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Category: Physicians

#USMLEPassFail: A Brave New Day

By BRYAN CARMODY, MD

Well, it happened.

Beginning as soon as 2022, USMLE Step 1 scores will be reported pass/fail.

I’m shocked. Starting around two weeks ago, I began hearing rumors from some well-connected people that this might happen… but I still didn’t believe it.

I was wrong.

The response thus far has been enormous – I haven’t been able to clear my Twitter mentions since the news broke. And unsurprisingly, the reaction has been mixed.

In the future, I’ll post more detailed responses on where we go from here – but for now, I’d like to emphasize these five things.

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Healthcare Has a Moral Injury

By KIM BELLARD

The term “moral injury” is a term originally applied to soldiers as a way to help explain PTSD and, more recently, to physicians as a way to help explain physician burnout.  The concept is that moral injury is what can happen to people when “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”  

I think healthcare generally has a bad case of moral injury.  

How else can we explain physicians practicing surprise billinghospitals suing patientshealth plans refusing to pay for pre-authorized treatments, or pharmaceutical companies charging “skyrocketing” costs even for common, essential prescription drugs?  There are people involved in each of these, and countless more examples.  If those people haven’t suffered a moral injury as a result, it’s hard to understand why.  

Melissa Bailey, writing for Kaiser Health News, looked at moral injury from the standpoint of emergency room physicians.  One physician decried how “the real priority is speed and money and not our patients’ care.”  Another made a broader charge: “The health system is not set up to help patients. It’s set up to make money.”  He urged that physicians seek to understand “how decisions made at the systems level impact how we care about patients” — so they can “stand up for what’s right.”

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Burned out on Burnout?

By SANJ KATYAL, MD

If you are like most doctors, you are sick of hearing about burnout. I know I am. There is a big debate on whether burnout is real or whether physicians are suffering from something more sinister like moral injury or human rights violations. That doesn’t matter. In the end, no matter what name we give the problem, the real issue is that physicians are in fact suffering. We are suffering a lot. Some of us—around one physician per day—are forced to alleviate their suffering by taking their own life. Each year, a million patients lose their physicians to suicide. Many more physicians suffer in silence and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to function.

We are losing more physicians each year to early retirement or alternate careers. There are an increasing number of coaches and businesses whose single purpose is to help doctors find their side gigs and transition out of medicine. This loss comes at a time of an already depleted workforce that will contribute to massive physician shortages in the future. Perhaps even more troubling is that those physicians who remain in medicine are often desperate to get out. It is the rare physician these days that recommends a career in medicine to their own children. We now have a brain drain of the brightest students who would rather work on Wall Street than in a hospital. 

As a physician trained in positive psychology, I have been committed to helping other physicians and students improve their well-being. The focus on well-being is a welcome change in medicine.  But is it enough?

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Medical Records in Primary Care: Keeping the Story of Phone Calls and Medication Changes with Less than Perfect Tools

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

I need the right information at the right time (and in a place that makes sense to me) to make safe medical decisions.

Here’s another Metamedicine story:

In learning my third EMR, I am again a little disappointed. I am again, still, finding it hard to document and retrieve the thread of my patient’s life and disease story. I think many EMRs were created for episodic, rather than continued medical care.

One thing that can make working with an EMR difficult is finding the chronology in office visits (seen for sore throat and started on an antibiotic), phone calls (starting to feel itchy, is it an allergic reaction?and outside reports (emergency room visit for anaphylactic reaction).

I have never understood the logic of storing phone calls in a separate portion of the EMR, the way some systems do. In one of my systems, calls were listed separately by date without “headlines” like “?allergic reaction” in the case above.

In my new system, which I’m still learning, they seem to be stored in a bigger bucket for all kinds of “tasks” (refills, phone calls, orders and referrals made during office visits etc.)

Both these systems seem to give me the option of creating, in a more or less cumbersome way, “non-billable encounters” to document things like phone calls and ER visits, in chronological order, in the same part of the record as the office notes. That may be what IT people disparagingly call “workarounds”, but listen, I need the right information at the right time (and in a place that makes sense to me) to make safe medical decisions.

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Asinine, Backasswards Colonoscopy Insurance Rules Make Patients Decline Medically Necessary Testing

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

I’ve had several telephone calls in the last two weeks from a 40-year-old woman with abdominal pain and changed bowel habits. She obviously needs a colonoscopy, which is what I told her when I saw her.

If she needed an MRI to rule out a brain tumor I think she would accept that there would be co-pays or deductibles, because the seriousness of our concern for her symptoms would make her want the testing.

But because in the inscrutable wisdom of the Obama Affordable Care Act, it was decided that screening colonoscopies done on people with no symptoms whatsoever are a freebie, whereas colonoscopies done when patients have symptoms of colon cancer are subject to severe financial penalties.

So, because there’s so much talk about free screening colonoscopies, patients who have symptoms and need a diagnostic colonoscopy are often frustrated, confused and downright angry that they have to pay out-of-pocket to get what other people get for free when they don’t even represent a high risk for life-threatening disease.

But, a free screening colonoscopy turns into an expensive diagnostic one if it shows you have a polyp and the doctor does a biopsy – that’s how the law was written. If that polyp turns out to be benign, or hyperplastic, there is no increased cancer risk associated with it, but you still have to pay your part of a diagnostic colonoscopy bill because they found something.

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Low Value Testing and Unmet Cascades

By ANISH KOKA, MD

Mr. Smith has a problem. 

He can’t see. 

Even this cardiologist knows why.  The not so subtle evidence lies in the cloudy lens in front of his pupils.  He is afflicted with cataracts that obstruct his vision to the point he can’t really do his job refurbishing antique furniture safely.  His other problem is that he hates doctors. He hasn’t had reason to see one for more than a decade.  He’s 68, takes no medications, smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, and is a master of one word answers. He’s in my office because he needs a medical evaluation prior to his cataract procedure. Someone needs to attest to medical safety. I’m it.

He just wants to get out of here.

His annoyance of being in the office is justified.  Cataract surgery is very low risk.  Unless he’s having an acute medical problem, there is little to do.  The problem is that in an age of high volume, super specialized care, the eye doctor can’t attest to this, and the anesthesiologists have little interest in finding out the morning of his procedure that Mr. Smith has been having more frequent episodes of chest pain over the last two weeks.  Perhaps the chest pain is just acid reflux, or maybe it’s because of a pulmonary embolism related to the tobacco induced lung malignancy no one knows about. It’s possible, and highly likely, Mr. Smith will survive his cataract surgery even if he has a pulmonary embolism.  Cataract surgery really is pretty low risk.

But the doctor’s ethos has never been to ‘clear a patient for a cataract’, it is to commit to the health of the patient.  Mr. Smith deserves the opportunity to receive good medical care that isn’t made threadbare just because of the cataract surgery on the horizon.

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Why Do We Have Residency Training?

By BRYAN CARMODY, MD

Surely every resident has had the experience of trying to explain to a patient or family what, exactly, a resident is. “Yes, I’m a real doctor… I just can’t do real doctor things by myself.”

In many ways, it’s a strange system we have. How come you can call yourself a doctor after medical school, but you can’t actually work as a physician until after residency? How – and why – did this system get started?

These are fundamental questions – and as we answer them, it will become apparent why some problems in the medical school-to-residency transition have been so difficult to fix.

In the beginning…

Go back to the 18th or 19th century, and medical training in the United States looked very different. Medical school graduates were not required to complete a residency – and in fact, most didn’t. The average doctor just picked up his diploma one day, and started his practice the next.

But that’s because the average doctor was a generalist. He made house calls and took care of patients in the community. In the parlance of the day, the average doctor was undistinguished. A physician who wanted to distinguish himself as being elite typically obtained some postdoctoral education abroad in Paris, Edinburgh, Vienna, or Germany.

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“I Want Complete Labs Ordered Before My Physical”

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

Many patients make this or similar requests, especially in January it seems.

This phenomenon has its roots in two things. The first is the common misconception that random blood test abnormalities are more likely early warning signs of disease than statistical or biochemical aberrances and false alarms. The other is the perverse policy of many insurance companies to cover physicals and screening tests with zero copay but to apply deductibles and copays for people who need tests or services because they are sick.

It is crazy to financially penalize a person with chest pain for going to the emergency room and having it end up being acid reflux and not a heart attack while at the same time providing free blood counts, chemistry profiles and lipid tests every year for people without health problems or previous laboratory abnormalities.

A lot of people don’t know or remember that what we call normal is the range that 95% of healthy people fall within, and that goes for thyroid or blood sugar values, white blood cell counts, height and weight – anything you can measure. If a number falls outside the “normal” range you need to see if other parameters hint at the same possible diagnosis, because 5% of perfectly healthy people will have an abnormal result for any given test we order. So on a 20 item blood panel, you can pretty much expect to have one abnormal result even if you are perfectly healthy.

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Healthcare Needs Some IHOPs

By KIM BELLARD

The New York Times had an article that surprised me: Current Job: Award Winning Chef.  Education: IHOP.   The article, by food writer Priya Krishnaprofiled how many high-end chefs credit their training in — gasp! — chain restaurants, such as IHOP, as being invaluable for their success. 

I immediately thought of Atul Gawande’s 2012 article in The New YorkerWhat Big Medicine Can Learn From the Cheesecake Factory.

Ms. Krishna mentions several well-known chefs “who prize the lessons they learned — many as teenagers — in the scaled-up, streamlined world of chain restaurants.”  In addition to IHOP, chefs mentioned experiences at chains such as Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle, Hillstone, Houston’s, Howard Johnson’s, Olive Garden, Panda Express, Pappas, Red Lobster, Waffle House, and Wendy’s.  

Some of the lessons learned are instructive.  “It was pretty much that the customer is always right,” one chef mentioned.  Another said she learned “how to be quick, have a good memory, and know the timing of everything.”  A third spoke to the focus that was drilled into all employees: “Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Money to the bank. Clean restrooms,” 

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Doctoring in 2020: Why is the Patient Here? Whose Visit is it Anyway?

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

A new decade and a new EMR are making me think about what the best use of my time and medical knowledge really is. The thing that stands out more and more for me is the tension between what my patients are asking me for and what the medical bureaucracy is mandating me to do. This is, to be blunt, an untenable, crazy-making situation to be in.

Many of my patients with chronic diseases don’t, deep down, want better blood sugars, BMIs or blood pressures – nor do they want better diets or exercise habits. People often hope they can feel better without fundamentally changing their comfortable, familiar and ingrained habits – that’s just human nature.

I went to medical school to learn how to heal, treat and guide patients through illness, away from un-health and toward health. I didn’t go to school to become a babysitter or code enforcement officer.

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