Back in the
‘stone ages’ when I (an MIT grad) was an intern, I was called at 4 AM to see
someone else’s gravely ill patient because her IV had infiltrated. I
started a new one and drew some blood work to check on her status. When
the results came back (on paper) I (manually) calculated her anion gap.
This is simple arithmetic but I had been up all night and didn’t do it right.
rounds the attending assured me that there was nothing I could have done anyway
but, of course, in other circumstances it could have made a difference and an
EHR could have easily done this calculation and brought the problematic result
to my attention. My passion for EHRs and FHIR apps to improve them really
traces back to this patient episode I will never forget.
My criticism of the recent Kaiser Health News and Fortune article Death by 1000 Clicks is generally not about what it says but what it doesn’t say and its tone.
The article emphasizes the undeniable fact that EHRs cause
new sources of medical error that can damage patients. It devotes a lot of ink
to documenting some of these in dramatic terms. Yes, with hundreds of vendors
out there, the quality of EHR software is highly variable. Among the major
weaknesses of some EHRs are awkward user interfaces that can lead to errors. In
fact, one of the highlights of my health informatics course is a demonstration
of this by a physician whose patient died at least in part as a result of a
poor EHR presentation of lab test results.
However, the article fails to pay equal attention to the
ways EHRs can, if properly used, help prevent errors. It briefly mentions that
around a 60% majority of physicians using EHRs feel that they improve quality. The
reasons quality is improved deserved more attention. The article also fails to
discuss some of the new, exciting technologies to improve EHR usability through
innovative third party apps and he real progress being made in data sharing
including patient access to their digital records.
Well, you might not have noticed that my blogs were missing for the last three months but anyways, its good to be back. I was having a little time off blogs and social media as I was transitioning in my career but now I am back. Sometimes, it is very difficult to manage time for things that you must do versus things you enjoy doing, especially when these two don’t intersect. For me, these last few months the things I had to do were all bureaucratic while I couldn’t find the time for things I enjoy doing like writing these blogs. But now that we are back, let’s recap what has happened in the oncology world in the year 2019 so far. I can’t cover all of them, but will try to summarise the major events in oncology.
Hundred Foxes’ Howl versus One LION’s Roar
In my country, there is a saying that goes somewhat like the roar of one lion will scare hundreds of howling foxes away. In medicine, I guess, it translates as one good RCT trumps the results from hundreds of observational studies. For patients with advanced ovarian cancer, primary surgery to achieve complete resection is the most important treatment and prognostic factor. However, what to do with the lymph nodes is a question that has troubled the oncology community for a long time. Logically, it makes sense to remove the lymph nodes too because they are the sanctuary sites for cancer cells. However, lymph node dissection carries high morbidity. Although multiple observational studies suggested a survival benefit with lymph node dissection, the LION trial, now published in the NEJM, shows that for women with macroscopic complete resection of primary tumour, lymph node dissection increases morbidity (postoperative complications) and post-operative mortality rates but doesn’t improve survival. I am glad that this trial was carried out and these results will now save many women with ovarian cancer worldwide from unnecessary harmful procedures, but I am also sad that we didn’t answer this question until now and thus, many patients suffered unnecessarily. I hope this LION’s roar scares us from jumping to conclusions based on logic or observational data alone and without RCT evidence in future. Another lesson here is the importance of public funds in supporting RCTs like these.
I’m going to show you the Match rate and mean Step 1 score for three groups of residency applicants. These are real data, compiled from the National Resident Matching Program’s (NRMP) Charting Outcomes in the Match reports.
U.S. Allopathic Seniors: 92% match rate; Step 1 232.3
U.S. Osteopathic Seniors: 83% match rate; Step 1 225.8
International Medical Graduates, or IMGs (both U.S. and non-U.S. citizen: 53% match rate; Step 1 223.6
Now. What do you conclude when you look at these numbers?
In the debate over the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination’s (USMLE) score reporting policy, there’s one objection that comes up time and time again: that graduates from less-prestigious medical schools (especially IMGs) need a scored USMLE Step 1 to compete in the match with applicants from “top tier” medical schools.
In fact, this concern was recently expressed by the president of the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) in an article inAcademic Medicine (quoted here, with my emphasis added).
“Students and U.S. medical graduates (USMGs) from elite medical schools may feel that their school’s reputation assures their successful competition in the residency application process, and thus may perceive no benefit from USMLE scores. However, USMGs from the newest medical schools or schools that do not rank highly across various indices may feel that they cannot rely upon their school’s reputation, and have expressed concern in various settings that they could be disadvantaged if forced to compete without a quantitative Step 1 score. This concern may apply even more for graduates of international medical schools (IMGs) that are lesser known, regardless of any quality indicator.”
The funny thing is, when I look at the data above, I’m not sure why we would conclude that IMGs are gaining advantage from a scored Step 1. In fact, we might conclude just the opposite – that a scored Step 1 is a key reason why IMGs have a lower match rate.
Say you want to know which baseball players provide the most value for the big dollars they’re being paid. A Google search quickly yields analytics. But suppose your primary care physician just diagnosed you with cancer. What will a search for a “high value” cancer doctor tell you?
Public concern over bloated and unintelligible medical bills has prompted pushback ranging from an exposé by a satirical TV show to a government edict that hospitals list their prices online. But despite widespread agreement about the importance of high-value care, information about the clinical outcomes of individual physicians, which can put cost into perspective, is scarce. Even when information about quality of care is available, it’s often unreliable, outdated, or limited in scope.
For those who are sick and scared, posting health care price tags isn’t good enough. The glaring information gap about the quality of care must be eliminated.
“When people are comparison shopping, knowing the price of something is not enough,” notes Eric Schneider, a primary care physician and senior vice president of policy and research at the Commonwealth Fund. “People want to know the quality of the goods and services they’re buying.”
Telepsychiatry is now an established form of mental health care. Many studies demonstrate that it meets all appropriate standards of psychiatric care and may be better than in-person consultations for certain groups of patients, such as children, adults with PTSD or anxiety disorders, or those who find it hard to leave their homes. At UC Davis all patients are now offered the option of either seeing their psychiatrist in person, online at home, or in any private setting. Many patients now choose to receive their care in a hybrid manner that can be significantly better than being seen exclusively in the clinic office for numerous reasons.
From the patient’s perspective it is more convenient, allowing them to fit their consultations into their lives, rather than having to take several hours out to travel and attend a clinic. Many patients also find this form of care to be more intimate and less threatening, with the slightly increased “distance” from the therapist allowing them to feel safer talking about stigmatized or embarrassing topics, such as trauma and abuse. We also know from numerous satisfaction studies that patients like being treated using video. In fact some groups, such as children and young adults, prefer this to conventional methods.
What has not been examined scientifically in as much detail is the impact telepsychiatry has on providers, although the latter are voting with their feet. Latest figures suggest that up to 15% of psychiatrists are now using video with their patients There are numerous advantages for psychiatrists and it is becoming clear that treating patients in a hybrid manner using telepsychiatry, as well as other technologies like messaging and secure email, may be a major response to the problem of physician burnout, making providers both more efficient and clinically effective.
So what are the advantages of telemedicine for mental health providers?
With a stated intent of bringing social justice and financial relief to hundreds of thousands of patients undergoing coronary angioplasty in the country every year, the Government of India capped the sale price of coronary stents in Feb 2017. Stent prices fell by as much as 80% with this populist move, seen as anti-trade within the industry circles. It is tempting for a practising interventional cardiologist to look at two years of this government control on medical device prices in a market economy.
Before price-capping, angioplasty patients were indeed getting a raw deal. There was no uniformity in price among stents of similar class/generation made by different manufacturers. The cost of the only bioabsorbable stent then available in India, to the patient, was 200,000 Indian Rupees (a little under USD 3000), whereas the US or European-manufactured (“Imported”) drug eluting stents (DES) would cost anywhere between INR 85,000 to 160,000. Stents manufactured within India (“Indigenous”) were cheaper. The real cost of manufacture or import was hidden from public view. It was left to the eventual vendor, with alleged involvement of the user hospitals, to determine the Maximum Retail Price (MRP). It was speculated that a huge margin was worked into it, and the profit was split between manufacturers, distributors, and hospitals. Allegedly, some unscrupulous physicians received kickbacks for implanting these devices. Even in government-run hospitals, foul play was suspected.
By a single stroke of the pen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi government slashed stent prices substantially. The bioabsorbable stent cost, to the patient, was capped at INR 60,000 (< USD 1000). Bare metal stents (BMS) and Drug-eluting stents (DES) were capped at INR 7500 and 30,000, respectively. The government seemed to have done its homework: these figures were arrived at from industry-supplied figures on manufacturing or import costs. The cosy network of coronary stent food chain was set on fire with this move: with sudden diminution of profit margins, it was feared that multinational companies would cut Indian workforce; stent distributors & vendors (especially small vendors) were expected to be wiped out or cut in size; doctors worried that with low profitability, multinational stent manufacturers would exit the country or at least, stop importing newer technologies; and hospitals feared revenue loss.
Following this, Industry and Hospital-chain representatives are said to have had series of discussions with the government. Rumours were that the Central Government was arm-twisting traders and that it would relent and raise price limits after these ‘talks.’ The National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) promised a price revision, one year after the price cap. Meanwhile, some multinationals informed the government that they would withdraw some of their ‘top-end products’ from the Indian market, citing financial nonviability, obviously to put pressure on the government. The Bioresorbable Scaffold from Abbott actually disappeared from Cath lab shelves.
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.
In this episode of Radiology Firing Line Podcast, Danny Huges and I discuss a JAMA paper: A comparison of diagnostic imaging ordering patterns between advanced practice clinicians and primary care physicians following office-based evaluation and management visits.
Listen to our conversation on Radiology Firing Line here.
Saurabh Jha is a contributing editor to THCB and host of Radiology Firing Line Podcast of the Journal of American College of Radiology, sponsored by Healthcare Administrative Partner
We do a lot of things in our head in this business. Once a patient reports a symptom, we mentally run down lists of related followup questions, possible diagnoses, similar cases we have seen. All this happens faster than we could ever describe in words (let alone type).
And, just like in math class, we are constantly reminded that it doesn’t matter if we have the right answer if we can’t describe how we got there.
So the ninth doctor who observes a little girl with deteriorating neurologic functioning and after less than ten minutes says “your child has Rett Syndrome” could theoretically get paid less than the previous eight doctors whose explorations meandered for over an hour before they admitted they didn’t know what was going on.
Does anybody care how Mozart or Beethoven created their music? Or do we mostly care about how it makes us feel when we listen to it?