Healthcare is on a different trajectory from most other businesses today. It’s a little hard to understand why.
In business, mass market products and services have always competed on price or perceived quality. Think Walmart or Mercedes-Benz, even the Model T Ford. But the real money and the real excitement in business is moving away from price and measurable cookie cutter quality to the intangibles of authority, influence and trust. This, in a way, is a move back in time to preindustrial values.
In primary care, unbeknownst to many pundits and administrators and unthinkable for most of the health tech industry, price and quality are not really even realistic considerations. In fact, they are largely unknown and unknowable.
One of the top students at one of the nation’s largest medical schools, Ishan Gohil has made an unusual – and to many of his colleagues – inexplicable decision. Instead of seeking to train in one of medicine’s most highly specialized and competitive fields, he says, “I elected to pursue a career in family medicine.” Many view his choice of primary care as ill-advised, largely because family medicine is one of the least competitive fields and ranks at the bottom for income of all medical specialties.
Until his third year, Gohil had planned to pursue orthopedic surgery, which is considerably more difficult to get into than family medicine. In 2014, the average score on Step 1 of the US Medical Licensing Exam for students entering family medicine was 218, while for orthopedic surgery it was 245 (the overall average is 230). Average annual salary levels diverge even more widely, at $122,000 for family physicians and $488,000 for orthopedic surgeons.Continue reading…
There is a growing group of articulate and engaged patients committed to getting access to all their medical information in order to be better positioned to work collaboratively with their clinical teams. Published studies like the OpenNotes project have consistently shown significant benefits and a lack of serious problems. Health care systems are slow to change and just beginning to understand both the need and value to this more transparent and collaborative approach.
My institution, for example, is not ready (or even interested) in anything approaching opening chart notes to patients. In fact, although our secure portal will be launched in the near future, there was some resistance to making even problem lists, medication lists, lab and x-rays available through the portal.
That need not prevent individuals from contributing to change. A few years ago I began providing every patient with a copy of their office visit note as they left the office after their visit. The intent was for us to do the assessment and plan collaboratively and make sure they have a copy of our (collaborative) plan. Patients have been very appreciative, and use it to share the assessment and plan with family and consultants, and as a reference. A few bring it back at the next visit with notes on it about what they did and what happened.
To the objectors who say that one cannot be honest in a note if the patient is going to see it, I say: balderdash. (Actually, what I say is much stronger…) For one thing (the smaller point) the patient is already allowed to see it if they but ask. More importantly, this argument depends entirely on the principle that the clinician knows best and needs to keep secrets in the interest of the patient. What I have experienced is a variation on the advice I got many years ago regarding relationships: if it’s important, then it’s important enough to be open about and deal with. If you aren’t willing to deal with it openly, you are not allowed to save it up and spring it on your partner (patient) later.
Hospitals are environments where emotions can run high. These emotions cross all boundaries and can affect physicians, hospital staff, patients and their families. Dealing with an “angry” patient is a common challenge that physicians face.
The first step for a physician encountering an angry patient is to remain calm and allow the patient to express his or her concerns. In my experience, “angry” patients can be viewed as falling into several different categories. By understanding and thinking about these categories, physicians can begin to identify the root of the anger and take measures to address it. This exercise might seem simplistic at first. However, you’ll be amazed by how powerful the results can be.
Why do patients become angry? What are the common “root” causes?
Medical illness is often accompanied by pain, so much so that pain is often considered the fifth vital sign. Assessment and treatment of pain is an important factor for all medically ill patients. Anger is a common emotion in patients with pain, especially chronic pain. It is thought that the presence of significant anger may in fact further aggravate the feeling of pain. Physicians must not only be able to assess pain, but also to weigh the benefits and the risks in prescribing analgesics. When any patient appears to be “angry,” the presence of pain, especially untreated/undertreated pain, must be considered and rectified as a matter of urgency.
2. Fear and worry
Being medically ill, especially if one is hospitalized, can be an intensely destabilizing experience for both the patient and his or her caregivers. In some cases, an unknown prognosis, the occurrence of complications or the impact of the illness on their independence, can make patients fearful about the future. This worry can manifest as anger, and since patients cannot direct their worry or anger toward their illness, this anger may be displaced onto people around them, including hospital workers. Attempting to recognize, and where possible alleviate, their worries is often very helpful.
3. Feeling unheard or uninvolved
Any patient who displays anger in a hospital setting is guaranteed to attract attention. For some patients the expression of anger may actually suggest that they feel “unheard” in the medical setting. They may feel that they do not have enough information about their condition or their concerns have not been addressed. The question then arises, how do we make them feel heard? Do they understand why they are in the hospital? Do they understand what their treatment options are? Do they feel they have been part of the decision-making process? Ensuring that patients feel they are involved in their care can reduce the anger that can arise out of being “unheard” in a hospital.
Strategy in baseball used to be a fairly straightforward matter. A few strategy rules – a right handed pitcher was more successful against a right handed batter, lefty against lefty, no left handers at infield positions except for first base, don’t hold the runner at first with two outs and a left handed batter, and sacrifice bunt to move a runner at first with less than two outs- were taken as gospel and practiced by the community.
It was baseball’s version of the 10 commandments, written in stone and for the first century of baseball, unchangeable.
The world changed, though few knew it, in 1946 when Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau moved his shortstop to the right of second base against the legendary dead pull hitter Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.
However, like many innovations, it is only with the advent of large data sets that the revolution that started that July day in Cleveland impacted day to day strategy.
A players position on the field is no longer the result of the manager’s intuitive hunch, or even the result of consulting a written document of the past several encounters between a particular pitcher and a particular batter- a scatter gram of where this batter is likely to hit the ball. Instead, major league teams are increasingly relying on sophisticated, large data sets that are housed on remote servers.
These data sets run complex algorithms predicting the best solution for a particular ecosystem- elements of which include – batter, pitcher and all the defensive players and their particular gifts, skills and tendencies- and even the weather and time of day.
It was probably the most awkward question I had been asked before, and I did not have an answer…
He was a middle-aged gentleman, neatly dressed—very simple and unassuming. He blended like a lifeless statue in the waiting area. What sparked my notice of him was his accompanying robust file, crammed with familiar pink discharge slips from the ED.
He was clearly what we call a “frequent flyer”, but this would be his first visit in our surgical clinic.
I escorted him into the assessment room, exchanging the usual salutations as he edged unto the exam table, wincing with discomfort. His chief complaint read, “acute abdominal pain and constipation x 1 week.”
Vying to understand more about his issue, I asked, “Sir, how long have you had this problem?” Embarrassed, he lowered his head.
I retreated and instead remarked, “Ok. Let’s start from today. Where do you have the most pain?”
Tenderly, his frail digits unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a wasted torso, which hoisted an extraordinarily distended abdomen. It appeared rigid and tense. I reached out to gently palpate it to confirm the realism of my observations. He flinched. His stoic affect instantly collapsed into an aching frown.
Tears welled in his eyes. Something terrible was going on inside. Cancer.
He needed to be admitted and surgery would be very likely, if not too late. I was aplomb in my explanation of his condition, feeling proud of my thoroughness and precision. Yet, seemingly unengaged, he politely interrupted and asked, “How much will it cost to let me die?”
I paused. It was probably the most awkward question I had been asked before, and I did not have an answer. During my training, I was taught to order tests wisely, to avoid superfluous exams and to minimize inefficiency of resources; in spite of this, I had not ever stopped to think about cost in this context.
In my mind, it was my duty to provide the best, quality care to extend life, foremost. Yet, his concern was different. How much would it cost to die?
Doctors are spending less time seeing patients, and the nation declares a doctor shortage, best remedied by having more non-physicians delivering patient care while doctors do more and more non-doctor work.
Usually, in cases of limited resources, we start talking about conservation: Make cars more fuel efficient, reduce waste in manufacturing, etc.
Funny, then, that in health care there seems to be so little discussion about how a limited supply of doctors can best serve the needs of their patients.
One hair-brained novel idea making its way through the blogs and journals right now is to have pharmacists treat high blood pressure. That would have to mean sending them back to school to learn physical exam skills and enough physiology and pathology about heart disease and kidney disease, which are often interrelated with hypertension.
Not only would this cause fragmentation of care, but it would probably soon take up enough of our pharmacists’ time that we would end up with a serious shortage of pharmacists.
Within medical offices there are many more staff members who interact with patients about their health issues: case managers, health coaches, accountable care organization nurses, medical assistants and many others are assuming more responsibilities.
We call this “working to the top of their license.”
Doctors, on the other hand, are spending more time on data entry than thirty years ago, as servants of the Big Data funnels that the Government and insurance companies put in our offices to better control where “their” money (which we all paid them) ultimately goes.
In primary care we are also spending more time on public health issues, even though this has shown little success and is quite costly. We are treating patients one at a time for lifestyle-related conditions affecting large subgroups of the population: obesity, prediabetes, prehypertension and smoking, to name a few that would be more suitable for non-physician management than hard-core hypertension.
It is high time we have a serious national debate, not yet about how many doctors we need, but what we need our doctors to do. Only then can we talk numbers.
Hans Duvefelt, MD is a Swedish-born family physician in a small town in rural Maine. He blogs regularly at A Country Doctor Writes where this piece originally appeared.
I 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.
Would 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).
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.
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.