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Why Are There so Many ___________s in Medicine??

flying cadeuciiAn article containing some ideas from The No Asshole Rule appeared in The McKinsey Quarterly some time ago and was summarized in The Economist.

This post is motivated by the question with which The Economist ends its little story: “If jerks cost firms so dearly, why are so many them employed?”

I think that it is a good question, and one that I have puzzled over a lot. To their point:

A study of American workers released in March found that 44 percent of Americans reported they have worked for an abusive boss. This study was conducted by the Reed Group for the Employment Law Alliance.

They surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 American adults within the past two weeks, which resulted in interviews with 534 workers.

Things are even worse in some occupations, notably medicine. A longitudinal study of nearly 3,000 medical students from 16 medical schools was just published in The British Medical Journal. Erica Frank and her colleagues at the Emory Medical School found that 42 percent of seniors reported being harassed by fellow students, professors, physicians, or patients; 84 percent reported they had been belittled and 40 percent reported being both harassed and belittled.

The full report is here. Similarly, a 2003 study of 461 nurses published in the journal of Orthopaedic Nursing found that 91 percent had experienced verbal abuse in the past month. Physicians were the most frequent source of such nastiness, but it also came from patients and their families, fellow nurses, and supervisors.

The No Asshole Rule suggests a few reasons why there are so many.

1. In our society, we value winners so much that, even if they are jerks, we tolerate, or even glorify, them because — so long as they keep making money or winning games — we think they are worth the trouble. Exhibit one is Coach Bob Knight and his long tenure at Indiana University. The administration didn’t have the courage to get rid of him because he won so many games, despite a history of atrocious behavior.

See this story and the associated 1997 video clip: It sure looks to me like he is choking the player. Knight brags that he “did it my way,” but I don’t want people doing things that way in my organization, no matter how great they “perform.”

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Amazon Shows the Way on Wellness — Treat People like Adults

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Since 2000, the government and healthcare industry have sold Americans a bill of goods called workplace wellness, which turns out to have been a colossal waste of billions of dollars.

Most of this money was spent bribing employees to do things that they don’t want to do, such as submit to biometrics, answer intrusive health risk appraisals, and get preventive medical care.

The marketing pitch that wellness makes people healthier and lowers medical care costs, and thus, produces a return on investment for the employer, isn’t true. Wellness also allowed companies to position themselves as employee-friendly, even while wages stagnated and employees morphed into fungible widgets, instead of vital assets in whom employers invested for years or decades.

However, it looks to us as though at least one major US company is treating economic reality seriously, and, consequently, asking its employees to act like adults.

Let’s look at wellness by Amazon.com, which has apparently avoided conventional wellness whole cloth. Despite our best research efforts, we find no evidence that the company makes conventional wellness programming a priority for employees.

It’s a bit ironic that they don’t given the recent spate of tough publicity about the company’s employment practices.

Amazon has been lambasted lately for the plight of the warehouse workers who animate its backroom operation, where constant video surveillance, productivity demands, and getting your bag searched before you go home are the norms. Message boards also detail the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the company’s white collar space, which raises, in our minds, the pointed question of why haven’t they done wellness?

We think it’s because Amazon’s philosophy about work is straightforward: if you work here, expectations are high and relentless. Amazon’s approach to employee well-being seems to be to not have one other than we invite you to grow with us. This is counter-cultural, and it has more to recommend it than first appears obvious.

When you are competing against Walmart and Target, remaining lean and low-cost is critical; wellness drives costs up, not down.

Expecting many staff to work 50, 60, or even 70 hours per week leaves little time for discretionary visits to the doctor that are pointless even before they happen because this superfluous care will save neither lives nor money. When you are not pouring money into coercing employees to join a wellness program, you preserve capital needed to optimize the technologies and product mix that help you grab market share and crush competitors like Best Buy.

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Whose Cancer Is It, Anyway?

flying cadeuciiI recently read a blog by Dr. Danielle Ofri in the New York Times “Well” blog about how as a physician she learned to respect the patient’s wishes even when they contradict her professional inclinations. It’s called Doctor Priorities vs Patient Priorities.”

She writes that the patient is looking through a “wide-angle lens” that takes in the whole of his life while the doctor’s lens is “narrowly focused on the disease that pose[s] the gravest and most immediate risk”. She saw her challenge as entering into dialogue with her patient in order better to understand the wider perspective of his whole life and to work with him to find the most acceptable way to deal with his disease.

If only Dr. Ofri were an oncologist. If only she were my oncologist. My last appointment with my onco, Dr. G, was a disaster. Not only have I not been back to her, I have not gone to any oncologist since then. Part of that is because I don’t want any treatment at this time; that’s still true.

But if I am going to be very honest, and I try to be that always, it is also because of that disastrous appointment with Dr. G.

First of all, she would not respect my decision not to have any more chemo and refused to order any scans unless I would a priori agree to chemo if she decided it was indicated. She also mocked me. It took a long time for me to tell that second bit. In fact, from that day in August 2013 until just recently—seven months!—I only told one or two other people about what happened.

The evening of that last appointment, Dr. G called me at home to continue the argument. I found myself apologizing for causing her distress. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous, but that is how I react to being bullied. Borrowing the words of a friend who really gets it, I apologize to others for their hurtful behavior and then I internalize it. I haven’t talked about Dr. G mocking me because I feel ashamed.

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Rebooting Primary Care From the Bottom Up

Zubin DamaniaFor the better part of a decade, I practiced inpatient hospital medicine at a large academic center (the name isn’t important, but it rhymes with Afghanistan…ford).

I used to play a game with the med students and housestaff: let’s estimate how many of our inpatients actually didn’t need hospitalization, had they simply received effective outpatient preventative care. Over the years, our totals were almost never less than 50%.

For my fellow math-challenged Americans: that’s ONE HALF! Clearly, if there were actually were any incentives to prevent disease, they sure as heck weren’t working.

In a country whose care pyramid is upside down—more specialists than primary care docs, really?—we’re squandering our physical, emotional, and economic health while spending more per capita than anyone else. Four percent of our healthcare dollars go towards primary care, with much of the remaining 95% paying for the failure of primary care. (The missing 1%? Doritos.)

Worse still, the oppressive weight of our non-system’s dysfunction falls disproportionately on the shoulders of our primary care providers—the very instruments of our potential salvation. To them, there’s little solace (and plenty of administrative intrusion) in the top-down reform efforts of accountable care organizations and “certified” patient-centered medical homes.

But what about a bottom-up, more organic effort to reboot healthcare? A focus on restoring the primacy of human relationships to medicine, empowering patients and providers alike to become potent, positive levers on a 2.8 trillion dollar economy? What if we could spend twice as much on effective, preventative primary care and still pull off a net savings in overall costs, improvements in quality, and increased patient satisfaction?

What if George Lucas had just quit after the original Star Wars series? Wouldn’t the world have been better without Jar Jar Binks?

While the latter question is truly speculative, the former ones aren’t. We’re trying to answer them in Las Vegas (hey now, I’m being serious) at Turntable Health, where we’ve partnered with Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle and Cambridge, MA based Iora Health.

We aim to get primary care right by doing the following:

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Open Notes: Is Sharing Mental Health Notes with Patients a Good Idea?

flying cadeuciiWould allowing patients to read their mental health notes provide more benefits than risks?

In a recent article in JAMA  my colleagues and I argue that it would.  While transparent  medical records are gaining favor in primary care settings throughout the country through the OpenNotes initiative, there has been reluctance to allow patients to see what their treaters say about their mental health issues. While this reluctance is understandable and deserves careful consideration, we suggest that several benefits could result from patients reading their mental health notes.

First of all, accuracy would be enhanced  by allowing patients to cross-check what their clinicians say about their symptoms, medication doses, and so forth. Second, allowing patients to review assessments and treatment decisions privately might help to promote a richer dialogue between patient and clinician. Third, patients might learn that their clinician sees them more as a complete person, rather than as a collection of symptoms.

Many patients silently fear that their treater  “will think I’m crazy/whining/lazy/boring”; seeing in print that the treater does not see them  that way—and in fact recognizes and documents their strengths—can be an enormous relief and might therefore enhance the therapeutic alliance.

Clinicians have their own worries about transparent mental health notes that must be considered. Will patients feel objectified by the medical language commonly used in documentation? Will they break off treatment if they don’t like what they read? Will too much time be spent wrangling over details of what has been documented? Will vulnerable patients be psychologically harmed by reading their notes? Although our article briefly addresses these issues, only a trial of transparent mental health notes will provide the data needed to assess them.

Such a trial has just begun at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Culminating many months of careful planning by my colleagues in the ambulatory psychiatry clinic, the Social Work department, as well as the OpenNotes team, we began a pilot project of transparent notes in our psychiatry clinic on March 1. So far almost all clinicians have chosen to participate in the project, and have identified 10% of their caseloads to be included. It’s too early to gauge results yet, but we hope to more fully evaluate the effects of making mental health notes fully transparent to our patients.

Michael W. Kahn, MD is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Medical Faculty Physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). 

ACA 101: An Employer’s Search for Objective Advice

flying cadeuciiIn ancient Athens, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the daylight markets holding a lantern, looking for what he termed, “an honest man.”

It seems since the dawn of the consumer economy that customers and buyers have traded most heavily on a single currency – trust.

Three millennia later, our financial system still hinges on the basic premise that the game is not rigged and any trusted intermediary is defined by a practitioner who puts his client’s interests ahead of his own.

Anyone responsible for procurement of healthcare may feel like a modern-day Diogenes as they wander an increasingly complex market in search of transparent partners and aligned interests. The art of managing medical costs will continue to be a zero-sum game where higher profit margins are achieved at the expense of uninformed purchasers.

It’s often in the shadowed areas of rules-based regulation and in between the fine print of complex financial arrangements that higher profits are made.

Are employers too disengaged and outmatched to manage their healthcare expenditures?

Are the myriad intermediaries that serve as their sentinels, administrators and care managers benefiting or getting hurt by our current system’s lack of transparency and its deficit of information?

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Going after the Wrong Doctors

A recent ProPublica expose co-published with the Boston Globe typifies a growing gotcha genre of health journalism that portrays doctors as the enemy in a struggle for honesty and openness in medicine.

These reports make unfounded leaps in their efforts to subject doctors to levels of skepticism once reserved for politicians and lawyers. They’re going to end up doing patients a disservice.

For this particular hunting expedition ProPublica set its sights on Dr. Yoav Golan, an infectious diseases specialist caring for patients at Tufts Medical Center in Boston who also works with pharmaceutical companies developing antibiotics.

But in its zeal to argue how physicians like Golan are corrupting medicine through their industry partnerships, ProPublica went to press without an iota of evidence Golan is corrupt.

A close look at Golan’s impressive career suggests quite the contrary and raises questions about ProPublica’s claim to objectivity.

Yoav Golan is a remarkably bad choice for anyone who hopes to use him as a poster boy of pharma-physician malfeasance.

As Tufts said in a statement in response to the ProPublica story, Golan enjoys international respect in the infectious diseases community and has assisted the development of “two important antibiotics, including the first antibiotic developed in the past 25 years to treat the growing threat of deadly C. difficile.”

(Disclosure: I held an academic appointment at Tufts for one year when I was practicing in Boston, but in another department and I never met Golan before this story.)

That antibiotic, fidaxomicin, is pricey, and you’d think an industry shill would liberally advise its use. Yet Golan and his team advised a Tufts committee setting internal standards for its use that the hospital should heavily restrict the drug. “We were very active in making sure it’s not used in pathways where it’s not cost effective,” Golan told me.

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The Problem of Pain: When Best Medical Advice Doesn’t Equal Patient Satisfaction


The problem of pain, from the viewpoint of British novelist and theologian C. S. Lewis, is how to reconcile the reality of suffering with belief in a just and benevolent God.

The American physician’s problem with pain is less cosmic and more concrete. For physicians today in nearly every specialty, the problem of pain is how to treat it responsibly, stay on the good side of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and still score high marks in patient satisfaction surveys.

If a physician recommends conservative treatment measures for pain–such as ibuprofen and physical therapy–the patient may be unhappy with the treatment plan. If the physician prescribes controlled drugs too readily, he or she may come under fire for irresponsible prescription practices that addict patients to powerful pain medications such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

Consider this recent article in The New Republic:Drug Dealers Aren’t to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are.” The writer, Graeme Wood, faults his dentist for prescribing hydrocodone to relieve pain after his wisdom tooth extraction.

As further evidence of her misdeeds, he says, first she “knocked me out with propofol–the same drug that killed Michael Jackson.” Wood uses his experience–which sounds as though it went smoothly, controlled his pain, and fixed his problem–to bolster his argument that doctors indiscriminately hand out pain medications and are entirely to blame for patient addiction.

But what happens to doctors who try not to prescribe narcotics for every complaint of pain, or antibiotics for every viral upper respiratory infection? They’re likely to run afoul of patient satisfaction surveys. Many hospitals and clinics now send a satisfaction questionnaire to every patient who sees a doctor, visits an emergency room, or is admitted to a hospital.

The results are often referred to as Press Ganey scores, named for the company that is the leading purveyor of patient satisfaction surveys. Today these scores wield alarming power over physician incentive pay, promotion, and contract renewal.

Now hospital payments are at risk too.

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What If Your Employer Gets Access to Your Medical Records?

T was never a star service tech at the auto dealership where he worked for more than a decade. If you lined up all the techs, he wouldn’t stand out: medium height, late-middle age, pudgy, he was as middle-of-the-pack as a guy could get.

He was exactly the type of employee that his employer’s wellness vendor said was their ideal customer. They could fix him.

A genial sort, T thought nothing of sitting with a “health coach” to have his blood pressure and blood taken, get weighed, and then use the coach’s notebook computer to answer, for the first time in his life, a health risk appraisal.

He found many of the questions oddly personal: how much did he drink, how often did he have (unprotected) sex, did he use sleeping pills or pain relievers, was he depressed, did he have many friends, did he drive faster than the speed limit? But, not wanting to rock the boat, and anxious to the $100/month bonus that came with being in the wellness program, he coughed up this personal information.

The feedback T got, in the form of a letter sent to both his home and his company mailbox, was that he should lose weight, lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and keep an eye on his blood sugar. Then, came the perfect storm that T never saw developing.

His dealership started cutting employees a month later. In the blink of an eye, a decade of service ended with a “thanks, it’s been nice to know you” letter and a few months of severance.

T found the timing of dismissal to be strangely coincidental with the incentivized disclosure of his health information.

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What Makes a Good Doctor? And Can We Measure It?

I recently spoke to a quality measures development organization and it got me thinking — what makes a good doctor, and how do we measure it?

In thinking about this, I reflected on how far we have come on quality measurement.  A decade or so ago, many physicians didn’t think the quality of their care could be measured and any attempt to do so was “bean counting” folly at best or destructive and dangerous at worse.  Yet, in the last decade, we have seen a sea change.

We have developed hundreds of quality measures and physicians are grumblingly accepting that quality measurement is here to stay.  But the unease with quality measurement has not gone away and here’s why.  If you ask “quality experts” what good care looks like for a patient with diabetes, they might apply the following criteria:  good hemoglobin A1C control, regular checking of cholesterol, effective LDL control, smoking cessation counseling, and use of an ACE Inhibitor or ARB in subsets of patients with diabetes.

Yet, when I think about great clinicians that I know – do I ask myself who achieves the best hemoglobin A1C control? No. Those measures – all evidence-based, all closely tied to better patient outcomes –don’t really feel like they measure the quality of the physician.

So where’s the disconnect?  What does make a good doctor?  Unsure, I asked Twitter:

good doctor twitter

Over 200 answers came rolling in.
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