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Tag: Niran Al-Agba

2018 Midterms: The Year of the Female Physician

By NIRAN AL-AGBA MD 

While women make up more than half of the U.S. population, an imbalance remains between who we are as a nation and who represents us in Congress. The gender disparity is no different for physicians: more than one third of doctors in the U.S. are women, yet 100 percent of physicians in Congress are men. To date, there have only been two female physicians elected to Congress.

However, in the coming midterm election, there are six races with a chance at making history. It’s these battles which could make 2018 “The Year of the Female Physician.”

I remember being a first-time voter in 1992, labeled at the time “The Year of the Woman.” I was a sophomore at Michigan State University and turned 18 just three days before the election. Following the contentious Supreme Court hearings involving Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, an unprecedented number of female candidates were vying for office that election year.

President George H. W. Bush was vilified for an appalling answer to the question of when his party might nominate a woman for President. “This is supposed to be the year of the women in the Senate,” he quipped. “Let’s see how they do. I hope a lot of them lose.” Frustrated about the state of gender inequality in politics, a little-known “mom in tennis shoes,” Patty Murray, decided to run for the U.S. Senate to represent Washington. She won, paving the way for an unprecedented number of women to enter national politics over the next 30 years. Still, very few of them have come with a background in medicine.

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The Greatest Decision Trump Has Ever Made

Dr. David Shulkin once gave me this advice, “stop whining and complaining and lead with solutions.” To the many frustrated physicians in this country, this critique is a fair one. I took his words to heart.

Let me start by saying my husband served 20 years in the United States Army and is a proud Veteran. I think our veterans deserve better than Dr. David Shulkin. His ousting as VA Secretary by President Trump this past week is akin to “leading with solutions” from my perspective.

Dr. Shulkin appears to have engaged in considerable double-speak throughout his 13-month tenure in Trump’s Cabinet. In his New York Times op-ed, he wrote, “I will continue to speak out against those who seek to harm the V.A. by putting their personal agendas in front of the well-being of our veterans.”

When it comes to personal agendas, there are few who are as laser focused as this man. Initially endorsing campaign pledges by Trump committing to increased accountability at the VA, his European trip—for which taxpayers paid $122,334—involved more sightseeing and shopping with his wife than “official” government activities. When the Washington Post first reported this story, Shulkin assured the public “nothing inappropriate” took place.

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Sexism in Healthcare Reporting

NBC should consider re-branding as the “anti-woman” network.  Our culture needs to change so women feel valued and respected, comfortable and safe in the workplace, and are provided ample opportunities for leadership and growth.  NBC actions show they care little about gender equality in the workplace, prioritizing the comfort of males over that of females.  During a recent interview, former “Today Show” anchor Anne Curry asked a poignant question after “not being surprised by the allegations” against “golden boy” Matt Lauer.  “What are we gonna do to make sure these women work and are not sidelined and prevented from contributing to the greater good?”  My answer is we must continue to call attention when major networks push women aside. 

Morgan Radford is an NBC correspondent who reported on parents who were concerned about their children playing football due to risks of long-term neurologic damage.  She interviewed two physicians for her segment — a pediatrician by the name of Dyan Hes, MD and Lee Goldstein, MD, PhD, an internal medicine physician.  One would think both physicians were interviewed as experts in their fields; however, at some networks there appears to be “a power imbalance where women are not valued as much as men” according to Anne Curry.  Dr. Hes is a physician and a mother to a teenage son, whom she understandably, will not allow to play football.  Dr. Goldstein is a researcher and recently completed a study about the risk of brain injury resulting from even mild head trauma. 

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Will CVS-Aetna Merger Lead to “Separate But Unequal” Healthcare?

Last week, pharmacy giant CVS agreed to purchase Aetna this week for an astounding $69 billion dollar sum. The company allegedly plans to reduce health spending by developing an integrated system touted as “a new front door for health care in America.” This merger is actually an acquisition, entailing transfer of ownership. The central aim of an acquisition is to increase market share, expand the scope of services provided, and improve financial stability. CVS hit the jackpot on all three objectives. While Wall Street investors celebrate, many of us knowledgeable in the delivery of healthcare services are wondering who will bear the responsibility for the patients harmed by this experiment?

Aetna has compiled vast amounts of data from 22 million health plan members. CVS provides pharmacy benefits management to nearly 90 million consumers. Together, with 10,000 stores and 1,100-minute clinics already in the CVS network, this acquisition will create a ‘Walmart for Healthcare’. Applying bulk-purchase business strategies to the sale of merchandise is one thing, while providing healthcare services by ‘trial and error’ to human beings is another matter entirely. Bypassing physicians to deliver healthcare by protocol categorically jeopardizes patient safety.

Executives at Aetna-CVS plan to utilize pharmacists and nurses in the evaluation of acute illness and management of chronic disease. If an insurer, drugstore, and pharmacy benefit manager unite as one, it will usher in an era of medical “segregation,” with segregation defined as the isolation or separation of a race, class, or group by enforced or voluntary restriction, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means.

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Do Doctors Deserve Mercy?

This past week a video went viral when a woman complained about the lengthy wait time at a clinic.  On video, we see the physician asks if the patient still wants to be seen.  The patient declines to be seen, yet complains patients should be informed they will not be seen in a timely manner.  The frustrated physician replies, “Then fine…Get the hell out. Get your money and get the hell out.”  While we do not witness events leading up to the argument between doctor and patient, we do know staff at the front desk called the police due to threats made by the patient to others. 

Based on the statement released by Peter Gallogly, MD, he is a humble, thoughtful, and compassionate physician who was very concerned for the safety of his staff, which he considers “family.”  Physicians like Dr. Gallogly do their best to serve patients, ease their suffering, and avoid losing ourselves to burnout at the same time. Every human being deserves our compassion, kindness, and clemency.  Patients and physicians must accommodate each other when possible.

Do physicians actually deserve our mercy when necessary?  Yes, they do.  I should know.  The kindness shown to me by my patients over the past month has been unparalleled, leaving this physician thankful beyond words. 

My father has been a practicing pediatrician in our community for 47 years.  As I type these words, he is dying in a hospital bed.  We have worked side by side for the last 16 years.  It is difficult to make it through the day, desperately hoping to hear his voice one last time in the clinic hallway.  He was carrying a full patient load before an unexpected cardiac arrest ended his career.  The patient load doubled overnight; it is a burden I am carrying alone.

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Hold the Mayo and Save Our Hospital

There is a grassroots movement, 4300 strong, known as “Save Our Hospital” gaining notoriety in Albert Lea, Minnesota.  This story is symptomatic of the fact that hospital consolidation has slowly become a national pastime.  With declining revenue under the Affordable Care Act, mergers increased by 70%, leaving small communities scrambling for healthcare access.  The latest casualty in the ‘hospital-consolidation-for-sport’ trend is Albert Lea, a small city located in Freeborn County, Minnesota.

Known affectionately as the ‘Land between the Lakes,’ it has a population of 18,000 spread over 14 square miles.  Not surprisingly, Mayo is their largest employer; the 70-bed hospital serves almost 60,000 in a region including patients who live in Iowa.  In Rochester, MN, the Mayo Clinic is regarded by many as one of the premier medical facilities in the country.  Originally of humble origins, founder William Mayo opened a practice during the Civil War and later, passed it down to his sons; today, the Mayo Clinic flagship is located in Rochester, Minnesota and plans to become a renowned premier medical destination for the world. 

Corporations with such lofty ambitions tend to make “small” sacrifices along the way; often, on the back of a beloved rural town.  On June 12, Mayo clinic administrators announced they would transition all inpatient services to Austin, more than 20 miles away.  Mayo cited ongoing staff shortages, reduced inpatient censuses, and ongoing financial difficulties as their reasons for hospital closure.  Rural care was mentioned to be at a crisis point, which is an altogether callous assessment of the troubling situation facing communities across this country. 

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Repair and Reboot

I told you so.  I also told the POTUS in my open letter, but he did not read it. 

Who could honestly believe the nation would support dumping coverage for 22 million people?  As David Leonhard wrote recently op-ed in the New York Times: “They [Republicans and President Trump] had only one big weakness, in fact: They weren’t dealing in reality.”  When faced with reality, it is interesting what a few good Senators with a conscience will refuse to do. 

Success is never attained by taking shortcuts.  We do not need reform of health care; we need to reboot the entire system.  Special interests do not belong in the picture.  They are incompatible with developing innovative solutions that place profits on the back burner.   Congress is making this too difficult.  They need to roll up their sleeves, go back to the drawing board, and start again.  My suggestions:

Step 1:  Every member of Congress should participate in a mock hospital admission as a patient, starting with presentation to the ER, being poked and prodded, having surgery if necessary, and staying overnight to recuperate.  After your experience, you should be provided a “bill” on your way out the door and pay the balance by cash or check. 

Step 2:  Go see your own primary care physician for two reasons.  The first is to have an annual exam and to connect with your constituents in the waiting room, solicit their comments, thoughts, or suggestions, and converse with office staff to understand their perspective.  The second reason is to elicit feedback directly from your primary care physician.  Listen for groundbreaking solutions to the perplexing boondoggle of caring for greater numbers at a lower cost.

Extra credit:  Follow a primary care physician in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) for three days.  Listen, engage, clarify, empathize, and most importantly absorb how monumental this undertaking of reforming health care will be. 

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My Ideal EHR

flying cadeuciiGive me technology which improves my life and that of my patients, or give me death.  Medical records must be informative, efficient, and flexible; like the physicians they serve.  For me, a medical record does not contain just a collection of problem lists, prescribed medications, and immunizations; it is a noteworthy account of the health care provided to another human being over a lifetime.

Recently, I attended a baby shower of a patient who is now an adult.  (I am a pediatrician.) I brought her medical chart wrapped with a satin bow as one of her gifts.  I was her physician for many years; my father had taken care of both her and her mother as children.  Her growth, development, immunizations, and illnesses were all recorded; but so were 25 years of life experiences, trials, triumphs, and tribulations.  The back section contains drawings she had given me, newspaper articles of her achievements, graduation announcements, and her wedding invitation.  Obviously, medical records register growth parameters, vital signs, and sick visits; but they also encompass my relationship with my patients.

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Building Better Metrics: Invest in “Good” Primary Care and Get What You Pay For

flying cadeuciiIn 1978, the Institute of Medicine published A Manpower Policy for Primary Health Care: Report of a Study (IOM, 1978) where they defined primary care as “integrated, accessible services by clinicians accountable for addressing a majority of heath care needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients, and practicing in the context of family and community.” The four main features of “good” primary care based on this definition are: 1. First-contact access for new medical issues, 2. Long-term and patient (not disease)-focused care, 3. Comprehensive in scope for most medical issues, and 4. Care coordination when specialty referral is required.  These metrics ring as true today as they did many years ago.

Estimates suggest that a primary care physician would spend 21.7 hours per day to provide all recommended acute, chronic, and preventive care for a panel of 2,500 patients.  An average workday of 8 hours extrapolates to an ideal panel of 909 patients; let us make it an even 1000 to simplify.  A primary care physician could easily meet acute, chronic, and preventative needs of 1000 patients, thereby improving access.  Our panels are much larger due to the shortage of available primary care physicians and poor reimbursement which keeps us enslaved.  Pay us what we are worth and then utilize this “first-access” metric to judge our “quality.”

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