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Category: Medical Practice

A Vigilante in Statistical Badlands

By ANISH KOKA, MD

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.

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The New Normal is Still Unknown, on Earth as it is in Healthcare

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

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.

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COVID-19: Physicians in Shackles

By ANISH KOKA, MD

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.

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Will the Covid-Induced Telemedicine Scramble Change Primary Care Forever?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

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 BlogKevinMD 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.

Minor Illnesses

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.

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Nursing Students and Educators Must Be Part of a National Public Health Surveillance Strategy

By KAREN JOHNSON PhD, RN

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 control. 

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.

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Rationale for Testing Anticoagulants Against COVID-19

By ETHAN WEISS, MD

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 ventilators.

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.

One of the most interesting involves disruption of the blood’s coagulation system. New anecdotal reports have described clotting in test tubes and lines, derangements of clinical clotting assays, pulmonary embolilarge clots in the heart, as well as microvascular thrombosis.

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.

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COVID-19: The Nursing Home Tragedy

By ANISH KOKA, MD

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.

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Leadership During a Healthcare Crisis: Kaiser Permanente’s Response to COVID-19

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.

I 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.

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“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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Immediate Changes Needed for Physicians to Stay in Business During the Pandemic

Practices cannot survive the COVID-19 cash flow crisis

By JEFF LIVINGSTON, MD

Will doctors be able to keep their practices open during the worst pandemic in our lifetime? Our country needs every available doctor in the country to fight the challenges of Covid-19. Doctors working in independent practices face an immediate cash flow crisis threatening their ability to continue services.

The CARES Act was signed into law on Friday, March 27, 2020. The law offers much-needed help to the acute needs of hospitals and the medical supply chain. This aid will facilitate the production of critical supplies such as ventilators and PPE. The law failed to consider the needs of the doctors who will run the ventilators and wear the masks.

Cash flow crisis

Private-practice physician groups experienced an unprecedented reduction in in-office visits as they moved to provide a safe and secure environment for patients and staff. In compliance with CDC guidelines, practices suspended preventative care, nonurgent visits, nonemergent surgery, and office procedures.

These necessary practice changes help keep patients safe and slow the spread of Covid-19. The unintended consequence is an unreported and unrecognized cash flow crisis threatening the viability of physician practices.

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