I scribbled my signature on a pharmaceutical rep’s iPad today for some samples of Jardiance, a diabetes drug that now has expanded indications according to the Food and Drug Administration. This drug lowers blood sugar (reduces HbA1c by less than 1 point) but also reduces diabetes related kidney damage, heart attacks, strokes and now also admission rates for heart failure (from 4.1% to 2.7% if I remember correctly – a significant relative risk reduction but not a big absolute one; the Number Needed to Treat is about 70, so 69 out of 70 patients would take it in vain for the heart failure indication. The NNT for cardiovascular death is around 38 over a three year period – over a hundred patient years for one patient saved). There are already other diabetes drugs that can reduce cardiovascular risk and I see cardiologists prescribing them for non-diabetics.
It’s a bit of a head scratcher and it makes me think of the recently re-emerged interest in the notion of a “Polypill” with several ingredients that together reduce heat attack risk. The tested Polypill formulations are all very inexpensive, which is a big part of their attraction. Jardiance, on the other hand, costs about $400 per month.
The “rep” asked whether this medication would be something I’d be likely to discuss with my diabetic patients.
“Well, you know I’ve only got fifteen minutes…” dampened his expectations. But I told him about the Polypill studies. I think patients are still not ready to make the distinction between on the one hand medications that treat a more or less quantifiable problem like blood sugar levels, blood pressure or the much less straightforward lipid levels and on the other hand ones that only change statistical outcomes. Most of my patients have trouble wrapping their head around taking a $400 a month pill that doesn’t make them feel better or score a whole lot better on their lab test but only changes the odds of something most people think will never happen to them anyway.
I am a naturopathic doctor, and because I operate outside of insurance-based medicine, I have, what most healthcare providers would consider, lots of time with my patients. My typical first patient appointment is 90 minutes long and my follow-up visits are 30 minutes long.
What, you may ask, do I do with all this time? I get to know my patients by listening to their stories, their concerns and their hopes. We delve into their health concerns, we review their medical records, and we explore lifestyle-based strategies to optimize their healing and wellbeing.
In short, I listen and apply what I know in partnership with each patient with the goal of empowering them towards greater wellness. Over and over, I hear from my patients how unusual this is. They speak about the 5-minute visits with their doctors that feel rushed and disconnected. They express frustration and dismay about being a diagnosis, not a person, when seeing their healthcare providers.
A recent survey conducted by the New York Times found that two-thirds of Americans support some form of change to the current healthcare system and favor moving towards greater insurance coverage for all. My experience for almost 25 years leads me to conclude that underlying this vision of healthcare is a deep-seated desire for patients to be cared for and listened to.
I strongly believe that getting people the information and incentives necessary to choose higher-value providers and insurers is the solution to improving value in healthcare (see my Healthcare Incentives Framework). But, you say, we’ve tried that and it doesn’t work, and current efforts are a waste of time!
Here’s an example of some great research that you might use to support your opinion:
The news media would see this and report the main findings–that only 3% of enrollees used Aetna’s price comparison tool–and argue that even people who have the opportunity to shop for care will not do it, which they will interpret to mean any “consumer-driven” healthcare effort is proven through evidence not to work. People can wrest information to prove whatever they want.
But what if you actually read the study?
Sinaiko and Rosenthal found that only about 60% of enrollees even had a claim during their study period. And of those 60%, I’m guessing a large percentage of those were outpatient visits (primary care or specialty) with established providers, which are claim types that people historically do not shop for. Think about it, if you have your favorite hairdresser who knows you best, you have a relationship with that person, and you like how they cut your hair, are you going to price shop every single time you need to get your hair cut?
In the last fifteen years, we have witnessed dozens of natural disasters affecting our most vulnerable patients, from post-hurricane victims in Haiti to drought and famine refugees in Malawi. The vast majority of these patients suffered from acute on chronic disasters, culminating in life-threatening medical illnesses. Yet, during the course of providing clinical care and comfort, we rarely, if ever, pointed to climate change as the root cause of their conditions. The evidence for climate change is not new, but the movement for climate justice is now emerging on a large scale, and clinicians should play an active role.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an “equal opportunity”
disaster. Yes, climate change poses an existential threat to us all, but not on
equal terms. When nature strikes, it has always been the poor and historically
underserved who are most vulnerable to its wrath. Hurricane Katrina provides an
example of how natural disasters target their victims along racial and
socioeconomic lines even in the wealthiest nations. Writes TalkPoverty.org, “A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as
likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck;
because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken
by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy
a home.” Throughout the world, historically marginalized communities have been
pushed to overcrowded, poorly-built, and unsanitary neighborhoods where natural
disasters invoke much greater harm.
We knew that the most powerful way to provide substance abuse treatment is in a group setting. Group members can offer support to each other and call out each other’s self deceptions and public excuses, oftentimes more effectively than the clinicians. They share stories and insights, car rides and job leads, and they form a community that stays connected between sessions.
Participants with more experience and life skills may say things in group that we clinicians might hesitate saying, like “Now you’re whining” and “Time to put on your big boy pants”. They can become role models by being further along in their recovery and by at the same time revealing their own fear or respect for the threat of relapse.
What has also happened in our clinic, entirely unplanned, was that after an informational meeting where we explained the group model and had a national expert physician speak about opioid recovery, several parents raised their hand and said there should be a group for families, too.
We listened and within a few months we started such a group and now, a year and a half into it, the group is co-led by a few of our patients, who naturally had become leaders of the patient group earlier.
I recently saw a patient who received a bill for an outpatient procedure for $333. The Medicare allowable reimbursement for the procedure was $180. I have seen other medical bills where the healthcare provider was charging patients more than 10 times the amount they expected to receive from Medicare or any insurance company.
one of my patients had an unexpected medical complication which necessitated a
visit to an emergency room. He received a huge bill for the services provided.
When I subsequently saw him in my office (for poorly controlled diabetes) he
told me he could not attend future office visits because he had so many
outstanding medical bills and he could not risk incurring any additional
medical expenses. While I offered to see him at no cost, he declined, stating
the financial risk was too high.
patient is required to pay the entire medical bill if they
poor quality insurance
a bureaucratic “referral problem”
an out-of-network provider, which means they have no contractural relationship with the healthcare provider/institution, as might result from an emergency room visit or an unexpected hospitalization.
physicians and other healthcare providers usually do not know what they are
going to get paid for any given service as they contract with many insurance
companies, each of which has a different contracted payment rate. Healthcare
providers and institutions typically set their fee schedule at a multiple of
what they expect to get paid from the most lucrative payer so as to ensure they
capture all the potential revenue. In the process, they create an economically
irrational fee schedule which is neither reflective of a competitive
marketplace nor reflective of the actual cost of the services provided.
Physical inactivity is a mounting challenge for America. In reviewing the 2013-2015 American time use survey, we found that most Americans report spending their daily leisure time watching screens, and devote only a small fraction of leisure time—24 minutes for men and 14 minutes for women—to physical activity. A recent longitudinal examination of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that sitting time increased by an hour a day between 2007 and 2016, with the largest increases among adolescents ages 12-19 and adults, 20 years and older. As mortality rates for heart disease have begun to climb, increases in sedentary behavior bodes poorly for future control of disease and health care costs.
The explosion in streaming apps and content is likely contributing to the increased sitting time. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, TV and movie views have more then doubled between 2014 and 2018. The availability of multiple series and the ability to binge watch can keep people glued to their couches for hours at a time. The immersive quality of the programming makes it increasingly difficult for viewers to pull themselves away from their screens. Yet, the technology could provide options to help viewers watch and still get regular physical activity.
Currently, after each episode, an option is available to allow the viewer to immediately call up the next episode. Why not consider adding a pop-up that can remind viewers that sitting more than 20-30 minutes at a time may not be good for health, and that it’s important to move around to avoid chronic diseases? A narrator could ask viewers to treat themselves to an activity break. Then the viewers could have the option to choose a short video that can guide them through a 10- minute exercise break. Or even a 5-minute break. Something is better than nothing.
There could be many options, from a just a simple stand up and stretch, like the 7th inning break at a baseball game, to vigorous workouts, like the 7-minute workout published by the American College of Sports Medicine or doing a Bhangra dance with a Bollywood film star.
Imagine a massive public health crisis in the United States that affects tens of thousands of people. Now imagine that the government had a simple tool at its disposal that could prevent this kind of physical and psychological trauma. You might think that I’m writing about America’s deadly outbreak of gun violence, which has made headlines this summer from Dayton to El Paso.
But actually I’m talking about a different crisis that affects even more people – all of them children — and which could be sharply reduced with one simple step that lacks the bitter political animus of the gun debate. The issue at hand involves babies born to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy – babies who tend to develop a condition called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS.
Experts say that state and federal governments have grossly underestimated the number of NAS babies currently born in the United States, as the addiction crisis triggered by Big Pharma’s greed in pushing painkillers refuses to fade. They say an accurate accounting would find a minimum of 250,000 children — and possibly two or three times that every year born with NAS. These kids will face chronic symptoms such as trembling and seizures, gastrointestinal problems, and an inability to sleep. Their numbers are more than eight times higher than the last official estimate from the government.
For more than a year now, I’ve been working with a team of attorneyscalled the Opioid Justice Team who are fighting for any settlement of the massive court fight pitting more than 2,000 localities against Big Pharma to include a medical monitoring fund for the estimated hundreds of thousands of kids born with NAS syndrome. But our team has also been pushing for radical measures that would prevent many of these unfortunate cases.
For over a month, Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiian)
elders and community members have stood in solidarity at Maunakea in Hawai’i.
They seek to protect their land, sovereignty, and culture from those who want
to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea. Maunakea holds both cultural
and spiritual meaning to the Kānaka ‘Ōiwi. Unfortunately, many astrophysicists
and TMT investors see Maunakea primarily as a means to make scientific
discoveries. The frequent narrative where Indigenous people need to defend the
value of their traditional knowledge, beliefs and culture to
Western scientists is a very familiar story that is often replicated in
healthcare, both at home in the U.S., and abroad.
Traditional medicine, as defined by the World Health Organization, is the “knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”. Looking at this definition, it is clear that traditional medicine practiced by Indigenous people has equivalent goals to modern Western medicine. Therefore, are we harming our patients when we do not incorporate traditional approaches harmoniously to the practice of healing, and instead value Western medicine over traditional medicine?
The arguments for putting TMT on Maunakea follow a similar reflex to reject knowledge that is different from our own. Thankfully, letters and activism rallying against the construction of TMT on Maunakea, from both Indigenous communities and scientists, are highlighting how Indigenous people are not anti-Western science. In fact, they are beginning to envision how collaboration between Traditional Knowledge and Western science is possible, and potentially even synergistic. Similarly, Western healthcare, too, must foster an approach that centers Traditional Knowledge for Indigenous communities.
How can current and future healthcare providers
promote the value of both Traditional Knowledge and Western science, and thus
promote trust and collaboration between providers and patients?
Today on THCB Spotlights, Matthew talks to Jacob Reider. Jacob is the CEO of Alliance for Better Health, one of New York State’s 25 Performing Provider Systems which work to reduce unnecessary or preventable acute care utilization for Medicaid members by improving the health of communities. Alliance for Better Health has a new approach to this—they’ve created an Independent Practice Association (IPA) called Healthy Alliance IPA to pull together community based organizations focused on improving health and addressing the social and behavioral aspects of health. Their approach helps the 29 organizations within the IPA negotiate funding and creates an infrastructure for integrating social determinants of health into health care. Watch the interview to find out how this is going to work in practice.