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Category: Physicians

How to End Egregious Medical Bills (while minimizing the impact on the provider’s bottom line)

By HAYWARD ZWERLING, MD

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.

Another 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.

A patient is required to pay the entire medical bill if they have:

  • no insurance
  • 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.

Hospitals, 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.

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Training the Modern Physician: A Call to Incorporate Finance and Law into Medical Education

By SAI BALA, JD

The United States medical education system is heralded as one among the top in the world for medical training. Given the strict standards of education, multiple licensing boards, and continuous oversight by governing bodies, getting a placement to train in the US is extremely competitive.  In 2017 alone, nearly 7000+ non-US citizens (commonly referred to as “foreign medical graduates”) applied to compete with 24,000+ US citizens for American residency spots to pursue specialty training. The reasons for this competitiveness are simple. The vast majority of medical institutions in the US boast a comprehensive curriculum that entails basic sciences, clinical principles, practical and hands-on didactics, and enriched exposure to the clinical aspects of patient care. This training produces astute clinicians that are capable of resolving the most complex diagnoses while providing comprehensive patient care.

However, it is high time to recognize that being a shrewd clinician is no longer a sufficient product for the demands of the healthcare market today. That is to say, the scope of medicine today for a physician has gone far beyond resolving complex medical problems, but demands a higher understanding of multidisciplinary skillsets, most important of which are finance and legal theory. In these aspects, the US medical education system direly underprepares physicians, and thus, requires a thorough reevaluation.

The art of medicine, as much as it was originally developed to be purely about the betterment of patient health, has become yet another siloed service industry. Simply put, patients are customers, and physicians are increasingly held accountable for the financial metrics and revenue their work produces. Compensation models are increasingly favoring productivity based payment methods, such as the relative value unit (RVU) system, and are moving away from the traditional, salaried physician. This has resulted in increased pressure on physicians to become more efficient with their workload and patient docket, while managing the often turbulent and contradictory interests of insurance, patients, and hospital administration.

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The Rise and Rise of Quantitative Cassandras

By SAURABH JHA, MD

Despite an area under the ROC curve of 1, Cassandra’s prophesies were never believed. She neither hedged nor relied on retrospective data – her predictions, such as the Trojan war, were prospectively validated. In medicine, a new type of Cassandra has emerged –  one who speaks in probabilistic tongue, forked unevenly between the probability of being right and the possibility of being wrong. One who, by conceding that she may be categorically wrong, is technically never wrong. We call these new Minervas “predictions.” The Owl of Minerva flies above its denominator.

Deep learning (DL) promises to transform the prediction industry from a stepping stone for academic promotion and tenure to something vaguely useful for clinicians at the patient’s bedside. Economists studying AI believe that AI is revolutionary, revolutionary like the steam engine and the internet, because it better predicts.

Recently published in Nature, a sophisticated DL algorithm was able to predict acute kidney injury (AKI), continuously, in hospitalized patients by extracting data from their electronic health records (EHRs). The algorithm interrogated nearly million EHRS of patients in Veteran Affairs hospitals. As intriguing as their methodology is, it’s less interesting than their results. For every correct prediction of AKI, there were two false positives. The false alarms would have made Cassandra blush, but they’re not bad for prognostic medicine. The DL- generated ROC curve stands head and shoulders above the diagonal representing randomness.

The researchers used a technique called “ablation analysis.” I have no idea how that works but it sounds clever. Let me make a humble prophesy of my own – if unleashed at the bedside the AKI-specific, DL-augmented Cassandra could unleash havoc of a scale one struggles to comprehend.

Leaving aside that the accuracy of algorithms trained retrospectively falls in the real world – as doctors know, there’s a difference between book knowledge and practical knowledge – the major problem is the effect availability of information has on decision making. Prediction is fundamentally information. Information changes us.

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Academic Medicine and the Peter Principle

By BEN WHITE, MD

Over four years of medical school, a one-year internship, a four-year radiology residency, a one-year neuroradiology fellowship, and now some time as an attending, one of my consistent takeaways has been how well (and thus how badly) the traditional academic hierarchy conforms to The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle, formulated by Laurence J Peter in 1969, postulates that an individual’s promotion within an organizational hierarchy is predicated on their performance in their current role rather than their skills/abilities in their intended role. In other words, people are promoted until they are no longer qualified for the position they currently hold, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

In academic medicine, this is particularly compounded by the conflation of research prowess and administrative skill. Writing papers and even getting grants doesn’t necessarily correlate with the skills necessary to successfully manage humans in a clinical division or department. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to suggest that they may even be inversely correlated. But this is precisely what happens when research is a fiat currency for meaningful academic advancement.

The business world, and particularly the tech giants of Silicon Valley, have widely promoted (and perhaps oversold) their organizational agility, which in many cases has been at least partially attributed to their relatively flat organizational structure: the more hurdles and mid-level managers any idea has to go through, the less likely it is for anything important to get done. A strict hierarchy promotes stability primarily through inertia but consequently strangles change and holds back individual productivity and creativity. The primary function of managers is to preserve their position within management. As Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (which incidentally is a perfect summary of everything that is wrong in healthcare and politics).

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Primary Care Is at the Center of a Health Revolution

By KEVIN WANG, MD

If our urgent-care-as-healthcare culture isn’t killing us, it’s certainly wasting our time and resources. 

Consider these facts highlighted by Advanced Medical Reviews, based on various studies: 

  • U.S. physicians report that more than 20 percent of overall medical care is not needed.
  • The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that up to 30 percent of the costs of medical care delivered in the U.S. pay for tests, procedures, doctor visits, hospital stays, and other services that may not actually improve patient health.
  • Unnecessary medical treatment impacts the healthcare industry through decreased physician productivity, increased cost of medical care, and additional work for front office staff and other healthcare professionals.

Most of today’s primary care is, in retail terms, a loss leader — a well-oiled doorway to the wildly expensive sick care system. For decades, practitioners have been forced into production factories, seeing as many patients, ordering as many tests, and sending as many referrals as possible to specialists. Patients, likewise, have avoided going in for regular visits for fear of the price tag attached, often waiting until they’re in such bad shape that urgent (and much more expensive) care is necessary.

The system as it stands isn’t delivering primary care in a way that serves patients, providers, employers, or insurers as well as it could. To improve health at individual and population levels, the system needs to be disrupted. Primary care needs to play a much larger role in healthcare, and it needs to be delivered in a way that doesn’t make patients feel isolated, neglected, or dismissed. 

Luckily, primary care is making a comeback — the kind that doesn’t just treat symptoms, but sees trust, engagement, and behavior change as a path to health.  

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Ordering Tests Without Using Words: Are ICD-10 and CPT Codes Bringing Precision or Dumbing Us Down?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

The chest CT report was a bit worrisome. Henry had “pleural based masses” that had grown since his previous scan, which had been ordered by another doctor for unrelated reasons. But as Henry’s PCP, it had become my job to follow up on an emergency room doctor’s incidental finding. The radiologist recommended a PET scan to see if there was increased metabolic activity, which would mean the spots were likely cancerous.

So the head of radiology says this is needed. But I am the treating physician, so I have to put the order in. In my clunky EMR I search for an appropriate diagnostic code in situations like this. This software (Greenway) is not like Google; if you don’t search for exactly what the bureaucratic term is, but use clinical terms instead, it doesn’t suggest alternatives (unrelated everyday example – what a doctor calls a laceration is “open wound” in insurance speak but the computer doesn’t know they’re the same thing).

So here I am, trying to find the appropriate ICD-10 code to buy Henry a PET scan. Why can’t I find the diagnosis code I used to get the recent CT order in when I placed it, months ago? I cruise down the list of diagnoses in his EMR “chart”. There, I find every diagnosis that was ever entered. They are not listed alphabetically or chronologically. The list appears totally random, although perhaps the list is organized alphanumerically by ICD-10, although they are not not displayed in my search box, but that wouldn’t do me any good anyway since I don’t have more than five ICD-10 codes memorized.

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I Have a Strong Relationship with my Bank but I Almost Never Go There. How Could this Translate to Primary Care?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

Imagine if your bank handled all your online transactions for free but charged you only when you visited your local branch – and then kept pestering you to come in, pay money and chat with them every three months or at least once a year if you wanted to keep your accounts active.

Of course that’s not how banks operate. There are small ongoing charges (or margins off the interest they pay you) for keeping your money and for making it possible to do almost everything from your iPhone these days. Yes, there may be additional charges for things that can’t be done without the bank’s personalized assistance, but those things happen at your request, not by the bank’s insistence.

Compare that with primary care. The bulk of our income is “patient revenue”, what patients and their insurance companies pay us for services we provide “face to face”. We may also have grants if we are Federally Qualified Health Centers, mostly meant to cover sliding fee discounts and what we call “enabling services” – care coordination, loosely speaking.

Only a small fraction of our income comes from meeting quality or compliance “targets”, and those monies only come to us after we have reached those goals – they don’t help us create the needed infrastructure to get there.

Then look at how medical providers are scheduled and paid. We all have productivity targets, RVUs (Relative Value Units – number and complexity of visits combined) if our employer is paid that way and usually just straight visit counts in FQHCs (because all visits are reimbursed at the same rate there). Sometimes we have quality bonuses or incentives, which truthfully may be the combined result of both our own AND other staff members’ efforts.

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Radiology Firing Line | Choosing Wisely, Wisely

By SAURABH JHA, MD

How easy is it for physicians to choose wisely and reject low value care? Who decides what’s wise and what’s unwise? In this episode Saurabh Jha (aka @RogueRad) speaks with William Sullivan MD JD. Dr. Sullivan is an emergency physician and an attorney specializing in healthcare issues. Dr. Sullivan represents physicians and has published many articles on legal aspects of medicine. He is a past president of the Illinois College of Emergency Physicians and a past chair and current member of the American College of Emergency Physicians’ Medical Legal Committee.

Listen to our conversation 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

Everybody Seems to be an Expert, Except Your Family Doctor?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

It’s a funny world we live in. Lots of people make a handsome living, defining their work and setting their own fees and hours with little or no formal education or certification

There are personal and executive coaches, wealth advisers, marketing experts, closet organizers and all kinds of people offering to help us run our lives.

In each of these fields, the expectation is that the provider of such services has his or her own “take” or perspective and offers advice that is individual, unique and as far removed from cookie cutter dogma as possible. Why pay for something generic that lots of people offer everywhere you turn?

So why is it, in this day of paying lip service to “personalized medicine”, genetic mapping, the human biome and psychoneuroimmunology that we expect our healthcare to be standardized and utterly predictable?

And why is it that we are so willing to fragment our care, using convenient care clinics, health apps, specialists who don’t communicate with each other and so on? Does anybody believe it makes sense to have your life coach tell you to have a latte if you feel like it because it makes you happy and your financial adviser scorn you for wasting money, never mind your health coach talking about all those unnecessary calories?

In today’s world, almost all knowledge and information is available, for free, instantly and from anywhere on the planet. But this has not eliminated our need for “experts”. It used to be that we paid experts for knowing the facts, but now we pay them for sorting and making sense of them, because there are too many facts and too much data out there to make anything self explanatory.

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Physicians Should Play a New Role in Reducing Gun Violence

Julie Rosenbaum
Matthew Ellman

By MATTHEW S. ELLMAN, MD and JULIE R. ROSENBAUM, MD

What if firearm deaths could be reduced by visits to the doctor? More than 35,000 Americans are killed annually by gunfire, about 60% of which are from suicide. The remaining deaths are mostly from accidental injury or homicide. Mass shootings represent only a tiny fraction of that number. 

There’s a lot physicians can do to reduce these numbers. Typically, medical organizations such as the AMA recommend counseling patients on firearm safety.  But there is another way to use medical expertise to help reduce harm from firearms: physicians should evaluate patients interested in purchasing firearms. The idea would be to reduce the number of guns that get into the hands of people who might be a danger to themselves or others due to medical or psychiatric conditions.   This proposal has precedents: physicians currently perform comparable standardized evaluations for licensing when personal or public safety may be at risk, for example, for commercial truck drivers, airplane pilots, and adults planning to adopt a child.  Similar to these models, a subset of physicians would be certified to conduct standardized evaluations as a prerequisite for gun ownership. 

As a primary care physicians with decades of practice experience, we have seen the ravages of gun violence in our patients too many times. A 50-year-old man shot in the spinal cord 30 years ago who is paraplegic and wheelchair-dependent. A 42-year-old woman who sends her teenage son to school every day by Uber because another son was shot to death walking in their neighborhood. A teacher from Sandy Hook who struggles to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Physicians can contribute their expertise toward determining objective medical impairments impacting safe gun ownership. These include undiagnosed or unstable psychiatric conditions such as suicidal or homicidal states, memory or cognitive impairments, or problems such as very poor vision, all of which may render an individual incapable of safely storing and firing a gun. In this model, the clinical role would be limited in scope. The physician would complete a standardized evaluation and offer recommendations to an appropriate regulatory body; the physician would not be the final decisionmaker regarding licensing.  An appeal process would be assured for those individuals who disagree with the assessment.  

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