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Category: Hospitals

“Essential Oncology”: The COVID Challenge

By CHADI NABHAN MD, MBA, FACP

One harsh Chicago winter, I remember calling a patient to cancel his appointment because we had deemed it too risky for patients to come in for routine visits—a major snowstorm made us rethink all non-essential appointments. Mr. Z was scheduled for his 3-month follow-up for an aggressive brain lymphoma that was diagnosed the prior year, during which he endured several rounds of intense chemotherapy. His discontent in hearing that his appointment was canceled was palpable; he confessed that he was very much looking forward to the visit so that he could greet the nurses, front-desk staff, and ask me how I was doing. My carefully crafted script explaining that his visit was “non-essential” and “postponable” fell on deaf ears. I was unprepared to hear Mr. Z question: if this is his care, shouldn’t he be the one to decide what’s essential and what’s not?

This is a question we are all grappling with in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The healthcare industry is struggling to decide how to handle patient visits to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and imaging centers, among others. Elective surgeries are being canceled and advocates are arguing that non-essential outpatient and ER visits should be stopped. Ideas are flying left and right on how best to triage patients in need. Everyone has an opinion, including those who ironically consider themselves non-opinionated.

As an oncologist, these various views, sentiments, tweets, and posts give me pause. I understand the rationale to minimize patients’ exposure and thus prevent transmission. However, reconsidering what we should deem “essential” has made me reflect broadly on our method of providing care. Suddenly, physicians are becoming less concerned about (and constrained by) guidelines and requirements. Learning how to practice “essential oncology” may leave lasting changes in our field.  

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Infection Control for COVID-19 Imaging

By STEPHEN BORSTELMANN, MD

Occasionally, you get handed a question you know little about, but it’s clear you need to know more.  Like most of us these days, I was chatting with my colleagues about the novel coronavirus. It goes by several names: SARS-CoV-2, 2019-nCoV or COVID-19 but I’ll just call it COVID.  Declared a pandemic on March 12, 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID is diagnosed by laboratory test – PCR.  The early PCR test used in Wuhan was apparently low sensitivity (30-60%), lengthy to run (days), and in short supply.  As CT scanning was relatively available, it became an important diagnostic tool for suspected COVID cases in Wuhan.

The prospect of scanning thousands of contagious patients was daunting, with many radiologists arguing back and forth about its appropriateness.  As the pandemic has evolved, we now have better and faster PCR tests and most radiologists do not believe that CT scanning has a role for diagnosis of COVID, but rather should be reserved for its complications. Part of the reason is the concern of transmission of COVID to other patients or healthcare workers via the radiology department.

But then someone asked: “After you have scanned a patient for COVID, how long will the room be down?” And nobody really could answer – I certainly couldn’t.  A recent white paper put forth by radiology leaders suggested anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours. A general review of infection control information for the radiologist and radiologic technologist can be found in Radiographics.

So, let’s go down the rabbit hole of infection control in the radiology department. While I’m a radiologist, and will speak about radiology-specific concerns, the fundamental rationale behind it is applicable to other ancillary treatment rooms in the hospital or outpatient arena, provided the appropriate specifics about THAT environment is obtained from references held by the CDC.

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Who’s in Your Supply Chain?

By KIM BELLARD

Tesla is now, by market cap, the second largest auto manufacturer (after Toyota).  Its market cap exceeds U.S. auto makers Ford, G.M., and Fiat/Chrysler — combined.  This despite selling less than 400,000 vehicles in 2019, a figure that is more than the prior two years combined.   

Tesla has made its bet on the future of electric cars.  It didn’t invent them.  It isn’t the only auto manufacturer selling them.  But, as The Wall Street Journal recently said

Investors increasingly see the future of the car as electric—even if most car buyers haven’t yet. And lately, those investors are placing bets on Tesla Inc. to bring about that future versus auto makers with deeper pockets and generations of experience.

 A recent analysis suggested a big reason why, and its findings should give those in healthcare some pause.  Tesla’s advantage may come, in large part, from its supply chain.

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Healthcare Has a Moral Injury

By KIM BELLARD

The term “moral injury” is a term originally applied to soldiers as a way to help explain PTSD and, more recently, to physicians as a way to help explain physician burnout.  The concept is that moral injury is what can happen to people when “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  

I think healthcare generally has a bad case of moral injury.  

How else can we explain physicians practicing surprise billinghospitals suing patientshealth plans refusing to pay for pre-authorized treatments, or pharmaceutical companies charging “skyrocketing” costs even for common, essential prescription drugs?  There are people involved in each of these, and countless more examples.  If those people haven’t suffered a moral injury as a result, it’s hard to understand why.  

Melissa Bailey, writing for Kaiser Health News, looked at moral injury from the standpoint of emergency room physicians.  One physician decried how “the real priority is speed and money and not our patients’ care.”  Another made a broader charge: “The health system is not set up to help patients. It’s set up to make money.”  He urged that physicians seek to understand “how decisions made at the systems level impact how we care about patients” — so they can “stand up for what’s right.”

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Medical Records in Primary Care: Keeping the Story of Phone Calls and Medication Changes with Less than Perfect Tools

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

I need the right information at the right time (and in a place that makes sense to me) to make safe medical decisions.

Here’s another Metamedicine story:

In learning my third EMR, I am again a little disappointed. I am again, still, finding it hard to document and retrieve the thread of my patient’s life and disease story. I think many EMRs were created for episodic, rather than continued medical care.

One thing that can make working with an EMR difficult is finding the chronology in office visits (seen for sore throat and started on an antibiotic), phone calls (starting to feel itchy, is it an allergic reaction?and outside reports (emergency room visit for anaphylactic reaction).

I have never understood the logic of storing phone calls in a separate portion of the EMR, the way some systems do. In one of my systems, calls were listed separately by date without “headlines” like “?allergic reaction” in the case above.

In my new system, which I’m still learning, they seem to be stored in a bigger bucket for all kinds of “tasks” (refills, phone calls, orders and referrals made during office visits etc.)

Both these systems seem to give me the option of creating, in a more or less cumbersome way, “non-billable encounters” to document things like phone calls and ER visits, in chronological order, in the same part of the record as the office notes. That may be what IT people disparagingly call “workarounds”, but listen, I need the right information at the right time (and in a place that makes sense to me) to make safe medical decisions.

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Healthcare Needs Some IHOPs

By KIM BELLARD

The New York Times had an article that surprised me: Current Job: Award Winning Chef.  Education: IHOP.   The article, by food writer Priya Krishnaprofiled how many high-end chefs credit their training in — gasp! — chain restaurants, such as IHOP, as being invaluable for their success. 

I immediately thought of Atul Gawande’s 2012 article in The New YorkerWhat Big Medicine Can Learn From the Cheesecake Factory.

Ms. Krishna mentions several well-known chefs “who prize the lessons they learned — many as teenagers — in the scaled-up, streamlined world of chain restaurants.”  In addition to IHOP, chefs mentioned experiences at chains such as Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle, Hillstone, Houston’s, Howard Johnson’s, Olive Garden, Panda Express, Pappas, Red Lobster, Waffle House, and Wendy’s.  

Some of the lessons learned are instructive.  “It was pretty much that the customer is always right,” one chef mentioned.  Another said she learned “how to be quick, have a good memory, and know the timing of everything.”  A third spoke to the focus that was drilled into all employees: “Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Money to the bank. Clean restrooms,” 

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Guerilla Billing – Missing the Gorilla in the Midst

By ANISH KOKA, MD

No one likes getting bills. But there is something that stinks particularly spectacularly about bills for healthcare that arrive despite carrying health insurance. Patients pay frequently expensive monthly premiums with the expectation that their insurance company will be there for them when illness befalls them.

But the problem being experienced by an increasing number of patients is going to a covered (in-network) facility for medical care, and being seen by an out-of-network physician. This happens because not all physicians working in hospitals serve the same master, and thus may not all have agreed to the in-network rate offered by an insurance company.

This is a common occurrence in medicine. At any given time, your local tax-exempt non-profit hospital is out of network of some low paying Medicaid plan or the other.

In this complex dance involving patients, insurers and doctors, Patients want their medical bills paid through premiums that they hope to be as low as possible, Insurers seek to pay out as little of the premium dollars collected as possible, and Doctors want to be paid a wage they feel is commensurate to their training and accumulated debt.

Insurers act as proxies for patients when negotiating with the people that actually deliver healthcare – doctors. Largely, the system works to funnel patients to ‘covered’ doctors and hospitals. Patients that walk into an uncovered facility are quickly redirected. But breakdowns happen during emergencies.

There are no choices to make for patients arriving unconscious or in distress to an emergency room. It suddenly becomes very possible to be seen by an out of network physician, and depending on the fine print of the insurance plans selected, some or none of these charges may be covered.

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Primary Care Is at the Center of a Health Revolution

By KEVIN WANG, MD

If our urgent-care-as-healthcare culture isn’t killing us, it’s certainly wasting our time and resources. 

Consider these facts highlighted by Advanced Medical Reviews, based on various studies: 

  • U.S. physicians report that more than 20 percent of overall medical care is not needed.
  • The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that up to 30 percent of the costs of medical care delivered in the U.S. pay for tests, procedures, doctor visits, hospital stays, and other services that may not actually improve patient health.
  • Unnecessary medical treatment impacts the healthcare industry through decreased physician productivity, increased cost of medical care, and additional work for front office staff and other healthcare professionals.

Most of today’s primary care is, in retail terms, a loss leader — a well-oiled doorway to the wildly expensive sick care system. For decades, practitioners have been forced into production factories, seeing as many patients, ordering as many tests, and sending as many referrals as possible to specialists. Patients, likewise, have avoided going in for regular visits for fear of the price tag attached, often waiting until they’re in such bad shape that urgent (and much more expensive) care is necessary.

The system as it stands isn’t delivering primary care in a way that serves patients, providers, employers, or insurers as well as it could. To improve health at individual and population levels, the system needs to be disrupted. Primary care needs to play a much larger role in healthcare, and it needs to be delivered in a way that doesn’t make patients feel isolated, neglected, or dismissed. 

Luckily, primary care is making a comeback — the kind that doesn’t just treat symptoms, but sees trust, engagement, and behavior change as a path to health.  

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Why Medicare for All Will Not Cure What Ails the Hahnemann

By ASEEM R. SHUKLA, MD

The impending closure of Hahnemann University Hospital is a local tragedy.  Eliminating a 170-year old institution is certain to exaggerate the daily travails of the economically disadvantaged inner-city population that Hahnemann serves as a safety-net hospital.  The closure is also a national tragedy. Hospitals are the towering, visible monuments of our healthcare system, and closings imply that something insidious ails that very system—that all is not well.  

Hospitals are complex entities with varied financial drivers, and the solution is never simple.  And the moment is too rich for politicians who see Hahnemann’s failure as the culmination of their dystopian predictions.  Bernie Sanders, most prominently, stood on the hospital’s doorstep and pitched his deceptively simple solution—Medicare for All.  Medicare for All, Sanders said, would ensure that every patient carries the same coverage, hospitals are paid a predictable rate, and voila, no hospitals need to close.  Private insurance would disappear, and no one would be without coverage.  

Even physicians have jumped on the Medicare for All bandwagon.  Some doctors insist that once profit is removed as a motive for hospital bottom lines, and government bodies decide which hospitals can buy a surgical robot, build a new wing or offer proton beam treatment cancer treatment centers, then all hospitals will do better.  

But these arguments miss a fundamental point: why pitch government insurance for all, like Medicare and Medicaid (a federal and state insurance plan to cover low income adult and children) as a remedy, when it is precisely government-run insurance that is killing Hahnemann and other hospitals in distress? 

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A Patient in the Lobby Refuses to Leave: Medical Emergency, Unhappy Customer or Active Shooter?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

The receptionist interrupted me in the middle of my dictation.

“There’s a woman and her husband at the front desk. She’s already been seen by Dr. Kim for chest pain, but refuses to leave and her husband seems really agitated. They’re demanding to speak with you.”

I didn’t take the time to look up the woman’s chart. This could be a medical emergency, I figured. Something may have developed in just the last few minutes.

I hurried down the hall and unlocked the door to the lobby. I had already noticed the man and the woman standing at the glassed-in reception desk.

“I’m Dr. Duvefelt, can I help you?” I began, one hand on the still partway open door behind me.

The husband did the talking.

“My wife just saw Dr. Kim for chest pain and he thought it was nothing. He didn’t have any of her old records, so how could he know?”

While I quickly considered my response, knowing that Dr. Kim is a very thorough and conscientious physician, the man continued:

“Can we get out of here, and step inside for some privacy?”

My mind raced. This was either a medical emergency or an unhappy customer situation. We had the door locks installed not long ago on the advice of the police and many other sources of guidance for clinics like ours. It was a decision made by our Board of Directors. In this age of school, workplace and church shootings, everyone is preparing for such scenarios. We are always reminded not to bring people inside the “secure” areas of our clinics who don’t have an appointment or a true medical emergency.

I figured I had to find out more about this woman’s chest pain in order to make my decision whether to let her inside again; after all, she had just been evaluated.

“Ma’am, are you having chest pain right now?” I asked.

“A little”, she answered.

“How long have you had it?” I probed.

“A couple of years now.”

“And you just saw Dr. Kim?”

“Yes, and he said my EKG looked okay, but he didn’t bother to ask me about you heart valve operation three years ago in, Boston. He just said ’we’ll get those records’, and he told me I was okay today.”

The husband broke in, “It’s the same everywhere we go, everybody just says it’s not a heart attack, but we need more answers than that. we know what it isn’t, but we need to know what it is!” He added, again, “can’t we go inside for some privacy?”

“Have you been seen elsewhere for the same thing?” I said without answering the request.

“Yes, at the emergency room in Concord, New Hampshire when we lived there…”

“Did Dr. Kim have you sign a records release form so we can get the records from Boston and New Hampshire?” I asked.

“Yes”, the woman answered.

“Then that’s all we can do today,” I said. “I hear you telling me this is an ongoing problem, you’ve already been assessed today and Dr. Kim told you that you’re safe today and we’ve requested your old records. That’s what needs to happen.”

“You mean you’re not going to help us today?”

“You’ve seen Dr.Kim, your records will get here, I don’t know what more we can do for you today.”

“You’ll hear about this”, the husband said as they stormed out. Another man in the lobby introduced himself to them and said “I’ll be your witness.”

I closed the self-locking door and wished I had somehow been more skilled and more diplomatic, and I wished the world wasn’t the way it has become in just a few years, with more concern for bolted doors, gun violence and mass shootings than simple customer relations.

Hans Duvefelt is a Swedish-born rural Family Physician in Maine. This post originally appeared on his blog, A Country Doctor Writes, here.

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