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Tag: Hospitals

Creating Conditions for Humanity in Hospitals

Why aren’t people in hospitals more attentive to the needs of patients?

In a recent post, Dr. Ashish Jha raises this issue as he relates his own story of coming to an ED with a very painful dislocated shoulder. Unsurprisingly, prompt treatment of his pain was deferred while staff diligently completed registration, sent him for an xray, and waited for a physician to see him.

On the bike path where Jha took his initial tumble, people went out of their way to respond to his injury with attention and concern. But as he lay moaning on a gurney in the hospital corridors, waiting for an xray and not yet treated for pain, people avoided his eyes and even walked by a little faster.

What gives? Why aren’t people in the hospital more empathetic and attentive? Is this a “wonderful people, bad system” issue?

In reflecting on his experience, Jha remarks that people seem to leave their humanity at the door when they arrive at the hospital for work, and posits that we get desensitized to suffering. He notes that some workers were able to “break out of that trap,” and responded to him more empathetically when he directly solicited their help and attention.

“It is the job of healthcare leaders to create a culture where we retain our humanity despite the constant exposure to patients who are suffering,” writes Jha.

Culture change is necessary but not sufficient

Culture is important. Yes I’ll admit that I’m usually a bit skeptical when I hear of a plan to tackle a problem through culture change. In my own experience, this has consisted of leaders trying to “create culture” by describing to front-line staff  what they should be doing, and repeatedly exhorting them to do it. (And maybe giving out gold stars to those who do it.)

This, of course, is never enough. Talking the talk does not mean people start to walk the walk, especially if the walk involves a slog uphill rather than an easier stroll down a path of lesser resistance.

If we – whether healthcare leaders or  just concerned citizens who want to see healthcare improve – really want healthcare workers to demonstrate more compassion and empathy while on the job, then here is what we need to do:

  1. We should take seriously the task of understanding what might be interfering with this compassion and engagement. This means not only studying workflow, but also the behavioral psychology of individuals as well as groups.
  2. We should then be serious about creating the conditions that would allow regular human beings to reliably produce the desired behaviors.

Why it can be hard to help people in the hospital

What interferes with showing compassion and engagement? In reading Jha’s piece, I reflected on my own hospital days. Here are the obstacles that I remember, and the impact on me.

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#MomInHospital

A few weeks ago, a middle-aged man decided to tweet about his mother’s illness from her bedside. The tweets went viral and became the subject of a national conversation. The man, of course, was NPR anchorman Scott Simon, and his reflections about his mother’s illness and ultimate death are poignant, insightful, and well worth your time.

Those same days, and unaware of Simon’s real-time reports, I also found myself caring for my hospitalized mother, and I made the same decision – to tweet from the bedside. (As with Simon’s mom, mine didn’t quite understand what Twitter is, but trusted her son that this was a good thing to do.) Being with my mother during a four-day inpatient stay offered a window into how things actually work at my own hospital, where I’ve practiced for three decades, and into the worlds of hospital care and patient safety, my professional passions. In this blog, I’ll take advantage of the absence of a 140-character limit to explore some of the lessons I learned.

First a little background. My mother is a delightful 77-year-old woman who lives with my 83-year-old father in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been generally healthy through her life. Two years ago, a lung nodule being followed on serial CT scans was diagnosed as cancer, and she underwent a right lower lobectomy, which left her mildly short of breath but with a reasonably good prognosis. In her left lower lung is another small nodule; it too is now is being followed with serial scans. While that remaining nodule may yet prove cancerous, it does not light up on PET scan nor has it grown in a year. So we’re continuing to track it, with crossed fingers.

Unfortunately, after a challenging recovery from her lung surgery, about a year ago Mom developed a small bowel obstruction (SBO). For those of you who aren’t clinical, this is one of life’s most painful events: the bowel, blocked, begins to swell as its contents back up, eventually leading to intractable nausea and vomiting, and excruciating pain. Bowel obstruction is rare in a “virgin” abdomen – the vast majority of cases result from scar tissue (“adhesions”) that formed after prior surgery. In my mother’s case, of course, we worried that the SBO was a result of metastatic lung cancer, but the investigation showed only scar tissue, probably from a hysterectomy done decades earlier.

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Average Care at a Typical Hospital on an Ordinary Sunday in August

The Bike Path:

On a warm and sunny August Sunday, I was rollerblading with my kids on the Shining Sea Bikeway. On mile nine on the trip, I hit a tree root, went flying, and landed on my shoulder.  I could tell immediately that something was wrong — I couldn’t move my arm and was in the worst pain of my life. Feeling for my left shoulder, it was obvious that I had dislocated it. What happened next was that I received some of the best care of my life – unfortunately it was not from our healthcare system.

As I was lying on the bike path, nearly everyone stopped and asked how they could help. A pediatric nephrologist offered to pop my shoulder back into place. I declined. This wonderful couple on a two-person reclining bike stopped and insisted on pedaling me to the hospital. We were far from the road and knew that calling an ambulance was not straightforward. So I sat with my left arm dangling, in excruciating pain, while David rode the bike to Falmouth Hospital. It was a 20 minute ride finishing with a very steep hill. David apologized after each bump on the road as he heard me swear and wince.

The Emergency Room:

We finally made it to the ER, and, ironically, it was then that my care stopped being so wonderful.

It started off well enough – a triage nurse saw me walking in holding my arm, in distress.  She got me a wheelchair and brought me into triage. I explained what happened, gave my name, date of birth and described the pain as the worst of my life.  I was then shuttled to registration, where I was asked to repeat all the same information.  It felt surreal: I had moved all of 10 feet and yet somehow my information hadn’t followed me. The registration person asked me question after question.   Initially, the same ones: name, address, phone #, etc.  Then, my Social Security number (presumably so they could go after me if I didn’t pay my bill), my primary care physician’s name, his address, his phone #, my insurance status, my insurance #, my insurance card, my emergency contact, their address and phone #, etc. etc. etc.

I told her I was in excruciating pain and needed help.  A few more questions, she said.  She needed the complete registration.

I was wheeled to radiology and sat in a hallway for what felt like forever, groaning in pain. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. Six or seven people walked by – and as they heard me groan, they would look down and walk faster.  The x-ray technologist avoided eye contact.  It was hard — I was right outside her room.  Finally, I asked a passerby if she could help.  Caught by surprise (I must have sounded human), she stopped.  She looked at me.  She then went into the x-ray suite.  A few minutes later, a second technologist came out, saw my arm, and was the first to acknowledge that my arm looked painful.  He told me the ER was pretty quiet and he would get me in right away.

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Is Health Industry Price Inflation Really At a Historical Low?

One hesitates to make too much of a single report, but the Altarum Institute’s July Report, “Health Care Price Growth at 20+ Year Low,” certainly commands one’s attention.  According to Altarum’s analysis, the health sector pricing trend ran at a 1.0 percent annual rate in May 2013, lowest since January of 1990.  What is striking about Altarum’s health care pricing trendline is that it has declined for the last three years in spite of an alleged economic recovery.

It also runs parallel to a subsiding utilization trend, suggesting that the health sector has been unable to offset reduced utilization with price increases.  Since the beginning of the recession, pricing has subsided from double the rate of the GDP deflator to parity, and it has closely tracked the deflator with only two deviations for more than eight years. Clearly, something more than the recession is at work here.

These trendlines confirm what this observer sees from his contacts in multiple sectors of the health industry:  a widespread and durable “top line flu”.  The growth in enterprise revenue for most health providers and manufacturers has been static (e.g. very low single digits or actually declining) over the last two years.  Most investor-owned hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and physician practices (pretty much everyone except the consultants and IT vendors) have reported both revenue stasis and earnings compression.

My economist friends point to rising consumer copayments as inhibiting price increases.  The Kaiser Family Foundation has reported almost a quadrupling of the number of covered workers in high deductible health plans (from 5 percent to 19 percent) since the end of the recession.  It is also possible that a disinflationary mindset has inhibited providers and suppliers from seeking outsized price increases to compensate for lost sales volume.  For suppliers, the marked decline of “physician preference” marketing has also hurt both sales and margins.

Hospital pricing. Performance of hospital prices will provide more fodder for those concerned about hospital consolidation pushing prices up.  On the one hand, overall hospital prices rose an annualized 1.8 percent for May 2013, fractionally higher than the consumer price index (CPI) at 1.4 percent.  However, when one strips out the “administered price” portion (Medicaid and Medicare), hospital prices to privately insured patients rose 4.8 percent annualized in May, nearly five times rate of health prices as a whole.  Altarum suggests that cost shifting might explain this significant disparity.  However, even this increase to private patients was not enough to raise overall health costs significantly.

Government payment to hospitals has trended lower for multiple reasons.   Many state Medicaid plans have cut hospital rates in the past several years to help balance state budgets.  And in addition to the ACA’s mandated reductions in hospitals’ disproportionate share payments and DRG updates, the sequester took a significant further bite out of DRG payments during the winter.

Since most hospital contracts with private insurers are multi-year, it’s difficult to argue that compensating upward revisions in private health insurance contract rates would yet be reflected in national economic statistics.  Moreover, not all hospitals are part of systems capable of exerting pricing power on private health plans.  Have-not hospitals have had their prices constrained by payer contracts, compensating for the effect of leverage by market hegemons.  We’ll have more evidence in a year to confirm or disconfirm the cost shifting/pricing power hypothesis.

There’s another indicator of a tougher hospital pricing environment.  According to the Advisory Board’s Dan Diamond, hospital employment has actually contracted in one-quarter of the monthly jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics since January 2009, including a 6000 person force reduction in May, 2013.  On balance, hospital executives would much rather raise rates than lay off staff, so the fact that the nearly unbroken decades-long expansion of hospital headcounts is faltering suggests a very difficult pricing environment for hospital services.

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Medicare’s Observation Status-and Why Attempts to Make Things Better May Make Them Worse

There are tens of thousands of policies in Medicare’s policy manual, which makes for stiff competition for the “Most Maddening” award. But my vote goes to the policy around “observation status,” which is crazy-making for patients, administrators, and physicians.

“Obs status” began life as Medicare’s way of characterizing those patients who needed a little more time after their ED stay to sort out whether they truly needed admission. In many hospitals, “obs units” sprung up to care for such patients – a few beds in a room adjacent to the ED where the patients could get another nebulizer treatment or bag of saline to see if they might be able to go home. Giving the hospital a full DRG payment for an inpatient admission seemed wrong, and yet these patients really weren’t outpatients either. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS’s) original definition of obs status spoke to the specific needs of these just-a-few-more-hours patients: a “well-defined set of specific, clinically appropriate services,” usually lasting less than 24 hours. Only in “rare and exceptional cases,” they continued, should it last more than 48 hours.

A recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine, written by a team from the University of Wisconsin, vividly illustrates how far the policy has veered from its sensible origins. Chronicling all admissions over an 18-month period, Ann Sheehy and colleagues found that observation status was anything but rare, well defined, or brief. Fully one in ten hospital stays were characterized as observation. The mean length of these stays was 33 hours; 17 percent of them were for more than 48 hours. And “well defined?” Not with 1,141 distinct observation codes.

To underscore just how arbitrary the rules regarding observation are, an investigation by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released today found that “obs patients” and “inpatients” were clinically indistinguishable. Their major difference: which hospital they happened to be admitted to.

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More Work Is Needed on the Safety and Efficacy of Healthcare Information Technology

If one were writing about the improvement of gastronomy in America, one would probably not celebrate “over 300 billion hamburgers served.”  But that’s very much the type of success Dr. Ashish Jha is celebrating in last week’s piece on recent US healthcare IT sales. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Big Macs does not reflect superior cuisine, and healthcare IT (HIT) sales do not equate with better healthcare or with better health. Quantity does not equal quality of care.

To be sure, Dr. Jha acknowledges the challenges of rolling out HIT throughout US hospitals. And he should be strongly commended for his admission that HIT doesn’t capture care by many specialists and doesn’t save money. In addition, Dr. Jha points to the general inability of hospitals, outpatient physicians and laboratories to transfer data among themselves as a reason for HIT’s meager results.

But this is a circular argument and not an excuse. It is the vendors’ insistence on isolated proprietary systems (and the government’s acquiescence to the vendors) that created this lack of communication (non-interoperability) which so limits one of HIT’s most valuable benefits.

In our opinion, the major concern is that the blog post fails to answer the question we ask our PhD students:

So what? What is the outcome?

This entire effort is fueled by $29 billion in government subsidies and incentives, and by trillions of dollars spent and to be spent by hospitals, doctors and others [1].

So where is the evidence to back up the government’s and industry’s promises of lower mortality, improved health and lower health care costs?

Single studies tell us little. Sadly, as many as 90% of health IT studies fail the minimal criteria of the respected international literature syntheses conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration.

In other words, studies with weak methodology or sweetheart evaluation arrangements just don’t count as evidence.
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Five Potential Healthcare Applications for Google Glass

Last week I had the opportunity to test Google Glass.

It’s basically an Android smartphone (without the cellular transmitter) capable of running Android apps, built into a pair of glasses.  The small prism “screen” displays video at half HD resolution.  The sound features use bone conduction, so only the wearer can hear audio output.   It has a motion sensitive accelerometer for gestural commands.    It has a microphone to support voice commands.   The right temple is a touch pad.  It has WiFi and Bluetooth.   Battery power lasts about a day per charge.

Of course, there have been parodies of the user experience but I believe that clinicians can successfully use Google Glass to improve quality, safety, and efficiency in a manner that is less bothersome to the patients than a clinician staring at a keyboard.

Here are few examples:

1.  Meaningful Use Stage 2 for Hospitals – Electronic Medication Admission Records must include the use of “assistive technology” to ensure the right dose of the right medication is given via the right route to the right patient at the right time.   Today, many hospitals unit dose bar code every medication – a painful process.   Imagine instead that a nurse puts on a pair of glasses, walks in the room and wi-fi geolocation shows the nurse a picture of the patient in the room who should be receiving medications.  Then, pictures of the medications will be shown one at a time.  The temple touch user interface could be used to scroll through medication pictures and even indicate that they were administered.

2.  Clinical documentation – All of us are trying hard to document the clinical encounter using templates, macros, voice recognition, natural language processing and clinical documentation improvement tools.     However, our documentation models may misalign with the ways patients communicate and doctors conceptualize medical information per Ross Koppel’s excellent JAMIA article.  Maybe the best clinical documentation is real time video of the patient encounter, captured from the vantage point of the clinician’s Google Glass.   Every audio/visual cue that the clinician sees and hears will be faithfully recorded.

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As the Debate Over Obamacare Implementation Rages, a Success on the IT Front

Just a little over four years ago, President Obama, in his inaugural address, challenged us as a nation to “wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.”  This was an awe-inspiring, “we will go to the moon” moment for the healthcare delivery system.  But the next thought that ran through the minds of so many of us who work on health IT issues was this: how were we going to get there?

We were essentially starting from scratch.  Less than 1 in 10 hospitals had an electronic health record, and for ambulatory care physicians, the numbers weren’t much better – about 1 in 6 had an EHR.  Hospitals and physicians reported an array of challenges that were holding them back.  No nation our size with a healthcare system as complex as ours had even come close to universal EHR use.  Yet, the President was calling for this by just 2014.

And it was clear why.  The promise of EHRs was enormous and we knew that paper-based records were a disaster.  They lead to lots of errors and a lot of waste.  I have cared for patients using paper-based records and using electronic records – and I’m a much better clinician when I’m using an EHR.  In the weeks that followed Obama’s inaugural address, the U.S. Congress passed, and the President signed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which contained a series of incentives and tools to drive adoption and “meaningful use” of EHRs. None of us knew whether the policy tools just handed to the Obama administration were going to be enough to climb the mountain to universal EHR use.  We were starting at sea level and had a long climb ahead.
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A New Trend? Hospital Successfully Sues its Patient’s Attorneys for Filing a Vexatious Malpractice Suit

Connecticut’s Appellate Court recently ruled that hospitals and doctors can successfully sue their patients’ attorneys for filing a vexatious malpractice suit. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s decision that the patient’s suit was vexatious will often create an estoppel against the attorney. The attorney will consequently be precluded from contesting that decision. The only issue will then be the amount of damages—double or treble—that the attorney and her firm will be obligated to pay the hospital or the doctor.  See Charlotte Hungerford Hospital v. Creed — A.3d —-, 2013 WL 3378824 (Conn. App. 2013).

Whether this is going to be a trend in our medical malpractice law remains to be seen. In the meantime, I provide the details of that important decision.

Attorneys representing the family of a psychiatric patient, who committed suicide, filed a malpractice suit against a hospital and some of its doctors. They alleged that the defendants prematurely discharged the patient from the hospital’s emergency room while she was still experiencing a severe mental health crisis. Allegedly, this untreated crisis was the cause of the suicide that the patient committed four days later.

The suit was supported by an opinion letter from a registered nurse (!!). Under Connecticut law, as in many other states, the supporting opinion letter must come from “a similar health care provider.” The attorneys thus should have retained a psychiatrist, rather than a nurse, as an expert supporting the suit. Their failure to do so rendered the suit defective and the trial judge properly struck it out.

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It’s the Jobs, Stupid. No, Wait. It’s the Stupid Jobs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics came out with its June jobs report this week and, consistent with usual trends, healthcare jobs are booming. In June 2013 there were approximately 20,000 new healthcare jobs in the U.S., ¾ of which were in the ambulatory care sector and ¼ of which were in hospitals. Healthcare jobs represented 10% of all new jobs created this month.

The June growth in healthcare jobs matches up to the average 19,000 new healthcare jobs we have seen created in each of the prior months of 2013 and the 12% job growth we have seen over the last five years. In a country where new jobs are viewed as even better than baseball, apple pie and mom herself, these new jobs should elicit a huge round of applause, or at least a stadium style wave, right?

Or should they?

Change the channel and a different set of policy makers, employers and industry experts will tell you that the only way to save our economy from ruin is to cut healthcare costs. Cutting healthcare costs means making the people who work within the system vastly more efficient, eliminating unnecessary medical care (and thus reducing the labor that goes along with it), and helping empower consumers to do things for themselves, including taking a more active role in reducing their own demand for healthcare services and, in some cases, doing at home what they might previously have used the healthcare system to do (e.g., diagnostics, home care, etc).

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