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Category: Patients

Financial Toxicity is Hurting my Cancer Patients

By LEILA ALI-AKBARIAN MD, MPH

As news of Tom Brokaw’s cancer diagnosis spreads, so does his revelation that his cancer treatments cost nearly $10,000 per day. In spite of this devastating diagnosis, Mr. Brokaw is not taking his financial privilege for granted.  He is using his voice to bring attention to the millions of Americans who are unable to afford their cancer treatments.

My patient Phil is among them. At a recent appointment, Phil mentioned that his wife has asked for divorce. When I inquired, he revealed a situation so common in oncology, we have a name for it: Financial Toxicity.  This occurs when the burden of medical costs becomes so high, it worsens health and increases distress.  

Phil, at the age of 53, suffers with the same type of bone cancer as Mr. Brokaw.  Phil had to stop working because of treatments and increasing pain. His wife’s full time job was barely enough to support them. Even with health insurance, the medical bills were mounting. Many plans require co-pays of 20 percent or more of total costs, leading to insurmountable patient debt.  Phil’s wife began to panic about their future and her debt inheritance. In spite of loving her husband, divorce has felt like the only solution to avoiding financial devastation. 

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Patients Win When Payers and Providers Speak the Same Language

By CECI CONNOLLY

Discouraging headlines remind us daily of the ugly battles between payers and providers. Fighting for their slice of the $3.5 trillion health care pie, these companies often seem to leave the consumer out of the equation.  But it is not the case across the board. Our latest research documents that when doctors and health plans drop their guards, align incentives and focus on the mutual goal of delivering the best possible care, patients win.

For example, when SelectHealth in Utah partnered with obstetricians and refused to pay for medically unnecessary — often  dangerous — early inductions of labor, procedure rates dropped from 28% to zero, leading to shorter labors, fewer C-sections and $2.5 million in annual savings for all. When Kaiser Foundation Health Plan execs collaborated with Permanente doctors around opioid safety, prescriptions for the often-deadly drugs dropped 40%. And, when Security Health Plan in Wisconsin enlisted physicians and surgeons to develop a new outpatient surgery and rehab center, health outcomes improved; patient satisfaction jumped to 98%; and they saved $4.7 million in the first two years.

These productive partnerships occur in multiple communities across the nation as illustrated in in “Accelerating Adoption of Evidence-Based Care: Payer-Provider Partnerships,” a new report by the Alliance of Community Health Plans. With funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), the 18-month project uncovered five best practices in effective collaboration for health plans:

  1. Build consensus and commitment to change;
  2. Create a team that includes the necessary skill sets, perspectives and staff roles;
  3. Customize education, tools and access to specialized knowledge that the audience needs;
  4. Share timely and accurate data and feedback in a culture of transparency, accountability and healthy competition; and
  5. Align financial investments with clinical and patient experience goals.

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Innovators Worth Watching: Hennepin Health ACO

By REBECCA FOGG

As U.S. providers continue their slow but steady march away from fee-for-service reimbursement and toward value-based payments, they’re increasingly seeking means of addressing patients’ health-related social needs. That’s because social determinants of health—life circumstances including socioeconomic status, housing, education, and employment—are estimated to have at least twice the impact on risk of premature death than health care. So addressing them is an important part of value-based strategies aiming to improve health while reducing health care costs.

Hennepin Health, a safety-net Accountable Care Organization (ACO) serving Medicaid patients in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is an encouraging example of the trend. Hennepin Health’s ACO is a partnership between the county’s local Human Services and Public Health Department, a local teaching hospital, a Medicaid managed care health plan, and a Federally Qualified Health Center. Its innovative care model is designed to meet the unique needs of the partners’ shared, “high-risk” members, whose complex combination of issues—such as mental illness, addiction, homelessness and/or other hallmarks of social deprivation—often prevent them from accessing or receiving appropriate care through the traditional health system.

The ACO is staffed by an integrated care team comprised of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, social workers and community health workers. Unlike traditional care processes, which often only involve medical assessment, Hennepin Health’s begins with an assessment of members’ social needs, like housing and food insecurity, or lack of transportation and unemployment, so that its care team can tackle those barriers to health in conjunction with members’ medical problems. And throughout members’ care, the team strives to develop and maintain a trusting relationship with members, many of whom have been let down by traditional health care, so that they can continue to identify and assist with more health and social needs over time.

Results thus far has been impressive—according to a Commonwealth Fund case study, the ACO’s medical costs fell an average of 11% per year between 2012 and 2016. And, between 2012 and 2013, its members’ emergency room visits decreased by approximately 9%, with hospital admissions remaining flat and outpatient visits increased by 3.3%. Assuming its results have continued on the same trajectory (we could not find more recent figures), Hennepin Health’s innovative care model shows significant promise.

But does it have the potential to disrupt America’s traditional, episodic, acute care delivery model? We put it to the test with six questions for identifying a Disruptive Innovation.

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Health Care Must Open More Doors to Mental Health Patients

By ARPAN WAGHRAY, MD and BENJAMIN F. MILLER, PsyD

Benjamin F. Miller

Arpan Waghray

If someone we love has a physical ailment, we can list a variety of places for them to seek care: a clinician’s office, a pharmacy, an urgent care clinic, a school health clinic, an emergency department — the list goes on.

And, in every case, we would feel confident the clinicians in those places would know how to handle the case — or at least know where to send the patient if they need more intensive or specialized care.

But, sadly, the same isn’t true for a loved one with a mental health or substance misuse need, even thought mental health problems are more prevalent than many physical conditions.

As deaths of despair from drug or alcohol misuse or suicide continue to rise, we need a comprehensive, coordinated “no wrong door” approach that fully integrates mental health into the health care system and beyond. We need to transform our clinical practice, creating more options for care and putting mental health and substance use patients’ best interests first. Policy and payment reform must happen to make this new vision of care possible.

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Our Dead on Every Shore

By MAYURA DESHPANDE 

I once made a serious error. The patient had taken an overdose of paracetamol, but because I was single-handedly covering three inpatient acute psychiatric wards due to sickness of two other trainees which medical HR had been unable to cover, with a lot of agency nurses who did not know any of the patients well at all, and also because this patient frequently said she had taken overdoses when she had not, and declined to let me take bloods to test for paracetamol levels, I believed she was crying wolf. She collapsed several hours later, and died. I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, but also fear – was this the end of my career? I was a trainee psychiatrist at the time – and was immensely fortunate in that my supervising consultant was robust in his defence of me, supported me, whilst fronting the complaint from the patient’s family and attending the inquest. He had been covering two outpatient clinics himself while I was on the ward.

The patient was only 26 years old. Her parents were very angry with me, and not unreasonably so; at the time, it seemed to me that they wanted me to suffer. Twenty years later, I believe they wanted to understand how I made the decision I did. Eventually, the consultant arranged for me to meet the parents. They were very kind to me, all of them, I realise that now. I wasn’t able to give them the answers they wanted. I just cried and said I was sorry.

The mother sent the consultant a letter afterwards which he gave me when I was about to complete that training placement. I did not read it for many months. When I did, I cried. The mother described her daughter’s childhood, the family’s loss, and her own incomprehension that the NHS – which she and generations of her family had venerated as a great institution – could have failed her child. It said very little about me, certainly didn’t seek to blame me, but said a few times that she wanted justice for her daughter. It was an exploration of grief by a bereft mother.

I often think about the mother – I cannot recall the face of the 26 year old patient – but remember perfectly well the mother, who said very little, didn’t even cry, leaving her husband to talk incoherently about justice and a referral to the GMC and the police (they did not do any of these things). And I often ponder the nature of justice they wanted. This was well before the advent of Duty of Candour and rigorously completed serious incident investigations.

Did they get justice? The coroner returned a verdict of suicide, but failed to acknowledge the systemic problems of lack of staff, merely noting that there had a “gap in clinical assessment”. It was not untrue, yet I experienced it as unfair. The consultant reminded me that I was fortunate that the family had not made more fuss. So I let it be. Until the case of Dr Bawa-Garba.

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ONC’s Proposed Rule is a Breakthrough in Patient Empowerment

By ADRIAN GROPPER

Imagine solving wicked problems of patient matching, consent, and a patient-centered longitudinal health record while also enabling a world of new healthcare services for patients and physicians to use. The long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on information blocking from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) promises nothing less.

Having data automatically follow the patient is a laudable goal but difficult for reasons of privacy, security, and institutional workflow. The privacy issues are clear if you use surveillance as the mechanism to follow the patient. Do patients know they’re under surveillance? By whom? Is there one surveillance agency or are there dozens in real-world practice? Can a patient choose who does the surveillance and which health encounters, including behavioral health, social relationships, location, and finance are excluded from the surveillance?

The security issues are pretty obvious if one uses the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) definition of security versus privacy: Security breaches, as opposed to privacy breaches, are unintentional — typically the result of hacks or bugs in the system. Institutional workflow issues also pose a major difficulty due to the risk of taking responsibility for information coming into a practice from uncontrolled sources. Whose job is it to validate incoming information and potentially alter the workflow? Can this step be automated with acceptable risk?

It’s not hard to see how surveillance as the basis for health information sharing would be contentious and risk the trust that’s fundamental to both individual and public health. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the various legislative efforts currently underway to expand HIPAA to include behavioral health and social determinants of health, preempt state privacy laws, grant data brokers HIPAA Covered Entity status, and limit transparency of how personal data is privately used for “predictive analytics”, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

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Everyone Has a Part to Play in Ending Vaccine Hesitancy

Felicia D. Goodrum Sterling

Heidi L. Pottinger

By FELICIA D. GOODRUM STERLING, PhD and HEIDI L. POTTINGER, DrPH, MPH, MA

The measles outbreak in Washington state this week has brought new attention to the anti-vaccine movement.  In fact, the World Health Organization recently identified “vaccine hesitancy” as one of top threats to global health. In the US, the number of unvaccinated children has quadrupled since 2001, enabling the resurgence of infectious diseases long-since controlled.  In fact, the WHO claims a staggering 1.5 million deaths could be prevented worldwide by improved vaccination rates.

Amidst the media and public health outcry, a mystery persists:  Why has vaccine hesitancy continued, despite years of vigorous debunking of shoddy science?  The answer may lie in a deeply-rooted distrust of doctors and science.

One of the authors of this article, Dr. Pottinger, surveyed hundreds of Arizona parents, from schools with exemption rates greater than 10%, about their perceptions on vaccines. Pottinger and colleagues found the vast majority of the parents surveyed who delayed or chose not to vaccinate their children did so because of true personal beliefs and not convenience.  Specifically, they tended to distrust physicians and information about vaccines or held misperceptions about health and disease, including the idea that immunity by natural infection is more effective or that vaccine-preventable diseases are not severe.

These beliefs, stoked by a fraudulent 2010 study, have proven almost impossible to shake—despite the fact that the debunked study, based on 12 children, was retracted due to serious ethical violations and scientific misrepresentation; authors cherry-picked and fabricated data, and the first author had undisclosed business interests in the vaccine industry.

The failure of many interventions to dispel misinformation demonstrates the power of a complex interaction of confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, distrust in data sources, and personal experiences and narratives.  Taking them on requires that the healthcare community effectively spread the following messages.

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HIPAA RFI Comments: Patient Privacy Rights

By ADRIAN GROPPER and DEBORAH C. PEEL

Adrian Gropper

Deborah C. Peele

Among other rich nations, US healthcare stands out as both exceptionally privatized and exceptionally expensive. And taken overall, we have the worst health outcomes among the Western Democracies.

On one hand, regulators are reluctant to limit private corporate action lest we reduce innovation and patient choice and promote moral hazards. On the other hand, a privatized marketplace for services requires transparency of costs and quality and a minimum of economic externalities that privatize profit and socialize costs.

For over two decades, the HIPAA law and regulations have dominated the way personal health data is used and abused to manipulate physician practice and increase costs. During these decades, digital technology has brought marvels of innovation and competition to markets as diverse as travel and publishing while healthcare technology is burning out physicians and driving patients to bankruptcy.

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Checking Boxes

By HANS DUVEFELT MD Dr. Hans Duvefelt, A Country Doctor Writes, physician burnout

I pay $500 per year for UpToDate, the online reference that helps me stay current on diagnostic criteria and best treatment options for most diseases I might run into in my practice. They also have a rich library of patient information, which I often print out during office visits.

I don’t get any “credit” for doing that, but I do if I print the, often paltry, patient handouts built into my EMR. That was how the rules governing meaningful use of subsidized computer technology for medical offices were written.

If I describe in great detail in my office note how I motivated a patient to quit smoking but forgot to also check the box that smoking cessation education was provided, I look like a negligent doctor. My expensive EMR can’t extract that information from the text. Google, from my mobile device, can translate between languages and manages to send me ads based on words in my web searches.

When I do a diabetic foot exam, it doesn’t count for my quality metrics if I freetext it; I must use the right boxes. If I do it diligently on my iPad in eClinicalWorks, one of my EMRs, even if I use the clickboxes, it doesn’t carry over to the flowsheet or my report card.

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Overprescribing Is a Key Component of the Opioid Crisis — Here’s How to Stop It

By DAVE CHASE 

Today’s opioid crisis is one of the most dire side effects driven by our dysfunctional U.S. healthcare system. A recent JAMA Surgery report found that many surgeons prescribe four times more opioids than their patients use. This opens the door for misuse and abuse later on. In fact, the total combined cost of misuse, abuse, dependence and overdose is about $78.5 billion.

Unfortunately, there’s a direct connection between the low-quality care many patients receive, and the astounding rates of opioid addiction. Often, insurance plans offer access to high-cost, volume-centric physicians and include high deductibles — creating an expensive cycle that doesn’t focus on patient outcomes. Instead of taking the time to figure out what is actually ailing a patient, these overworked and nearly burnt-out doctors get them in and out the door with a referral and a prescription for more pills than they could ever need.

What may surprise you is that employers play a large part in setting the stage for addiction. Millions of Americans get their health insurance from their employer, and a majority of those plans are fully-insured. To determine what insurance plan they offer, employers work with a benefits broker to purchase one from a carrier like Aetna or Cigna. Each year, employers and their broker join together for an annual dance — the broker tells them that healthcare costs are rising so their insurance rates have gone up, usually by 5-20 percent. The employers don’t know better than to accept these increases, filtering them down to employees in the form of higher premiums. Despite costs constantly going up, the quality of care does not follow.
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