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Category: Medical Practice

Telemedicine is a Tool, not a Panacea, to Reach Underserved Communities

Sam Aptekar
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and SAM APTEKAR

Kijan ou ye? How are you?” I asked my patient, a fifty-five year-old Haitian-American woman living in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was 2008. I had been her primary care doctor for two years and was working with her to reduce her blood pressure and cholesterol levels. “Papi mal dok– I’m doing ok doc.” We talked for 15 minutes, reviewed her vital signs and medications, and made a plan. I then electronically transmitted a new prescription to her pharmacy. The encounter was like thousands of others I’d had as a physician, except for one key difference– I was in Rwanda, 7,000 miles away from Dorchester and 6 hours ahead of the East Coast time zone.

At the time, I knew that telemedicine – the practice of providing healthcare without the provider being physically present with the patient – was a resourceful means of working with rural populations that have limited access to healthcare. However, I had no idea that just ten years down the road, many health professionals and policymakers would laud the emerging tech field as the answer to inaccessible healthcare for rural communities. While I’m aware of telemedicine’s promising benefits, I’m certain that it cannot, on its own, solve the most pressing issues that continue to afflict the rural poor and underserved.

https://news.ihsmarkit.com/press-release/design-supply-chain-media/global-telehealth-market-set-expand-tenfold-2018

Ever since the invention of the telephone, providers have been practicing telemedicine. However, not until the advent of advanced technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, and remote-controlled robotic surgery, has the field of telemedicine started to beg the question: “Do we still need in-person interactions between patient and doctor to provide high quality healthcare?” This question is particularly important for patients who live in rural areas, where a chronic shortage of providers has existed for decades.

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“Thanks for Your Time”: Einstein’s Relativity in the Clinical Encounter

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

In business literature I have seen the phrase “getting paid for who you are instead of what you do”. This implies that some people bring value because of the depth of their knowledge and their appreciation of all the nuances in their field, the authority with which they render their opinion or because of their ability to influence others.

This is the antithesis of commoditization. Many industries have become less commoditized in this postindustrial era, but not medicine. Who in our culture would say that a car is a car is a car, or that a meal is a meal is a meal?

The differences between services with the same CPT code for the same ICD-10 code aren’t, hopefully, quite that vast. But they’re also not always the same or of the same value. There is a huge difference between “I don’t know what that spot is, but it looks harmless” and “It’s a dermatofibroma, a harmless clump of scar tissue that, even though it’s not cancerous, sometimes grows back if you remove it, so we leave them alone if they don’t get in your way”.

I always feel a twinge of dissatisfaction when, after a visit, a patient says “Thanks for your time”. It always makes me wonder, on some level, “did my patient not get anything out of this other than the passage of time, did we not accomplish anything”?

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Healthcare IT Has Failed Providers, but It’s Not Too Late to Redeem Ourselves

By GUS MALEZIS

It’s no secret that healthcare providers are among the hardest working of all professionals – their skill and intelligence are matched only by their creativity and commitment to their patients. But the healthcare IT sector, while it has made an effort to assist, has failed to support our providers – doctors, nurses and caregivers – with technology solutions that meet the increasing demands for better, faster, more efficient patient healthcare delivery. Instead, we have cast these providers in the dark, forcing them to function blindly, devoid of necessary information, pushing many of them to the brink of what they can withstand as professionals, pushing them to burnout.

The thing about providers is that, in addition to being hardworking, dedicated, and outstanding professionals, they are incredibly creative and innovative, willing to embrace new technologies and workflows – as long as they can add value to their patients. So how about we – the broader healthcare IT solutions vendor community – focus on delivering technologies that don’t force them to compromise care and efficiency for the sake of security, or compliance and access to data?

We need to do so to address an industry crisis. Physician burnout is on the rise, and it’s increasingly clear that overworked providers have reached the breaking point. They spend valuable minutes battling technology on virtual desktops, mobile devices, biomedical equipment, and clinical SaaS applications – typing in usernames and passwords, loading various apps, and more. All the while, standing beside a patient that is desperately seeking their assistance.

Right now, nearly one-half of all physicians (44 percent) report having feelings of burnout (according to Medscape‘s 2019 National Physicians Burnout & Depression Report). While these numbers should alarm everyone, what the healthcare IT industry should be especially concerned about is that a leading cause of this physician burnout are tools that hinder provider productivity. Instead of simplifying work for doctors and nurses, technology tools are having the opposite effect. Isn’t technology supposed to make things easier?

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Doctors Will Vote With Their Patients

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

As Robert Muller’s testimony before Congress made clear, we owe President Trump a debt of gratitude on two counts. First, his unlawful and predatory actions have clearly exposed the fault lines in our still young Democracy. As the Founders well realized, the road would be rocky on our way to “a more perfect union”, and checks and balances would, sooner or later, be counter-checked and thrown out of balance.

On the second count, Trump has most effectively revealed weaknesses that are neither structural nor easily repaired with the wave of the wand. Those weaknesses are cultural and deeply embedded in a portion of our citizenry. The weakness he has so easily exposed is within us. It is reflected in our stubborn embrace of prejudice, our tolerance of family separations at the border, our penchant for violence and romanticism of firearms, our suspicion of “good government”, and –unlike any other developed nation – our historic desire to withhold access to health services to our fellow Americans.

In the dust-up that followed the New York Times publication of Ross Douthat’s May 16, 2017 article, “The 25th Amendment Solution for Removing Trump”, Dahlia Lithwick wrote in SLATE, “Donald Trump isn’t the disease that plagues modern America, he’s the symptom. Let’s stop calling it a disability and call it what it is: What we are now.”

Recently a long-time health advocate from California told me she did not believe that the majority of doctors would support a universal health care system in some form due to their conservative bend. I disagreed.

It is true that, to become a physician involves significant investment of time and effort, and deferring a decade worth of earnings to pursue a training program that, at times, resembles war-zone conditions can create an ultra-focus on future earnings. But it is also true that these individuals, increasingly salaried and employed within organizations struggling to improve their collective performance, deliver (most of the time) three critical virtues in our society.

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Health Reform Job One: Stop the Gouging! | Part 3

By BOB HERTZ

We Need Legal Assaults On The Greediest Providers!

When a patient is hospitalized, or diagnosed with a deadly disease, they often have no choice about the cost of their treatment.

They are legally helpless, and vulnerable to price gouging.

We need more legal protection of patients. In some cases we need price controls.

In the final part of this series, I discuss how we need to empower patients by allowing them to challenge their medical bills in courts.

Assault Phase Four – Binding Arbitration of Medical Bills

 We must allow patients to challenge their medical bills in expanded ‘Health courts.’

Patients should be able to contest any bill over $250,  especially if they have not given ‘informed financial consent’ to the provider.

Such ‘consent’ would require that if a procedure can be scheduled in advance, it can also be quoted in advance. If the patient requests an estimate, they must be notified in writing at least seven days in advance. This would allow the patient to request a different provider, or to investigate other alternatives. If an estimate is requested but never produced, the patient has no liability. (That will shake up the providers rather quickly.)

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Health Reform Job One: Stop the Gouging! | Part 1

By BOB HERTZ

We Need Legal Assaults On The Greediest Providers!

When a patient is hospitalized, or diagnosed with a deadly disease, they often have no choice about the cost of their treatment.

They are legally helpless, and vulnerable to price gouging.

Medicare offers decent protection — i.e. limits on balance billing, and no patient liability if a claim is denied.

But under age 65, it is a Wild West — especially for emergency care, and drugs and devices. The more they charge, the more they make. Even good health insurance does not offer complete financial insulation.

We need more legal protection of patients. In some cases we need price controls.

‘Charging what the market will bear’ is inadequate, even childish, when ‘the market’ consists of desperate patients. Where contracts are impossible and there is no chance for informed financial consent, government can and should step in.

This series describes the new laws that we need. Very little is required in tax dollars….but we do require a strong will to protect.

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Zeev Neuwirth Reframes Primary Care…Brilliantly

By AL LEWIS

I would urge THCB-ers to read Reframing Healthcare by Dr. Zeev Neuwirth. While much of the territory he covers will be familiar to those of us with an interest in healthcare reform (meaning just about everyone reading this blog), Chapter 5 breaks new ground in the field of primary care.

Primary care is perhaps the sorest spot in healthcare, the sorest of industries. Primary care providers (PCPs) are underpaid, dissatisfied, and in short supply. (The supply issue could be solved in part if employers didn’t pay employees bonuses to get useless annual checkups or fine them if they don’t, of course.) 

They are also expected to stay up to date on a myriad of topics, but lack the time in which to do that and typically don’t get compensated for it. Plus, there are a million other “asks” that have nothing to do with seeing actual patients.

For instance, I’ve gone back and forth three times with my PCP as she tries to get Optum to cover 60 5-milligram zolpidems (Ambien) instead of 30 10-milligram pills. (I already cut the 5 mg. pills in half. Not fair or good medicine to ask patients to try to slice those tiny 10 mg pills into quarters. And not sure why Optum would incentivize patients to take more of this habit-forming medicine instead of less.)

This can’t be fun for her. No wonder PCPs burn out and leave the practice faster than other specialties. What some of my physician colleagues call the “joy of practice” is simply not there.

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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.

Landmark Results Achieved in Aging and Chronic Disease: Danish Group Extends Disease-free Life by 8 Years

By WILLIAM H. BESTERMANN JR., MD

New Scientific Breakthroughs Can Provide a Longer Healthier Life

Twenty-one years of follow-up comparing usual care with a protocol-driven team-based intervention in diabetes proved that healthy life in humans can be prolonged by 8 years. These results were achieved at a lower per patient per year cost. Aging researchers have been confident that we will soon be able to prolong healthy life. This landmark study shows this ambitious goal can be achieved now with lifestyle intervention and a few highly effective proven medications. These medications interfere with the core molecular biology that causes chronic disease and aging. These same medications will likely produce similar results in patients with congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, arterial disease, history of heart attack, hypertension, and angina. Simple medical interventions can extend healthy lifespan today.

Better Chronic Disease Management Can Improve Health and Lower Costs

90% of health care costs come from chronic diseases and aging which are both related. The same biochemistry that causes aging causes chronic disease. Eating processed food, gaining weight, smoking cigarettes, and sitting on the couch accelerate aging and chronic condition development. Those activities switch on genes that should be quiet. Eating real food, avoiding cigarettes, activity, lisinopril, losartan, atorvastatin, metformin, (and spironolactone) are now proven to extend healthy life by 8 years in patients who are at high risk of health catastrophes and early death! These medications all cost $4 a month except for atorvastatin which is $9 a month. The benefits continue even when best practice treatment stops probably because these treatments block signaling from dangerous genes that are inappropriately and persistently turned on.

Progress Will Require Extensive Health System Reengineering

Having better health and reducing health care costs can happen today. Surprisingly, the biggest barrier to progress is our current health care system. It is arranged around catastrophes, organ systems, and hospitals. These concepts are 100 years old. Chronic disease begins decades before the catastrophe, and it is related to aging. Age is the greatest risk factor for a heart attack. The same biochemistry that causes accelerated aging also causes heart attack and strokes. It makes little sense to see a cardiologist for a heart attack and a neurologist for a stroke. They are caused by the same molecular biology. The leading health care systems are beginning to recognize that. The interventions that slow aging and chronic diseases development impact every cell in the body. Every young person who is overweight or smokes has activated genes that make accelerated aging and chronic disease more likely. If these genes are switched on prior to having children, that risk is passed on to the next two generations.

Primary care teams organized to address chronic conditions and more rapid aging will provide lifestyle advice and medication that interfere directly with the biology that is causing the problem. The further upstream these individuals are when identified, the easier it is to slow aging and delay chronic disease onset. The path to better health at lower cost lies in the outpatient setting with primary care teams that are well-versed in molecular biology.

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India’s Mob Problem

By SAURABH JHA, MD

Recently, my niece gingerly confided that she was going to study engineering rather than medicine. I was certain she’d become a doctor – so deep was her love for biology and her deference to our family tradition. But she calculated, as would anyone with common sense, that with an engineering degree and an MBA, she’d be working for a multinational company making a comfortable income by twenty-eight. If she stuck with tradition and altruism, as a doctor she’d still be untrained and preparing for examinations at twenty-eight.

Despite the truism in India that doctors are the only professionals never at risk of starving, the rational case for becoming a physician never was strong. Doctors always needed a dose of the irrational, an assumption of integrity and an unbridled goodwill to keep going. Once, doctors commanded both the mystery of science and the magic of metaphysics. As medicine became for-profit, the metaphysics slowly disappeared.

Indians are becoming more prosperous. They’re also less fatalistic and expect less from their gods and more from their doctors. In the beginning they treated their doctors as gods, now they see that doctors have feet of clay, too. Doctors, who once outsourced the limitations of medicine to the will of Gods, summarized by the famous Bollywood line “inko dawa ki nahin dua ki zaroorat hai” (patient needs prayers not drugs), now must internalize medicine’s limitations. And there are many – medicine is still an imperfect science, a stubborn art, often an optimistic breeze fighting forlornly against nature’s implacable gale.

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