I am a naturopathic doctor, and because I operate outside of insurance-based medicine, I have, what most healthcare providers would consider, lots of time with my patients. My typical first patient appointment is 90 minutes long and my follow-up visits are 30 minutes long.
What, you may ask, do I do with all this time? I get to know my patients by listening to their stories, their concerns and their hopes. We delve into their health concerns, we review their medical records, and we explore lifestyle-based strategies to optimize their healing and wellbeing.
In short, I listen and apply what I know in partnership with each patient with the goal of empowering them towards greater wellness. Over and over, I hear from my patients how unusual this is. They speak about the 5-minute visits with their doctors that feel rushed and disconnected. They express frustration and dismay about being a diagnosis, not a person, when seeing their healthcare providers.
A recent survey conducted by the New York Times found that two-thirds of Americans support some form of change to the current healthcare system and favor moving towards greater insurance coverage for all. My experience for almost 25 years leads me to conclude that underlying this vision of healthcare is a deep-seated desire for patients to be cared for and listened to.
In medicine, contrary to common belief, it is not usually enough to know the diagnosis and its best treatment or procedure. Guidelines, checklists and protocols only go so far when you are treating real people with diverse constitutions for multiple problems under a variety of circumstances.
The more you know about unusual presentations of common diseases, the more likely you are to make the correct diagnosis, I think everyone would agree. Also, the more you know about the rare diseases that can look like the common one you think you’re seeing in front if you, rather than having just a memorized list of rule-outs, the better you are at deciding how much extra testing is practical and cost effective in each situation.
Not everyone with high blood pressure needs to be tested in detail for pheochromocytoma, renal artery stenosis, coarctation of the aorta, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, hyperparathyroidism or thyroiditis. But you need to know enough about all of these things to have them in mind, automatically and naturally, when you see someone with high blood pressure.
Just having a lifeless list in your pocket or your EMR, void of vivid details and depth of understanding, puts you at risk of being a burned-out, shallow healthcare worker someday replaced by apps or artificial intelligence.
So many primary care patients have several multifaceted problems these days, and the more or less unspoken expectation is that we must touch on everything in every visit. I often do the opposite.
It’s not that I don’t pack a lot into each visit. I do, but I tend to go deep on one topic, instead of just a few minutes or maybe even moments each on weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, lipids, symptoms and health maintenance.
When patients are doing well, that broad overview is perhaps all that needs to be done, but when the overview reveals several problem areas, I don’t try to cover them all. I “chunk it down”, and I work with my patient to set priorities.
What non-clinicians don’t seem to think of is that primary health care is a relationship based care delivery that takes place over a continuum that may span many years, or if we are fortunate enough, decades.
United States medical education system is heralded as one among the top in the
world for medical training. Given the strict standards of education, multiple
licensing boards, and continuous oversight by governing bodies, getting a placement
to train in the US is extremely competitive. In 2017 alone, nearly 7000+ non-US citizens
(commonly referred to as “foreign medical graduates”) applied to compete with 24,000+
US citizens for American residency spots to pursue specialty training. The
reasons for this competitiveness are simple. The vast majority of medical institutions
in the US boast a comprehensive curriculum that entails basic sciences,
clinical principles, practical and hands-on didactics, and enriched exposure to
the clinical aspects of patient care. This training produces astute clinicians
that are capable of resolving the most complex diagnoses while providing comprehensive
it is high time to recognize that being a shrewd clinician is no longer a
sufficient product for the demands of the healthcare market today. That is to
say, the scope of medicine today for a physician has gone far beyond resolving
complex medical problems, but demands a higher understanding of multidisciplinary
skillsets, most important of which are finance and legal theory. In these
aspects, the US medical education system direly underprepares physicians, and
thus, requires a thorough reevaluation.
art of medicine, as much as it was originally developed to be purely about the
betterment of patient health, has become yet another siloed service industry.
Simply put, patients are customers, and physicians are increasingly held
accountable for the financial metrics and revenue their work produces. Compensation
models are increasingly favoring productivity based payment methods, such
as the relative value unit (RVU) system, and are moving away from the
traditional, salaried physician. This has resulted in increased pressure on
physicians to become more efficient with their workload and patient docket,
while managing the often turbulent and contradictory interests of insurance,
patients, and hospital administration.
U.S. physicians report that more than 20 percent of overall medical
care is not needed.
The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that up to
30 percent of the costs of medical care delivered in the U.S. pay for tests,
procedures, doctor visits, hospital stays, and other services that may not
actually improve patient health.
Unnecessary medical treatment impacts the healthcare industry through
decreased physician productivity, increased cost of medical care, and
additional work for front office staff and other healthcare professionals.
Most of today’s
primary care is, in retail terms, a loss leader — a well-oiled doorway to the
wildly expensive sick care system. For decades, practitioners have been forced
into production factories, seeing as many patients, ordering as many tests, and
sending as many referrals as possible to specialists. Patients, likewise, have
avoided going in for regular visits for fear of the price tag attached, often
waiting until they’re in such bad shape that urgent (and much more expensive)
care is necessary.
The system as it
stands isn’t delivering primary care in a way that serves patients, providers,
employers, or insurers as well as it could. To improve health at individual and
population levels, the system needs to be disrupted. Primary care needs to play a much larger role in healthcare, and it
needs to be delivered in a way that doesn’t make patients feel isolated,
neglected, or dismissed.
care is making a comeback — the kind that doesn’t just treat symptoms, but sees
trust, engagement, and behavior change as a path to health.
The chest CT report was a bit worrisome. Henry had “pleural based masses” that had grown since his previous scan, which had been ordered by another doctor for unrelated reasons. But as Henry’s PCP, it had become my job to follow up on an emergency room doctor’s incidental finding. The radiologist recommended a PET scan to see if there was increased metabolic activity, which would mean the spots were likely cancerous.
So the head of radiology says this is needed. But I am the treating physician, so I have to put the order in. In my clunky EMR I search for an appropriate diagnostic code in situations like this. This software (Greenway) is not like Google; if you don’t search for exactly what the bureaucratic term is, but use clinical terms instead, it doesn’t suggest alternatives (unrelated everyday example – what a doctor calls a laceration is “open wound” in insurance speak but the computer doesn’t know they’re the same thing).
So here I am, trying to find the appropriate ICD-10 code to buy Henry a PET scan. Why can’t I find the diagnosis code I used to get the recent CT order in when I placed it, months ago? I cruise down the list of diagnoses in his EMR “chart”. There, I find every diagnosis that was ever entered. They are not listed alphabetically or chronologically. The list appears totally random, although perhaps the list is organized alphanumerically by ICD-10, although they are not not displayed in my search box, but that wouldn’t do me any good anyway since I don’t have more than five ICD-10 codes memorized.
Imagine if your bank handled all your online transactions for free but charged you only when you visited your local branch – and then kept pestering you to come in, pay money and chat with them every three months or at least once a year if you wanted to keep your accounts active.
Of course that’s not how banks operate. There are small ongoing charges (or margins off the interest they pay you) for keeping your money and for making it possible to do almost everything from your iPhone these days. Yes, there may be additional charges for things that can’t be done without the bank’s personalized assistance, but those things happen at your request, not by the bank’s insistence.
Compare that with primary care. The bulk of our income is “patient revenue”, what patients and their insurance companies pay us for services we provide “face to face”. We may also have grants if we are Federally Qualified Health Centers, mostly meant to cover sliding fee discounts and what we call “enabling services” – care coordination, loosely speaking.
Only a small fraction of our income comes from meeting quality or compliance “targets”, and those monies only come to us after we have reached those goals – they don’t help us create the needed infrastructure to get there.
Then look at how medical providers are scheduled and paid. We all have productivity targets, RVUs (Relative Value Units – number and complexity of visits combined) if our employer is paid that way and usually just straight visit counts in FQHCs (because all visits are reimbursed at the same rate there). Sometimes we have quality bonuses or incentives, which truthfully may be the combined result of both our own AND other staff members’ efforts.
It’s a funny world we live in. Lots of people make a handsome living, defining their work and setting their own fees and hours with little or no formal education or certification
There are personal and executive coaches, wealth advisers, marketing experts, closet organizers and all kinds of people offering to help us run our lives.
In each of these fields, the expectation is that the provider of such services has his or her own “take” or perspective and offers advice that is individual, unique and as far removed from cookie cutter dogma as possible. Why pay for something generic that lots of people offer everywhere you turn?
So why is it, in this day of paying lip service to “personalized medicine”, genetic mapping, the human biome and psychoneuroimmunology that we expect our healthcare to be standardized and utterly predictable?
And why is it that we are so willing to fragment our care, using convenient care clinics, health apps, specialists who don’t communicate with each other and so on? Does anybody believe it makes sense to have your life coach tell you to have a latte if you feel like it because it makes you happy and your financial adviser scorn you for wasting money, never mind your health coach talking about all those unnecessary calories?
In today’s world, almost all knowledge and information is available, for free, instantly and from anywhere on the planet. But this has not eliminated our need for “experts”. It used to be that we paid experts for knowing the facts, but now we pay them for sorting and making sense of them, because there are too many facts and too much data out there to make anything self explanatory.
If medical journals are the religious texts that guide me as a physician, the New York Times has become the secular source of illumination for my relationship to my country and the world I live in.
That doesn’t exactly mean that I feel like a citizen of the world. Quite the opposite, particularly now, with just me and my horses sharing our existence on a peaceful plot of land within walking distance of the Canadian border; my physical world seems quite small even though I am aware, sometimes painfully but with an obvious distance, of the calamity of our planet.
Early Sunday morning, drinking coffee in bed as the gray morning light revealed the outline of the trees and pasture outside my window, I read the Times on my iPad as usual and came across an article titled “What makes people charismatic and how you can be too”.
The article claims that charisma can be learned and cultivated, and that thought resonated with me as I think often about how we as physicians have roles to fill in the stories of diseases and transitions in our patients lives. I try to be the kind of doctor each patient needs as I walk into each exam room.
The article mentions three pillars of charisma: Presence, Power and Warmth.
As I think of my current third guiding light in addition to my medical journals and the New York Times, my DVD collection of the Marcus Welby, M.D. shows, which is shorthand for his character and all the other role models I carry mental images and video clips of, Charisma is definitely something we need to consider and cultivate in our careers.
Leave your bias aside and take a look into the healthcare future with me. No, artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence and machine learning will not replace the radiologist. It will allow clinicians to.
The year is 2035 (plus or minus 5 years), the world is waking up after a few years of economic hardship and maybe even some dreaded stagflation. This is an important accelerant to where we are going, economic hardship, because it will destroy most radiology AI startups that have thrived on quantitative easing polices and excessive liquidity of the last decade creating a bubble in this space. When the bubble pops, few small to midsize AI companies will survive but the ones who remain will consolidate and reap the rewards. This will almost certainly be big tech who can purchase assets/algorithms across a wide breadth of radiology and integrate/standardize them better than anyone. When the burst happens some of the best algorithms for pulmonary embolism, stroke, knee MRI, intracranial hemorrhage etc. etc. will become available to consolidate, on the “cheap”.
Hospitals can now purchase AI equipment that is highly effective both in cost and function, and its only getting better for them. It doesn’t make sense to do so now but soon it will. Consolidation in healthcare has led to greater purchasing power from groups and hospitals. The “roads and bridges” that would be needed to connect such systems are being built and deals will soon be struck with GE, Google, IBM etc., powerhouse hundred-billion-dollar companies, that will provide AI cloud-based services. RadPartners is already starting to provide natural language processing and imaging data to partners; that’s right, you speak into the Dictaphone and it is recorded, synced with the image you dictated, processed with everyone else to find all the commonalities in descriptors to eventually replace you. It is like the transcriptionists ghost of the past has come back to haunt us and no one cried for them. Prices will be competitive, and adoption will be fast, much faster than most believe.
Now we have some patients who arrive for imaging, as outpatients, ER visits, inpatients; it does not matter the premise is the same. Ms. Jones has chest pain, elevated d-dimer, history of Lupus anti-coagulant and left femoral DVT. Likely her chart has already been analyzed by a cloud-based AI (merlonintelligence.com/intelligent-screening/) and the probability of her having a PE is high, this is relayed to the clinician (PA, NP, MD, DO) and the study is ordered. She’s sent for a CT angiogram PE protocol imaging study. This is important to understand because there will be no role for the radiologist at this level. The recommendation for imaging will be a machine learning algorithm based off more data and papers than any one radiologist could ever read; and it will be instantaneous and fluid. Correct studies will be recommended and “incorrectly” ordered studies will need justifications without radiologist validation.