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Category: Patients

Patients are NOT Customers

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 4.26.26 PMRecently I wrote about the problems with Maintenance of Certification requirements.  One of the phrases I read repeatedly when I was researching the piece was “the patient as customer.”  Here’s a quote from the online journal produced by Accenture, the management consulting company:

Patients are less forgiving of poor service than they once were, and the bar keeps being raised higher because of the continually improving service quality offered by other kinds of companies with whom patients interact—overnight delivery services, online retailers, luxury auto dealerships and more. With these kinds of cross-sector comparisons now the norm, hospitals will have to venture beyond the traditional realm of merely providing world-class medical care. They must put in place the operations and processes to satisfy patients through differentiated experiences that engender greater loyalty. The key is to approach patients as customers, and to design the end-to-end patient experience accordingly.

Except for one thing.  Patients are NOT customers.

The definition of a “customer” is a person or entity that obtains a service or product from another person or entity in exchange for money.  Customers can buy either goods or services.  Health care is classified by the government as a service industry because it provides an intangible thing rather than an actual thing.  If you buy a good, like a car, you voluntarily decide to shop around and get the best car you can for the price.  Even a vacation, especially a vacation package or a cruise, is a good.  A nice dinner, while a good in the sense of the food, is also a service.  You buy the services of the cook and servers.

Here is why the patient shouldn’t be considered a customer, at least not in the business sense.

1. Patients are not on vacation.  They are not in the mindset that they are sitting in the doctors office or the hospital to have a good time.  They are not relaxed, they have not left their troubles temporarily behind them.  They have not bought room service and a massage. They are not in the mood to be happy.  They would rather not be requiring the service they are requesting.  Which leads to number 2:

2. Patients have not chosen to buy the service.  Patients have been forced to seek the service, in most cases.

3. Patients are not paying for the service.  At least not directly.  And they have no idea what the price is anyway.

4. Patients are not buying a product from which they can demand a positive outcome.  Sometimes the result of the service is still illness and/or death.  This does not mean the service provided was not a good one.

5. The patient is not always right.  A patient cannot, or should not, go to a doctor demanding certain things.  They should demand good care, but that care might mean denying the patient what the patient thinks he or she needs.  The doctor is not a servant; she does not have to do everything the patient wants.  She is obligated to do everything the patient needs.

6. Patient satisfaction does not always correlate with the quality of the product.A patient who is given antibiotics for a cold is very satisfied but has gotten poor quality care.  A patient who gets a knee scope for knee pain might also be very satisfied, despite the fact that such surgery has been shown to have little actual benefit in many types of knee pain.

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Got an Infection? Good Luck Finding an ID Doctor

Phil LedererBOSTON, Ma. — It was Christmas Day. I was on call at the hospital and was waiting for my wife and 6-week-old son to come so we could eat lunch together. She was bringing kimbap, sweet potatoes, and avocados. But then my pager buzzed.

On the phone was a hospitalist physician.

“Is this ID? We have a new consult for you,” she said. “This man has a history of dementia. For some reason he has a urinary catheter to empty his bladder. We gave him an antibiotic, but now his urine is growing a resistant bacteria.”

I sighed. Yet another catheter associated urinary tract infection.

I walked up the stairs to his hospital room. He was bald, thin, and sitting alone in bed. The peas and fish on his tray were untouched. There were no gifts or tree in his room. I washed my hands, put on gloves and a yellow isolation gown, and introduced myself.

“How are you?”

“Ok, I guess,” he replied.

“Do you know where you are?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You are in the hospital. Do you know what day today is?”

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One of Those Patients

Dr. RobI’ve been getting winded lately.”

He’s a middle-aged man with diabetes.  This kind of thing is a “red flag” on certain patients.  He’s one of those patients.

“When does it happen?” I ask.

“Just when I do things.  If I rest for a few minutes, I feel better.”

Now the red flag is waving vigorously.  It sounds like it could be exertional angina.  In a diabetic, the symptoms of ischemia (the heart not getting enough blood) are atypical.  It’s the pattern of symptoms that is the most important, and to have exertional shortness of breath which goes away with rest is a pattern I don’t like to hear.

What he needs is a stress test – more specifically in his case, a nuclear stress test (because his baseline EKG is abnormal).  But there’s a problem: he has no insurance.  A nuclear stress test will cost thousands of dollars.

I can refer him to the hospital, but I know the financial situation he and his wife face.  They have no money because of a chronic pain problem he has.  He hasn’t worked in several years, but hasn’t ever been able to get disability either (“I tried, but was denied three times”).  Without insurance he’s not able to get his problem fixed, so he’s disabled.  But he can’t get disability, so he can’t get insurance to get his problem fixed and no longer be disabled.

But the problem on hand is this: he needs a test he can’t afford.

There are many folks out there in this same situation.  It may not just be the people with no insurance, and it may not even be people who don’t have money.  In fact, my own family is facing this same problem.  Multiple family members (myself included) need dental work done.  Some need it done badly, yet we don’t yet have the money to pay for it.  So we wait for the money to show up while the problems gets worse.

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Dad Has the Flu and There’s a Baby at Home

flying cadeuciiAt 6:30 AM, I kissed my 14-week-old son Joe on the forehead and headed off to work at the hospital. By 3 PM I was back in bed with a hacking cough and a fever.  I had influenza.

As a doctor training in infectious diseases, I knew that the flu can be dangerous in vulnerable populations like little babies. I had visions of Joe being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, as I swallowed a pill of oseltamivir (brand name “Tamiflu”) and shivered under the covers.

Should I also give my little boy Tamiflu to prevent him from getting sick? The answer should be clear to an infectious disease physician-in-training, right?

I felt competing instincts. Paternal: to “do something” to prevent Joe from getting the flu. Medical: “do nothing,” as the rampant overuse of antibiotics in children has had negative consequences and the same might be true for antivirals.

As I researched the question further, I learned that the decision to give prophylactic Tamiflu is anything but simple.

Close contacts of people with the flu (including babies) can receive Tamiflu if they are at high risk for influenza complications. One Greek study of 13 newborns found that the drug was safe but did not address its effectiveness. Moreover, the number of babies who would need to receive Tamiflu to prevent one serious case of influenza is unknown.

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Using a Mobile App for Monitoring Post-Operative Quality of Recovery

flying cadeuciiWhile your correspondent is tantalized by the prospect of healthcare consumers using mHealth apps to lower costs, increase quality and improve care, he wanted to better understand their real-world value propositions.

Are app-empowered patients less likely to use the emergency room?

Do they have a higher survival rate?

Do they have higher levels of satisfaction?

In other words, where’s the beef?

That’s when this paper caught my search engine eye. It’s a report on using an app to monitor post-operative patients at home.Continue reading…

What Do Women Know About Obamacare That Men Don’t?

Susan DentzerFor the second year running, more women than men have signed up for coverage in health insurance marketplaces during open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, enrollment ran 56 percent female, 44 percent male, during last year’s open enrollment season; preliminary data from this year shows enrollment at 55 percent female, 45 percent male – a 10 percentage point difference.

What gives? An HHS spokeswoman says the department can’t explain most of the differential. Females make up about 51 percent of the U.S. population, but there is no real evidence that, prior to ACA implementation, they were disproportionately more likely to be uninsured than men – and in fact, some evidence indicates that they were less likely to be uninsured than males .

What is clear that many women were highly motivated to obtain coverage under the health reform law – most likely because they want it, and need it.

It’s widely accepted that women tend to be highly concerned about health and health care; they use more of it than men, in part due to reproductive services, and make 80 percent of health care decisions for their families . The early evidence also suggests that women who obtained coverage during open enrollment season last year actively used it.  Continue reading…

The Therapeutic Paradox: What’s Right for the Population May Not Be Right for the Patient

flying cadeuciiAn article in this week’s New York Times called Will This Treatment Help Me?  There’s a Statistic for that highlights the disconnect between the risks (and risk reductions) that epidemiologists, researchers, guideline writers, the pharmaceutical industry, and policy wonks think are significant and the risks (and risk reductions) patients intuitively think are significant enough to warrant treatment.

The authors, bloggers at The Incidental Economist, begin the article with a sobering look at the number needed to treat (NNT).  For the primary prevention of myocardial infarction (MI), if 2000 people with a 10% or higher risk of MI in the next 10 years take aspirin for 2 years, one MI will be prevented.  1999 people will have gotten no benefit from aspirin, and four will have an MI in spite of taking aspirin.  Aspirin, a very good drug on all accounts, is far from a panacea, and this from a man (me) who takes it in spite of falling far below the risk threshold at which it is recommended.

One problem with NNT is that for patients it is a gratuitous numerical transformation of a simple number that anybody could understand (the absolute risk reduction  – “your risk of stroke is reduced 3% by taking coumadin“), into a more abstract one (the NNT – “if we treat 33 people with coumadin, we prevent one stroke among them”) that requires retransformation into examples that people can understand, as shown in pictograms in the NYT article.  A person trying to understand stroke prevention with coumadin could care less about the other 32 people his doctor is treating with coumadin, he is interested in himself.  And his risk is reduced 3%.  So why do we even use the NNT, why not just use ARR?

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A Tale of Two Sore Throats: On Retail Clinics and Urgent Care

Leslie Kernisan new headshotSix years ago, just after arriving in Baltimore for a winter conference, I fell sick with fever and a bad sore throat.

After a night of feeling awful, I went looking for help. I found it at a Minute Clinic in a CVS near the hotel. I was seen right away by a friendly NP who did a rapid strep test, and prescribed me medication. I picked up my medication at the pharmacy there. The visit cost something like $85, and took maybe 30 minutes. They gave me forms to submit to my California insurance. And I was well enough to present my research as planned by day 3 of the conference.

Fast forward to this year. After feeling a bit blah on a Monday evening, I developed a sore throat, headache, and fever overnight.

I figured it was a winter viral pharyngitis, rearranged my schedule, and planned to make it an “easy day.” Usually a low-key day plus a good night’s sleep does the trick for me.

But not with this bug.

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Getting Your Own Health Records Online: The Good and the Not So Good

Lygeia RiccardiMaking Sense of Blue Button, Meaningful Use, and What’s Going on in Washington  …

At the recent Health 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara, co-chair Matt Holt expressed frustration about the difficulty of getting copies of his young daughter’s medical records. His experience catalyzed a heated discussion about individuals’ electronic access to their own health information. Many people are confused about or unaware of their legal rights, the policies that support those rights, and the potential implications of digital access to health data by individuals. The Health 2.0 conference crowd included 2000 entrepreneurs, consumer technology companies, patient advocates, and other potentially “disruptive” forces in healthcare, in addition to more traditional health system players.

Why is this topic so important? Until now, most people haven’t accessed their own health records, whether electronically or in paper, and I believe that making it easier to do so will help tip the scales toward more meaningful consumer/patient engagement in healthcare and in health. Access by individuals and their families to their own health records can empower them to coordinate care among multiple healthcare providers, find and address dangerous factual errors, and take advantage of a growing ecosystem of apps and tools for improving health-related behaviors, saving money on health services, and getting more convenient, personalized care.

A shorthand phrase for this kind of personal empowerment through access to digital health data is “Blue Button,” which is also the name of a public-private initiative in which hundreds of leading healthcare organizations across the US participate. The Blue Button Initiative is bolstered by the electronic access to health information requirements for patients in the “Meaningful Use” EHR Incentive Program, which is administered by CMS (the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) with companion standards and certification requirements set by ONC (the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology).Continue reading…

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