund police.”  Those words come as a shock to many people, some of whom can’t imagine even reducing police budgets, much less abolishing entire police departments, as a few advocates do indeed call for.

If we’re talking about institutions that are supposed to protect us but too often cause us harm, maybe we should be talking about defunding health care as well.  

America loves the police.  They’re like mom and apple pie; not supporting them is essentially seen as being unpatriotic.  Until recent events, it’s been political suicide to try to attack police budgets.  It’s much easier for politicians to urge more police, with more hardware, even military grade, while searching for budget cuts that will attract less attention.  

It remains to be seen whether the current climate will actually lead to action, but there are faint signs of change.  The mayor of Los Angeles has promised to cut $150 million from its police budget, the New York City mayor vowed to cut some of its $6b police budget, and the Minneapolis City Council voted to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department,” perhaps spurred by seeing the mayor do a “walk of shame” of jeers from protesters when he would not agree to even defunding it.  

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The Medical-Industrial Complex Pads Its Pockets As We Empty Ours

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

A report this month published in the British Medical Journal found that 80% of 293 physician leaders and board members of 10 of the most influential medical associations in the United States (including the American College of Physicians, American College of Cardiology, American Psychiatric Association, Infectious Disease Society of America, American College of Rheumatology, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Endocrine Society, American Thoracic Society, and Orthopaedic Trauma Association) received financial payments of $130 million in total for “leadership” activities between 2017 and 2019.

In doing so, they were replicating the behavior established in 1939 by Vannevar Bush. Born March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, the only son of a Universalist preacher and the grandson of a whaler, Bush earned a math degree from Tufts, followed by a PhD in engineering from MIT. From the beginning of his career he straddled the academic and the industrial in a way that anticipated the future of almost all scientific research.

In 1939, with the Second World War consuming both Europe and Asia, the father of the Medical-Industrial Complex met with the president of Harvard University and the president of Bell Labs, and mapped out a strategy for overcoming our lack of scientific preparedness. Out of that small meeting came a short, four-paragraph proposal for a centralized science operation—outside the control of the military—which he presented to President Roosevelt on June 12, 1940.

The president read the report, seized his pen, and scratched at the top, “OK-FDR.” With that stroke, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) was created, and with it, the fully codified and institutionalized era of academic-industrial partnerships in research.

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We Can’t Breathe

By KIM BELLARD

I was wondering what might crowd COVID-19 off the news.  The historic economic devastation caused by it has been subsumed into it, just another casualty of the pandemic.  In better times, perhaps SpaceX’s efforts would inspire us.  But, no, it took the police killing of yet another person of color to take our attention away.  

Now, let me say right off that I am not the best person to discuss George Floyd’s death and the woeful pattern it is part of.  I have certainly been the beneficiary of white male privilege.  I’ve never been unjustly pulled over or arrested.  I haven’t taken part in the protests.  But people like me need to speak out.  Writing about anything else right now seems almost irresponsible.  

OK: you’ve seen the video. You’ve heard Mr. Floyd protest that he can’t breathe, that the officer was killing him.  You’ve seen other officers stand by and not do anything — some even assisting — even as bystanders pleaded for them to let Mr. Floyd breathe.  It’s disturbing, it’s distressing, and it’s nothing new.  

I saw a video from one of the resulting protests where another officer restrained a protester — a black man, of course — in exactly the same way, although in this case another officer eventually moved the officer’s knee off the protester’s neck.  He’d learned what that video looked like.

There now have been protests in over 140 U.S. cities, with the National Guard mobilized in almost half the states.  Most protests have been peaceful, but there has been looting and there have been shootings. It’s a level of civil unrest not seen since the 1960’s.

And we thought it was bad when we just wanted the grocery stores to have toilet paper again, when wearing a mask was considered a hardship.

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The Lack of Persuasion as a Failure Against COVID-19

By RAFAEL FONSECA, MD

Reopening safely out of the current pandemic ought to be done via persuasion, not coercion.

It has been more than five months since the world first learned about COVID-19. Models predicted a sharp increase in the number of cases, and a seemingly high likelihood the pandemic would overwhelm our hospitals. These models were often inaccurate, and we have all come to learn about the imprecision of epidemiological prediction.  Nevertheless, the infection is far worse than anyone initially accepted – becoming a staple of our generation. Fearing uncountable deaths and the possible need to prioritize resources for those affected, initial government measures were put in place to curtail the spread of the virus. Images of the Lombardic tragedy compelled all to stay in place and wait for the storm to pass, and with few exceptions most complied. Realizing the gravity of the situation, governments gradually implemented measures to prevent infections.  With some vacillation, we evolved from travel restrictions, to social distancing, shelter in place and universal mask use.

As the pandemic ensued, we watched the horror stories taking place in New York City and Boston. Even while we are in the midst of the so-called first wave, with thousands of deaths per day, many have started to wonder how long society will remain isolated and locked. Politicians look to experts for recommendations regarding policies that might save lives, and for the most part they have complied. However, as the weeks ensue, we see growing jobless claims, lines for food banks, and impatience.

This brewing impatience is a response to an unknown future dictated by the vagaries of nature and the lack of a coherent strategy to resume a life with a resemblance to normal. The public searches for guidance from federal agencies, state governments, and health authorities. A lack of clear direction from these institutions has heightened this anxious impatience. Additionally, the conversation is now ideological, with an almost Manichaean division between those wanting to save lives more so than the economy, and vice versa, creating cartoons of opposing perspectives.  Even for those recognized as  accomplished, dissenting from orthodoxy is punished severely. In the background, the public’s patience is running thinner.

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