The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has reported its biggest number of visitors in more than 2 ½ years. There’s a string of new Broadway musicals that are well-attended every night. It’s safe to shop in malls, eat out in restaurants and go to movie theaters again.
Of course, this has all been made possible by an effective vaccine against COVID-19 that was widely administered in the fall of 2021. Vaccinated citizens of the world are now confident that it’s safe to go out in public, albeit with appropriate precautions.
However, U.S. residents who have health problems are facing a new challenge. Five years ago, in 2017, the median wait time of new patients for doctor appointments was six days. In 2022, the wait time is six months or more.
The reason for this is no mystery. While life has started to return to what we think of as the new normal, the U.S. healthcare system has taken an enormous financial hit, and primary care practices have been especially affected. Many primary care physicians have closed their practices and have retired or gone on to other careers. Consequently, the shortage of primary care has been exacerbated, and access to doctors has plummeted. Urgent care centers, retail clinics and telehealth have not filled this gap.
Because of the long waiting times for primary care appointments, many more people now seek care in emergency departments (EDs). The waiting rooms of these EDs are overcrowded with people who have all types of complaints, including chronic and routine problems as well as emergencies. And this is not just a common sight in inner-city areas, as it once was; it’s now the same pretty much everywhere.
Last month marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Graunt, commonly regarded as the father of epidemiology. His major published work, Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, called attention to the death statistics published weekly in London beginning in the late 16th century. Graunt was skeptical of how causes of death were ascribed, especially in times of plagues. Evidently, 400 years of scientific advances have done little to lessen his doubts!
A few days ago, Fox News reported that Colorado governor Jared Polis had “pushed back against recent coronavirus death counts, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The Centennial State had previously reported a COVID death count of 1,150 but then revised that number down to 878. That is but one of many reports raising questions about what counts as a COVID case or a COVID death. Beyond the raw numbers, many controversies also rage about derivative statistics such as “case fatality rates” and “infection fatality rates,” not just among the general public but between academics as well.
Of course, a large part of the wrangling is due not only to our unfamiliarity with this new disease but also to profound disagreements about how epidemics should be confronted. I don’t want to get into the weeds of those disputes here. Instead, I’d like to call attention to another problem, namely, the somewhat confused way in which we think about medical diagnosis in general, not just COVID diagnoses.
The way I see it, there are two concepts at play in how physicians view diagnoses and think about them in relation to medical practice. These two concepts—one more in line with the traditional role of the physician, the other adapted to modern healthcare demands—are at odds with one another even though they both shape the cognitive framework of doctors.
Something didn’t seem right to epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl when he glanced at an article published in the venerated Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on a crisp fall evening in Minnesota. Eric is a smart guy – a native Minnesotan and a math major who fell in love with clinical quantitative database-driven research because he happened to work with a nephrologist early in his training. After finishing his doctorate in epidemiology, he cut his teeth working with the Chronic Disease Research Group, a division of the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute that has held The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) contract for the United States Renal Data System Coordinating Center. The research group Eric worked for from 2004-2015 essentially organized the data generated from almost every dialysis patient in the United States. He didn’t just work with the data as an end-user, he helped maintain the largest, and most important database on chronic kidney disease in the United States.
For all these reasons this particular study published in JAMA that sought to examine the association between dialysis facility ownership and access to kidney transplantation piqued Eric’s interest. The provocative hypothesis is that for-profit dialysis centers are financially motivated to keep patients hooked to dialysis machines rather than refer them for kidney transplantation. A number of observational trials have tracked better outcomes in not-for-profit settings, so the theory wasn’t implausible, but mulling over the results more carefully, Eric noticed how large the effect sizes reported in the paper were. Specifically, the hazard ratios for for-profit vs. non-profit were 0.36 for being put on a waiting list, 0.5 for receiving a living donor kidney transplant, 0.44 for receiving a deceased donor kidney transplant. This roughly translates to patients being one-half to one-third as likely to get referred for and ultimately receiving a transplant. These are incredible numbers when you consider it can be major news when a study reports a hazard ratio of 0.9. Part of the reason one doesn’t usually see hazard ratios that are this large is because that signals an effect size that’s so obvious to the naked eye that it doesn’t require a trial. There’s a reason there are no trials on the utility of cauterizing an artery to stop bleeding during surgery.
But it really wasn’t the hazard ratios that first struck his eye. What stuck out were the reported event rates in the study. 1.9 million incident end-stage kidney disease patients in 17 years made sense. The exclusion of 90,000 patients who were wait-listed or received a kidney transplant before ever getting on dialysis, and 250,000 patients for not having any dialysis facility information left ~1.5 million patients for the primary analysis. The original paper listed 121,000 first wait-list events, 23,000 living donor transplants and ~50,000 deceased donor transplants. But the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), an organization that manages the US organ transplantation system, reported 280,000 transplants during the same period.
The paper somehow was missing almost 210,000 transplants.
From the vantage point of our self-quarantined shrunken universes, we cannot see even the immediate future, let alone what our personal and professional lives will look like some years from now.
Factories are closed, luxury department stores are in bankruptcy, hospitals have stopped performing elective procedures and patients are having their heart attacks at home, unattended by medical professionals. New York office workers may continue to work from home while skyscrapers stand empty and city tax revenues evaporate.
Quarantined and furloughed families are planting gardens and cooking at home. Affluent families are doing their own house cleaning and older retirees are turning their future planning away from aggregated senior housing and assisted living facilities.
In healthcare, procedure performing providers who were at the pinnacle of the pecking order sit idle while previously less-valued cognitive clinicians are continuing to serve their patients remotely, bringing in revenues that prop up hospitals and group practices.
A number of politically tinged narratives have
divided physicians during the pandemic. It would be unfortunate if politics
obscured the major problem brought into stark relief by the pandemic: a system
that marginalizes physicians and strips them of agency.
In practices big and small, hospital-employed
or private practice, nursing homes or hospitals, there are serious issues
raising their heads for doctors and their patients.
No masks for you
When I walked into my office Thursday, March 12th, I assembled the office staff for the first time to talk about COVID. The prior weekend had been awash with scenes of mayhem in Italy, and I had come away with the dawning realization that my wishful thinking on the virus from Wuhan skipping us was dead wrong. The US focus had been on travel from China and other Far East hotspots. There was no such limitation on travel from Europe. The virus had clearly seeded Italy and possibly other parts of Europe heavily, and now the US was faced with the very real possibility that there was significant community spread that had occurred from travelers from Europe and Italy over the last month. I had assumed that seeing no cases in our hospitals and ICUs by early March meant the virus had been contained in China. That was clearly not the case.
Our testing apparatus had also largely been limited in the US to symptomatic patients who had been to high-risk countries. If Europe was seeded, this meant we had not been screening nearly enough people. When I heard the first few cases pop up in my county, it was clear the jig was up. It was pandemic panic mode time. There was a chance that there were thousands of cases in the community we didn’t know about and that we were weeks away from the die-off happening in hospitals in China and Italy. So what I told the staff the morning of March 12th was that we needed to start acting now as if there was significant spread of COVID in the community. This meant canceling clinic visits for all but urgent patients, wearing masks, trying to buy masks, attention to hand hygiene, cleaning rooms between patients, screening everyone for flu-like symptoms before coming to the office, and moving to a skeleton staff in the office. I left the office that day wearing a mask as I headed to the ER.
After my posts on telemedicine were published recently, (this one on Manly Wellness before the pandemic and this one after it erupted, on A Country Doctor Writes, then reblogged on The Health Care Blog, KevinMD and many others), I have been asked about my views on telemedicine’s role in the future of primary care.
Things have changed quickly, and a bit chaotically, and there is a lot of experimentation happening right now in practices I work or speak with.
Before thinking about telemedicine in Primary Care, we need to agree on some sort of definition of primary care, because there are so many functions and services we lump together under that term.
Many people think of primary care mostly as treating minor, episodic illnesses like colds, rashes, minor sprains and the like. This is an area that has attracted a lot of interest because it is easy money for the providers, since the visits tend to be quick and straightforward and such televisits are also attractive for the insurance companies if they can keep insured patients out of the emergency room. With the technical limitations of video quality and objective data such as heart rate and rhythm, I think this is an absolute growth area for telemedicine. However, with all the other forms but mostly here, fragmentation of care could become a complicated problem. To put it bluntly, if we still expect a medical professional or a health care organization to keep an eye on reports from various sources, such as hospital specialists, walk-in clinics or independent telemedicine providers, they are going to want to get paid for it.
Shortly before our
world was turned upside down by COVID-19, I visited Space Center Houston with
my family. We marveled at the collective ambition and investment it took to
move from space travel being an aspirational dream to setting foot on the moon.
I thought about my favorite scene from the movie Apollo 13, when Gene Kranz
overhears the NASA Director saying “This could be the worst disaster NASA has
ever experienced,” and candidly replies, “With all due respect, sir, I believe
this is going to be our finest hour.”
Just months later, our entire planet is on a mission to turn tragedy into triumph. Only this time, Americans have not led the way in proactively translating science into action for the benefit of humankind. Instead, we ignored scientists who warned about the inevitability of a pandemic and now lead the world in most confirmed cases (which, due to our testing debacles, underestimates actual cases). As a public health nurse, this is not a race I want to see us leading. Future outbreaks are all but certain while we wait for a vaccine. Every single one of us must start preparing now, for we will all have a role to play.
To be sure, it
is imperative that we all stay the course with current physical distancing efforts
to prevent spread, minimize death, and avoid the collapse of our healthcare
system and its ability to care for patients with COVID-19 and other life-threatening
conditions that do not pause just because of a pandemic. But social distancing
cannot be the only public health tool used to bring the pandemic under
Public health experts agree we need a coordinated national public health surveillance strategy that includes widespread testing in order to identify and isolate infected people early (this is crucial given how many contagious people are asymptomatic), contact tracing to figure out who has been exposed to infected individuals, and quarantining everyone who tests positive or has come in contact with an infected person. We must leverage technology to ensure testing provides fast and accurate results, and that we are able to safely and comprehensively track exposures. Without accurate, detailed, and timely data about the epidemiology of COVID-19, we cannot make scientifically sound decisions about how to ease social distancing or ethical decisions about how to equitably allocate scarce healthcare resources to communities of greatest need.
We have seen and heard about the classic symptoms of
COVID-19 at UCSF Medical Center, where I work as a cardiologist. Patients keep
coming in with pulmonary distress, pneumonia, and ultimately, Acute Respiratory
Distress Syndrome (ARDS) – the life-and-death situation that requires
However, I’m beginning to learn about other symptoms that some
doctors are noticing. There are numerous reports of other complications, especially
in advanced disease.
Elevation in D-Dimer, (a biomarker of coagulation system activation) has been associated with dramatically increased risk of death from COVID-19. This has led some to speculate that empiric treatment with anticoagulants might improve outcomes in these critically ill patients. Indeed, there was this recent publication of a retrospective analysis of anticoagulation with heparin or low molecular weight heparin showing an association with improved outcomes in COVID-19 patients in China.
Our strategy with nursing homes in the midst
of the current pandemic is bad. Nursing
homes and other long term care facilities house some of our sickest patients in
and it is apparent we have no cogent strategy to protect them.
I attempted to reassure an anxious nursing home resident a few weeks ago. I told him that it appeared for now that the community level transmission in Philadelphia was low, and that I was optimistic we could keep residents safe with simple maneuvers like better hand hygiene, restricting visitors, as well as stricter policies with regards to keeping caregivers with symptoms home. I was worried too, but optimistic.
I figured the larger medical community would be on the same page if someone did get COVID. It made sense to me to be aggressive about testing staff and residents and quickly getting COVID-positive patients out of the nursing home. So when I heard of the first patient that was positive in the nursing home, my heart sank, but it fell even further when I found out the COVID-positive patient was sent back from the hospital because they weren’t “sick enough” to be admitted.
A Conversation with Dr. Richard Isaacs, CEO of The Permanente Medical Group and the Mid Atlantic Permanente Medical Group
By AJAY KOHLI, MD
Organizations aren’t built in crises. Their mettle, their history and their leadership define how organizations adapt and succeed, particularly in difficult times. Of the three, the most important quality is leadership. In this regard, Kaiser Permanente is leading the way in healthcare delivery.
had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Richard Isaacs, CEO of The Permanente Medical Group and The MidAtlantic Permanente
Medical Group, to discuss the strategic vision and granular details of
Kaiser Permanente’s response to the global pandemic of COVID-19.
Kaiser Permanente has a strong foundation in the history of delivering care to the vulnerable. Founded in 1945 by a surgeon, Dr. Sidney Garfield, and an industrialist, Henry J. Kaiser, the organization grew from a single hospital in Oakland, California into one of the largest physician-led organizations in the world. Currently, it boasts more than 22,000 physicians responsible for the care of more than 12.5 million lives.
Many question how large healthcare organizations, like Kaiser Permanente, can adapt to a rapidly evolving problem, like the global pandemic of COVID-19, especially when cities and even countries are struggling under the burden.